History of Art


Research Seminar Series: Revolutionary Realism(s) in Ethiopia

04 November 2021, 5:30 pm–7:00 pm

Kate Cowcher Research Seminar Images

This event is free.

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Helena Vowles-Shorrock – History of Art

In 1974 revolution rocked Ethiopia, the historic Christian empire in the Horn of Africa. Emperor Haile Selassie was overthrown in a military coup d’etat that followed months of unrest. Though there were multiple factors that precipitated his ultimate fall, the final straw had been revelations of a rural famine, the devastation of which he was accused of having concealed. These revelations took the form of photographs, paintings and films, all conspiring to present an unequivocally visual case for his removal. What followed was the swift consolidation of power by a military committee, the Derg, who professed commitment to Marxist-Leninism. Artists were called upon to configure the country’s new revolutionary visual language, one that articulated Ethiopia as socialist vanguard, but which also justified the military’s unrelenting grip on power. New graphic arts proliferated, but the revolution also presaged an uncompromising schism between abstract and realist representation. The latter was soon associated with ‘truth’ and the former with obscured or veiled modes, despite its pre-revolution deployment by artists like Gebre Kristos Desta as part of the movement for change. Ethiopia had long prided itself on circuitous, multi-layered communication; the revolution called for new, 'demystified' approaches. In the visual arts, figurative realism became a dominant mode. This paper explores the domestic crises and international networks that produced, in Ethiopia, one of the last attempts at socialist realism before the fall of the Berlin Wall. It also considers why, despite its implication in the propagandist art of the 1980s, academic realism remains of interest to Ethiopian artists today. 

Images: Eshetu Tiruneh, detail from To Live or Not to Live, 1981 and Gebre Kristos Desta, People Disguised, 1973. Collection of Carol Boram-Hays and Michael B. Hays. 

About the Speaker

Dr. Kate Cowcher

Lecturer at University of St Andrews

More about Dr. Kate Cowcher