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LOOKING AT ETHIOPIA: HISTORY, PHOTOGRAPHY, AND POWER
A THESIS PRESENTED TO THE GRADUATE SCHOOL
OF THE UNIVERSITY OF FLORIDA IN PARTIAL FULFILLMENT
OF THE REQUIREMENTS FOR THE DEGREE OF
MASTER OF ARTS
UNIVERSITY OF FLORIDA
This thesis is dedicated to Brian, Hayes, and Marley.
The study would not have been possible without the generous assistance of a great
many people. Firstly, I would like to thank my committee: Robin Poynor and Vicki
Rovine provided guidance and crucial insight throughout every stage of this project, and
Eric Segal was always available to answer my questions and give valuable advice.
Additionally, all three offered moral support and encouragement during the arduous final
stages of the writing process. Dr. Rebecca Nagy, Director of the Harn Museum of Art,
also provided much crucial assistance. Her vibrant enthusiasm for Ethiopian culture was
the impetus for my own interests in this topic and had it not been for her encouragement,
I may never have realized how rich Ethiopian culture truly is. I would also like to thank
several other professors, who all contributed in one way or another to my thinking on this
project. In the art school, Dr. Barbara Barletta, Dr. Alex Alberro, and Dr. Melissa Hyde,
all deserve many thanks. I would also like to thank Dr. Abdoulaye Kane in anthropology,
Dr. Fiona Mclaughlin in linguistics and African studies, Dr. Joan Frosch in theater and
dance, and Dr. Akintunde Akinyemi in African languages.
I am also very grateful to several individuals who assisted me in a number of ways
during the research and writing process. While my ideas were still in a very formative
stage, Dr. Al Roberts offered advice on how to direct my research, and as my project
neared completion, Dr. Peri Klemm provided valuable insight and encouragement, and
Dr. Jon Abbink amiably replied to all of my numerous queries about Suri culture. I
would also like to thank Tom Southall whose keen enthusiasm for my topic was a great
inspiration. Dan Reboussin and John Nemmers deserve many thanks for their support and
eagerness to share their hard-earned research and ideas with me. Ras Adam Simeon, Jah
Jim Marshall, and BenGee also deserve a great deal of thanks for sharing not only
information but also a significant aspect of their lives with me for this project.
I also wish to thank my fellow students in the art and art history, and African
studies programs at the University of Florida, without whom I would never have had the
courage to undertake this study. In particular, I wish to thank Mariola Alvarez, Jeremy
Culler, Wood D. Weber, Kathy Huala, Izabela Riano, Lauren Turner, Natalie Haddad,
Joann Ihas, Jody Berman, Ade Ofunniyin, Ann Baird, and Tim Nevin. Most of all I
would like to express my enormous gratitude to Nicholas Frech, who provided assistance,
friendship, and undying support during my entire time at the University of Florida.
Last, but certainly not least, I wish to thank Brian Henderson and our two dogs
Hayes and Marley, whose love and support kept me alive and sane.
TABLE OF CONTENTS
A C K N O W L E D G M E N T S ................................................................................................. iv
LIST OF FIGU RE S ......... ..................................... ........... vii
ABSTRACT ........ ........................... .. ...... .......... .......... xii
1 INTRODUCTION: SCOPE AND CONTENT .................................................1
E thiopia: A n O v erview ................ ....... ............................................. .......... .. .. ...6
Ethiopia and the History of African Photography ................................................11
O organization and G oals .......................................... ............ ...... ........17
2 MAPPING ETHIOPIA'S HISTORY: LEGENDS OF THE NILE AND THE
IE T H IO P IA N O C E A N .................................... .......................... .............. .............25
Early V isions of A frica .............. .. ................................. ........... 26
IEthiopia, Abyssinia and the Quest for Prester John ...............................................31
The "H abit" of an Ethiopian ........................................ ....... ....... ............... 40
3 PHOTOGRAPHING ETHIOPIA: THE SAFARI AND THE PILGRIMAGE......... 63
G az in g at E th io p ia ........................................................................... .................... 6 4
Touring Ethiopian B odies................................................. .............................. 70
Gazing Back .......................................... .............. ........................ 75
Authenticity as Spectacle and the Politics of Display ............................. .............81
Beckwith and Fisher's Ethiopia in Context..... .......... ...................................... 88
4 VISIONS OF POWER: THE IMAGE OF EMPEROR HAILE SELASSIE I........105
The Image of Selassie in the W western M edia ............... ............ .....................106
Selassie as the C hapel ....................................... ........ ... .. .......... .. ........ .. 112
5 C O N C L U SIO N ......... ....................................................................... ........ .. ..... .. 136
BIBLIOGRAPH Y ........... .... ............ ................................................. 138
B IO G R A PH ICA L SK ETCH ......... ................. ...................................... .....................153
LIST OF FIGURES
1.1 Photograph of a Suri man by Carol Beckwith and Angela Fisher .........................20
1.2 Formal coronation portrait ofHaile Selassie................................ 21
1.3 Linguistic map of Ethiopia...................................... ......... ................... 22
1.4 Map of Ethiopia showing regional boundaries of the nine Ethiopian States ...........22
1.5 Spirit of Sisterhood, by Aida M uluneh................................. ....................... 23
1.6 Lij Iyasu, his father Ras Mickael and Ras Hapte Ghiorgis. Attributed to Bedros
Boyadjian. Private Collection (Pankhurst and Gerard, 1998: 127)....................24
2.1 Map of the World according to Ptolemy's second projection, 1482......................49
2.2 Reconstruction of Ptolemy's oikoumen ............................ .... ............... 49
2.3 Libyj (A frica) according to Ptolem y .................................... ......... ................... 50
2.4 Reconstruction of Libyj (Africa), following Ptolemy............................................50
2 .5 "T -O m ap ......................................................... ............................. 5 1
2.6 C opy of a m ap by al-Idrisi............................................... ............................. 51
2.7 Sebastian Miinster's Map of Africa .................... ..... .............. 52
2.8 National Geographic map of Ethiopia printed in 1931 ................ .............. ....52
2.9 Africa According to y Newest and most Exact Observations created by Herman
M oll, L ondon, 17 14 ............ ... ........................................................ .. .... ...... 53
2.10 D detail of figure 2.9 ................................ .............................................................. 53
2.11 Africa ExMagna Orbis Terre created by Gerard Mercator (the younger), 1595 ...54
2.12 Detail of figure 2.1 1......... .. .......... .. ..... .. .. .......... .... .....54
2.13 Detail of figure 2.1 1......... .. .......... .. ..... .. .. .......... .... .....55
2.14 Detail of figure 2.11 ............... ..... ...... .............. ...................... .... ..................55
2.15 Africae Tabula Nova, created by Abraham Ortelius, Antwerp, 1570 ....................56
2.16 Presbiteri Johannis Abissinorium Imperil Descripto (A representation of the
empire of Prester John, or, of the Abyssinians), created by Abraham Ortelius,
A ntw erp, 1573 ........................................................................56
2.17 Habessinia or Abassia, Presbyteri Johannis Regio. ("Habessinia" or "Abassia,"
the Land of Prester John.) Created by Hiob Ludolf, 1683 ....................................57
2.18 D etail of fi gure 2.17. ............ ............... ...... .... .... ..................... .......... ... .....57
2.19 Detail of Africce Nova Descriptio (Africa Newly Described), created by Willem
B laeu 16 3 0 .........................................................................5 8
2.20 Detail of Africe, map of Africa created by John Speed, London, 1626 ..................58
2.21 Guinea, created by Willem Blau, Amsterdam, 1635 ............................................59
2.22 Detail of figure 2.21 ............... ......... ........ ... .. ............................ ..... 59
2.23 AEthiopia Inferior vel Exterior ("Lower or Outer" /Ethiopia), made by Jan
Jansson after an earlier map by Jan Blau (1642)..................................................60
2.24 D detail of figure 2.23. .......................... .............. .......................................... 60
2.25 Paskaerte Van West Indien de Vaste Kusten en de Eylanden, created by Pieter
G oos, nd., probably late 1660s. ........................................ ........................... 61
2.26 D etail of figure 2.25. ............ ........ .... .......... ............. ............... .... 61
2.27 Illustration from The Entertaining Traveler; or, the Whole World in Miniature,
by John Fransham and printed by Henry Holmes, London, 1767............................62
2.28 Illustration from History ofAll Nations, printed by David Paterson, Edinburgh,
17 7 7 ................. ......... ................ ............................................62
2.29 Image of the Emperor of Abyssinia from Allain Manesson Mallet's Description
de L 'U nivers, 1685 .......................... ....................................... .. .....62
3.1 Ethiopian Orthodox Priest, at a rock-hewn church in Lalibela. Photography by
Carol Beckw ith and Angela Fisher ............................................... ............... 93
3.2 Suri men painting their bodies in preparation for Donga. Photograph by Carol
Beckwith and Angela Fisher ............................................................................. 94
3.3 Suri body painting. Photograph by Carol Beckwith and Angela Fisher ................95
3.4 Suri body painting. Photograph by Carol Beckwith and Angela Fisher..................95
3.5 Suri woman wearing a lip-plate. Photograph by Carol Beckwith and Angela
Fisher ............. ......................................... ........... ...... ........ .. 96
3.6 Priest standing at the entrance of the maqdas ("holy of holies") of the church of
Ura Kidane Mehret on Lake Tana. Photograph by Carol Beckwith and Angela
Fisher ............. ......................................... ........... ...... ........ .. 97
3.7 Konso man. Photograph by Carol Beckwith and Angela Fisher............................98
3.8 Konso man and Konso architecture. Photography by Carol Beckwith and Angela
F ish er ..............................................................................................9 9
3.9 Hamar women. Photography by Carol Beckwith and Angela Fisher ................. 100
3.10 Early 20th century postcard of Algerian women............................101
3.11 Young Konso woman. Photograph by Carol Beckwith and Angela Fisher...........02
3.12 Amhara woman and Orthodox priest. Photograph by Carol Beckwith and
A ngela F isher ....................................................................... 103
3.13 Maasai girl undergoing painful excision. Photograph by Carol Beckwith and
A ngela F isher ....................................................................... 104
3.14 Maasai girl undergoing excision. Photography by Carol Beckwith and Angela
F ish er ...................................... .................................................. 10 4
4.1 Photograph of Haile Selassie's coronation, front cover of Le Miroir du Monde,
37 (N ovem ber 15, 1930). .................................... ... ............ ........ .... 118
4.2 Haile Selassie's coronation, front cover of L'Illustration................................ 119
4.3 Haile Selassie's coronation, front cover of The Illustrated London News............. 120
4.4 Haile Selassie's coronation. Photograph by George W. Moore. From a feature
article in National Geographic Magazine 59 no.6 (June 1931) ...........................121
4.5 Emperor Haile Selassie I on the cover of Time Magazine ...................................121
4.6 Britain's Duke of Gloucester arriving in Addis Ababa for the coronation
c erem o n y ........................................................................ 12 2
4.7 Autographed portrait of Haile Selassie ....................... ....... .. ............. 122
4.8 Benito Mussolini facing a coronation portrait of Haile Selassie, from the New
York Times....................... ... ...... .... ................................... ........ 123
4.9 Haile Selassie with his foot on an unexploded Italian gas bomb. Cover of The
Illustrated London N ew s. ............................................................ ..................... 123
4.10 Haile Selassie and soldiers on the cover of The Illustrated London News. ...........124
4.11 Haile Selassie on the cover of The Illustrated London News ..............................124
4.12 Haile Selassie on the cover of Newsweek.................................... ............... 125
4.13 Haile Selassie on the cover of Time Magazine .............................................. 125
4.14 Haile Selassie on front cover ofDer Spiegel. .................................... ............... 126
4.15 Haile Selassie on the front cover of Epoca. ................................... ..................... 126
4.16 Starving Ethiopian child and mother on the cover of Time Magazine................... 127
4.17 Starving Ethiopian woman. Photograph by Anthony Suau. Rolling Stone...........127
4.18 Rastafari wearing a necklace with a red, yellow and green picture of Africa and
a t-shirt bearing an image of Ras Tafari................. ............ ... .. ............. 128
4.19 Dreadlocked Rastafari wearing a t-shirt bearing Haile Selassie's image.............129
4.20 Tote bag with coronation image of Haile Selasse................................................. 129
4.21 "Jah is my co-pilot" bumper sticker.................................................................... 130
4.22 Haile Selassie I medal from his Silver Jubilee Fair in 1955 ...............................130
4.23 H aile Selassie cigar band .......................................................................... .... ... 130
4.24 Haile Selassie and his wife, Empress Menen on the front cover ofJahug 5 Alpha
and Omega ..... ........... ............................ 131
4.25 Bob Marley and Haile Selassie on the cover of the re-released version of
Selassie is the Chapel. (Bob Marley and Wailers, JAD Records, 1998) .............131
4.26 Formal coronation portrait of Haile Selassie. Photograph by Haigaz Boyadjian,
19 3 0 .............................................................................. 13 2
4.27 Formal portrait of Haile Selassie. Probably taken by Haigaz Boyadjian..............132
4.28 Formal coronation portrait of Haile Selassie and his wife, Empress Menen.
Probably taken by Haigaz Boyadjian. .......................................... ............... 133
4.29 Rastafari adaptation of one of Haigaz Boyadjian's formal coronation portraits of
H aile S elassie ....................................................................... 133
4.30 Haile Selassie and other African leaders at the Heads of State Conference,
Kampala, Uganda, 1967. Photograph by Marion Kaplan ...................................134
4.31 Slightly different image of Haile Selassie and other African leaders at the Heads
of State Conference, Kampala, Uganda, 1967. ............. ........................ ......... 134
4.32 Young girl performing the sign of the heart.......................................................... 135
4.33 BenGee (right) with Joseph Hill (left) of the Jamaican reggae group Culture....... 135
Abstract of Thesis Presented to the Graduate School
of the University of Florida in Partial Fulfillment of the
Requirements for the Degree of Master of Arts
LOOKING AT ETHIOPIA: HISTORY, PHOTOGRAPHY, AND POWER
Chair: Robin Poynor
Cochair: Victoria Rovine
Major Department: Art and Art History
Visual imagery has played an important role in the formation of Western
perceptions of Ethiopia. This thesis addresses historical and contemporary visual
representations in maps, books, and photographs in order to explore how looking at
imagery defines not only what is known about Ethiopia and Ethiopian people, but also
how that knowledge operates in specific cultural contexts. By focusing on how these
images are used and understood in Western culture, it will be demonstrated that meaning
is generated in both individual and social situations.
This study is organized into five chapters, including an introduction, and a brief
conclusion. Chapters 2 through 4 each deal with a specific methodological approach for
looking at visual imagery. As an introduction for modes of looking, my analysis in
chapter 2 explores how visual representations can be read as texts. In chapter 3, I further
this approach to include the subjectivities that are embedded in the imagery, and the
different power structures that encode them with meaning. Chapter 4 utilizes a
combination of looking techniques as presented in the previous two chapters, while
simultaneously projecting the process of looking back onto the image-in other words;
the image as a "thing" that develops its own history or histories in different viewing
Visual representations are always viewed through a filter of cascading contexts, a
system of interlocking looks or gazes that converge and diverge at different points and
locations in history. Numerous contexts are embedded within the representation itself,
and, to some degree, these embedded contexts are stable, and can be read. At the same
time, other and equally significant contexts are created by the trajectory of the
representation as it moves around acquiring meaning in different and often remarkably
singularized ways. By addressing the history of Ethiopia as a history of the way
Ethiopian people have been represented, I also hope to show that these two trajectories of
the photographic image-the photographed subject and the photograph as subject-are
contingent and intertwined.
