by Elizabeth W. Giorgis. Ohio University Press, February 2019. 339 p. ill. ISBN 9780821423479 (pbk.), $39.95.
Reviewed September 2019
Janice Shapiro Hussain, MLIS Rutgers University, 2013
The Battle of Adwa (1896) marked the success of Ethiopia against Italian invaders, resulting in it being one of only two African nations to have never been colonized. This victory, along with its peoples’ deep-rooted faith in the Orthodox Church has given Ethiopia the status of a god-chosen nation in the minds of Ethiopians, Africans, and Westerners alike. Despite this, author Elizbeth W. Giorgis, associate professor of critical theory and criticism at Addis Ababa University, asserts that Ethiopia has not been immune to colonial systems and influence. In what she refers to as the “coloniality of non-colonial land”, Giorgis notes the power relations between Ethiopia and the West and its effect on art and art historical scholarship.
With the modernist heyday occurring in the 1960s, Giorgis closely examines the political and social climate leading up to this period as well as the manifestations on art throughout. Following the victory at Adwa, church paintings and traditional handicrafts were replaced by art that espoused nationalistic ideals and praised the monarchy. However, the eventual Italian occupation of 1936 followed by harsh realities of disease, famine and poverty, plights largely ignored by the imperial class, lay the groundwork for modernist art. Giorgis analyzes the intellectual thought and literature of this period. Visual artists, belonging to these same intellectual circles, also began to depict the dismal realities they saw, challenging the idyllic imagined state. In addition, some of the period’s leading artists spent formative years in the West during its own artistic and social upheavals, and incorporated such influences into their art.
The modernist art movement came to a halt in 1974 with the brutal military junta (Derg) which lasted until 1987. State-sanctioned guidelines restricted art production to socialist themes; restrictions that were even enforced by the nation’s fine art schools. Despite this, artists still managed to find expression through subtle subversion. The book examines how contemporary artists seek to recover from seventeen years of restriction as well as confront issues faced in Ethiopia today. This includes the effect of urban development, technology/social interaction and feminism. In fact, throughout the book, Giorgis details how women (particularly women artists) fit into these historical frameworks--a topic which has been given little attention until now.
Modernist Art in Ethiopia is a necessary addition for libraries that hold collections in Non-Western art, postcolonial studies, or modern art. It may also serve as a supplement for studies of traditional Ethiopian art, as Giorgis critically examines the European lens that has produced much of the scholarship until now. While parts of the book are complex/theoretical, it also presents a linear historical account of modernist art in Ethiopia which can serve as an introductory text or starting point for further research.