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Professor and Student from Hope Help
Develop Smithsonian Exhibition

Posted January 31, 2002

HOLLAND -- A Hope College professor and student played leadership roles in developing an exhibition that opens at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., on Thursday, Feb. 7.

Dr. Neal Sobania of the Hope College faculty and Hope junior Daniel Berhanemeskel of Aksum, Ethiopia, were centrally involved in developing "From Monastery to Marketplace: Tradition Inspires Modern Ethiopian Painting." The exhibition will be on display in the African Voices Focus Gallery of the National Museum of Natural History for the next year.

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Alumni and friends in the Washington, D.C. area are invited to an opening reception for the exhibition on Thursday, Feb. from 6-8 p.m. in the Africa Hall Focus gallery of the National Museum of Natural History (Smithsonian). The reception will be hosted by President Jim Bultman.

In addition, at noon on Friday, February 8, Dr. Sobania will present a lecture on the new exhibit: "Monastery to Marketplace: Tradition Inspires Modern Ethiopian Painting." It will be held in the Baird Auditorium, ground floor of the National Museum of Natural History, 10th and Constitution, NW.

Please contact Alumni Director Lynne Powe '86 (powe@hope.edu or 616-395-7860) for reservation information.

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Sobania, who is professor of history and director of international education at Hope, co-curated the exhibition with Mary Jo Arnoldi, who is curator of African ethnography with the National Museum of Natural History. In addition to working with Sobania on the exhibition, Berhanemeskel painted a work for it through a commission from the Smithsonian.

Supported by a Hope summer faculty/student research grant, Sobania and Berhanemeskel worked at every stage with Smithsonian curators and exhibition designers to plan and implement the exhibition, including selecting the pieces from the Smithsonian's permanent collection and other sources. Berhanemeskel also translated painting titles, and Sobania wrote the text that accompanies the works in the exhibition.

Berhanemeskel's commissioned artwork is a devotional icon, a diptych on wood with acrylic paint. In addition to being featured in the exhibition, the work has been added to the museum's permanent collection.

Berhanemeskel, who is majoring in art at Hope, is descended from a family of Ethiopian artists. The exhibition also includes a painting by his father, Berhanemeskel Fisseha, "Archangels Saint Michael and Saint Raphael," also commissioned for the exhibition; and a circa- 1965 painting by his great-grandfather, Yohannis Teklu, titled "Saint George Slaying the Dragon." The three artists are also featured in a four-minute video that is presented as part of the exhibition. The video, which includes footage of Daniel Berhanemeskel painting in his studio in the De Pree Art Center at Hope, was produced by Sobania.

Sobania's interest in Ethiopian art is long- standing. He and Dr. Raymond A. Silverman of the art history faculty at Michigan State University have collaborated for many years in chronicling art traditions in Ethiopia. The results of their work include the 1994 exhibition "Ethiopia: Traditions of Creativity" at Michigan State University; a book of the same name edited by Silverman and published in 1999 by the University of Washington Press; and the video "The Parchment Makers: An Ancient Art in Present-Day Ethiopia," produced in 2000 by the Scriptorium Center for Christian Antiquities in cooperation with Hope and MSU.

The Smithsonian exhibition originated two years ago when Sobania attended the opening of the museum's African Voices exhibition. Sobania was intrigued by a 1906 Ethiopian painting included in the exhibition, "Emperor Menilik II's Defeat of an Italian Army at Adwa in 1896," which was a gift from the emperor to Hoffman Philip, the first U.S. Envoy to the Ethiopian court. From Arnoldi he learned that the museum's permanent collection included a number of works from Ethiopia, and the two decided to develop an exhibition that would feature them.

The exhibition, Sobania noted, includes religious icons and church paintings, depictions of military victories, and events of everyday life.

The tradition of Ethiopian painting, he said, developed in monasteries after Christianity took root in Ethiopia in the fourth century. Religious themes remained the focus for several centuries, until about a century ago, when the royal court began commissioning church-trained artists to paint historical events.

The historical paintings, he said, ultimately helped lead artists to sell their works to the general public as well.

"Many of these works were given to visiting dignitaries like Hoffman Philip, sparking a strong interest in Ethiopian art among foreigners," Sobania said. "By the 1930s, Ethiopian painters were adapting monastic traditions to scenes from everyday life such as farming and hunting."

Sobania is also interested in how the relationships continue to develop. He noted, for example, that Ethiopians from rural areas will commonly visit larger cities to purchase paintings with religious themes and then donate them to their hometown churches, linking the modern market to the religious tradition from which the painting tradition grew.

Sobania will be discussing the development of the tradition, including insights from his visit to Ethiopia this past November-December, in a talk that he will deliver at the museum on Friday, Feb. 8, in conjunction with the exhibition.

The National Museum of Natural History is located in Washington, D.C., at 10th and Constitution Avenue.

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