Ethiopia has been exceptionally well-represented in the Western popular media,
particularly during the 20th century; however, Ethiopia is virtually absent from academic
studies of African visual culture. This thesis is intended, therefore, to fill a gap not only
in the history of photographic practice and Africa, but also to serve as a contribution to
Ethiopian and African visual studies in general.
INTRODUCTION: SCOPE AND CONTENT
I want a History of Looking (Barthes, 1981: 12)
Drawn against an austere backdrop of dry greenish haze, the man's face in figure
1.1 stands alone, isolated, it would seem, not only from the rest of his body, but also from
the surrounding material world. Transformed into an objet d'art by the magic of the
camera, the man in the photograph becomes an icon of timeless beauty-a symphony of
color and form wrought from the palate of real life. Figure 1.2, however, presents a very
different picture. The latter example shows Emperor Haile Selassie I, who ruled Ethiopia
as absolute sovereign from 1930 until he was deposed by the Marxist Derg regime in
1974. Depicted in ornate coronation regalia and wearing an elaborate crown, Haile
Selassie is presented as the classic embodiment of steadfast imperial power. These two
images are paired here as an abridged representation of the two dominant discursive
spheres Ethiopia operates within-thematically and historically.
As portraits, both photographs are a very particular kind of visual representation.
Portraiture is always given special mention in the history of photography, usually because
of the power of presence it grants to unique human life. Walter Benjamin, for example,
writes that "in the fleeting expression of the human face, the aura...beckons for the last
time."1 This, Benjamin realizes, is "what gives them their melancholy and incomparable
1 Walter Benjamin, "The Work of Art in the Age of its Mechanical Reproducibility," in Selected i; ,-,,i,
vol. 3. Ed. Howard Eiland and Michael W. Jennings (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2002): 108
No matter how many times they are reproduced, photographs of human subjects
carry a trace of the subject's "aura" or individual biography. Additionally, photographs,
like all visual representations, are always viewed through a filter of cascading contexts, a
system of interlocking "looks" or "gazes" that converge and diverge at different points
and locations in history. Numerous contexts are embedded within the representation
itself, and, to some degree, these embedded contexts are stable, and can be read. At the
same time, other, and equally significant contexts are created by the trajectory of the
representation as it "moves around" acquiring meaning in different, and often remarkably
singularized ways.2 This study focuses on representations of Ethiopia and Ethiopian
people. By addressing the history of Ethiopia as a history of the way Ethiopian people
have been represented, I hope to show that these two trajectories of the photographic
image-the photographed subject and the photograph as subj ect-are contingent and
The photograph in figure 1.1 was taken by Carol Beckwith and Angela Fisher and
it appears in Faces of Africa, the newest edition in their line of popular "coffee-table
books" about culture and life in Africa. In situ the caption reads:
Surma, Ethiopia: Barchini, with his chiseled features and long elegant body, was
one of the handsomest and most seductive men we met in Surmaland. After
painting his body with beautiful chalk designs on the banks of the Dama River, he
would turn around and gaze at us intensely, seeking our approval. We were so
disarmed by his powerful expression that sometimes we would forget to press our
2 The edited volume, The Social Life of Things is perhaps the best collection of essays that address the way
things, in this case commodities, move around and acquire meaning in different contexts. Arjun
Appadurai, ed., The Social Life of Things: Commodities in Cultural Perspective (Cambridge: Cambridge
University Press, 1986). Appadurai's introductory chapter and Igor Kopytoff's contribution were
particularly useful for the present study.
3 Carol Beckwith and Angela Fisher, Faces ofAfrica (Washington D.C.: National Geographic Society,
Like many other "ethnic" groups in Africa that have become victims of their own
iconicity-the Nuba for Leni Riefenstahl, the Himba in Namibia, the Maasai in general-
in Beckwith and Fisher's work, the "Surma" have become the perennial sexy savages,
ever-ready emblems of natural beauty and virulent receptacles of "authentic" primal
yearnings and desire.4 This caption is far more explicitly exoticizing than the stylized
explanatory texts tacked on to most of Beckwith and Fisher's more "documentary"
flavored works, yet the image of Ethiopia it promotes is not exceptional in their oeuvre.
Early on in its history, photography was adopted as a tool for exercising very
different kinds of power. For over 150 years now it has been used variously to exploit,
flatter, categorize, remember, identify, measure, study, and control real people with real
lives in an array of localized and international contexts. Some of the most probing
discussions of photographic history are, in fact, rigorous social critiques, addressing how
the camera and its product became not only an avenue towards voyeuristic revelry, but
also a surveillance apparatus, and a means to generate essentializing racial and class-
based categories. Photography also has a long history as art, as well as a reputation for
disrupting the very systems by which artworks have traditionally acquired cultural,
economic, and political value.5 In his erudite study "The Body and the Archive," for
4 For a critique of Leni Riefenstahl's photographs of the Nuba of Sudan, see Susan Sontag, "Fascinating
Fascism," in Under the Sign of Saturn (London: Vintage, 1996): 71-105; for an excellent study of
representations of the Himba, see Michael Bollig and Heike Heinemann, "Nomadic Savages, Ochre People
and Heroic Herders: Visual Presentations of the Himba of Namibia's Kaokaoland," Visual li,, it. '. .-. 15
(2002): 267-312. In her work on the Samburu, Sydney Kasfir discusses the iconic status of the Maasai in
the Western world. See "Slam-Dunking and the Last Noble Savage," Visualni,,i. 'i.'-' r 15 (2002): 369-
385 and "Samburu Souvenirs: Representations of a Land in Amber," in Ruth Phillips and Christopher
Steiner, eds., Unpacking Culture: Art and Commodity in Postcolonial Worlds (Berkeley: University of
California Press, 1999): 67-83.
5 See Rosalind Krauss, "Photography's Discursive Spaces: Landscape/View," Art Journal 42, no. 4
(Winter 1982): 311-319; Walter Benjamin, "A Short History of Photography," in Classic Essays on
Photography, ed. Alan Trachtenberg (Leete's Island Books, 1980): 199-218; Walter Benjamin, "The Work
of Art in the Age of its Mechanical Reproducibility," in Selected ;';, 1,,., vol. 3, ed. Howard Eiland and
instance, Alan Sekula reveals photography's "paradoxical status," as a "double
system.., of representation capable of functioning both honorifically and repressively"
simultaneously.6 Control over how these concatenated powers are exerted and yielded,
and the processes by which they both limit and provoke reality, he then argues, should
never be underestimated.
Carol Beckwith and Angela Fisher's photographs of Ethiopia exemplify how
dangerous photography can be when its power is wielded with little to no regard for the
message it communicates to both Western and non-Western audiences about life and
culture in Africa. Their work is certainly honorific: indeed, their books usually begin
with a proclamation about how grateful they are to have been able to capture so many
beautiful images, followed by a statement about how they want to "give something back"
to Africa by "celebrating" its unique and, above all, "ancient" cultures. Their work is
also repressive-they omit anything deemed inauthentic, obscuring the complexities of
modern life in Africa in order to supply the world market with the prototypical image of
the non-Western. In his review of their previous major publication, African Ceremonies,
Anthony Appiah eloquently notes:
Certainly you would never guess from "African Ceremonies" that by the year 2020
half the population of Africa will live in cities. The focus of salvaging a
disappearing past means that there are no state openings of parliament, no
weddings in white in modern Christian churches, no graduations from the
Michael W. Jennings (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2002): 101-133; Waltar Benjamin, "A Short
History of Photography," in Classic Essays on Photography, ed. Alan Trachtenberg (New Haven: Leete's
Island Books, 1980) 199-216; and Allan Sekula, "The Body and the Archive," October 39 (Winter 1986):
6 Sekula, Ibid, 6.
7 K. Anthony Appiah. "The Rite Stuff," New York Times Book Review (December 5, 1999): 13.
By assuming that African traditions are remnants of the past rather than dynamic
processes subject to the flow of time and history, Beckwith and Fisher reinforce the
notion that modernity is restricted to the Western domain.
Perhaps this is the appropriate juncture to mention that most of the photographs and
other visual examples I re-present in this study are images of Ethiopia and Ethiopians
created primarily by Westerners for Western audiences. Even the ones that were
originally made in and for Ethiopia (discussed below and in the last chapter) are
addressed as they operate in a predominantly Western context. As several recent studies
of African art and visual culture have shown, Western and African representational
systems are not mutually independent. For instance, in her work on the Samburu of
Kenya, Sydney Kasfir brings to light the ambiguities and tensions that exist between
Samburu self-representation (through personal adornment, weaponry, and comportment)
and representations of Samburu in photography, postcards, the tourist trade, and even
Hollywood movies.8 In Christopher Steiner's numerous explorations of "authenticity"
and African art in the global market place, he utilizes Walter Benjamin's critique of
mechanical reproduction in order to show how seriality produces its own aesthetic
constructs, especially as images and objects move from one socio-geographic domain to
another.9 And in her work on Malian Bogolanfini (mud cloth), Victoria Rovine illustrates
8 Sydney Kasfir. "Samburu Souvenirs: Representations of a Land in Amber," 1999, and "Slam-Dunking
and the Last Noble Savage," 2002.
9 Christopher R. Steiner. "Travel Engravings and the Construction of the Primitive," in Prehistories of the
Future: The Primitivist Project and the Culture ofModernism, ed. Elazar Barkan and Ronald Bush,
(Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 1995): 202-225; "Authenticity, Repetition, and the
Aesthetics of Seriality: The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction," in Unpacking Culture:
Art and Commodity in Postcolonial World, ed. Ruth B. Phillips and Christopher B. Steiner, (Berkeley:
University of California Press, 1999): 87-103; and African Art in Transit (Cambridge: Cambridge
University Press, 1994).
how the same symbols of African culture can mean vastly different things simultaneously
to diverse people in multiple local and international contexts.10
In addition to being about representations of Ethiopia, this study is also about how
knowledge of Ethiopia comes to reside in various inter-contextual milieux, or "archives."
The concept of the defined archive is much like that of a delimited discourse: it is a
collection of information pertaining to this or that thing or governing concept, that comes
together for the purpose of representing and exploring a particular idea. Some archives
are existential, physical collections of things. Other archives are ideological, intangible,
perhaps even fleeting formations that ebb and flow with the demands of change and
history. An archive is also that which one has access to, the field of possibilities that exist
from a specified vantage point.1 Thus, this analysis is a kind of archive unto itself, a
formation of information assembled based on my own access to representations of
Ethiopia and Ethiopians. I hope that the absence of visual representations of Ethiopia by
Ethiopians will therefore not be perceived as an omission, but rather an avenue for further
Ethiopia: An Overview
The Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia (figures 1.3 and 1.4) is organized
into a bicameral parliament system made up of the House Peoples' Representatives
(HPR) and the House of the Federation (HF). The former is comprised of 548
10 Victoria Rovine, Bogolan: -li, ti Culture ;i, ',gi Cloth in Contemporary Mali (Washington and
London: Smithsonian Institution Press, 2001).
11 For an archivists perspective of "access" to archives, see Angelika Menne-Haritz, "Access-the
Reformulation of an Archival Paradigm." Archival Science 1 no. 1 (March 2001): 57-82.
12 The majority of research conducted for this study was carried out in the George Smathers Libraries at the
University of Florida, in Gainesville, Florida; I also made one brief trip to the Rare Book and Manuscript
Library at Columbia University in New York, and worked extensively on the internet.
representatives from nine "ethnically divided" states and two administrative councils.13
The latter consists of at least one representative from each one of Ethiopia's "Nations,
Nationalities, and Peoples" (which basically means one representative from each "ethnic"
group). The authority to appoint the Prime Minister rests with the party that wins a
majority of seats in the HPR, and although the HPR has significantly more political
power, the two houses meet together annually, and the HF is permitted to voice opinion
on matters pertaining to the general running of the country as well as issues related to
human rights.14 Representatives from both houses serve a term of 5 years.
Since 1991, Prime Minister Meles Zenawi and his primarily Tigrayan people's
party, the Ethiopian Peoples Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) have governed
Ethiopia-at times with an iron fist. Rebel fighters from the EPRDF were instrumental
in toppling the previous regime, a Marxist military junta known as the Derg (Amharic for
"Council") which had taken power from Emperor Haile Selassie I in 1974. The Derg left
Ethiopia deeply wounded, yet Ethiopian people have moved on with their lives and
scholars in Ethiopia and abroad are now beginning to confront this difficult era in their
work. As Bahru Zewde emotively notes in the second edition of his A History of Modern
Ethiopia, "Now that the Darg [sic] is over, a requiem of that past has become possible."15
13 According the Ethiopian parliament website, the nine states are "delimited on the basis of the settlement
patterns, language, identity and consent of the people concerned."
Last accessed 6-22-05.
15 Bahru Zewde, A History of Modern Ethiopia 1855-1991, 2nd edition (Athens, Ohio: Ohio University
Press, 2001): xix.
Bahru, like many other writers of Ethiopian history, begins his book by stating,
"Ethiopia is an ancient country...," which it is, in some respects.16 During the 1st century
CE, a powerful kingdom known as Aksum, or Axum, developed in what is now northern
Ethiopia.17 Situated just 100 miles from the Red Sea, Aksum was a thriving commercial
hub and traded with Arabia, Egypt, and India as well as several other African societies
and kingdoms closer to the interior, including Nubia. The Aksumites were highly
organized; they minted currency, and employed a written language, called Ge'ez.
Originally Ge'ez was written in boustrophedonic Sabean (ancient Arabic) characters, but
the script underwent several "indigenizing" changes following the translation of the bible
into Ge'ez from Greek in the 4th century.18 In fact, this event-the translation of the bible
into Ge'ez-is the first recorded use of the word "Ethiopia" (IEthiopia, or Aithiopia) by
historic Ethiopian peoples.19 By many accounts, ancient Ethiopia "lost contact" with the
"outside world" after the decline of Aksum sometime in the 7th century. Nevertheless,
the sustained presence of Ethiopian priests, clerics, and pilgrims in the Holy Land during
the European Middle Ages, and in Rome during the European Renaissance, assured that
Ethiopia wasn't completely forgotten abroad.
Modem Ethiopia has really only existed since the late 19th century. After a great
deal of civil strife and disunity, three provincial rulers-Tewedros, also referred to as
King Theodore (r. 1855-1868), Yohannes (r. 1872-1889) and Menelik II (r. 1889-
16 Ibid, 1.
17 For a history of Ethiopia see Richard Pankhurst, The Ethiopians (Malden, Massachusetts and Oxford:
Blackwell Publishers, 1998); The Ethiopian Borderlands (Lawrenceville, NJ and Asmara, Eritrea: The Red
Sea Press, 1997); andA Social History ofEthiopia. (Addis Ababa: Addis Ababa University, 1990).
