The exhibition of Ethiopian Christian art at the Walters Art Gallery is a first of its kind in this country. It shows a tradition sustained across the milleniums in the mountain fastness of the Horn of Africa. Rulers of Ethiopia and the Eastern Roman Empire in Greece converted to Christianity in the fourth century. Their traditions of Christian art began similarly and developed separately.
The catalog and exhibition, which will tour next year, contribute to knowledge in ways that art exhibitions rarely do, because much of the art has never been out of Ethiopia before. It is a collaboration of many institutions, not least the Institute of Ethiopian Studies in Addis Ababa.
Until January, Baltimore is a major center of Ethiopian culture in the U.S. Accompanying the exhibition is another of photographs by Chester Higgins Jr. of one Ethiopian church congregation in New York. Together, they show continuity as religious people tried to create a New Jerusalem in Africa, and then to fulfill its traditions in the Bronx.
It was unfortunate that a handful of the Ethiopian diaspora caused the abrupt cancellation of the members' preview of the exhibitions at the Walters on Saturday evening, with members milling around on Centre Street. The Walters did not want to put the Baltimore patrons and art objects at risk. Demonstrators had brought eggs or other missiles to throw at the Patriarch of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, Abune Paulos, who had flown to America for the opening. Bowing to such an unruly protest, though, sets a dangerous precedent for future controversial exhibits at the Walters.
It is a dispute over the rightful church patriarch, with political and ethnic overtones. The previous patriarch, Abune Merkorios, was installed by church synod during the Marxist dictatorship of Mengistu Haile Mariam. Both were from the Amhara people, as was Emperor Haile Selassie before them. The current president, Meles Zenawi, whose revolution succeeded two years ago, is from the Tigrean people, as is Patriarch Paulos, installed by a church synod last year. The U.S. branch of the church recognizes Abune Merkorios as patriarch.
These differences cannot be decided on the streets of Baltimore. Both sides must take pride in this exhibition of wonderful spiritual art that shows off the civilization of Ethiopia.
It is in the nature of an art museum to be rich in the works of religion. The Walters has shown devotional objects of great artistry from the Catholic Church of Italy, the Greek Orthodox Church, the Russian Orthodox Church and European Judaism. The exhibition of icons from Ethiopia's counterpart to Europe's Middle Ages and Renaissance is in that tradition, and a rarer find for American viewers.