Ethiopia: There Is Great Art in Ethiopia – but Is There Art Criticism?


There is no doubt that Ethiopian art is one of the greatest in Africa if not in the world not only for its long life but also for its authentically Ethiopian characteristics, inspiration, themes and forms. Ancient Ethiopian artist did not copy their crafts from foreign sources but developed them independently from any outside influence. Likewise, the tools of their trades, including the pains and brushes were shaped from the raw materials that were available at that time. They used natural colors produced from plants or charcoal mixing them in ways that suited their purpose. The results were astounding not only for their times but also continue to amaze audiences across many centuries.

Traditional Ethiopian art largely takes its inspiration from spiritual and secular sources and molds them in such a way as to give expression to the daily lives of the people but also explore and shape their spiritual world which less evident to the naked eye. Ethiopian church and mosque artists based their works on the themes of the Bible or the Koran and used them to teach the folks about the virtues that are specific to their social and religious environments.

While arts developed in their natural way and traditional artistic continued their works following their own hearts and the power of their imaginations, there was no one around to tell them how to improve the paintings, except that the folks who saw their images were awe-struck by their authenticity and realism that reflected the personalities and ideas they collected from their readings of ecclesiastic texts. In other word there was no critic to guide, criticize or appreciate the artists’ works. Ancient Greece was lucky to have philosophers and critics like Plato and Aristotle who analyzed the meanings of the works of arts and gave them essence and direction as well as philosophical interpretations.

In one of his writings, Plato described artistic images in the following terms, saying that “works of art are “but imitations thrice removed from the truth, and could easily be made without any knowledge of the truth, because they are appearances only and not realities.” Imitation–image-making–should not be “the ruling principle of [anyone’s] life, as if he had nothing higher in him. According to him, “art is at best a way of simplifying and communicating complex ideas–philosophical truths–to the ignorant, although from the point of view of absolute truth, the artist is also profoundly ignorant.”

In his famous Poetics, a work of artistic criticism and artistic theories that has not lost its relevant to this day, Aristotle says that, “art is a moral issue, since it deals with human character. The objects of imitation represent men either as better than in real life, or as worse, or as they are.” He argues that imitation is a human instinct, and as such, works of imitative art, in whatever medium, move human beings deeply.”

As the above quotations make it evident, the Greeks had such outstanding philosophers and art critics as Plato and Aristotle to guide the creative labors of their artists and interpret for them their significance and shortcomings. Not so in Ethiopia that has not produced not only great philosophers and when it produced one in the person of Zara Yakob the monk, art could not benefit from his insights because he was too busy exploring human nature and its relationship with god that he perhaps had no time to shift his focus on to the artistic lives of priests and laymen in Axum of his time.

Art criticism in its modern sense had to wait many centuries before it could emerge as a more articulate and modern tool for evaluating, locating, and perceiving works of art and discover their true worth.

It is to be noted that artistic criticism has fully developed in the Western artistic tradition. “The Western tradition has a set of evaluative criteria–sometimes shared with other cultures, sometimes unique–as well as elements of historiography. Within the history of Western art writing, however, is a distinct critical tradition characterized by the use of theory; theoretical analyses of art in the West that led to what is generally understood as the discipline of “art criticism.”

Art criticism is therefore different from subjective feelings about art and artistic productions. Anybody or a layman in arts can have feelings about a piece of art expressed as good or bad in accordance with one’s likes and dislikes. Yet, this is different from art criticism as outlined above. What prevailed in Ethiopia before the introduction of modern Western education in the 20th century was personal impressions about arts and not art criticism as we know it now. The distance between art appreciation (art connoisseur) and art judgment (art criticism) is likewise wide. Art appreciation is subjective in nature while art criticism is more objective and sophisticated as goes beyond sense impression into logical and critical reasoning.

As one writer on the subjected noted, “The step from connoisseur to critic implies the progression from knowledge to judgment.” The critic must make judgments because the art dealt with is generally new and unfamiliar–unless the critic is trying to reevaluate an old art with a fresh understanding of it–and thus of uncertain aesthetic and cultural value. The critic is often faced with a choice: to defend old standards, values, and hierarchies against new ones or to defend the new against the old.

Art criticism in Ethiopia is not a well-known or distinct subject matter. However, it can be seen as part and parcel of the African tradition of art criticism as indicated above. Even if you look at Ethiopian art during the Axumite period, we hardly have a recorded or systematic tradition of art criticism as we know it in the other traditions.

If we look at the modern times in Ethiopia’s art development, we realize that art criticism in particular is a 20th century phenomenon that was introduced together with the introduction of modern or Western education and the artistic development that was evident with the rise of an authentically artistic movement pioneered by the likes of Afewerk Tekel and Gebre Kristos Desta.

Donald Burton Kuspit, Professor of Art History and Philosophy, State University of New York writes about art criticism as, “the analysis and evaluation of works of art. More subtly, art criticism is often tied to theory; it is interpretive, involving the effort to understand a particular work of art from a theoretical perspective and to establish its significance in the history of art.” This is of course a brief summary of what art criticism is. There are tons of books written about art criticism from ancient times to the present. Art criticism is such an important and extensive body of knowledge that it is taught at almost all universities across the world as an independent subject matter or academic course.

Art criticism touches upon a wide body of artistic creativity and its significance for the present as well as for eternity. Art criticism has been around for a long time now and the above-quoted author outlines the history of hundreds of years of art criticism in the following terms,” Many cultures have strong traditions of art evaluation. For example, African cultures have evaluative traditions–often verbal–of esteeming a work of art for its beauty, order, and form or for its utilitarian qualities and the role it plays in communal and spiritual activities.”

According to the same author, the Islamic world has developed its own approach to art criticism as he explains as follows, “Islamic cultures have long traditions of historiographical writing about art. Works such as Mustafa Ali’s Manāqib-i hunarvarān (1587; “Wonderful Deeds of the Artists”) often focus on the decorative traditions, such as calligraphy, woodwork, glassware, metalwork, and textiles, that define Islamic art.”

Last but not least, the Chinese too have their history of art criticism. “China also has a strong tradition of art evaluation, dating back to writers such as Xie He (active mid-6th century), who offered the “Six Principles” for great art–a major principle being the qi yun sheng dong (“spirit resonance, life-motion”)–and to literati, who wrote biographies of great artists.”

To my knowledge, there is no art critic to whom I can refer in order to know what is said about our contemporary arts. However, my research for this article led me to an interview given by Mulugeta Tafesse to The Reporter newspaper a few years back. Mulugeta is a visual artist, art critic and theoretician. He is also the author of the book ‘Towards African Mimesis: Regarding East Africa’s Art Scene Now’. As he made it clear in that interview Mulugeta is a man two worlds, Europe and Africa and Ethiopia in particular.

The artist, writer and critic who lived abroad for most of his life was quoted by the newspaper as saying, “I also see what is stuck in our artists’ mind from the past; i.e., from the Pre-Axumite to Axumite period, from the Early Medieval to the Late Medieval periods, from the Modern to Contemporary times. Social realism (not Socialist realism) to the current New Classicism (Photo Realism, Magic Realism, Surrealism Hyper realism), and modern expressionism styles just to mention a few art periods are in my research list”

In the same interview, he was asked what he thought about what should be done to promote the development of the arts and the emerging artists in Ethiopia. The following quote is from his answer. Mulugeta said, “Is there enough experienced staff to run these institutions, after all, if we get these specific spaces? Museums and art halls, as we see them now have become easier to be built.

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