18 Pankhurst, The Ethiopians, 24-25.
19 Zewde, A History of Modern Ethiopia, 1.
1913)-successively managed to unify large portions of the country.20 Their domain, just
like that of their predecessors, was concentrated in the highlands areas of northern and
central Ethiopia. It was Menelik II, who, under a great deal of political and economic
pressure from the "outside" world (namely Italy and Egypt), decided to expand
Ethiopia's borders in order to increase the amount of arable land under the highland
nobility's control. More land meant more crops, more revenue, and more money to buy
ammunition and guns for defending Ethiopia from the onslaught of colonial powers that
had already gobbled up most of the rest of the African continent. Many of the outlying
provinces incorporated into Menelik's empire had functioned as independent kingdoms
or emirates for centuries. Menelik's conquest also brought lowland pastoralistss
recognizing no boundaries" into the organized Ethiopian empire for the first time.21
However, because many of these groups were removed from the capital and other
commercial areas by the natural landscape of the Great Rift Valley, imperial rule was
Ethiopia's decision in 1994 to divide the country into ethnically divided states was
an attempt to recognize the incredible cultural diversity of its people. Official business
and general education is transacted in Amharic, yet there are 83 different languages
spoken in Ethiopia, with 200 separate dialects. The climate ranges from cool and breezy
in the rainy highlands, to scorching hot in the often desiccated lowlands, and the range of
lifestyles in Ethiopia is usually credited to its amazing topographical variation. The
capital city, Addis Ababa ("New Flower"), sits right in the middle of the country, at the
20 Richard Pankhurst and Denis G6rard, Ethiopia Photographed: Historic Photographs of the Country and
its People Taken between 1867 and 1935 (London and New York: Kegan Paul International, 1996): 17.
21 Zewde A History of Modern Ethiopia, 20-21.
very edge of the mountainous region where altitudes begin to slide down, and
temperatures begin to rise up. Thus, due to its relative accessibility, Addis Ababa and the
markets along the city's periphery have long been a meeting place for numerous cultures
and peoples who otherwise have little in common.
For the purposes of this study, the word Ethiopia always refers to modern Ethiopia.
If I am intentionally referencing the history of what is now Ethiopia, I will say historic
Ethiopia, ancient Ethiopia, or the lands where Ethiopia is today. It should also be noted
that when referring to Ethiopian people, it is considered appropriate to address them by
their "first" name. Thus, the proper way to refer to Bahru Zewde in the third person is
Bahru, not Zewde. Throughout the remainder of this work, I will use the Ethiopian rule
for referring to Ethiopians, whilst all other individuals will be referred to by their
surname. The only exception is Haile Selassie I, who I will refer to often as Selassie.
Also worth mentioning are the plethora of Anglicizations of Ethiopian names and words.
For the sake of consistency, I have opted to use the versions of words most frequently
encountered in current research on Ethiopia, though when citing photograph captions or
excerpts from texts, I retain the form of the words as they appear in situ. An example of
the latter is the word "Surma" used above. "Suri" is actually more politically correct, not
to mention that the Suri usually refer to themselves as "Chai" or "Tirmaga."22 All of the
place names, group or "ethnic" names, as well as names of individual people mentioned
here are re-presented-it is never my intention to use terminology that has been deemed
offensive, and if I do so, I do so in ignorance. Whenever I am aware that something I am
re-presenting is "false" or derogatory, I will point out the correct term in the text, or in a
22Jon Abbink, P.iI.do\cw of Power and Culture in an Old Periphery: Surma, 1974-1998," Remapping
Ethiopia: Socialism andAfter, ed. Wendy James et al. (Oxford: James Curry, 2002): 157-158.
footnote. For example, Barchini is a corruption of the Suri name "Barchinoy."23 I do not,
however, have an answer for why the name was changed in Beckwith and Fisher's book.
Ethiopia and the History of African Photography
Four dominant lines of inquiry have defined most studies of the history of
photography in and of Africa: 1) "local" production-photographs made by and for
African people living in Africa; 2) contemporary art photography; 3) post-colonial re-
readings of colonial photography; and 4) the use value of historic photographs as primary
source material, and the use value of both new and old photographs in contemporary
contexts such as exhibitions, textbooks, scholarly publications, classrooms, and fieldwork
situations.24 Extensive work in the latter has been carried out by Christraud Geary, who
advocates methodological diligence when utilizing historic photography, claiming, quite
accurately, that "impressionistic" approaches can lead to "serious errors" in re-
presentation.25 Corinne Kratz, with her exhibition "Okiek Portraits" and the subsequent
book in which she analyzes the exhibition's path from Nairobi to Atlanta, has also
provided a valuable resource for understanding that photographs of Africa and Africans
have a powerful political dimension-in Africa and in the West.26 Post-colonial
23 Jon Abbink, personal communication, June 2005.
24 These categories are not meant to be all-inclusive, instead, they are intended to be a useful summary of
the study of African photography thus far.
25 Christraud M. Geary, "Photographic Practice and its Implications for the Use of Historical Photographs
as Contextual Evidence," Fotografia e Storia dell'Africa, ed. Alessandro Triulzi (Naples: I.U.O, 1995):
103-129; "Old Pictures, New Approaches: Researching Historical Photographs," African Arts 24 no. 4
(October 1991): 36-39, 98; Images from Bamum: German Colonial Photography at the Court of King
Njoya, Cameroon, WestAfrica, 1902-1915 (Washington D.C.: National Museum of African Art, 1988);
Geary, ed., In and Out ofFocus: Images from Central Africa, 1885-1960 (London: Philip Wilson, 2003).
Another very useful study worth mentioning is David Killingray and Andrew Roberts, "An Outline of
Photography in Africa to ca. 1940," History in Africa 16 (1989): 197-208.
26 Corinne Kratz, The Ones That are Wanted: Communication and the Politics ofRepresentation in a
Photographic Exhibition (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2002). In The Ones
reinterpretations of colonial photography, also addressed by Geary, is a field that
developed in tandem with a parallel shift in anthropological practice and theory, perhaps
best exemplified by Johannes Fabian's Time and the Other, the History of Anthropology
Series edited by George W. Stocking, and several essays by James Clifford.27 Clifford in
particular emphasizes the need to realize that there is always a degree of "translation"-
or innate interpretation-involved in any kind of representation, no matter what form it
eventually takes. The collection of essays edited by Elizabeth Edwards in the much cited
Anthropology and Photography 1860-1940, are perhaps the best example of work along
Although I have grouped them separately here, contemporary African
photographers-and writing about contemporary African photographers-often spans
more than one of these four categories. For instance, South African photographer Santu
Mofokeng "retrieves" old apartheid-era photographs of South African families in order to
thatAre Wanted, Kratz meticulously analyzes the problems, challenges and successes of her exhibition
"Okiek Portraits," which premiered in Nairobi in 1989 and subsequently traveled to several US museums.
The exhibition itself was initially conceived as a means to confront ethnic tensions between the forest
dwelling Okiek and their Maasai neighbors.
27 Fabian, Johannes, Time and the Other (New York: Columbia University Press, 1983). The primary goal
of Fabian's analysis to show how, through what he calls the spatializationn of time," non-western cultures
have been represented as living fossils, or as contemporary historical records of the modern West. Fabian
also discusses how this form of knowledge becomes a form of power over the "Other" and his critique is
intended to highlight the political complexity of representational practices in general. There are currently
ten volumes in the History of Anthropology Series (volumes 9 and 10 are edited by Richard Handler). The
volumes most relevant to this study are: Observers Observed: Essays oj i ri. g ll,,.. Fieldwork
(Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1983); Objects and Others: Essays on Museums andMaterial
Culture (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1985); and Romantic Motives: Essays on
A ri.t-' p. ,i,.... Sensibility (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1989). James Clifford's work is
primarily intended to be a reexamination of the processes of representation. See "The Others: Beyond the
Salvage Paradigm," Third Text 6 (Spring 1989): 73-78; and The Predicament of Culture: Twentieth-
Century Literature, Eil,, .'i. .ll 'i. andArt (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1988).
The latter volume is a collection of essays by Clifford published in journals and edited collections between
1979 and 1986.
28 Elizabeth Edwards, ed., A ihi,.'/'-. .-.'. and Photography 1860-1920 (New Haven and London: Yale
University Press, 1992).
"rewrit[e] the historical relationship between image, archive and citizenship."29 His
Black Photo Album/Look at Me 1890-1950 encompasses "local practices" at several
levels, yet Mofokeng's work is also operating in the mainstream "Western" art world.
Today, there are several contemporary photographers working "locally" in Ethiopia,
though to date, the only Ethiopian photographer to have broken into the mainstream is
Aida Muluneh (figure 1.5). A graduate of Howard University and a resident of
Washington D.C., Aida was included in the 2003 exhibition Ethiopian Passages:
Contemporary Art from the Diaspora, curated by Elizabeth Harney for the National
Museum of African Art.30 Aida has also directed and produced a feature-length
documentary film, The Unhealing Wound. The film tells the story of the thousands of
Ethiopians, some now in their 20s who were resettled in Cuba as children after being
orphaned during the Somali-Ethiopian war.31
Interest in the first category-photographs produced in Africa by Africans-is on
the rise, largely due to the growing presence of academic African art in the international
domain. The recent attention lavished on Malian studio photographers Seydou Keita, and
Malick Sidibe, for example, typifies the new focus on "contemporary" African art; yet, as
Lauri Firstenberg notes in the catalogue for the recent blockbuster exhibition The .\lNi, t
Century (which included Keita, Sidibe and Mofokeng), "the emergence of these
photographic sources has contributed to greater public awareness of twentieth-century
29 Lauri, Firstenberg, "Postcoloniality, Performance, and Photographic Portraiture," in The Short Century:
Independence and Liberation Movements in Africa, 1945-1994, ed. Okwui Enwezor (Munich: Prestel,
30 Elizabeth Harney, Ethiopian Passages: Contemporary Artfrom the Diaspora (Washington D.C.:
National Museum of African Art, 2003). Aida was born in Addis Ababa.
African modernity."32 The most comprehensive source currently available dealing with
localized African photographic practices is Revue Noire's 1998 Anthology of
Photography in Africa and the Indian Ocean.33 Dizzyingly broad in scope, the book
makese] use of the little research that has already been conducted," to "present a collage
of views" rather than any sort of conclusive statement about "what African photography
Two essays in the volume deal with the history of photography in Ethiopia. One
of the two is "Tinted Portrait Photography in Addis Abba," contributed by Guy Hersant, a
French born contemporary photographer who began his career after encountering studio
photographers in Bamako, Mali (including Sidibe). 35 Hersant introduces several 20th
century portrait studios and photographers who utilized the Armenian derived practice of
re-touching photos and photo negatives with India ink and/or colored crayons and paints.
Hersant writes that today the practice continues "in the more modest quarters" of Addis
Ababa.36 The other essay, "Court Photographers," is by Richard Pankhurst and Denis
Gerard.37 The two have also co-authored a book, Ethiopia Photographed: Historic
Photographs of the Country and its People taken between 1867 and 1935.38 The latter is
32 Firstenberg, "Postcoloniality, Performance, and Photographic Portraiture," 175.
33 Revue Noiie ri. i.-..' ofAfrican and Indian Ocean Photography. Paris: Revue Noire, 1999.
34 Ibid, 6-7.
35 Guy Hersant, "Tinted Portrait Photography in Addis Ababa," inll I l. i. *.\- ofAfrican andIndian Ocean
Photography (Paris: Revue Noire, 1999): 136.
36 Ibid, 136.
37 Richard Pankhurst and Denis G6rard, "Court Photographers," ii,. 'i. *- ofAfrican andIndian Ocean
Photography (Paris: Revue Noire, 1999): 118-133.
38 Richard Pankhurst and Denis G6rard, Ethiopia Photographed: Historic Photographs of the Country and
its People Taken between 1867 and 1935 (London and New York: Kegan Paul International, 1996).
a hodge-podge of imagery compiled from photographs in the archives at the Institute of
Ethiopian Studies (IES) at the University of Addis Ababa, as well as books, magazines,
and a surfeit of often un-named private collections.39 The Revue Noire article is of
particular interest because it introduces the Boyadjians, a family of Armenian
photographers who worked for the Ethiopian imperial court for three successive
Bedros Boyadjian arrived in Addis Ababa in 1905, set up a studio, and soon
became one of Menelik II's first court photographers. His eldest son Haigaz worked for
Empress Zawditu (r. 1916-1930), as well as Haile Selassie (r. 1930-1974), and Torkom,
or Tony-Bedros Boyadjian's youngest son-became Haile Selassie's photographer
when Haigaz retired.40 The portrait ofHaile Selassie in figure 1.2 was most likely taken
by Haigaz Boyadjian. The Boyadjians were skilled at the kinds of re-touching techniques
discussed by Hersant, yet many of their photographs also demonstrate a high degree of
compositional sophistication. Figure 1.6, attributed to Bedros Boyadjian, is a stunning
triple portrait of Lij (honorific title meaning "child") Iyasu, Menelik II's unfortunate
successor (never actually crowned, Iyasu was chased into exile not long after assuming
power), Iyasu's father Ras Mika'el, standing severely in the center, and another noble,
Ras Hapte Ghiorgis, on the left. A diagonal streak of shadow glides from the top left
corner of the composition to rest on the border of Ras Mika'el's dark, wide-brimmed hat.
The matching outfits and hats of the figures, as well as the "props" visible behind, below
39 Ethiopia Photographed is a bit cumbersome as a research tool, primarily because the photographs are not
attributed or cited as well as they could be, and Pankhurst has rewritten all of the photograph captions to fit
the thematic organization of the book.
40 Richard Pankhurst and Denis G6rard, "Court Photographers," 124-125.
and beside them-the painted curtain in the back, the dirt floor, and the rock wall and
fence-like structure stretching up and to the left from behind Iyasu-creates a balanced
amalgamation of planned geometry and organic bucolic respite.
Pankhurst has written two other articles about the history of photography in
Ethiopia: one appears in Elizabeth Edward's Anthropology and Photography and
addresses the "political impact of the camera" in Ethiopia from its introduction in the mid
19th century through the reign of Lij Iyasu, which ended in 1916.41 The other article
appeared significantly earlier (1976) in the British Journal ofPhotography, and presents
most of the same information contained in the introductory remarks for the later Ethiopia
Photographed.42 Lastly, an article by Shiferaw Bekele summarizing the content and
condition of the IES photographic collection was published (in English) in the Italian
compilation Fotografia e Storia dell'Africa, which followed a symposium of the same
name held in Naples in 1992.43 These sources-Shiferaw's inventory, the book and
article by Pankhurst and Gerard, the two additional articles by Pankhurst, and the essay
41 Richard Pankhurst, "The Political Image: The Impact of the Camera in an Ancient Independent African
State," inl. i"n, .,. '..-.-i and Photography 1860-1920, ed. Elizabeth Edwards (New Haven and London:
Yale University Press, 1992): 234-241. In his concluding remarks, Pankhurst does mention the deposition
of Haile Selassie, which occurred in 1974. On September 11, 1974 (Ethiopian New Year's Day), British
journalist Jonathon Dimbleby's film, The Hidden Famine, was aired on Ethiopian National T.V. spliced
with imagery of Haile Selassie "handing meat to his dogs as well as luxurious living at court." Selassie
peacefully abdicated the next day. Dimbleby's film contained devastating imagery of starvation and
suffering in Ethiopia's Wollo province.
