The Art of Revolutionary Ethiopia

The arrest of Emperor Haile Selassie I of Ethiopia on 12 September 1974 marked the end of almost a thousand years of rule by the Solomonic dynasty, a royal family claiming descent from the biblical King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba. Haile Selassie’s deposition has been described as the culmination of a “creeping coup”, following a decade of protests against the Emperor, often led by students. While Haile Selassie was a controversial leader, who lived a lavish lifestyle while rural communities were ravaged by famine, he nonetheless achieved messianic status outside of Ethiopia. Since the 1930s, followers of the Jamaican Rastafari movement have honoured him as the Second Coming of Christ.

Art students also played an important role in the creeping coup. In the 1960s, artistic debates in the capital of Addis Ababa mirrored those in the West. While some experimented with abstraction, others believed that representational art was vital to inform and inspire a largely illiterate population. Due to traditional links between Russia and Ethiopia that dated back to the Tsarist period, some Ethiopian art students travelled to Moscow and St Petersburg to train in Socialist Realism. Returning home, they were inspired to use their art for the social good, as the country entered a period of severe famine in the early 1970s, while rumours abounded that the Emperor was preventing starving peasants from entering the major cities, to maintain the illusion of wealth and modernity.

Eshetu Tiruneh, ‘Victims of Famine’, 1974. National Museum of Ethiopia, Addis Ababa.

For his graduation painting at the Fine Arts School in Addis Ababa, Eshetu Tiruneh created a mural that called attention to his destitute countrymen. Based on his sketches of those gathering on the city’s outskirts, Victims of Famine shows emaciated families dressed in rags, supporting children and the elderly, too weak to walk along a barren, dusty road. Other figures in the scene have succumbed to hunger and are mourned by skeletal family members. The painting depicts a relentless move forward, in search of aid that would not appear.

Eshetu Tiruneh’s mural would be widely reproduced and ignite further unrest and fury against the Emperor. Painted in 1974, in the months preceding the coup, it also foreshadowed the broadcast in Addis Ababa of a documentary about the famine by UK journalist Jonathan Dimbleby. The night before Haile Selassie’s arrest, a doctored version of the documentary, juxtaposing scenes of starvation with the Emperor’s ostentatious displays of wealth, finally provoked action to overthrow him.

The aftermath of the coup d’état in Ethiopia followed a similar pattern to many other African, Middle Eastern and Latin American uprisings of the 1960s and ’70s, in response to the pressures of the Cold War, the break down of colonial power and the rise of socialist ideology that advocated rule by the people. The Solomonic dynasty was replaced by a strict military dictatorship known as the Derg. Over the next two decades, the abolition of the feudal system, land reforms and improvements in literacy and education were undermined by the ruthless suppression of suspected dissidents, many thousands of whom were executed without trial.

Getachew Yosef, ‘Revolutionary Motherland or Death’, 1979/1980. National Museum of Ethiopia, Addis Ababa. Courtesy Kate Cowcher.

After taking control, the Derg recognised the value of revolutionary art and the same artists who had campaigned against the Emperor was called on to create propagandistic images in support of the junta, visually representing the new state’s Marxist ideology. The Derg established a Ministry of Culture, which attempted to impose Socialist Realism on Ethiopian artists, just as this artistic doctrine was in decline in its country of origin. Many Ethiopian artists were trained by the Soviets in the 1970s and ’80s, while also taking cues from Chinese poster art of the Cultural Revolution. Meanwhile, the country’s nascent abstract movement was dismissed as decadent and bourgeois.

British art historian Kate Cowcher has spent the last few years investigating the visual culture of revolutionary Ethiopia, to reveal images as a vital component in political change. You can get a deeper insight into this fascinating period of art in Africa by watching her talk, Land to the Tiller! Art and the Makings of an Ethiopian October, presented in 2014 at Calvert 22 in London.

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