Revisiting “THE ETHIOPIAN,” Oil on Canvas, 8’ x 5’ (1970)
I have repainted “The Ethiopian” in watercolor on paper in 2004 as a timely reminder for renewed patriotic zeal and expanded perspective of Ethiopianness, and to boost the ongoing struggle for Ethiopia’s territorial integrity. The painting is also a symbol for justice, freedom, and equality for all Ethiopians.
I painted the “The Ethiopian” in 1969 through 1970 during the time I was a student at HSIU Law School. It took me two years from concept to finished work, with numerous studies and searching and finding period costume and weapon. The painting is eight feet by five feet based on the golden mean/ratio of the most aesthetically pleasing “ф” proportion height to width, in oil on fine linen canvas. The technical execution of the painting was as important to me as the theme and symbolism of the painting. For example, I mixed few drops of my own blood dried with the red pigment for the tunic of the Ethiopian as a symbolic gesture of directly connecting myself with my work, a labor of great love, testament, and admiration of all Ethiopians.
The art historian Esseye Gebre Medhin identified “The Ethiopian” as one of the significant works of art that promoted the theme of Ethiopianness in art. “The Ethiopian” inspired young Ethiopian artists and writers at that time, and moved generations of thousands of Ethiopians with a great sense of pride and history. Even the Chief of Staff of the Ethiopian Military Forces at that time had a framed cutout copy of the painting in his office as the only other picture with that of the picture of Emperor Haile Selassie. Numerous families through out Ethiopia decorated their homes with copies of the painting. We are more interested in the painting now than ever before because we need our Ethiopianness in some graphic way depicted as symbol and reminder of our glorious past in order to fight and struggle to preserve our national sovereignty and territorial integrity. The message of “The Ethiopian” is as relevant, as inspiring, and as timely now as it was over thirty years ago.
In the painting, we observe courage, heroism, determination, dignity, pride, and fearless individual responsibility and sacrifice represented in the person of the individual depicted dressed in a commander’s red tunic of a vanguard (the tip of the spear formation of attack) of a Nineteenth Century Ethiopian army. The model for the painting was a Wollo farmer from Seyo, a beautiful farm community about ten miles North of Dessie where I grew up. Of course, there are obvious problems of reductionism in the painting, for example, the absence of a female counterpart or the generalized feature depiction of a hamitic/cushitic people that does not represent all of Ethiopia’s diverse people. However, such criticism is pedantic since what is important in the painting is the abstract symbolism of courage, dignity et cetera and not the exactitude of portraiture of the people of Ethiopia as individuals.
The background in the painting maybe even more important than the foreground because Ethiopia’s great past is brought into our attention in full force. The Stelae of Axume from over three thousand years ago, the great rock Orthodox Christian Church of Lalibela from the Eleventh Century, and the Castle of Fasilades of the Seventeenth Century, and the architecturally innovative homes from Sidama and Gurage that are as old as mankind itself firmly attest to the fact that we are truly a people of deep roots firmly planted in a territory that cannot be delaminated from us that easily.
The representation of the Ethiopian Christian Church in the rock hewn Church of Bete Giorgis affirms how Ethiopians take the “Words” of the Bible in its purity or orthodoxy. Lalibela Churches hewn from solid rocks symbolize the enduring strength and steadfastness of the Ethiopian Orthodox Christian Church, the greatest Church in the world. The painting also depicts the fact that Ethiopians are respectful of other Christian Churches such as Catholics, and other faiths such as Islam as indicated in the background. The fact is that Ethiopia is the only nation in the ancient world to date that has protected and allowed other religions other than Christianity (the official religion of the nation until the end of the reign of Emperor Haile Selassie), such as Islam to be part of the spiritual life of its people without persecution. One has to observe, even at this late stage of the development of principles of human rights, how Christians are discriminated and often violently attacked in Arab nations of the area. And in case of Saudi Arabia, Christians (or followers of any other religion) could not even have a private place in their own homes let alone a church to practice their religion. Such persecution of Christians, at times genocidal, has been the history of the area except in Ethiopia.
Sadly the inescapable fact of conflict and violence in the region has to be represented as well. Thus I chose, in the dramatic red sky in the painting, to portray the tumultuous time that Ethiopians endured throughout history. It is also a pointed warning that Ethiopia is surrounded by hostile neighboring nations and in great danger. The present generation might bring about some peace and prosperity through its firmness and patriotic action. Having said that, moreover, “The Ethiopian” is also a symbol of hope as suggested in the representation of fertile and properly tilled land and the Blue Nile (Tikur Abaye) Falls in the background.
I cannot close this brief expose on my work without mentioning that “The Ethiopian” must, above all, remind us that our Ethiopian history of art is made poorer by the adoption and imitation of so called “modern art” by most of our young artists without first having built sold foundation with the depiction and narration of our history: incidents, personalities, and the social commentary on our relationships, our domestic lives, our frivolousness and seriousness, in manners of painting that serves primarily our people. We have a rich artistic tradition, and that should serve as the foundation of our artistic work not as a spare part junkyard where we visit to borrow pieces and parcels to cannibalize and use in our imitation of modern artistic events in the language of esoteric art collectors from the west.
Tecola W. Hagos