42 Richard Pankhurst, "The Genesis of Photography in Ethiopia and the Horn of Africa," The British
Journal of Photography 41-4 (1976): 878-882.
43 Shiferaw Bekele, "A Preliminary Report on the Photographic Collection at the Institute of Ethiopian
Studies (Addis Ababa)," Fotografia e Storia dell'Africa, ed. Alessandro Triulzi (Naples: I.O.U., 1995):
by Hersant-are the only sources addressing historic Ethiopian photography currently
available in English.44
Organization and Goals
This study is organized into five chapters, including the present introduction, and a
brief afterward. Chapters two through four each deal with a particular archive, or set of
archives, as well as a specific methodological approach for looking at visual imagery. As
an introduction for modes of looking, my analysis in chapter two will explore how visual
representations can be read as texts. In chapter three, I will further this approach to
include the subjectivities that are embedded in the imagery, and the different power
structures that encode them with meaning. Chapter four utilizes a combination of looking
techniques as presented in the previous two chapters, while simultaneously projecting the
process of looking back onto the image-in other words; I will present the image as a
"thing" that develops its own history or histories in different viewing contexts.
While my discussion focuses mainly on modern Ethiopia, and how photographs
of Ethiopians move around and acquire meaning in different ways, the history of the
West looking at Ethiopia begins at a much earlier date. Thus, in chapter two, I will
address some of the earliest extant visual representations of historic Ethiopia and
Ethiopians that are known to have circulated widely in the West. These are found on
44 Fotografia e Storia dell' Africa includes several articles in Italian addressing photography in Ethiopia, as
well as a fantastic article by Geary, written in English (Geary, 1992-not about Ethiopia). Unfortunately, I
do not read Italian and the information contained in these essays is therefore not included in my study.
Other than the sources mentioned here, I am not aware of any other writings specifically about photography
and Ethiopia in any language. Richard Pankhurst, who is undeniably the leading expert on the topic, also
doesn't reference any additional sources pertaining specifically to photography in Ethiopia in his
bibliographies. I am, of course, not including the many texts which include photographs of Ethiopians
taken by various missionaries, explorers, and other sundry travelers that are widely available in a number of
languages, nor sources that have an alternate focus and only cursorily or tangentially reference photography
in Ethiopia. A complete listing of the former is available in Pankhurst and G6rard's book Ethiopia
antique maps and as illustrations in old travel and history books and can certainly be
defined as "archival material" in the strictest sense of the term. In addition, most of the
maps I will be addressing are part of the archival collections in the Map and Imagery
library at the University of Florida. Although it would be wrong to assume that modem
representations of Ethiopia represent a direct continuum of historic ones, it would also be
dangerous to assume that these two eras of visual codification are discrete and unrelated.
In chapter three, I will move forward in time to the mid 1980s, a period that is
recalled by many Ethiopians and Westerners as a tremendously difficult time in
Ethiopia's history. In 1985, the Derg had been in power for ten years, and due to massive
droughts and lack of sufficient political infrastructure, millions of Ethiopians were dying
of starvation. Nevertheless, Carol Beckwith and Angela Fisher-with the blessings and
assistance of the Tourism Commission of the Derg regime-managed to capture a
glorious vision of Ethiopia unspoiled by the plight of the poor and hungry, but also
untainted by the modem "Western" world. Beckwith and Fisher's photographs and
books also constitute a type of tangible archive, yet I employ their work as a platform to
launch an analysis of representations of Ethiopia and Africa in a more ethereal archive-
the popular Western imagination.
My analysis in chapter four is structured around representations of a single
individual-Emperor Haile Selassie I-yet I use the various contexts in which his image
appears to reveal the diffusion of "Ethiopia" as a concept over an extended space and
time period. Chapter four also analyzes contemporary representations of Haile Selassie as
they appear in Rastafarian visual culture. It is in the latter category that the photographic
image manifests itself ultimately as a "thing" that appears to have the ability to dissociate
from its original context-these images operate independently, circulating at large in the
world market and imagination with no real need for a fixed identity. At the same time,
the Rastafari choose to associate the images with the life of Haile Selassie, the individual
these images represent. In essence, the Rastafari have become archivists of information
about Haile Selassie's life, and in turn, about Ethiopia.
Western discourse on Africa and African visual culture has a history of severing its
subject into opposing fields of analysis, or dichotomies. From civilized vs. uncivilized to
tradition vs. modernity to authentic vs. inauthentic, these patterns of thought have
effectively restricted perceptions of Africa to a narrow plane of possibilities. In this
study, I intend to continue what I see as an inclination in contemporary scholarship to
seek to tear down these restrictive paradigms, to branch out into new and flexible modes
of understanding culture that more accurately reflect the dynamic nature of knowledge.
Another important goal is to reveal that knowledge about Ethiopia and Africa as a whole
is housed in archives that transcend the academic domain. Ethiopia represents many
different things to diverse people living in and out of Africa, and nowhere is this more
apparent than in the popular sphere. In fact, visual representations of Ethiopia are far
more prevalent in the popular domain than Ethiopia is present in academic studies of
African visual culture. It is my hope, therefore, that this study will not only fill a gap in
the history of photographic practice and Africa, but that it will also serve as a
contribution to Ethiopian and African visual studies in general.
Figure 1.1 Photograph by Carol Beckwith and Angela Fisher. 1980-2004. "Surma,
Ethiopia. Barchini, with his chiseled features and long elegant body, was one
of the handsomest and most seductive men we met in Surmaland. After
painting his body with beautiful chalk designs on the banks of the Dama
River, he would turn around and gaze at us intensely, seeking our approval.
We were so disarmed by his powerful expression that we would sometimes
forget to press our camera shutters." (Beckwith and Fisher, 2004: 87)
Figure 1.2 Formal coronation portrait ofHaile Selassie. Probably taken by Haigaz
Boyadjian in 1930. Private collection. (Pankhurst and Gerard, Ethiopia
Figure 1.3 Linguistic map of Ethiopia. (Zewde, 2001: 6)
Figure 1.4 Map of Ethiopia showing regional boundaries of the nine Ethiopian States.
(James, et al., 2002: xii)
Figure 1.5 Spirit of Sisterhood, by Aida Muluneh, 2000. Cibachrome Print 40 x 30 in.
Collection of the artist. (Harney, 2003: 82 and back cover.)
Figure 1.6 From right to left: Lij Iyasu, his father Ras Mickael and Ras Hapte Ghiorgis.
Attributed to Bedros Boyadjian. Private Collection. (Pankhurst and Gerard,
MAPPING ETHIOPIA'S HISTORY: LEGENDS OF THE NILE AND THE
Primitives in the Age of Discovery appeared to be identical throughout the globe
because, wherever they were encountered, they were portrayed and represented by the
same people... (Steiner, 1995: 203)
The description of the archive deploys its possibilities (and the mastery of its
possibilities) on the basis of the very discourses that have just ceased to be ours; its
threshold of existence is established by the discontinuity that separates us from what we
can no longer say, and from that which falls outside our discursive practices...
(Foucault, 1972: 130-131)
Some of the earliest reproducible representations of Ethiopia and Ethiopian people
are found in historic maps and books. These are also the earliest views of what is now
Ethiopia known to have circulated widely in the West. These early representations can
never tell the "whole story"-they present a decidedly uneven version of history, told
from a single perspective, designed for a specific European audience. Read contextually,
however, these maps and illustrations become valuable documents, repositories of useful
information that define both what we know and how we know about history. In this
chapter, I will discuss how the image-and idea-of Africa-was literally constructed
over several centuries.
Until incredibly recently, Western texts referred to Ethiopia as Abyssinia
(Portuguese and English), or Abessinen/Abessinien (German), or Abyssinie (French).
For the purposes of this chapter, Abyssinia, when it appears without quotation marks,
refers to historic Ethiopia. Not only is this how the word was used in European texts up
until the mid 20th century, it will also simplify the arguments presented in this chapter-
for, though Abyssinia has always been a part of Ethiopia, Ethiopia is not the same thing
Early Visions of Africa
In the 5th century BCE, Herodotus included a lengthy speculative report on the
elusive source of the Nile in Book II of his Histories.1 Like many of his contemporaries,
Herodotus was fascinated by the annual floods that brought life-giving silt downstream,
fertilizing the Egyptian Nile delta and enabling agriculture and civilization to flourish.2
The source of the Blue Nile, in highlands Ethiopia, was "discovered" by the Portuguese
Jesuit missionary Jeronimo Lobo in 1616, though it was little known until James Bruce
discovered the source again with much more pomp and show in 1780.3 The source of the
White Nile was not firmly identified until 1862, when John Speke finally reached the
shores of Lake Victoria after several smaller discoveries by Richard Burton, David
Livingston, Samuel Baker and Henry Morton Stanley.4 These contributions to accurate
renderings of Africa's topography were enormous. Maps printed during the 19th century
1 Herodotus, The Histories, translated by Robin Waterfield, with an introduction and notes by Carolyn
Dewald (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998).
2 Today the floods, which are caused by heavy seasonal rains in the Ethiopian highlands, are controlled by
the Aswan High Dam-a virtuoso engineering feat that rises 107 meters above sea level, spans five
kilometers at its crest, and produces 10 billion kilowatt hours a year.
3 See Jer6nimo Lobo, The Itinerdrio ofJer6nimo Lobo, translated by Donald M. Lockhart (London:
Hakluyt Society, 1984; and James Bruce. Travels to Discover the Source of the Nile (New York: Horizon
Pres, 1964; originally published 1790).
4 See E.H. Lane-Pool, "The Discovery of Africa: A History of the Exploration of Africa as Reflected in the
Maps in the Collection of the Rhodes Livingston Museum," in The Occasional Papers of the Rhodes-
Livingston Museum Nos. 1-16 (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1974): 217. Burton and Speke
found Lake Tanganyika in 1858; David Livingstone saw Lake Nyasa in 1859 and Lakes Mweru and
Banweulu in 1867 and 1868; Baker made it all the way to Lake Albert and Nyanza in 1864; and in 1877,
Stanley finally connected the Lualaba with the Congo, after which, writes Lane-Pool, "there was not much
left to be discovered in Africa."
even mark Stanley's progress, tracing his journeys through territories that were labeled
"unknown" for centuries.
Historical representations, such as maps, capture distinctive views of how Africa
was perceived at various points in history. Because maps depict what is known and what
is unknown simultaneously, subtle changes and minor alterations can be read as signs of
how the idea of Africa evolved over time. The history of the mapping of Africa cannot
be discussed without first introducing Ptolemy, a Greco-Roman scholar from Alexandria,
who is recognized as one of the first theorists to draw maps using stereographic
projections, or systems for representing the three-dimensional surface of the earth on a
two-dimensional plane.5 Ptolemy's oikoumenJ, or known world (figures 2.1 and 2.2),
consists of Europe, Asia, and Africa, and ends not far below the equator. When Ptolemy
wrote his Geography in the 2nd century CE, unknown lands below the equator were
thought to be infertile, "uninhabitable," and generally unfit for civilization. Medieval
maps occasionally depict would-be inhabitants, the so-called Antipodeans, as contorted
human-like creatures, folded at the waist, holding their feet up beside their grotesque
5 By the 6th century BCE, Greek philosophers had deduced that the earth was a revolving sphere. This
allowed them to calculate the earth's circumference, which in turn enabled them to establish fixed
meridians of longitude. (If the earth takes 24 hours to rotate 360 then one hour equals 360 divided by 24,
or 15 .) When an event, such as an eclipse, is observed simultaneously at two different locations, the
difference in local time between the two places can be used to calculate their separation in degrees.
Eratosthenes (276 BCE-194 BCE) used this method to determine the temporal distance between Alexandria
and Syene modernr day Aswan) and estimated the diameter of the earth to be 25,000 miles, a figure within
two hundred miles of actual polar circumference (24,860 miles). Despite the accuracy of Eratosthenes'
calculation, his findings were challenged by subsequent theorists, and by the time Ptolemy wrote his
Geography and drew his first maps of the oikoumene, or known world, in the 2nd century CE, the estimated
circumference of the earth had been reduced to approximately 18,000 miles. Published a century before
Ptolemy's, Strabo's Geography also used this smaller calculation. In the great libraries at the University of
Alexandria in Egypt, Ptolemy had access to books by Herodotus, Eratosthenes, Strabo, and many other
Classical philosophers, historians, astronomers, and mathematicians. Many of these texts no longer exist,
though Ptolemy's Geography is probably a synthesis of several earlier scholars' achievements. See R.V.
Tooley and Charles Bricker, Landmarks oJ \p I]li,,l io.: An Illustrated Survey of Maps and Mapmakers
(Amsterdam and Brussels: Elsevier, 1968); and J. Lennart Berggren, and Alexander Jones, Ptolemy's
Geography: An Annotated Translation of the Theoretical ( I',... q (Princeton: Princeton University Press,
faces-symbolically representing the belief that these unfortunate monsters would have
to walk upside down because they faced the sun from the wrong direction.
Africa, which Ptolemy called Libyj (figures 2.3 and 2.4), was thought to extend
eastward just below the Horn, enclosing the Indian Ocean like a lake (figure 2.1). Cities
that were familiar to Ptolemy, such as Alexandria, and Soene (Syene, modern Aswan),
are mapped along with geographical features known only through conjecture, such as the
two lakes south of Egypt depicted as the source of the Nile. The Nile River had mythical
importance to early cartographers. The annual floods that made the Egyptian soil rich
and fertile were predictable, but both the source of the Nile and the cause of the life-
giving floods were an absolute mystery. Ptolemy's proposal stems from a report by a
Greek trader named Diogenes, who allegedly visited the two lakes around 50 CE.6 First
called Paludes Nilli, later known as the Lakes of the Crocodiles and the Cataracts, they
were finally named Lakes Zairi and Zaflan and they appear on most maps of Africa
through the 18th century.7
Ptolemy's Geography eventually fell into disuse and his original manuscripts,
along with all copies made shortly after his time, were lost. The Romans were
disinterested in maps based on astronomical observation, and they discarded Ptolemy's
stereographic projections in favor of schematic road maps, which were essentially
straight lines with compass rosettes in the margins to indicate direction; the idea of
spherical earth was rejected completely. Medieval "T-O maps" (figure 2.5) and large
mappae mundi include most of the same place names used in Ptolemy's Geography, but
6 Lane-Pool, "The Discovery of Africa," 216.
7 Ibid, 216-217.
depict Jerusalem at the center of the now-flattened known world. These maps accentuate
the magnitude of Christian influence on European perceptions of the world during the
centuries leading up to the great age of European exploration and "discovery." In the 14th
and 15th centuries, theological maps gave way to more functional nautical charts and
guides, and the world became round once again. Thus, when sea-faring explorers and
intrepid profit-seekers created a stronger market for accurate, readable maps, Ptolemy's
scientific projections surged back into fashion.
