Ethiopian Christian Art: Defining Styles, Defying Definitions
20th International Conference of Ethiopian Studies (ICES20) – “Regional and Global Ethiopia – Interconnections and Identities”
Mekelle town, Tigray, Ethiopia - 1 to 5 October 2018
Ethiopian Christian Art: Defining Styles, Defying Definitions
Wed 3 October Room01 [IPHC Ground floor]
Kristen WINDMULLER-LUNA, Princeton University, USA
Jacopo GNISCI, Hamburg University, Germany
Kristen WINDMULLER-LUNA; John MELLORS; Lorenza MAZZEI; Jacopo GNISCI; MESERET Oldjira;
Sean M. WINSLOW
Since Jules Leroy coined the term “Gondarene painting” in 1967, style has become intrinsically tied to place in Christian Ethiopian art history. But, as recent research demonstrates, the “Gondarine” style emerged before the foundation of the eponymous city of Gondar. Given the formation of this style avant la cite, as it were, historians of Ethiopian art must now more than ever examine the parameters used to define style within their field. Interrogating the utility of such geographically-determined classifications, this panel seeks to present new research in the study of style in Ethiopian Orthodox Christian art.
More generally, the study of style has played, and continues to play, an important role in Ethiopian art history. Different levels of stylistic analysis have often been employed, though not necessarily recognized and defined, in the literature about Ethiopian art. Discussions have focused as much on the on the micro-level (e.g. the style of a painter or of a workshop) as on the macro-level (e.g. the style of a particular period or nation) without necessarily addressing the fundamental issues which may arise when adopting a particular terminology. Furthermore, notions of style as highly individual or regional have often be integrated with notions of foreign influences without always providing enough substantial evidence to justify broad statements concerning the development of Ethiopian art.
How do we address the continued contrast between terminology used by museum professionals and scholars to stylistically classify the same works? How do prevailing definitions of style work within the diachronic study of Ethiopian Christian art, and where do they fail? Equally, how do geo-religious classification systems support or undermine formalist efforts to identify masterhands or workshops, a tactic used by scholars of both sub-Saharan Africa and medieval Europe? By exploring different understandings of style, focusing on the regional as much as on the global, this panel aims to provide a more solid methodological framework for research on Ethiopian art.
Papers in this panel may analyze style via object-based case studies, museum-based examples, theoretical or historiographical studies, or propose new forms of classifying or defining style in Ethiopian Christian art.
CURATING “ETHIOPIAN STYLE:” ART HISTORY, MUSEUMS, AND POPULAR PERSPECTIVES ON ETHIOPIAN ARTS [Abstract ID: 0202-01]
Kristen WINDMULLER-LUNA, Princeton University Art Museum
Ethiopian artists have created many diverse artistic styles across time and place. Yet in the museum, the word “Ethiopia” is frequently used as shorthand for only tradition-based Christian art. This creates a false impression of a singular Ethiopian artistic style, which in turn informs visitors’ understanding of what Ethiopian arts are. This practice also diverges from current academic and museological trends in African art history, which seek greater specificity in the classification of art (see for example the 2016-17 tri-partite paper series “Shattering Single Stories in the Labeling and Presentation of Historical Arts of Africa”). For historic reasons, Ethiopia is often excluded from these discussions. Equally, recent art historical efforts to name masterhands or artistic styles within Ethiopian Christian art are generally not reflected in museum practice, therefore having little effect on correcting ideas about stylistic singularity. This paper addresses the issue of classification and labeling of Ethiopian arts in the museum context with special attention to discussions of style. Drawing from both museological texts and from its author’s experience as a curator-scholar, it demonstrates current practices and challenges faced by museums as they classify and present Ethiopian arts. Considering both internal organizational systems (databases) and their public-facing counterparts (gallery labels, websites, and publications), it presents key case studies drawn from the author’s first-of-its-kind survey of global institutions that collect and exhibit Ethiopian art. It argues that museums fail to represent the diversity of Ethiopian arts because of a combination of historical, academic, and organizational factors. By closely examining present-day museum practices, this project considers the gap between academic and museum practices in Ethiopian studies, and the greater public impact of this disconnect. Finally, it suggests some ways in which museums may achieve greater specificity in their labeling practice.
EMBROIDERED DRESSES FROM NORTHERN ETHIOPIA: INFLUENCES ON THE GLOBAL FASHION INDUSTRY [Abstract ID: 0202-06]
John MELLORS, Independent
Many Ethiopian dress designers are now trying to break into the global fashion market, with varying degrees of success. Some attempts by non-Ethiopian designers to incorporate traditional Ethiopian designs into their work have been met with hostility from Ethiopians. One particular traditional Ethiopian design has, however, managed to dominate a corner of world fashion without really getting the recognition it deserves.
