“Ethiopia in Museums and the Big Screen”

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The Contemporary African Art Collection/Jean Pigozzi, which can be viewed online at caacart.com includes Ethiopian artist Gedewon (an obvious mispronunciation of Gedeon) born in Bagemdir in 1939, passing in 1995 in Därtähal. According to the biography on the CAAC site, he was the “finest practitioners of poetry and rhetoric in the Ethiopian Orthodox Church” and “far from being an artist seeking his roots. Along with his religious studies, he was secretly initiated into talismanic art, a discipline used for prayer and healing. Reaching back as far as the origins of Christianity in Ethiopia (i.e., to the fourth century), talismanic art draws on the same Hellenic sources as Arab alchemy and the Hebrew Kabala. But while the art remained embryonic in the Mediterranean world, it flourished in Ethiopia as a means to cure patients whose ills were understood in terms of spiritual possession.” They go on to describe Gedewon, talismans as “writing from before writing” quoting him as calling his works “talismans of research and study.” Finally, they remark that healing the body and soul through “ancient patterns, imagery, and invocation” was the purpose…through the practice of age old models. “Gedewon also considered it necessary to question the patient in order to incorporate specific experiences and visions into the talisman. In turn, he would create new images for new problems.” His media of choice included pencil, ballpoint pen, or ink on paper, composed in a “primarily graphic and within their geometric framework, highly representational. Gedewon is both the healer—and because of his empathy—the patient, artist and hallucinator in another’s stead.” Interesting and I can’t wait to read the responses of the viewers at the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) when the facility re-opens in late October 2019 after begin closed for renovations.
When MOMA re-opens the Pigozzi gift of 45 work of art may feature drawings by Gedewon, whose work was previously shown at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York and VENICE BIENNALE: 54th International Art Exhibition, Italian Pavilion. Also included in the gift, making MoMa a “unique institutional leader in this aspect of contemporary African art,” are a selection of sculptures by Beninese Romuald Hazoumè; paintings by Congolese Moké and photographs by Malian Seydou Keïta. I will be sure to share any feedback and further information on Gedewon who was also pegged in the category of “outsider art” with works in Vernacular Visionaries: International Outsider Art in Context Museum of International Folk Art Santa Fe, New Mexico – USA. FYI: Outsider art is typically relegated to self-taught or naïve creatives who have minimal, if any contact with mainstream art world.
My other commentary is on the newly released film Red Sea Diving Resort, said to be “loosely based on the events of Operation Moses and Operation Joshua, moving Ethiopian Jews from Sudanese refugee camps to safety in Israel in the 1980’s. The film was filled with pretty good A list actors like American Chris Evans, who appears in Marvel superhero movies and British Ben Kingsley, famous for roles such as Gandhi and too many others to name and Michiel Huisman from Game of Thrones. Evans and Kingsley pretty much saved the day in the aforementioned flicks and SURPRISE, do the same here as well yet failed to rack up positive critical review. Rotten Tomatoes writes, “makes as uninspired use of actual events, using thinly written characters to tell a story derailed by its own good intentions”. While Variety says, “Michiel Huisman as ripped Jewish heroes, swooping in to save the day, it’s impossible to ignore how badly the film marginalizes the courageous Ethiopian refugees about whom it purports to care so deeply.” Okay. My turn.
There is an old saying, “the road to hell is paved with good intentions”. I saw the film on Netlfix and think it would have been the inspiration for this quote, but the quote predates, obviously. So the plot line is basically a Mossad agent, eventually conspiring with the CIA lifts hundreds of Ethiopian Jews to safety from Sudan. Writing matters. What was the threat they were running from? How did “rebel leader, Kabede (Michael K. Williams, The Wire) get them to Sudan and why was he called a rebel leader? What is the backstory, usually presented in text at the beginning or a short scene to provide context. My questions are endless especially when you see photos of the “real” characters and Ethiopian Jews “saved” at the end of the film running with the credits. I think 60 seconds of screen time is worth it; else we have false heroes, a half baked plot and great actors left with reviews of mediocrity such as the Los Angeles Time, “There are echoes of other films, as he persuades the Israeli government to fund an elaborate ruse for the (only recently declassified) real-life operation. Instead of a fake movie, as in “Argo,” it’s a fake hotel, which the highly trained spies find themselves having to staff when real tourists arrive. The shepherding of Jewish refugees calls to mind “Schindler’s List” or “Hotel Rwanda” (it’s set in Sudan), but, unfortunately, “Red Sea” doesn’t deliver the stress, suspense or emotional punch of any of those films.” There you go, anti-climatic.

Dr. Desta Meghoo is a Jamaican born
Creative Consultant, Curator and cultural promoter based in Ethiopia since 2005. She also serves as Liaison to the AU for the Ghana based, Diaspora African Forum.