Arab cartographers had retained knowledge of Greek science during the Middle
Ages through their links with Byzantium and were responsible for reintroducing Ptolemy
to the rest of the world. Figure 2.6 shows an early 16th century copy of a map drawn by
the Arab cartographer al-Idrisi for King Roger of Sicily in 1154.8 Al-Idrisi's design
combines the Medieval "T-O" layout of the world with his interpretation of Ptolemy's
stereographic projection. The Indian Ocean is not enclosed, but the Horn is still stretched
too far to the east. Lakes Zairi and Zaflan are included, along with a third, and all three
feed streams leading north towards Egypt from the Montes Lunae, or Mountains of the
Moon-a hypothetical mountain range not accepted by Ptolemy, but adopted by most of
his followers. The oldest complete extant copy of Ptolemy's Geography was compiled by
monks at the Vatopeki monastery in Mt. Athos, Greece at the beginning of the 14th
century.9 The first printed edition appeared in Europe in the late 15th century, with no
maps; but a second edition featuring 26 maps from copper plates was printed in 1477.10
8 For information on al-Adrisi, see Lane-Pool, "The Discovery of Africa," 217; and Tooley and Bricker,
Landmarks oJ \IIl l'''il' i 23-25.
9 Tooley and Bricker, Landmarks ojf \ lLif/.,l~,. 21.
As European explorers ventured farther and farther into the southern hemisphere,
Africa steadily took shape in Western minds. The lower limits of the continent were
established and the empty spaces along the coastline were packed with the names of
places that had been recently "discovered." Yet, Europeans rarely reached the interior; in
fact at first they scarcely tried. Early Western explorers were primarily concerned with
tapping the spice and luxury-goods markets in the East and "discovering" Africa was a
peripheral objective compared to trying to find a way to get around it. Arab and African
traders also eliminated the need to travel inland by bringing valuable slaves, ivory and
gold to the coastal ports.11
Maps of Africa from this time period, such as the Sebastian Minster's rendition for
his 1540 reprint of Ptolemy's Geography (figure 2.7), use space-consuming mountain
ranges, wild animals, and fantastic beasts to fill in unknown territories.12 Like al-Idrisi,
Monster includes both lakes Zairi and Zaflan and the Mountains of the Moon, though his
map is best remembered today primarily because of the Monoculi he drew perched on the
coast of what is now Cameroon. This remnant of the "dog-headed and four-headed
men," gryphons and countless other imaginary things that "crept and crawled across
Medieval manuscript maps" is much more than mere nostalgic ornamentation, Munster's
creature preserves a very real popular misconception that monsters like Monoculi actually
1 Ibid, 159.
12 Sebastian Munster was a professor of Hebrew. In addition to making maps, he also published bibles and
a book on grammar as well as several Hebrew translations. See Lane-Pool, "The Discovery of Africa," 219.
inhabited regions of inland Africa.13 Edition after edition of Minster's Africa appeared
until 1688, and it was popular long after more accurate maps had become available.14
Monster's map combined popular myths and Ptolemy's descriptions of North
Africa and the Nile, with up-to-date information provided by Portuguese explorers about
the, west, south, and southeastern coastline. Sixteenth, 17th, and even 18th century
cartographers consciously built upon Ptolemy's work, thoroughly embedding his ideas
within their own. Imaginary land creatures like the Monoculi were not that common in
later maps; however, brightly colored whimsical Africas embellished with lions and
elephants, giant birds and fanciful trees persisted. As time went on, cartographers drew
increasingly elaborate maps, atlases were published with entire chapters dedicated to
segments of the African coast, and popular designs were constantly re-produced for a
burgeoning merchant class with a rising interest in foreign and exotic things. Even
though new discoveries continually shifted European visions of Africa, the Nile region
was often drawn according to Ptolemy's 2nd century suggestion.
/Ethiopia, Abyssinia and the Quest for Prester John
The Greeks knew the African continent as "Libyj;" on Minster's map, the largest
place name is the Greek word "'Ethiopia." For Ptolemy (and Munster), "Africa"
pertained only to what is now the Mediterranean coastline of Morocco, Algeria and
Tunisia. Later cartographers used "Libya" to designate all of northern Africa west of
Egypt and labeled the adjacent inland areas "Inner Libya" or "Libya Interior." The
13 The Monoculi is absent from a nearly identical map, created by Heinrich Bunting in 1592. A print of
Bunting's map is currently housed in the Map and Imaging Library at the University of Florida.
14 Tooley and Bricker, Landmarks oJ A ',,twIo i.I'. 159. The most notable improvements to African
cartography were made by Martin Waldseemiiller. Despite their accuracy, however, Waldseemiiller's maps
were far less popular than those made by Muinster, which were released in edition after edition until 1688.
See Tooley and Bricker, Landmarks oJ u\I ',,,lo 159.
coastal region of "Libya" was also referred to as "Barbarie" (Barbarix, Barbary,
Berberey), although the term for the interior usually remained the same. On 19th century
maps, the western part of "Barbarie" is often labeled "Tripoli," which is now where
Libya, the modern country, is located today. Libya became an independent nation in
1951 after nearly five decades of first Italian, then French and British colonial rule.15
Before that, Libya had been part of the Ottoman, Roman, and Phoenician empires; yet,
most post-colonial studies of African countries typically focus on the European,
"modernizing" colonial period. This is, of course, due to the fact that by the beginning of
the 20th century, Europe had colonized almost the entire African continent.
The only two modem African countries that remained politically autonomous
during the age of colonial rule are Liberia, which declared independence in 1847, and
Ethiopia. Italy actually attempted to take Ethiopia by force-twice. After being defeated
by Emperor Menelik II and his armies at the battle of Adwa in 1896, a much embittered
Italy attacked Ethiopia again, shortly before the outbreak of World War II. Although
Italian forces did occupy Ethiopia from 1936 until 1941, the country is usually thought of
as having never been officially colonized. A map published in the June 1931 issue of
National Geographic Magazine (figure 2.8) independent Ethiopia is shown bordered by
British and Italian Somaliland (Somalia), French Somaliland (Djibouti) and the Anglo-
Egyptian Sudan. "Italian" is printed in parentheses beneath "Eritrea."
This National Geographic map is a solemn reminder that while Ethiopia was
independent in 1931; most of the African continent was not. During the 20th century,
Ethiopia became a symbol of resistance, freedom, and hope for colonized people in
15 Libya was conquered by Italy in 1910, but was redistributed between France and Britain by the Allied
powers in 1942.
Africa, as well as for oppressed black communities in the Caribbean and North America.
Several African countries adopted the green, yellow, and red colors of the Ethiopian flag
when they achieved independence from Europe in the 1960s and 70s.16 Home to "Lucy,"
the skeletal remains of humanity's oldest known ancestor; mentioned in Homer,
Herodotus, and Ptolemy; and discussed numerous times in the bible; Ethiopia was and is
commonly thought of as an ancient civilization, a piece of Africa untainted by
On the National Geographic map, "Abyssinia" appears in parentheses below
"Ethiopia." As stated above, these two words are not necessarily interchangeable.17 This
is clearly evident in Herman Moll's Africa According to y Newest and most Exact
Observations, a map printed in London in 1714 (figure 2.9 and 2.10).18 West Africa is
shown broken up into "Barbaria," "Zaara, or the Desart," "Negro Land," and "Guinea,"
while "Ethiopia," written in large bold type across the breadth of central Africa, refers to
everything else below Egypt. Moll's map is based closely on Ptolemy, who used
"'Ethiopia" the same way.19 Moll locates "Abissina" (Abyssinia) more or less where
Ethiopia is today, and correctly makes Lake Tana (spelled "Tzana") the source of the
Blue Nile. Even though Ptolemy's fabled lakes Zaira and Zaflan had been dispelled by a
16 The following countries adopted red, yellow and green national flags upon declaring independence:
Benin, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Republic of Congo, Ghana, Guinea, Guinea Bissau, Mali, SAo Tom6 and
Principe, Senegal, and Togo.
17 See Martin Bernal "European Images of Africa-A Tale of Two Names: Ethiopia and N---," in Images
ofAfrica: Stereotypes & Realities, ed. Daniel M. Mengara (Trenton, New Jersey: Africa World Press,
18 Moll's map is atypically plain for this time period.
19 Miinster's map followed Ptolemy closely who also uses Athiopia for this region of Africa.
cartographer named Guillaume Delisle in 1700, Moll includes them anyway. R.V.
Tooley and Charles Bricker point out:
[Moll] kept Zaire and Zaflan, making them into what he called 'bogs' or
morassess,' with no direct outlets to the Nile. As if out of respect [for] the ideas of
the ancient Alexandrian, he added a river, the Zebee, and made it flow north almost
to the Nile in an apparent attempt to reconcile modern geography with Ptolemy.20
Moll's "Africa," as well as several imitations produced by his competitors, were
published in British history books and geography journals until the end of the 18th
In order to understand how influential Ptolemy's ideas were, Moll's map can be
compared to a much more colorful document from 1595, the latter attributed to Gerard
Mercator the Younger (figure 2.11). Mercator's design is one of "those old maps that
fascinate collectors," a "sumptuous, fanciful, decorative...rarity;" inaccurate but
beautiful, it "captures the imagination."22 His elongated version of Africa is engulfed by
gently undulating waves, and the oceans are labeled in an ostentatious script, full of
balanced loops and winding, rounded flips. Larger geographic regions are capitalized
("Libya Interior," "Agisymba," "Abissini") while the smaller units and cities are
identified in lowercase print. Wide, gently graduated boundary lines follow invented
threads of mountains and the imagined paths of major rivers, forming distinct geographic
units suffuse in muted pink, yellow and green. The most elaborate ornamentation,
20 Tooley and Bricker, Landmarks oJ 1 ",-', ii. ,,l-' 170.
21 Versions of Moll's map were published in Michael Adams, The New Royal Geographical Magazine
(London: Alex Hogg; Symonds, Parsons, and Co., 1794?): 297; A New, Royal, andAuthentic System of
Universal Geography (London: J. Cooke, 1790?); and in Daniel Fenning, A New and Easy Guide to the
Use of Globes (London: S. Crowder, 1799). All of these sources were accessed in May 2005 from the
George Smathers Libraries at the University of Florida, Gainesville, FL.
22 Tooley and Bricker, Landmarks oJ 1 ,',- iiil,,,-. 9.
however, is reserved for the title cartouche (figure 2.12). Here, twin satyrs, one facing
forward, the other facing back, recline on top of an illusionistic metalwork medallion, its
lower portion draped in vines laden with ripe fruit. The bisymmetrical composition is
enhanced by dramatic chiaroscuro detailing raked over the vibrant pink and blue
openwork design. The cartouche also communicates important information about how to
read the map correctly: the central white roundel bears the title of the map and the name
of its maker, while the narrow horizontal plate across the bottom contains the scale. A
trompe l'oeil frame surrounds the entire map, underscoring Mercator's obvious aesthetic
It is important to note that before the 20th century, individual cartographers had
different ideas about what Africa should look like. Place names are utilized sporadically
and known boundaries frequently shift-while this inconsistency is partly due to honest
attempts at accuracy, idiosyncrasies were most often the result of a lack of information
combined with simple differences of opinion. Moll's map is extremely plain, while
Mercator's is deliberately artistic. Both maps of Africa incorporate Ptolemy's Lakes
Zairi and Zaflan, but whereas Moll makes "Abissina" a small province of "Ethiopia,"
Mercator extends "Abissini" across the whole central interior, omitting "'Ethiopia"
Moll intentionally synthesized canonical Ptolemaic cartography with the "Newest
andMost Exact Olb/'et 'li/,li" from up to date explorers' accounts when he made his
map of Africa in the early 18th century, just as Munster had done in 1540, and Mercator
does in 1595. Mercator's map uses the Greek term "Agisymba," Ptolemy's word for the
southernmost limit of the oikoumenJ (figure 2.13). 23 Despite Ptolemy's massive impact
on later cartographers, Mercator's inclusion of"Agyismba" is an anomaly.24 All historic
mapmakers made conscious decisions when selecting place names, setting regional
boundaries, and modifying natural geophysical features such as lakes, mountains, and
rivers. These representational choices were not merely attempts to reconcile hear-say
with science; inclusions and omissions were often strategic, designed to communicate
specific ideas to a defined audience.
The Greek "lEthiopia" comes from Aithiops, which means "burnt-face." In the past,
the term functioned much like "Sub-Saharan Africa" does today: it designated a broad
geographical region with vague boundaries, and generally referred to the part of Africa
where the people are dark-skinned, or "black."25 "Abyssinia" is a Portuguese word,
probably derived from the Arabic term "Habash," which in turn probably derives from
"Habashat," the name for a group of people who live in modern Tigray, Ethiopia.26 Also
widely used was the Arabic term "Habshi," a corruption of "Habash," which had negative
23 Berrgren and Jones state that for Ptolemy, Agisymba was the southernmost limit of the oikoumene.
However, it is important to note that despite the fact that "Agisymba" resembles "Abyssinia" or a variation
of "Abyssinia," "Agisymba" is a separate concept. Berrgren and Jones claim that the word is found in no
other independent ancient source, which underscores Mercator's reliance on Ptolemaic geography.
Mercator seems to have placed Agisymba in West Africa because of the misunderstanding-shared by
many cartographers at the time-that the Niger and the Nile were connected. Berrgren and Jones support
the claim that Agisymba did indeed at one time refer to what is modem Niger or Chad. See Berrgren and
Jones, Ptolemy's Geography, 168. It is also worth noting that Tooley and Bricker's Landmarks of
Mapmaking assumes (probably erroneously) that Agisymba is interchangeable with Abyissina.
24 Out of the approximately 90 historical maps of Africa I looked at in the University of Florida's
collection, Mercator's is the only one where Agyismba is used. These maps are also accessible on the
world wide web at
25 See Bernal, "European Images of Africa-A Tale of Two Names: Ethiopia and N---."
26 Richard Pankhurst. "The Ethiopian Diaspora to India," in The African Diaspora in the Indian Ocean, ed.
Jayasuriya, Shihan de Silvia and Richard Pankhurst (Trenton, New Jersey: Africa World Press, 2003):
connotations, was often applied to slaves, and did not always refer to Abyssinians.27
Today Ethiopians prefer not to be called "Abyssinians," and as I mentioned in the
introduction, historic Ethiopians called themselves Ethiopians, even while the rest of the
world called them Abyssinians. What these historic maps reveal, however is that this is
not a simple case of complex inter-lingual translation-for in the past, Abyssinia was
always a part of Ethiopia, but not all /Ethiopians were Abyssinians.
Mercator may have used "Abissina" instead of "Ethiopia" or "/Ethiopia" because of
the widely held popular belief in a mythical figure named Prester John. In Europe,
Prester John was a legendary Christian Emperor who ruled a powerful kingdom
somewhere in the East. He was rumored to live in India or Asia, but was quickly grafted
onto Africa when early explorers like Marco Polo encountered Christian "Abyssinian"
Emperors.28 Christianity has existed in what is now Ethiopia since the 4th century.