ETHIOPIAN ARTS AND AESTHETICS: THE SPECIFIC RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN THE OBJECT AND ITS USERS [Abstract ID: 0202-05]
Lorenza MAZZEI, Università di Napoli
Ethiopia preserves a precious heritage made of liturgical items including wall paintings, icons, crosses and illustrated manuscripts. Many of these objects are still in situ (namely in churches and monasteries) where they continue to perform the function for which they were created. Like any other artefact, they are the expression of a culture stating their function and use together with their constitution. As well as in the past (not unlike what happened in our medieval tradition) for the believer, these works are playing a mediating role with the divine, of which they are meant to be a reflection, according to the words of St. Paul per visibilia ad invisibilia. The study of traditional Ethiopian painting today represents for us the opportunity to investigate the particular type of relationship established between the religious image, its direct users, its commissioner and its creator. This means understanding the interpretative categories with which the objects are evaluated in their land beyond the criteria applied by Western scholars, who distinguish first of all between functional and aesthetic categories, risking to prevent ab origine a correct understanding of the phenomenon. The two levels are absolutely interpenetrated and even when an aesthetic attention is manifested, this distinction does not introduce any dichotomy between the objects but places them along a single line, differentiating them gradually. The study of the relationship with the sacred object, in particular traditional religious painting, involves investigating all its implications, beyond the strong and evident religious connotation that it presents. In a certain sense this means unravelling a tightly intertwined bundle of different ways of looking at the same object, to let emerge what is never directly explained but declares itself through the widespread behaviours that are performed around the image.
REMARKS ON THE STYLE AND ICONOGRAPHY OF ILLUSTRATED ETHIOPIC MANUSCRIPTS FROM THE EARLY SOLOMONIC PERIOD [Abstract ID: 0202-04]
Jacopo GNISCI, Hamburg University, Germany
This paper will focus on illustrated Ethiopic manuscript from the early Solomonic period. It will outline the principal stylistic features of miniatures produced during this period and examine them in the light of previous observations on the matter by scholars such as Heldman, Leroy, Monneret de Villard, and Ricci. The paper will also analyse a small group of illustrated Gospel books that are closely related in terms of style and iconography, to ask: a) whether it is possible to include sub-categories in the taxonomic scheme for the period and, if so, what the best terminological practice would be; b) whether it is possible, at the current state of our knowledge, to associate these sub-categories to a geographic area and whether this should have a bearing on terminology; and c) whether the stylistic and iconographic relationship between manuscripts is best represented by a hierarchical model or a network model.
"STYLE AS EVIDENCE?" ETHIOPIAN GOSPEL ILLUMINATION IN CONTEXT [Abstract ID: 0202-03]
MESERET Oldjira, Princeton University, Department of Art and Archaeology
In studies that describe the stylistic traits of Ethiopian illuminated manuscripts produced prior to the sixteenth century, the term “conservative” is often uncritically deployed to define both stylistic and iconographic attributes. Implicit in such definitions are ideas of artistic limitations and lack of innovation on part of Ethiopian artists, particularly when compared to foreign sources. The aim of this paper is to unpack some of the complex issues surrounding the use of the term “conservative” to describe the style of some of the earliest surviving Ethiopian illuminated manuscripts. Central to this aim is to examine how, if at all, is the term itself defined, what kind of vexed questions of quality it assumes, and what sort of unchallenged assumptions its use presupposes. More importantly, this paper will draw attention to aspects of manuscript production and illumination that are often left out of discussions on “conservative” style - aspects such as patronage, function and symbolic meaning of Ethiopian illuminated manuscripts. Two illuminated Gospels from the monastery of Däbra Hayq Estifanos, produced decades apart between the late thirteenth century and the early fourteenth century, will serve as the case studies for my localized and contextualized investigation.
THE DESCRIPTION OF ETHIOPIAN BINDING DECORATION [Abstract ID: 0202-02]
Sean M. WINSLOW, Zentrum für Informationsmodellierung, Karl-Franzens-Universität Graz
Relatively little work to date has focused on how to describe the decorative schemes of Ethiopian bindings. My monograph work synthesized published lists of blind tooling stamp names and added previously-undescribed stamps to the list, but the number of undescribed tools, and whether or not tool shapes or patterns follow any kind of pattern that might be dateable or localizable is currently unknown. In this paper, I will present my work on an ontology of Ethiopian binding decorations, arising from my Madgwas: Ethiopian Binding Decorations database, hosted by the University of Graz. Madgwas is an rdf-driven database which allows for rich linking of data between images, concepts, and descriptions of individual tools (e.g. the ‘Ram’s Horn’ tool, which is known as qärnä bəʿə and stylistically related to the cross of the same name). The ontology both describes and reflects patterns that are discoverable through querying the Madgwas database, developed from facet-based searches, including all tools of a specific category, all impressions on a particular manuscript, or all datable impressions from a time period. The use of a flexible, rdf-based ontology also allows sematic connections to be made with terminology used by scholars and museum professionals working in non-Ethiopian contexts, without privileging foreign concepts or style descriptors. Not only will the ontology be extensible, but the accompanying database should serve users with other needs related to the decoration of Ethiopian bindings, whose work can be semantically linked back to improve the system. In this paper I will present the current state of the ontology, how to use it, and ways that it might be utilized by or semantically linked to related work.