AfricaArt Review

A walk through Ethiopian exhibition in Tel Aviv

Ran HaCohen (PhD), Middle East Correspondent 

Eretz Israel Museum – a big, central museum located at the richer north of Tel-Aviv – is hosting an extensive exhibition entitled “Ethiopia, The Land of Wonders” that will run through June 10th 2013.


In a rare attempt to broaden the otherwise narrow perspective Israelis have on Ethiopia, curator Sara Turel did a great job in gathering and displaying a plethora of photos, videos, manuscripts, dresses and artifacts from many public and private collections.

Visitors are first introduced to the legendary sphere of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba; then, through Ethiopian Christianity, to the historic towns of Axum, Lalibela and Gondar, to Ethiopian musical instruments, to food and the buna (coffee) tradition. The story of Beta Israel, Israelis of Ethiopian origin, is also present, although their immigration is a minefield deliberately avoided. Curator Turel says this is an Israeli, not an Ethiopian story. Some space is given to Islam in Ethiopia too and to the different nations and nationalities, before moving on to political history from the 19th century through Haile Selassie I (including a picture of his spouse Menen Asfaw, taken during her visit to this very museum in 1959), the Derg, and the present era; even the Rastafarians have not been left out. The exhibition ends with a series of pictures by Ethiopian photographer Aida Muluneh. It is a wonderful display, accompanied by an impressive printed catalogue.

Beyond the exihibiton

I have mixed memories of the big expo hall hosting the exhibition, about 800 square meters in size. A couple of years ago, the same hall hosted a press photo exhibition. I went there with my friend Ester, an Ethiopian origin Israeli with a long, thick hair falling loose on her shoulders. We were looking at an impressive photo of three colorfully-dressed Ethiopian clergymen taken in front of their Jerusalem church, when we heard three young women chatting behind us: “What now? Enough that they brought us Jews from Ethiopia, do we need also Ethiopian Christians here?” Ester turned her head; they saw her face and fell into silence.

As for the present exhibition, I joined a group of high-school children from the weakened Ethiopian community of Gedera, 35 km south of Tel-Aviv. We were guided by artist Alemu Esheta, who immediately won the kids’ heart thanks to his wit and humor. Now that it was framed in a respected museum, one could see the children’s desire to learn more about the culture they knew little about – unsurprisingly. The most problematic boy in the group – a clear case of attention deficit disorder – turned into a star: having spent longer time in Ethiopia than his friends (some of whom were born in Israel), even casual visitors who joined our group were highly impressed at “that boy who knows all the answers”.

On another occasion I spent a couple of hours at the Museum with Magnenia, who came to Israel as a small girl. She vaguely remembers her Gondar village, but does recall her very first candy on the flight from Addis in May 1991: “it tasted awful.” Now a lovely young architect, she can speak (but not read) Amharic, and has taken courses on Ethiopian culture and African history during her university studies. Nevertheless, she still feels she knows too little about her culture of origin, and is eager to learn more: a characteristic attitude among highly educated immigrants of her generation.

I also tried to spread the word to the cashier at my local supermarket. The young woman, about 20 years old with no memories from Ethiopia, was quite excited upon hearing about the exhibition, but she hadn’t heard of the Museum, nor of the very central street it was in, ten minutes away from her work by bus. “I just come here every day to work and then return” to her small home town. I printed out for her the information she needed to get to the Museum, only to realize she might have never been to a museum before. She didn’t understand why the temporary exhibition would close in a couple of months, and when the other cashier – straightened, bronze dyed hair – asked her what it was all about, I heard her say: “Listen, good news, they opened a new place for Ethiopians.”

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