During the Middle Ages, when Islamicjihads, or holy wars, tore through the heart of the
Christian realm, the idea of a Christian stronghold in the East was a comforting fantasy-
medieval Europeans believed that Prester John's armies could help them fend off the
onslaught of Islam and liberate the Holy Land from heretic "infidels."29 In Mercator's
Africa, there are no fantastic beasts or wild animals and his oceans are sea-monster free,
but he does include a small image of Prester John, enthroned and bearing a Christian
27 Ibid. See also Richard Pankhurst, The Ethiopians (Malden, Massachusetts and Oxford: Blackwell
Publishers, 1998): 77.
28 "Prester" comes from presbyter, the Latin word for 'priest." According to Tooley and Bricker, Prester
John supposedly originatedd in stories about a Tartar chief who converted to Christianity." Tooley and
Bricker, Landmarks oJf ~I,-'i,,l.,,,. 161-163.
29 Pankhurst, The Ethiopians, p. 76-78. See also Wendy James, "Kings, Commoners, and the Ethnographic
Imagination in Sudan and Ethiopia," in Localizing Strategies: Regional Traditions in Eil, i. -, 0h, i/,.
;'ii;,i- ed. Richard Fardon (Edinburgh: Scottish Academic Press, 1990): 96-136.
cross in one hand, mapped next to the Nile in the center of"Abissina" (figure 2.14).
Minster also included the well-known kingdom on his 1540 woodcut map. Labeled
"Hamarich," the home of Prester John is similarly placed-on the Nile just below the
ancient city of Meroe.30
The most widely circulated map of Africa in the late 16th century was published in
1570 as a page in Abraham Ortelius' Theatrum Orbis Terrarum, the "first great atlas of
the world" (figures 2.15).31 The 1573 edition of the atlas featured a new map: A
representation of the empire ofPrester John, or, of the Abyssinians, (figure 2.16). Here,
lakes Zairi and Zaflan are prominently featured, along with four large blue elephants, and
in the upper left corner, a small red shield bears the crest of Prester John, "a Lion
Rampant, supporting a crucifix."32 The plaque below the crest lists several "grand titles"
for the biblical David, and gives information about Prester John's lineage, traceable back
to Solomon.33 Like Mercator, Ortelius assumes far too great an area for Abyssinia,
wishfully projecting Christianity, or at least Christian control, over all the unknown
regions surrounding the mysterious southern source of the Nile.
In 1683, a German cartographer named Hiob Ludolf issued a much more accurate
map of Abyssinia (figures 2.17).34 Hiob never visited Africa himself, but based his map
30 Hamarich is probably a variation of Amharic, the language of the Amhara people of highlands Ethiopia.
31 Lane-Pool, "The Discovery of Africa," 220.
32 Ibid, 221.
33 Tooley and Bricker, Landmarks oJ 1l,-",il ,,, 160-163. 161.
34 Hiob Ludolf never visited Africa, yet he is considered the father of Ethiopian studies. For information
about Ludolf, see Tooley and Bricker, Landmarks oJ \ I, -,', ,,,- 163-166; and Siegbert Uhlig, Hiob
Ludolfs / Ii.. -. -,,, Aethiopica" (Wiesbaden: Franz Steiner Verlag, 1983). Hiob Ludolf's map of
Abyssinia may actually have been drawn after his death by one of his sons.
on information provided by Abba Gregorius, an Amharic monk residing in Rome, and
several Portuguese missionaries who had been to Abyssinia. Hiob's map provides
accurate, timely details about Ethiopia in the 17th century, such as the inclusion of the
newly established capital Gondar. Indicated by a cluster of stately marquees placed just
off the north bank of Lake Tana (figure 2.18), the capital had been moved to Gondar from
Danqaz in 1636 by the Abyssinian ruler Fasilidas.35 One of Hiob's Portuguese missionary
informants was Jer6nimo Lobo, a Jesuit priest who spent nine years in Abyssinia (in this
case, definitely historic Ethiopia) in the 1620s and 30s.
Lobo discusses Fasilidas at length in his Itendrio, an account of his journeys in
Abyssinia and discovery of the Blue Nile. When Samuel Johnson translated Lobo's
Itendrio in 1735, he remarked, in plain admiration of Lobo's "no-nonsense" approach:
[Lobo] appears by his modest and unaffecting narration to have described things as
he saw them, to have copied nature from the life, and to have consulted his senses,
not his imagination. He meets no basilisks that destroy with their eyes; his
crocodiles devour their prey without tears; and his cataracts fall from the rock
without deafening the neighboring inhabitants.36
Of Abyssinia, Lobo himself states:
This is the empire commonly called the empire of Prester John of the Indies,
erroneously so, however, since the truth is that the ancient and true Prester John
and his domain have been lost to human memory. And with the persistence of
rumours of Prester John in the eastern parts and the signs of his being a Christian
prince, the Portuguese who very much wanted to discover the said Empire and
were unable to gain knowledge of it, finding the Ethiopian [sic] princes with so
many signs of Christianity, and also comparing them with [what they had heard of]
the ancient Prester John...they came to believe that this was the ancient Prester
John of the Indies; and this same report, brought and communicated by the
Portuguese, was then published throughout the world.37
35 Pankhurst, The Ethiopians, 109.
36 Quoted in Tooley and Bricker, Landmarks oJ uoh,'io,,l'o.. 163.
7 Jeronimo Lobo. The Itenario ofJeronimo Lobo, 155.
Hiob would have had access to this information; yet, he still calls his map "Abyssinia, the
Land of Prester John." Lobo's account of Abyssinia was exceptional, and many
representations of the Horn of Africa and the Nile region more broadly continued to
romantically superimpose Abyssinia and Christian rule over vast portions of the unknown
Prester John" maps were designed for a wealthy and predominantly Christian
European audience: it didn't matter that the Abyssinian rulers had real names, nor did it
matter that they had never had a King with the title "Prester John" in their history; the
fact that the Abyssinians were Christian was sufficient to confirm what European
audiences and mapmakers wanted to believe. Just as Minster, Moll, and Mercator
included some Ptolemaic conventions in their maps of Africa and omitted others, Hiob
consciously selected parts of Lobo's story to include and deliberately chose to leave other
important details out.
The "Habit" of an Ethiopian
Maps have a very unambiguous rapport with reality. They self-consciously
"speak" about their subjects, offering a miniaturized, conceptual diagram of an explicitly
defined terrain-maps are made to communicate information and they are intended to be
read. Text is, of course, indispensable; cities, mountains, rivers, lakes, oceans and seas,
the title and creator's name, as well as cues for decoding the map, like the scale, are all
literally spelled out on the surface. Mapped alongside these textual representations,
however, are numerous figurative representations that also bear significant meaning.
Monster's Monoculi, for example, or Mercator's miniscule image of Prester John, suggest
something beyond candid elocution of a notable African place; they also inadvertently
convey cultural particulars about Mercator, Munster, and their markets. Some figurative
representations were highly conventionalized, used on multiple maps of Africa from the
16th through the 19th century, such as the small images of elephants and other wild
animals that appeared over unknown lands so frequently, they became part of a pictorial
language for conveying the concept of "Africa" to European audiences.
Over time, cartographers refined their skills with better instruments and more
comprehensive astronomical knowledge. Combined with the escalating influx of first-
hand accounts provided by traders, explorers, and missionaries, these improvements
made 17th and 18th century maps far more accurate. Simultaneous developments in
printmaking technology, specifically the invention of a sophisticated type of copperplate
intaglio engraving, allowed commercial mapmakers to print more maps and include more
detailed imagery, bringing Africa into sharper focus than ever before.38 Maps became
progressively picturesque as views of distant cities and ports, economic interests,
zoological discoveries, and inevitably, African people, began to occupy a larger
percentage of the margin. Consequently, images of "natives," like elephants and lions,
assumed a fundamental role in defining Europe's mental picture of Africa.
One of the more organized of these information laden maps is Willem Blaeu's
Africa Newly Described (figure 2.19). A veritable archive unto itself, Blaeu's map
features a wide border containing vignettes of Cairo, Alexandria and other well known
cities across the top, and an inventory of African people "in national dress" down both
sides. Part of a larger atlas of the world, Blaeu's map of Africa appeared in 28 editions
38 Christopher R. Steiner, "Travel Engravings and the Construction of the Primitive," Prehistories of the
Future: the Primitivist Project and the Culture ofModernism, ed. Elazar Barkan and Ronald Bush
(Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 1995): 206.
from 1630 to 1662.39 This wide-border style was very popular in the early 17th century,
and since cartographers borrowed freely from each other, several maps were issued with
identical or only slightly modified imagery. The border figures on Blau's map are
identical to the figures on John Speed's map of Africa from 1626 (figure 2.20), only
Blaeu's are shown reversed, and in pairs. Each figure or pair of figures is labeled, for
example, "Abyssinian," "Egyptian," or "Mozambiquan." Twelve nationalities are
covered in all, and they are the same on both maps.
For artistically minded cartographers, the title cartouche, long a reserve of
ornamental excess, also provided the perfect compositional opportunity to incorporate
additional, relevant information. For example, A map of the West African coast from
1635, again by Willem Blau (figure 2.21), portrays two African figures lounging on top
of a stone marker, along with several monkeys and a parrot. Like the figures and cities
on Blau's wide-border map, these details convey information about Africa. "Oceanus
IEthiopicus" is written just above the figures' heads in the same style of decadent script
used by Mercator. The map credits (publisher, cartographer's signature, etc) are placed
on a separate, smaller cartouche to the left, though the central cartouche retains the title
and the scale. On the lower right, Blaeu has also included a pair of Africanized putti
bearing a large elephant's tusk (figure 2.22). Ivory was a common theme on maps of the
African coastline, reflecting the economic interests of European consumers at the time.
Here, Blau's map harks back to a century before, when sea monsters and mer-men
populated the seas-just below the surface of the water the lower bodies of the putti are
transformed into red-tipped green fish tails.
39 Tooley and Bricker, Landmarks of 1,,- 'i,,i.,,i 166.
Another regional map of Africa, AEthiopia Inferior vel Exterior ("Lower or Outer"
IEthiopia) is stylistically indistinguishable from Blaeu's Guinea and repeats the same
basic formation for the main cartouche: two African figures, surrounded by several
monkeys, flank a central panel identifying the geographic area being presented (figure
2.23 and 2.24). Here, however, the two figures stand rather than recline, and the
decorative stone slab has been replaced with a flayed cow skin. Replete with head and tail
still attached, the pale pink inside of the hide suggests the slaughter was a fairly recent
transaction, subtly (or perhaps not so subtly) underscoring their assumed barbarity.40 It is
impossible to glean from these figures a specific "nationality" or pinpoint a more exact
regional affiliation; they obviously have cattle, and they wear loincloths and capes and
carry weapons, but they aren't specifically identified as "Abbissinian" or
"Mozambiquean" like the border figures on Blau and Speed's slightly earlier maps.
Indeed, these two figures flanking a skin weren't intended to reference anything other
than all of "Lower IEthiopia."
The same exact iconography is used by Dutch cartographer Pieter Goos on a map
of the "West Indies" (figure 2.25 and 2.26) included in his Sea-Atlas of the Watter World,
a book of nautical charts first printed in 1666. Johann Baptist Homann, a distinguished
German cartographer, also uses the flayed skin cartouche for a map of the "New World"
he created in the early 18th century. The subject matter is totally different-the "New
World" vs. southern "'Ethiopia"-but the image and the intention are the same; to the
40 While the majority of cartouches on historic maps continued to be styled after illusionistic stone markers
or stelae, occasionally a cloth was used. For example, on his 18th century map of the Holy Land, Matthaeus
Seutter uses a cloth cartouche supported by smiling (white) putti. This type of cloth motif appears to be the
"civilized" counterpart to the flayed skin cartouche, which is only found on maps of lands once considered
"primitive" by Europeans.
right audience, the figures with the skin signify primitivenesss" in any context and can be
easily lifted from one part of the world and grafted onto another.
In his study of engravings of "primitive" people in travel narrative books from the
16th through the 19th century, Christopher Steiner points out that:
Illustrators were able to use conventionalized images without sacrificing a sense of
realism because few of their readers had ever seen the peoples and places described
in the text. Since neither artist nor reader had much knowledge of what the subject
ought to look like, it is easy to understand how a system of imaginary signs could
come into being to represent any culture deemed primitive. All that was necessary
was that the image producer and image consumer agree on the meaning of these
newly constructed signs.41
Steiner argues that this type of borrowing is part of "the logic of representation
engendered by mechanical reproduction;" whereby a recognizable image, or sign,
because it is recognizable, becomes a way to make the text seem more comprehensive,
more real, and more authentic.42 It was true that many cartographers and publishers
never saw the places or the people depicted in their maps and they relied on previously
encoded signs, or tropes, to authenticate their accounts; thus, images like the flayed skin
cartouche enabled mapmakers to speak authoritatively to their audience about unfamiliar
Mechanical reproduction accelerated the dissemination of recognizable imagery
throughout Europe as new texts used old tropes to identify their subjects, recycling the
same pictures to a widening audience through a range of printed materials. This was
necessary in what Susan Stewart describes as the "entrepreneurial mode" of knowledge
41 Steiner, "Travel Engravings and the Construction of the Primitive," 210.
42 Ibid, 202-225. See also Christopher Steiner, "Authenticity, Repetition, and the Aesthetics of Seriality:
The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction," in Unpacking Culture: Art and Commodity in
Postcolonial World, ed. Ruth B. Phillips and Christopher B. Steiner (Berkeley: University of California
Press, 1999): 90-96.
production during the 18th century, when writers broke free of "the patronage system, the
court, the world of the coffeehouse, and the practice of subscriptions," and begin actively
seeking publishers for their writings.43 This "commodification of writing" she argues,
"demanded an authenticating apparatus;" in the context of travel narratives, maps and
other documents describing cultures exotic to that of the producer, the picture of the
"native" or "primitive other" becomes the authenticating apparatus, reciprocally
proclaiming that both the text/map and the image are true.44
In the examples discussed above, the image of two "natives" holding up a flayed
skin has the effect of casting both the "West Indies" and "Lower IEthiopia" as "primitive
lands." The figures are at once generic and specific: their ability to signify broadly
makes them interchangeable, yet contextually the figures become "West Indians" and
"'Ethiopians," comparable to the "Abbisinian," the "Egyptian" or any of the other figures
in Blau and Speed's catalogue of"nationalities." The way a figure is represented-their
mode of dress and adornment, the objects they carry, the way they either sit or stand-
become identifying characteristics of distinct categories of people when the same tropes
are constantly repeated; thus, clothing-or the lack of clothing-can be made to serve as
the medium through which "nationality" is translated, the dressed, adorned, or naked
body becoming interchangeable with the figure's national(or "ethnic", or "racial")
43 Susan Stewart, "Antipodal Expectations: Notes on the Formosan 'Ethnography' of George
Psalmanazar,"in Romantic Motives: Essays on i,ri, .. i, .. 1 Sensibility, ed. George W. Stocking
(Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1989): 48-53.
44 In "Travel Engravings and the Construction of The Primitive," Christopher Steiner points out how this
process does not apply only to "primitive" cultures; it was also used to represent cities in Europe in travel
journals and other texts.
