Field and river

20th International Conference of Ethiopian Studies (ICES20)
Mekelle University, Ethiopia

"Regional and Global Ethiopia - Interconnections and Identities"
1-5 October, 2018

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Lacy N. FEIGH, University of Pennsylvania

Historically, race has played a central role in Ethiopian artists’ depictions of the Battle of Adwa. Using what has been termed “Ethiopian secular art” of the twentieth century, this paper traces the development of race-making in Ethiopia. Racialization of artwork in the twentieth century illustrates that Ethiopians, like others across the globe, consciously engaged in a process of race-making that was intimately tied to imperialist projects on the recently consolidated frontier. One of the earliest known paintings depicting the Battle of Adwa shows little, if any, racial differentiation between Italians and Ethiopians, but increasingly in the twentieth century Ethiopians began to paint themselves as racially different from Europeans as well as from each other. Blackness came to represent those populations recently brought into the Empire, particularly those along the southern frontiers. This paper argues that the process of racialization reflected in art illuminate a larger narrative of imperial race-making embedded in twentieth century Ethiopia. Painting racial difference of Ethiopian bodies reflected the Othering of people along the periphery-- those people who were perceived also as religiously or linguistically different, and culturally inferior. Also, this paper complicates and enhances the frameworks of ethnicity and frontiers in the Ethiopian historiography. Beyond economic and political centralization, it highlights racialization and identity formation as crucial components of imperial processes which attempted to define the modern Ethiopian state. Utilizing art representing historical events as a reflection of broader social and cultural historical processes creates a more dynamic archive on which to examine Ethiopian history.