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Ethiopian & Rastafari
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NEW BOOK [Forward]

This book is a product of an exhibition of Princess Wolete Israel Seyoum (1914-1988), considered one of the first female artist of 20th century Ethiopia. The year 2008 being the twentieth anniversary of her death, this project was initiated as a commemoration of her lifework and of her spiritual and artistic contribution to the Ethiopian arts. A collection of 21 paintings were displayed to the public for the first time at the Gallery of the Institute of Ethiopian Studies, Addis Ababa University on April 14, 2008. From this occasion sprung the idea of publishing a catalog of her work, in an effort to preserve and share her vision.

Princess Wolete Israel Seyoum transcends the conventional definition of an ‘artist’, as she herself would likely not credit herself as such. The artistic talent was cultivated from her humble appreciation of nature and the beauty of the Orthodox faith, meant to be visual expressions of her devotion to her faith and family rather than a contribution to any one artistic medium. That her art was never intended for the public is evident by the fact that she often did not sign her pieces and that these paintings were stored away for many years. Part of the impetus behind this project was to preserve this collection that has been neglected and damaged with age.

In this collection of work which spans 30 years, it is clear that the Princess had her own signature style and aesthetic perspective. She taught herself the necessary techniques and experimented with various styles and inspirations, ranging from traditional Ethiopian iconography to classical European-styled portraits. The vibrant blues, reds and purples she uses are a particularly striking quality of her work (see her portraits of Mary and Child, pg 43- 44 as examples) and signify her distinctive interpretations. The subjects she choose illustrates the multifaceted influences on her life, the two key being her royal heritage, revealed through the portraits of her father and mother, and her dedication to the Orthodox faith, exemplified in her carefully constructed depictions of Christian saints and Fathers of the Church. The intricate detail applied to the features, such as the face and hands of the priests in Two Monks (pg. 33), showing the refined ability she put into her oil and charcoal pieces.

The imagery of her work is a reflection of a person well versed in Christian text and liturgy and fully engaged in Orthodox worship and rituals. As a devout member of the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church, living an ascetic lifestyle for over forty years, Princess Wolete Israel Seyoum painted from her lived experience, though her application was more symbolic than literal. Take for example her piece Thursday Prayer (p. 31). Detailed knowledge of the Eastern Orthodox calendar would confirm that the title is not referring to any ordinary day of the week but to Holy Thursday, part of Holy Week that leads to Easter Sunday. In this scene, she choose to depict the event of Jesus’ contemplation at Gethsemane, marking his impending crucifixion and physical suffering b y the crown of thorns and red shroud, a symbol of the blood shed for the salvation of humankind. The contrast between the quiet peaceful surroundings and the immanence of temporal struggle to come produces a rather dramatic and affecting imagery.

The scriptural inscriptions attached to certain paintings give the pieces added meaning, acting as a commentary on her faith and heritage. The portrait of her son, Dejazmach Zewde (p. 59) has a particularly apt biblical reference, which relates to his educational accomplishments: “He who has sacrificed time in developing his mind, all that he threads on will flower/will yield fruit”. This could be interpreted as a metaphor of her admiration of his achievements, progressing past Ethiopia’s traditional education and onto the highest levels of scholarship, obtaining his PhD in History at Oxford University. The same could be applied to the Princess herself, who also sacrificed her time to developing her mind for higher spiritual gains, through her art and her faith.

Edjigayehu S. Antohin
Great granddaughter of Princess Wolete-Israel

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