Two book illustrations, both printed in the late 18th century, demonstrate this point
clearly: in the first illustration, taken from John Fransham's The Entertaining Traveler;
or, The Whole World in Miniature (London, 1767), three pairs of figures, each a male and
a female, wearing their "national costume" are presented as representatives from their
respective cultures. They appear in a row with labels above their heads that read (from
left to right) "The Habit of a Negroe," "The Habit of a Moor," and "The Habit of a
Mexican," (figure 2.27). Nine modes of dress are presented in all, in three illustrations,
and these are the only images in the whole book.45 The second example is from The
History ofAllNations, by David Paterson (Edinburgh, 1777), (figure 2.28). The
iconography is identical to Fransham's illustration of "the habit" of a "Negroe": the man
is wearing a loincloth and carries a spear; the woman wears a cloth draped about her
waist, and carries an infant on her back The only difference is that in the second
illustration, the words "the habit of..." are left off. There are several illustrations of other
nationalities in Fransham's book, yet, his "A Negroe" is the only image that doesn't
include these extra contextualizing words.
This image of an African woman wearing a short waist wrapper, carrying a baby on
her back, appeared earlier as the "Mozambiquan" in the catalogue of cultures on Willem
Blaeu's Africa Newly Described and John Speed's Africce, discussed above (figures 2.19
and 2.20). On both 17th century maps, "Abyssinians" are shown wearing jodhpur-style
pants and belted tunics, wrapped turbans and shoes. A similarly dressed individual
appears on the title page for Samuel Johnson 18th century novel The History ofRasselas,
45 The other two images contain representations of "The Habit of a Chinese," "The Habit of a Mogul," and
"The Habit of a Persian;" and "The Habit of a Turk," the Habit of a Tartar," and "The Habit of a Polander."
Prince ofAbyssinia.46 Images of Prester John, the most famous of all Abyssinians,
always portray him in kingly dress, usually carrying a crucifix, and enthroned. An image
of "The Emperor of Abyssinia" from Allain Manesson Mallet's Description de L 'Univers
(1685) shows the Emperor, still equated with Prester John, in embroidered and tassled
finery, wearing a military helmet and sandals (figure 2.29).47 In stark contrast to other
kinds of/Ethiopians-the two figures holding the flayed skin, or the "Mozambiquan"
woman, for instance-Abyssinians are depicted "favorably" by European standards, most
readily indicated by the fact that they are typically represented fully clothed.
Pictures of Africa and African people printed on historical maps, and in old books,
have the ability to communicate and store information; they can be read as products of a
particular culture, as statements of contextually specific ideas. They are also biased,
implicated in the history of colonialism, signs of an uneven distribution of knowledge and
power. After Lake Victoria, was "discovered" by John Speke in 1862, and the sources of
the Congo and Lualaba were "discovered" a few years later by Henry Morton Stanley,
"there was not much left to be explored in Africa."48 The Nile Region, which held the
undivided attention of two-thousand years of cartographers, could finally be mapped
Not ten years after Stanley's final breakthrough, a group of European superpowers
assembled in Berlin to haggle over Africa's future. They cut Africa into fifty different
states, divided the newly established territories between them, and agreed to respect each
46 Johnson, Samuel. The history ofRasselas, Prince ofAbissinia (London, 1799?), George A. Smathers
Libraries, University of Florida, Gainesville, FL. May 2005
47 This image appears in Tooley and Bricker, Landmarks of l',,,,,l-.,,. 164.
48 Lane-Pool, "The Discovery of Africa," 217.
other's borders. At the Berlin Conference in 1894, the age of Discovery ended and the
era of European colonialism in Africa officially began. The map of Africa today is a
snapshot of this notorious event, a lasting picture of an inexorable moment in both
Africa's and Europe's past. Yet, Africa today is also a picture of resistance, of freedom
fought for and won, of new national, regional and ever-changing individual identities.
All of the maps and images discussed in this chapter are intended to illuminate the
complex history of European representations of what is now Ethiopia. I have shown that
what is Ethiopia today once had two different identities: Abyssinia, the fertile country
that feeds the Nile, the ancient Empire of Christian Kings; and Ethiopia, an obscure land
populated by barbaric pagans. In the next chapter I will turn to more recent
representations of Ethiopia, and I will explore how this division, in some instances, still
exists; my discussion will also move from maps as historical documents of exploration
and discovery, to photographs as representations of relationships of power. Around the
same time that Speke was discovering the source of the White Nile in 1862, Europeans
began documenting people with photography, and a whole new way to think about and
look at African culture developed.
Figure 2.1 Map of the World according to Ptolemy's second projection, 1482. This map
is from the 1482 Latin edition printed by Lienart at Ulm, the first edition of
the Geography to include woodcut print maps. (Department of Printing and
Graphic Arts, The Houghton Library, Harvard University. Plate 6 in Berggren
Figure 2.2 Reconstruction of Ptolemy's oikoumenj, (Map 1. in Berggren and Jones)
0 10 20' 300 40 50 600 700 80s 90
r-S 4rj N
Figure 2.3 LibyJ (Africa) according to Ptolemy. (Map 7a in Berggren and Jones)
40E ..... .50' E .40 N
20W 10'W 0'
Inner Lib ?
., 0 N
I,*., In ia
F<* ^s ." r, SrillB Aih a!
y ik n
Figure 2.4 Libye (Africa). Reconstruction of Ptolemy's Africa showing how his map
compares to Africa today. (Map 7b in Berggren and Jones)
Figure 2.5. "T-O" map. From a 14th century copy of the writings of Lucan (Marcus
Annaeus Lucanus), a 1st-century Roman poet. (Tooley and Bricker, 24). The
bottom stroke of the "T" represents the Mediterranean; the top bar depicts the
Nile River on the right, and the waters north of the Aegean on the left. The
double outer ring represents the river Ocean.
Figure 2.6 Copy of a map by al-Idrisi. Al-Idrisi created the original map for King Roger
of Sicily in 1154. The copy shown here was probably made around 1500 CE.
(Tooley and Bricker,. 24).
1 _.."_- --.... ,..,' -. .
.. -. .. ;' \ .; t' ^. ,,
,, } ....-- ... ;'- l/. ?^ ,,.... .,
.,* A TI-HIO I'- ,,,r
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Figure 2.7 Sebastian Muinster's Map of Africa. Woodcut print with insert type. Created
by Mtinster in 1540 for his version of Ptolemy's Geography. The map
depicted here is from the third edition, published in 1542. (Tooley and
Figure 2.8. Map of Ethiopia printed in 1931. (National Geographic Magazine, June
1931, 702). The original caption reads, "ARID, SEMIDESERT COUNTRY
SURROUNDS ETHIOPIA. The ancient Empire embraces more than 350,000
square miles of the productive north-eastern plateau of Africa, and, while it
lies wholly within the Tropics, its elevation tempers the climate."
.. ''' _
I i. : <4 ,, I
,.. '. ."'-- 1 P I .
2 '.1 .. N I/ ... p ...
i \- P* ," ., '-
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.. ..-.--.. i ..
rJ p ,
1 -. ,.
Figure 2.9 Africa According to y Newest and most Exact Observations created by
Herman Moll, London, 1714. 26.5 x 18.7 cm (University of Florida, George
A. Smathers Library)
rA .V~a rtn4 n .
[ 'F^V^ 1
Lt^ t ^'^ ) ) !.a'-ri
pw.xrul .- 'b' ^^ l i tmiaL
'J,,.^ ^ (*^r^
r- iytj.,rf ^ >^
s -V I
tjr t s
-_- -i is
4 V ^ \ 0''-~
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^SS^^ *. .L^^Ae C9 ^P
,, ,r~~T 444
Figure 2.10. Detail of figure 2.9 showing "Abissina" (upper right), Ethiopia (center), and
Lakes Zaire and Zaflan and the Zeebe River (bottom).
Figure 2.11 Africa Ex Magna Orbis Terre created by Gerard Mercator (the younger),
1595. 38 x 47 cm (University of Florida, George A. Smathers Library)
Figure 2.12 Detail of figure 2.11. Title cartouche from Mercator's map, surface
treatment of water, trompe l'oiel frame, and the "Oceanus Aethiopicus."
Figure 2.13 Detail of figure 2.11 showing "Agisymba."
Figure 2.14 Detail of figure 2.11 showing "Abissini" (bottom) and illustration of Prester
A r- *
Figure 2.15 Africae Tabula Nova, created by Abraham Ortelius, Antwerp, 1570. 37.5 x
50.3 cm (University of Florida, George A. Smathers Library). Included in
Ortelius' world atlas, Theatrum Orbis Terrarum.
,. '. j ,,, .,*-Z ,_ -" -
.'I I X i I.1,
I Pi k R l1 1 10
Figure 2.16 Presbiteri Johannis Abissinorium Imperii Descripto (A representation of the
empire ofPrester John, or, of the Abyssinians), created by Abraham Ortelius,
Antwerp, 1573. 38 x 44 cm (University of Florida, George A. Smathers
:6;..i;:ll;;~ o .;..- ; w. 1lJ,11 l li-'
S- '' ~, -"' L ''" .
"'' I-, I t II
.. .. _- ., ."k I._ ..
i -" ? .. "' .-4" .* .- __. .
S- i hw' '-''I
*'* 4 *I*t- ^\
Figure 2.17 Habessinia or Abassia, Presbyteri Johannis Regio. ("Habessinia" or
"Abassia," the Land of Prester John.) Created by Hiob Ludolf (or possibly his
son) 1683 (Tooley and Bricker, 165.)
son),~ 1683. (Too ey ndBrike 15.
la I '- 1 4 l- .t:
:c r. ILI m .
At4 h MAripm.
rlk- 'tr-u rr
n- /tA Mi
Pr Y 6 n
Figure 2.18 Detail of figure 2.17 showing tents at "Guender" (Gondar).
Figure 2.19 Detail of Africce Nova Descriptio (Africa Newly Described), created by
Willem Blaeu, 1630. (Reproduced in full in Tooley and Bricker, 175-176.)
Figures depicted are (top to bottom): "VEgypty," "Abifini," and "Cafres in
Figure 2.20 Detail of Africce, map of Africa created by John Speed, London, 1626.
(Tooley and Bricker, 166). People depicted (left to right): "Abissinian," and
Figure 2.21 Guinea, created by Willem Blau, Amsterdam, 1635. 39 x 53 cm (University
of Florida, George A. Smathers Library).
Figure 2.22 Detail of figure 2.21.
_ -- I
.- ', I .,,-- I '
Figure 2.23 AEthiopia Inferior vel Exterior ("Lower or Outer" /Ethiopia), made by Jan
Jansson after an earlier map by Jan Blau (1642). 39 x 51 cm (University of
Florida, George A. Smathers Library). The only difference between Blau's
map and Jansson's is that the latter lacks a sailing ship above the cartouche.
(Blau's version appears in Tooley and Bricker, 167.)
E XTE RIOR.
Er b, !.tz Sa,-'. L-
map~ ~ ~ ~~~~~~~ .. ,.., Jaso' s .. _latrlcsa aln hi bv hecroc
a' eso per n olyadBikr 6.
Figure 2.24 Detail of figure 2.23 showing flayed cow skin cartouche.
i: *.. ,- -^ k- '
I 1 -
.., G eor -
l ''..;'- "L .
,! '__ I --
I" r 7"
"I' "=- ''" "'': N % -
I _., .,
Figure 2.25 Paskaerte Van West Indien de Vaste Kusten en de Eylanden, created by
Pieter Goos, nd., probably late 1660s. (University of Florida, George A.
Figure 2.26 Detail of figure 2.25 showing flayed skin cartouche.
Figure 2.27 Illustration from The Entertaining Traveler; or, the Whole World in
Miniature, by John Fransham and printed by Henry Holmes, London, 1767
(The British Library, accessible at
A N E G O 0 E.
Figure 2.28 Illustration from History ofAll Nations, printed by David Paterson,
Edinburgh, 1777. (The British Library, accessible at
Figure 2.29 Image of the Emperor of Abyssinia from Allain Manesson Mallet's
Description de L 'Univers, 1685. (Tooley and Bricker, 164).
PHOTOGRAPHING ETHIOPIA: THE SAFARI AND THE PILGRIMAGE
While the gaze of the subject of the photograph may be difficult to find in the heavy
crisscrossing traffic of the more privileged gazes of producers and consumers,
contemporary stories of contestable power are told there nonetheless.
(Lutz and Collins, 1993: 216)
Photography is modernity run riot. (Sekula, 1986: 4)
Recent readings of photography and Africa often focus on how the West has
systematically used Africa to construct a narrative about itself. This kind of cultural
domination is not restricted to photography; indeed, the historic maps discussed in the
last chapter reveal how Africa was "colonized" by the European imagination long before
Europeans actually assumed political control. When viewed critically, photographs, like
maps, often reveal much more about the producer/observer than they do about the
produced/observed. The question then inevitably becomes, what, or who is really the
subject? Photography, and photographs of human bodies in particular, necessitate that
the subject be split into an interlocking triad-the photographer, the photographed, and
the viewer, or spectator. All three are always present, yet they seldom exercise agency
In this chapter, I will address representations of Ethiopian people in photographs by
Carol Beckwith and Angela Fisher, most of which were taken between 1984 and 1989.
During the mid 1980s, the Western news media was flooded with devastating images of
starving Ethiopian women and children as Ethiopia went through one its worst famines in
recorded history. While this kind of imagery can certainly be damaging-presenting
Ethiopia as a pitiful, wretched place where life is nothing but a struggle for survival-the
same is also true of the opposite; in other words, representations of Ethiopia as a glorious
Eden where humanity and nature are one and the same also promote stereotypical, and
thus harmful perceptions of African people
Gazing at Ethiopia
The most comprehensive photographic study of modem Ethiopia is Carol Beckwith
and Angela Fisher's African Ark: Peoples of the Horn, a lavishly-illustrated, large-
format "coffee-table book" published in 1990.1 Ethiopia is the primary focus of the book,
though Somalia, Djibouti, and what is now Eritrea are also covered. Beckwith and Fisher
have been working separately and together in Africa for over 30 years and between them
they have published seven books, produced two films, contributed to several National
Geographic feature articles and delivered countless lectures on African culture at
universities and museums across the United States. Carol Beckwith is also a painter and
Angela Fisher designs jewelry, which she sells at a boutique near her London home.
