A group consisting of 5 artists, 3 researchers and 2 curators set out on a journey through Shoa following the trails of European explorers of the 19th century. Their travels through Menagesha forest, Holeta, Addis Alem, Entoto and the historic town of Ankober led to an exhibition at the Institute of Ethiopian Studies at the Addis Ababa University, on Thursday.
The research and expedition was a joint project by the Goethe-Institute and Alliance Ethio-Française with the support of the French Embassy and funded by the French-German Cultural Fund.
Shoa, the historical seat of the empire that came to prominence during the reign of Emperor Sahle Selassie attracted several European explorers. The 8 explorers followed the footsteps of Jules Borelli, Philipp Paulitschke, Dominik von Hardegger, Arthur Rimbaud, Leopoldo Traversi and many others. The works they produced–photographs, paintings, installations, research papers–followed the previous explorers trails but their perspective was original.
Curated by Mifta Zeleke and Hugues Fontaine, ‘Shoa: A Geographical Passion’ is more than about geography. The exhibitions ambitiously and full heartedly resisted boundaries to locate new and exciting interpretations of an area and its people. It touches upon social, economic and political elements of Shoa and present day Ethiopia to question the past and its implications on the present. Mifta argues that it is hard to be certain about history.
“What does this history mean to me now? We have found a moment to answer this question. Betty’s work (They Were Here) really showed their presence. You feel the importance of that presence.” Historical research, whether by academics or artists, can negotiate our understanding of the past to uncover that which has been erased by time and reveal truths.
Archeologist and conservator Abel Assefa’s piece ‘Travel Accounts and Photography: Tools for Valorization of Historical Places’ used photographs and postcards from the 1880s juxtaposed with images from present-day Ankober to illustrate the importance of documentation and archiving for the continued remembrance of history.
Areal view of the landscape is given by researcher and anthropologist Wessen Shiferaw Tadesse in his work ‘Memory of Sites, Landscapes and Routes of Contact’. A map of the area made by French explorers in 1890 is placed next to other maps that show the caravan routes from Ankober to Zeyla, Entoto to Zeyla and railway route from Addis Ababa to Djibouti when the railway was installed in the late 19th century. A map of the present day landscape of the area indicates the changes the area has undergone both physically in terms of deforestation and politically. The prominence of Shoa as a region of commerce and political power shifted dramatically when Empeoror Menelik II moved the seat of the empire to Entoto and then to Addis Ababa.
Bethelhem Molla’s animated video ‘They Were Here’ places the viewer into the vast landscape of Shoa, reimagining what life must have been like for residents long gone.
Selome Muleta’s illustrations ‘Route’ beautifully remap the Shoa area. What was, what may have been, what is, are all conflated in whimsical trace of this historic site. She imagined forests, hills and streams and puts settlements in landscapes. The plays with words, interchanging roots and routes, creating a map that follows trails that have always been and ones that have just been traced.
Photographer Mahder Haileselassie’s photography installation ‘Between Yesterday and Tomorrow’ challenges history. Her series photographs become murkier, images harder to make out as they come to look like dark mirages. She contends that present day Shoa is ungraspable, trapped between the unalterable permanence of the landscape and the shifting narrative of history. “What was known was not enough to bring us together and what was unknown was far too dangerous for it had the power to keep us apart. As time goes by, what was considered to be known was rewritten, rethought, rediscovered, hidden or overshadowed,” She says.
The accepted narrative of history is scrutinized by Nathan Belay’s work ‘Retracing the History of Slave Trade from Shoa to Tajoura: Ethnographic Analysis’. Nathan conducted interviews in Shoa to investigate the oft-overlooked slave trade route through Shoa. Nathan’s work illustrates that domestic slaves in the homes of nobility, slave riders and traders, as well as slaves sold outside of Ethiopia and what became of them requires in-depth investigation.
‘Megonatsefiya’ an installation by Rahwa GebreLibanos, is a crimson kaba (royal ceremonial robe) that hangs on a thin gold chain from the ceiling connected to spools that lie on a map of Ankober with delicately tenuous red and gold threads. One can think of the piece as representing the burden of governing a nation. The way the robe hovers above the town can also remind one of the domination of the royalty and upper class and dangers of a single narrative.
Mixed media artist Leikun Nahusenay’s double exposure photography pieces layer images of doorways, staircases and other entryways with images of stamps and coins from the Menelik era, maps and playing cards. His signature cutting and layer style seems to illuminate the multiple perspectives and narratives around this historic area.
While the initial starting point of the artists/researchers was exploration and creating connections between Ethiopia, Germany and France through 19th century voyagers, the exhibitors have traveled a long journey to create Shoa: A Geographic Passion. They have traversed landscapes, followed roads many others have and will continue to do so. They have looked into the blue of distance only to get closer and gain new perspectives. They have offered us a glimpse of these perspectives through the exhibition.
If on the off chance Shoa: A Geographical Passion fails to spark questions about the accepted historical narrative, it will at the very least encourage viewers to visit Ankober, Entoto, Holeta, Addis Alem and perhaps see them in a new light.