Los Angeles

“Ethiopian Art”

Museum of Art and Esther Bear Gallery, Santa Barbara

A most impressive group of folk arts is on exhibit at the Santa Barbara Museum of Art, and concurrent with the museum exhibit is another of Ethiopian painting at the Esther Bear Gallery. The Santa Barbara importation is from the collec­tion of artist Jack Baker, now living in Santa Barbara, who collected the art during his years of living in Ethiopia. The paintings at the Esther Bear Gallery are filled with direct human experience such as group portraits and episodes in the mode of narrative painting found in early Near Eastern story-telling scenes. They are warmly naive and filled with a classic humor. Most important is the concept of design, simple and direct in quality and rich in color. Some of the paintings in the exhibit date back 200 years, according to Baker, some are nineteenth century, but most are con­temporary.

Painting in Ethiopia comes almost ex­clusively from the Shoa Province. The crafts of Ethiopia, shown at the Museum of Art, include pottery, weaving, wood carving, jewelry, and scepter-crosses. There is a direct and spontaneous qual­ity in these folk crafts, and the jewelry especially is fine in design quality and in the use of materials. The most im­pressive, in a ritual sense, are the in­cised silver scepter-crosses.

It is the painting, at the Bear Gallery, which reveals the present day Ethiopian artist’s concern with past tradition. The style, known as Coptic, is ancient and still survives, incorporating elements of the Byzantine tradition, which in turn stems from ancient Hellenistic Greek and Egyptian style characteristics in mixture with Syrian ones. The resulting Coptic art, as a branch of Christian Art, under way in the fifth and sixth centu­ries, is severe but expressive. The style prevails today with a precise line, and clear colors, reds, roses, violets and soft yellows.

Painting is an important element in the life of the Ethiopians. Paintings bring high prices, higher than silver, and they are collected by all the people, are found in all the homes from the mud huts, or Tukals, to the palaces. The sub­jects are crowded scenes of every-day life such as the large painting at the Bear Gallery called Baptismal Scene. It is an old painting filled with figures in small squares and in sequential epi­sodes. This is a procession, with royalty, priests, and the common people of Ethiopia, all proceeding to the Temple, swinging censors and carrying umbrel­las indicating their rank. Other paintings include narrative sequences, such as the battle scenes in one called Battle of Adowa. It is painted on an old hand­woven linen and is synoptic in style, revealing numerous scenes taking place at various times. It is dated 1896. An­other old one, Lake Tana, has the same synoptic narrative, and is filled with multiple perspectives, showing the Emperor and his people proceeding by boat toward an island Temple, all dressed in robes with the Coptic style large heads and staring eyes. There are many biblical scenes such as the Trinity, the Nativity, Madonna and Child, Flight into Egypt, etc., all executed with a charming simplicity in flat planes, very little mod­eling, and often frontal with white robes and the curious large heads and wide­open eyes. They are drawn in a thin line, filled with color; many are painted on parchment.

The popularity of painting in Ethiopia, as it is found in the average home, does not mean the people are restricted in subject matter, according to the Santa Barbara exhibit. The representative group at the Esther Bear Gallery shows a wide variety of subjects from a series on Sheba and Solomon through the re­ligious subjects already mentioned to a large number of genre scenes showing the preparation of grain, as in Winnow­ing Tef, to such subjects as weaving, marketing, the school room, a concert, a wedding, and even a beauty parlor.

Howard Fenton