- Theo Eshetu born 1958
- Video, 15 monitors, colour and sound
- Duration: 26min
- Purchased with funds provided by the Africa Acquisitions Committee 2016
The Return of the Axum Obelisk 2009 is a sound and video installation with a running time of twenty-six minutes and forty-six seconds. The work is screened on fifteen monitors arranged in three rows of five to form a wall across which the narrative unfolds. The establishing shots are of brightly coloured paintings of the legend of Sheba, the biblical story upon which the lineage of the Ethiopian region is founded. Rendered in a distinctive figurative style notable for large, almond-shaped eyes and compositional flatness, these images detail King Solomon, the Queen of Sheba and the birth of Ethiopia’s first ruler Menelik I. As the work progresses, tableaux vivants of the royal protagonists gradually intercut the painted images. The high saturation palette of these alternately still and moving sequences is juxtaposed with black and white documentary footage representing key moments in Ethiopian history: sites of ancient Ethiopian castles at Gondar; the battleground of Adwa where Ethiopian sovereignty was secured over Italian forces in 1896; and fragments of the Italian occupation during the war of 1935–6 that culminated in the Italian looting of the obelisk of Axum. The colourful narrative vignettes and monochromatic documentary elements are intercut with pulsating architectonic scenes focusing on the abstracted geometric patterns formed from close-up views of the obelisk and its surrounding scaffolding. As the pace of the changing imagery increases, viewers find themselves moving forward in time as the artist chronicles the obelisk’s dislocation in 1936 and eventual repatriation in 2005–8. The video grid mimics the sequential arrangement of traditional Ethiopian narrative painting, with each small, vividly-coloured figurative scene individually demarcated and captioned with Amharic calligraphy.
The obelisk which forms the main subject of the work is a vital symbol of London-born Eshetu’s Ethiopian heritage. Measuring twenty-four metres high and weighing one hundred and sixty tonnes, it is considered a remarkable technical feat erected as a monument to the powerful Axumite Empire, which ruled in Ethiopia from the 1st Century A.D. Upon the introduction of Christianity to the region by King Ezana (circa 320–360), Axum became an important site of religious pilgrimage. During the Italian campaign of 1935–6, Benito Mussolini’s Fascist regime claimed the monument as war booty, removing it in five pieces and, over a period of two months, transporting it along a precarious route to be sea-freighted to Rome where it was erected in the Circus Maximus as a symbol of Italian might. Despite a United Nations agreement between the two countries in 1947 calling for its repatriation, it was not until 2003 that the dismantling of the obelisk began in earnest, with the component parts being repatriated throughout 2005 and fully re-erected in 2008, as seen in footage captured by the artist during its triumphant unveiling.
In Eshetu’s work the various images are interwoven to represent Ethiopia’s imagined origins, complex past and optimistic future. While Ethiopia, unlike many African countries, was never colonised by a European power, its history has nonetheless been marked by key periods of robust resistance – including a British invasion in 1867–8, and two thwarted Italian attempts known as the First (1895–6) and Second (1935–6) Italo-Ethiopian Wars. Via the diaristic splicing of black and white Super 8 film footage, the artist evokes early moments in Ethiopia’s collective memory through flashes of geographic and historic significance. These intersecting histories are fused through a kaleidoscopic lens with footage of the Axum Obelisk in Rome and its return. Fading in and out of past and present, reality and popular myth, Eshetu presents an accumulation of imagery that leads up to the collaborative restitution of the monument. The work provides an allegory for the post-colonial condition, presenting an evocative portrait of both the would-be coloniser and the wouldn’t-be colonised.
Eshetu’s signature use of fast cutting, found footage and multi-layered rhythms can be understood within the context of the Scratch video generation, which includes artists such as George Barber (born 1958) and the Duvet Brothers (all of whom were included in the exhibition The New Pluralism: British Film and Video 1980–1985 at the Tate Gallery in 1985). Parallels can also be drawn between Eshetu and the international practices of artists such as Nam June Paik (1932–2006), credited as the inventor of video assemblage, as well as acclaimed Ethiopian-born US-based feature film director Haile Gerima (born 1946), known for his photographic sensibility. Gerima’s Adwa: An African Victory 1999 likewise combined re-enactment, historic footage and painting. Within the Italian context, Eshetu’s political engagement is mirrored in the hybrid cine-video genre established by Alberto Grifi (1938–2007) in the 1970s and the works of Yervant Gianikian and Angela Ricci Lucchi (both born 1942), the subjects of a film survey at Tate Modern in 2011.
Born in London of Ethiopian parentage, Eshetu upends the standard accounts of the history of colonisation which frequently overlook East Africa. Ultimately the artist presents a portrait where brotherhood and reconciliation are possible despite the spectre of past exploitation. He has been described by the curator Gianluca Marziani as ‘a visionary who has an ability to sense and feel the beauty of a project’ and possesses ‘the means to transform documentary reality [into] a geometric prism, visual effects and inescapable palindromes’ (Marziani 2012, n.p.).
Gianluca Marziani, Italian Video Art, A Review: The Curator of the Exhibit ‘The Electronic Body’ Reports, 2012, http://magazine.italianjournal.it/italian-video-art-a-review-the-curator-of-the-exhibit-electronic-body-reports/, accessed April 2015.
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