The Anglo-Ethiopian Society

Exhibition Review - Thursday 13th September 2007

From Emperor to Military Dictator: Ethiopian Archive

Given by - Shemelis Desta

Reviewed by - Paul Salt

This important exhibition, held from 13 Sept to 11 Nov 2007 at The Photographers’ Gallery, London, coincided with the Ethiopian Millennium, and the private view on 12 September 2007 was an opportunity to see a preview of this unique historical archive, and to meet Ato Shemelis, his wife Mulu and their two sons.

Ato Shemelis Desta, his wife Mulu and their two sons
Photo - © Adrienne Hack - 2007

Shemelis was official photographer to Emperor Haile Selassie, and surprisingly retained his position for several years afterwards during the period of the Derg. His position as a neutral bystander at the centre of political events, together with his highly-developed photographic technique, enabled him to capture the essence of high politics like a fly-onthe- wall. Fortunately, Shemelis realised the immense importance of his work, and was able to preserve a huge archive of photographs, despite the political upheavals which surrounded him.

It is a privilege to see even a fraction of this collection - world leaders and heads of state on ceremonial duties or more intimate occasions, huge parades in Revolution Square, the old Emperor being whisked away from office in an old car, the extremely youthful usurpers of the new regime. There are so many striking images that hit home with their unique historical importance, and bring back uncertain memories.

This monumental photographic archive will become even more important as years go by, and it not only deserves a wider audience during this millennium year, but it is imperative that these unique photographs are published and preserved for future generations.

The exhibition presented a selection of images from the substantial photographic archive of the Ethiopian court photographer, Shemelis Desta.

The works, in colour and black & white, documented the period of Ethiopian political history that included both the past rule of Haile Selassie, Emperor of Ethiopia (1930 - 74) and the military-led government of the 70s and 80s.

First Published in News File Winter 2007

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