Contemporary Ethiopian Christian ArtMay 14 2021
Located in the Horn of Africa on the eastern side of the continent, Ethiopia is home to a vibrant Christian culture dating back to the early 4th century CE. A census taken in 2007 revealed that approximately 63% of Ethiopia's population is Christian while 34% of its people are Muslim. The majority of Ethiopian Christians belong to the Ethiopian Tewahedo Orthodox Church. The term Tewahedo means “undivided” and reflects the Church’s belief that Christ’s divine and human natures are perfectly united without separation, without mixture, without confusion and without alteration. The Ethiopian Tewahedo Church shares this Christological position with the Coptic Orthodox Church of Alexandria (Egypt), the Syriac Orthodox Church of Antioch, the Malankara Syrian Orthodox Church of India, the Armenian Apostolic Church and the Eritrean Orthodox Church. These six churches are in communion with each other and have constituted a distinct branch of the Christian faith since they split away following the Council of Chalcedon in 451 CE.
Art has been an essential component of the Christian church in Ethiopia for nearly seventeen centuries and the production of Christian art in Ethiopia is still very much a living tradition today. Most contemporary Ethiopian Orthodox Christian art is made, as it was in past centuries, by priests, monks and other artists with significant religious training. It supports the performance of religious ceremonies and private devotions, is used in the adornment of churches, and aids in teaching and sustaining the Christian faith. Some contemporary Ethiopian Orthodox Christian art is also made for sale to tourists and collectors, as well as for Ethiopian churches serving Diaspora communities overseas. The distinction between art made for the church and art made for the marketplace is not always clear, and many religious artworks could fall into either category depending on who makes them, who acquires them and how they are used. Art made for the church must follow certain traditions governing subject and style and is not considered to have true spiritual power until it is approved and blessed by a priest or monk. Art made for the commercial market often follows the same stylistic conventions as church art, but it may be more innovative in form and subject matter and is generally considered to be decorative rather than sacred.
Most of the Ethiopian Christian artworks in the Kruizenga Museum were collected and donated by Neal and Elizabeth Sobania. After graduating from Hope College in 1968, Neal Sobania joined the Peace Corps and served for four years in Ethiopia. He returned to East Africa again in the 1970s, doing graduate research and working for the United Nations Environmental Program in Kenya. He continued to develop his interest in Ethiopia and Kenya during and after graduate school and has made Eastern Africa the focus of his academic career for more than fifty years. Sobania acquired much of the art in the exhibition in the holy city of Aksum, in northern Ethiopia. Home to the Church of Our Lady Mary of Zion, the spiritual headquarters of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, Aksum has long been a vital center for the production of Ethiopian religious art. By visiting Aksum repeatedly over a period of more than three decades, Sobania formed strong relationships with many artists and shopkeepers and was able to assemble a collection of rare quality and depth. The museum is immensely grateful to the Sobanias for their generosity.