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A fine Eastern Pende Panya-Gombe African mask. Coll.: David Norden

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Art of Ethiopia

It Was Multicultural Before Multicultural Was Cool 

"Art of Ethiopia" is at PaceWildenstein (Pace Primitive), 32 East 57th Street, seventh floor, Manhattan, (212) 421-3688, through Oct. 29

 

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By HOLLAND COTTER Published: October 19, 2005 found on http://www.nytimes.com/

Ethiopian cross -PaceWildenstein-Fogg
PaceWildenstein-Fogg
A 15th-century processional cross on display at PaceWildenstein.
Ethiopian icon -PaceWidenstein-Fogg
PaceWildenstein-Fogg
An Ethiopian icon (tempera on linen-covered wood) from around 1700.
I was flabbergasted when I saw "African Zion: The Sacred Art of Ethiopia" in New York City in 1994, the first big display of Ethiopian religious art to travel to North America. I had known this art only in intriguing bits and pieces. 

But the sight of a hundred blazingly colored icons and glinting metal crosses in one place was sensational. I remember its impact in aural as much as visual terms, as a kind of charged chanting, though no music was playing.
What was news to me was news to a lot of other people too, not to mention the city's art institutions. 

The show wasn't at the Metropolitan Museum or the Brooklyn Museum. 

It was at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in Harlem. Famed for its library and archives, the Schomburg has an active gallery, though one unlikely to pull in the huge crowds that "African Zion" should have had. "Lucky Harlem," I thought at the time.

And now, lucky Midtown. The first major gallery sale exhibition of Ethiopian art in the United States opened yesterday at PaceWildenstein on East 57th Street. Organized by the London dealer Sam Fogg, it's a fierce, gorgeous, category-scrambling encounter.

With 50 objects, the show covers centuries of Africa's oldest Christian culture.

In antiquity, Ethiopia was a mix of African people and Semitic people who had crossed the Red Sea from Saudi Arabia. According to tradition, the first Ethiopian emperor, Menelik, son of the Queen of Sheba and King Solomon, brought the Ark of the Covenant from Jerusalem to establish Ethiopia as the new Israel.

This Old Testament identity was, however, tailored to accommodate Christianity. And in the fifth century A.D., when Ethiopia was, with Rome and Persia, one of the superpowers of the ancient world, Ethiopian Orthodoxy became the state religion.

 Later Islam swept in, cutting the country off from the Byzantine world and adding its own cultural impulses. Influences from sub-Saharan Africa were subtle and constant.
These ingredients contributed to a church distinctive in its beliefs, worship and art. The most familiar and durable forms are openwork crosses of bronze or iron mounted on long staffs carried by priests.

Meant to be seen in pierced silhouette against the sky or candlelight, they became ever more elaborate and delicate hybrids of Byzantine and Islamic designs. The workmanship of the finest of them is beyond superb, rivaling pieces from the royal ateliers of the West Africa kingdom of Benin. And Mr. Fogg has fantastic examples dating from the 12th to the 19th century.

The real attraction, though, lies in icons and manuscripts, several dating from the late 15th and early 16th centuries, a high point in Ethiopian church art, which means in Christian art, period.

Icons, painted on wood panels or made of cloth glued to boards, come in many sizes. Small, closeable, pocket-size diptychs were made to be portable, maybe worn on the body. Others are larger and structurally more complex. Almost all have the image of the Virgin Mary, the central figure of Ethiopian Orthodoxy, as their focus.

In a grand 17th-century triptych, Mary shares the central panel with Jesus, who grasps her wrist, raising her hand as if declaring her a champion. In another, she takes the more characteristic form of the divine mother with the infant Jesus in her lap. She is attended by startlingly unserene company: wide-eyed angels, jubilant warriors and the hermit-saint Gabra Manfas Qeddus who lived for more than 500 years, fed birds with his tears and, apparently, wore his floor-length hair cinched at the waist like a bathrobe.

This figure of Mary was based on a miraculous icon at the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome, which had been reproduced in prints that Jesuit missionaries took to Ethiopia. Even earlier, though, European art had arrived firsthand in the person of the Venetian painter Nicol˛ Brancaleon.Brancaleon came to Ethiopia in 1480 on what he might have planned as a quick trip, but ended up staying as a captive court painter for 40 years. Two diptychs associated with him are in the show. In one, he is clearly an Italian painter working in the international Gothic style; in the other, most likely done years later, he has absorbed Ethiopian art and is a more stimulating artist.

Less easily traceable are the specific influences that fed into the show's most splendid Gospel, probably produced by a heretical and isolated monastic sect. Its monumental pages include rows of small, vertical portraits of prophets and apostles, dark skinned and light skinned, their shovel-shaped heads with squared-off mouths recalling sub-Saharan sculptural styles.

Cultural breadth is one of the most thrilling things about Ethiopian art. It is also one reason it remains little studied. It requires scholars equally conversant in European, Islamic and African art - a tall multicultural order. In addition, there is the spiritually interactive nature of the art. You look at it, and it also looks at you. It radiates blessings, a difficult concept to convey in a Western context.

Yet as elusive as it is, Ethiopian material is an increasingly hot property. Around the time of "African Zion," the Walters Art Gallery in Baltimore, which helped organize that exhibition, initiated an acquisition campaign. It now has the largest collection of Ethiopian material outside of Addis Ababa. In 1997, the Museum for African Art in New York presented "Art That Heals: The Image as Medicine in Ethiopia," which incorporated non-Orthodox talismanic painting, a few samples of which are at PaceWildenstein.

Meanwhile, the Met bought - from Mr. Fogg - a fabulous 15th-century Gospel, now in the Michael C. Rockefeller wing. The museum also had Ethiopian material in "Byzantium: Faith and Power (1261-1557)" last year, and recently organized a symposium on early Christian art in Africa. Can we consider Mr. Fogg's 57th Street exhibition a herald of further museum interest in Ethiopian art? I don't know. But I do know that, with its exhortative rhythms, it's as entrancing a show as any in the city right now, and in less than two weeks it will be gone.

read also: SAM FOGG PRESENTS Ethiopian art at PaceWildenstein in New York in October 2005 

PaceWildenstein Estate Property and Dealers: A Case History : PaceWildenstein Gallery --- Pace sells much of their holdings in Primitive art to collectors of 20th Century painting and sculpture, probably more than to collectors of African and Tribal arts.---

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