One of the joys of contemporary art is seeing new artists and new work. This is distinctly different than one of the other joys of contemporary art, namely, experiencing great work. The "Ethiopian Passages: Dialogues in the Diaspora" show on view now at the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art in Washington mostly provides the joy of discovery. This is not the same as the thrill of quality, but in this case it is reason enough to see the show.
The exhibition begins with the premise of a 20th-century Ethiopian diaspora, a substantial and ongoing migration sparked by unrest at home and greater opportunities elsewhere. Curators David Binkley and Kinsey Katchka have assembled an exhibition of works by 10 artists from Ethiopia, many of whom have immigrated to the United States and now live in the Washington area. The work on view includes paintings, sculpture and photo-collage, most of which has strong ties to Africa and only some of which stands up beyond the premise of the show.
Overall, the focus here on an Ethiopian diaspora results in an exhibition of intensely personal art, made by artists who have something to say about life and living. There are no masterpieces in this show, but almost all of the work is imbued with humanity, soul and feeling.
There is a tremendous amount of soul in the work of Elizabeth Habte Wold, whose collages of mostly ripped newspaper are emotionally touching. The best of the bunch is Lonely Mother (1993), which shows a woman sitting alone on a chair in a room whose walls are made of newspaper clippings from the obituary section. The haunting image would resonate with anyone with an elderly parent.
Kebedech Tekleab's paintings of peoples in bondage don't contribute anything new to the dialogue of painting, but they contribute a great deal to helping the comfortable come closer to understanding the feel of bondage and imprisonment. Tekleab, who lives in the Washington area, also writes poetry and these are paintings as poetry rather than paintings as building blocks of contemporary theory.
Also featured in the show is Alexander "Skunder" Boghossian, the celebrated African modernist who died last month at the age of 65, is known for works that mix Ethiopian history and iconography with a painterly, almost Surrealist style.
My favorite work in the show is by Aida Muluneh, a 29-year-old photographer based in Washington. Muluneh, who has lived and photographed images all over the world, delivers the show's only knockout, a tender, personal photograph titled Spirit of Sisterhood (2000).
In another room are a number of works for which Muluneh has transferred Polaroid images onto scrap materials such as metal or ceramic tile. The images are close-ups of distinctive faces, their texture and emotion heightened by the flat neutrality of the tile or metal. (To see more of Muluneh's work, check out the online fashion magazine ZooZoom. Neither she nor Habte Wold are represented by a commercial gallery.)
One problem with Spirit of Sisterhood, however, is its installation. Muluneh's photograph, quite simply, is hung in the dark. Many of the paintings by other artists seem only half-lit. The show also features a site-specific installation by Julie Mehretu, who has ridden her explosive drawings to art stardom, and I was looking forward to seeing it. But the Mehretu wall-drawing rises above the ceiling of the exhibition space into a kind of skylight area, rendering it nearly impossible for anyone but Inspector Gadget to see ("Go, go Gadget neck!").
Mehretu's work in the show is also stuffed into a tiny space, making it difficult to really focus on any one piece. The placement of the sculptures (by Etiy Dimma Poulsen) in the middle of the galleries also causes difficulty if you want to step back to see a work of art. While the quality of work in this show may vary, no artist deserves the insult of this installation.
A number of U.S. museums are launching shows of African art this year, and it will be interesting to see how they hold up against each other and against more commercial, gallery-driven work. The next African-focused show opens this fall at the new Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis and features South African artists. (Unfortunately the museum's opening event, an Al Roker-hosted gala has overshadowed its opening show.)
In the meantime, while "Ethiopian Passages" is not a great show, it is a show worth seeing.