Their award-winning photographs have been exhibited as art in cities all over the world,
yet like most professional photographers, their work crosses disciplinary bounds; they
self consciously document African culture, and their "fieldwork" resembles at times the
1 Carol Beckwith and Angela Fisher, African Ark: Peoples of the Horn. (London: Collins Harvill, 199).
2 The books are: Tepilit Ole Saitoti and Carol Beckwith, Maasai (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1980);
Angela Fisher, Africa Adorned (New York: Abrams, 1984); Carol Beckwith and Angela Fisher, African
Ark; Carol Beckwith, Nomads oJ (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1993); Carol Beckwith and Angela
Fisher, African Ceremonies, 2 vols. (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1999); Carol Beckwith and Angela
Fisher, Passages (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 2000); Carol Beckwith and Angela Fisher, Faces ofAfrica
(Washington D.C.: National Geographic Society, 2004). National Geographic articles featuring their
photographs include: Carol Beckwith and Angela Fisher, "Masai Passage to Manhood," National
Geographic 196 no. 3 (September 1999): 52-65; Carol Beckwith and Angela Fisher, "African Marriage
Rituals," National Geographic 196 no. 5 (November 1999): 80-97; and Karen E. Lange, with photography
by Carol Beckwith and Angela Fisher, "Himba: Consulting the Past, Divining the Future," National
Geographic 205 no. 1 (January 2004): 32-47. The two films are Way of the Wodaabe, and The Painter and
the Fgin. i'.
efforts of university-trained anthropologists and ethnographers. Frequently celebrated-
and condemned-for the unprecedented access granted to them as outsiders, Fisher and
Beckwith have managed to photograph events many Westerners are seldom permitted to
Beckwith claims that she approaches photography "with the eye of a painter in
terms of light, color, and composition;" her photographs are intended to be visually
striking, "multilayered experiences in the way a painting is."3 This premeditated
aesthetic is plainly visible, for instance, in the image of an Orthodox priest, gingerly
descending a worn staircase within the rock-hewn Lalibela complex in northern
highlands Ethiopia (figure 3.1). 4 In the photograph, enormous vertical masses of rutted
and furrowed rock, weathered a dusky muddle of antique auburn, russet, and gray by
centuries of wind and rain, rise up on either side of the image, just barely reaching ground
level where the un-seen top of the "so-called Tomb of Adam" peeks out from the vast
trench in which it sits. Hewn, not built, the eleven rock-cut churches at Lalibela were
literally carved out of the solid red volcanic tuff of the surrounding terrain during the
Zagwe dynasty in the 12th or 13th century CE.5
3 Carol Beckwith, "An Interview with Carol Beckwith," African Arts 18 no.4 (August 1985): 38.
4 Two other photographs from Lalibela, (page 32 and pages 46-47 of African Ark), and a third image from
Ura Kidane Mehret on Lake Tana (page 56 in African Ark) also appear in the August 1985 issue of African
Arts as illustrations for an interview with Carol Beckwith, conducted by the editors of the magazine in
December 1984. (The interview was published in 1985: Carol Beckwith. "An Interview with Carol
Beckwith," 38-45.) Angela Fisher is not mentioned in the interview, or in the photo captions; therefore, it
is highly likely that this image was taken by Carol Beckwith. Although some of Beckwith and Fisher's
later compilations do include imagery that they previously published individually, when Beckwith and
Fisher work together, they share credit for all of the photographs. I do not make any attempt in the
following discussion to distinguish one's work from the other.
5 Richard Pankhurst. The Ethiopians, (Malden, Massachusetts and Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 1998):
The composition is both stunning and suggestive: the mammoth precipice dwarfs
the Ethiopian priest, his tiny barefoot figure suspended in a shaft of ethereal light,
purposely conjuring visions of Old Testament patriarchs and sandy pilgrimages to remote
and holy places. The stark white of his turban, softened by the halo-like aura that seems
to surround his entire body, is a focal cue, leading the eye upwards past the darkened
portal and the shadowed cross-shaped window to the barely illuminated ledge of the
central edifice and the two unlit archways of the far wall. As somber and silent as the
stone ramparts that almost completely engulf him, the priest in the picture bears his
aesthetic burden with dignity and grace.
Two general, though unstated, themes dominate this particular collection of
photographs: religion and/or ritual, and "ethnic" dress and adornment, both of which fall
under the collective rubric of "traditional" culture.6 In the first category are images of
pious Orthodox priests and bearded Falasha Cahens-religious leaders of the Beta Israel,
or indigenous Ethiopian Jews-depicted soberly praying or reading from yellowed and
fraying old books.' There are also several pictures of "enraptured" Oromo pilgrims "only
lightly brushed with Islam" and chanting "gypsies" who practice a "strange ecstatic
religion" portrayed in the midst of fervent revelry at the tomb of Sheikh Hussein.8 The
second category includes pictures of Orthodox celebrants dressed in filigree crowns and
embroidered capes; elaborate Hamar coiffures; Suri women wearing large clay lip-plates;
6 These two themes are not the only subjects addressed in the book. There are also several shots of
domestic architecture and images of both men and women at work, but these images often function as a
framing device for each group or culture, and set the stage, so to speak, for a narrative far more concerned
with African bodies and "traditional" rituals.
SBeckwith and Fisher, African Ark, 49-75.
8 Ibid, 174-203.
and several images of men and women with intricate scarifications, tattoos, and copious
displays of beautiful jewelry. Of course, some images span both categories, such as the
photographs of Suri men painting their bodies in preparation for "ritual dueling," called
Donga-which is actually more of a sport than a "ritual."9 Played by the Mursi as well
as the Suri, Donga is a type of stick-fighting where men pair up and try to knock down
their opponent with a six foot wooden staff.
The Suri photographs are some of the most attention-grabbing images in the whole
book. Unlike the distant, rather ambiguous vantage point from which the viewer sees the
tiny Ethiopian priest descending the Lalibela staircase, the Suri men are shown in
relentless close-up. 10 The sequence begins with an image of one man painting another
man's face, shown opposite a life-size portrait of the latter individual.11 The next two
9 Carol Beckwith and Angela Fisher, African Ark, 263-297.
10 Catherine Lutz and Jean Collins, Reading National Geographic (Chicago and London: The University of
Chicago Press, 1993): 193. In their discussion of photographs in National Geographic Magazine, Lutz and
Collins locate seven different gazes. "Vantage point" is a characteristic of the photographer's gaze.
1 The first photograph reappears in Beckwith and Fisher's most recent work, Faces ofAfrica, yet in their
new context, the two Suri men are given names. The man doing the painting is Ole Rege, and the man
being painted is Kolaholi. Out of the twelve quixotically titled chapters in the book, Ole Rege and Kolaholi
appear in "Patterns of Beauty." (Recall, that Barchini appeared in the chapter titled "Art of Seduction;" see
chapter one: Scope and Content.) On the next two pages, a close-up portrait of another Suri man, Muradit,
appears with the following caption: "Surma, Ethiopia. Muradit's painted face patterns enhance his
mischievous mood." A black page with white text (the format of choice for most picture-books about
Africa) relays a story Beckwith and Fisher usually tell during their lectures: "When the day came to leave
Surmaland, we asked Muradit what we could give the Surma as a thank you for their wonderful hospitality.
After a moment of reflection, he announced, 'We would like to see your breasts!' We were quite taken
aback, but realized that this was a fair request as Surma women went bare-breasted, men often nude, and
we were completely covered up, hiding unimaginable and mysterious secrets! We invited Muradit into our
hut, took a deep breath, and, to the count of three, lifted our T-shirts for five long seconds. His eyes
widened with amazement and his mouth dropped open. He raced outside to tell the 300 villagers pulsating
with curiosity what he had seen. Muradit stood on a tree stump and delivered an 11-minute speech. Our
guide, Zewde, translated his words. One of us had round voluptuous breasts and was clearly a married
woman with many children and absolutely taboo. The other had small upright pointy nubile breasts and
was clearly available to everyone! At this point, Zewge hurriedly packed up our mule train and spirited us
over the mountains to safety," (202). Beckwith and Fisher used this story as part of their stand-up routine
during the lecture tour that accompanied the release of African Ceremonies in 1999-I would like to thank
Al Roberts for pointing this out to me. I am not using Ole Rege and Kolaholi's names in this section of my
discussion, because it is significant that they are anonymous inAfrican Ark.
pages are double views of the same two men, standing on a rock outcropping, helping
each other paint abstract designs in the white chalk mixture smeared over their bodies
(figure 3.2). On the right, one man, the same one who paints' the other's face in the first
photograph of the sequence, leans forward, his countenance fixed in an expression of
intense concentration, as he gently holds up his associate's penis while using his other
hand to paint intricate designs on the man's lower abdomen. The following two
photographs-cropped just above the belly button at the top and just above the knee at
the bottom and covering the whole 10x14 inch page-are "portraits" of the painted
genitalia of, presumably, the same two men (figure 3.3).12 The final two pages reveal an
even closer look, so close, in fact, that tiny creases and pores are clearly discernable on
their carefully decorated bellies (figure 3.4).
These photographs of Suri men are presented to the viewer as objects that are
meant to be looked at. In academic discourse, this act of looking is referred to as "the
gaze" and can be defined as the (social and political) position from which a subject is
viewed and perceived by a spectator. The position of the viewer, or spectator, and the act
of viewing a subject as a spectator, is a culturally bound process, an activity that shifts
according to who is doing the looking, what they are looking at, and how they interpret
what they are seeing. Thus, the viewer or spectator-the observer-also becomes an
active subject through the very act of looking at the photograph, through the act of
viewing, or gazing at the observed. In the photographs of the Suri men, Angela Fisher
and/or Carol Beckwith are the first spectators, and although they are not physically
present in the pictures, their subjectivity as observers-their "gaze"-is embedded in the
12 In Faces of Africa, there is instead a close-up of a Suri man's buttocks. The caption reads: "Surma,
Ethiopia: Details of body painting," (202-205).
image, encoded in the representational choices they have made. The subjects that
photographers chose to shoot, the vantage point they shoot from, the equipment they use,
the way a shot is framed, or the way the final image is cut; even the way the film is
processed is part of a conscious representational process.13
There are also other kinds of gazes embedded within photographs of human
subjects, namely, the line of sight of the subjects themselves. In their analysis of
photographs in National Geographic Magazine, Jane Collins and Catherine Lutz write:
"There is perhaps no more significant gaze in the photograph than that of its subject. It is
how and where the other looks that most determines the differences in the message a
photograph can give about intercultural relations."14 In the case of the Suri men, the man
who paints his associate's body in figure 3.2 is gazing directly at the other man's penis.
His "gaze" is then emphasized by the two "portraits" of painted Suri genitalia on the
following pages. When these photographs are viewed together, or read, on the pages of
African Ark, the emphasis on genitalia affects the viewer's reception of the Suri man's
gaze, accentuating the penis rather than the act of painting, or the Donga game the
paintings are created for; which, it should be noted, are likely far more important to the
Suri men than the dramatization of their penises enacted by Fisher and Beckwith's
representational choices. This "intersection of gazes" is always exacerbated when the
lived context of the observed is different from the lived context of the observer.15 In
13 Carol Beckwith states that she feels "Kodachrome film made and processed in France is much more
suitable to Africa. The color balance seems to emphasize earth tones and reds, and is better suited for
African skin colors." Carol Beckwith, "An Interview with Carol Beckwith," 44.
14 Catherine Lutz and Jean Collins, Reading National Geographic, 197.
15 See Jean Collins and Catherine Lutz, "The Photograph as an Intersection of Gazes," chapter seven in
Reading National Geographic.
other words, when-for example-a Western reader gazes at a non-Western subject, the
probability for there to be a disjuncture in meaning is heightened significantly.
Touring Ethiopian Bodies
The relationship between observer and observed that is implicit in all acts of
looking, photographic or otherwise, often creates situations that give rise to an uneven
balance of power. In photography, this unevenness stems partly from a photograph's
ability to place the viewer in possession of the viewed subject; from photography's
ability to create a hand-held version of a real individual that can be easily consumed.
Susan Sontag has written extensively about photography's power to commoditize the
body, arguing that taking pictures is a "predatory act," that "to photograph people is to
violate them."16 Photographs, she says, "turn people into objects that can be symbolically
possessed;" they "convert the world into a department store or museum-without walls in
which every subject is depreciated into an article of consumption, promoted to an item
for aesthetic appreciation.""17 The painted bodies-and body parts-of the Suri men are a
case in point. Because Fisher and/or Beckwith have chosen to present the men's bodies
as art, their bodies become beautiful objects that eagerly insist on being looked at: the
photographs ask to be consumed.
Gazing at African bodies in picture books and magazines is a very passive form of
domination compared to the actual act of taking the picture. Photographers directly
engage with their subjects, thus, they are in a position to abuse their authority. In the
words of Susan Sontag, they are far more "predatory" than those individuals who merely
16 Susan Sontag. On Photography (New York: Anchor Books, 1990): 14.
17 Ibid, 110.
gaze at an image that somebody else has already taken. One arena where this "predatory"
relationship is more than apparent is in cultural tourism and the practice of taking
photographs of people as souvenirs.18
Sontag writes that taking pictures "gives shape to the experience" of being a tourist:
people traveling in unfamiliar territory arrive at their destination, often unsure of what
else to do, they "stop, take a picture, and move on."19 According to David Turton, this is
exactly what happens with the Mursi of southwestern Ethiopia, who are "one of the last
few groups in Africa amongst whom it is still the norm for women to wear large pottery
or wooden 'plates' in their lower lips."20 The Mursi are listed in European, American,
and Ethiopian travel brochures as a "must-see attraction," and tourists travel great
distances just to take their pictures. Turton writes:
The encounter between Mursi and tourists is clearly a tense and uneasy one for
both sides. The Mursi seem determined not to let the tourists forget that they have
come for no other purpose than to 'take' photographs, while the tourists seem intent
on getting the photographs they need...and making their getaway as quickly as
Mursi women "expect to be paid 2 Ethiopian Birr" (less than 50 cents), although they
usually have to "settle for 2 Birr for each series of photographs" taken by a single
tourist.22 Of course, it is really the lip-plates that people come to see. To tourists, the lip-
18 Ibid, 64.
19 Ibid, 10.
20 Turton, David, "Lip Plates and 'The People Who Take Photographs:' Uneasy Encounters between Mursi
and Tourists in Southern Ethiopia," I, ii, .'. '-. .- Today 20 no. 3 (June 2004).
21 Turton, David. "Lip Plates and 'The People Who Take Photographs," 5.
22 Ibid, 3.
plate signifies the "authenticity" of the Mursi people, while their photographs confirm the
very act of looking-the experience of touring "authentic" Mursi bodies.
In African Ark, there are several photographs of Suri women wearing large clay lip-
plates (figure 3.5). Like the Mursi, the Suri live in the Omo River valley area of
southwestern Ethiopia, a region described in Fisher and Beckwith's book as a remote
wilderness, "forgotten by history."23 The Omo River valley is also touted as remote, wild,
and untouched by travel agencies that offer extreme rafting expeditions, cultural tours
and photo safaris to this "forgotten" region of Ethiopia. The main attraction is invariably
the exotic wildlife and the numerous "tribes" who live there, whose authenticity is often
the main attraction. Extreme Party, an adventure travel agency located in the Ukraine,
claims that on their Omo River rafting expedition, "we shall feel as though we are in a
wild untouched kingdom; this is the real, virgin Africa as it was thousands of years ago
before the White Man appeared."24
Safari Experts, a Utah based travel agency specializing in photographic tours of
Africa, Argentina, Australia, and New Zealand, also offer rafting expeditions down the
Omo. Their website resembles an amateur version of the latter half of African Ark, with
numerous photographs of the Suri and Mursi, as well as the Karo, and the Hamar
juxtaposed with diary-like text detailing the most recent excursion. Echoing Turton's
lament of the Mursi women's predicament, the entry reads:
[The Mursi] have, perhaps rightly, learned the value of their looks to earn money
from tourists. The price is not high, and it will surely rise as more visitors find their
way to these remote places, just two bir.... Some have learned to count the clicks
23 Carol Beckwith and Angela Fisher, African Ark, 249.
24 Extreme Tours, Osmos Co, Dnepropetrovsk, Lenin's street 15, Ukraine, 49005.
from SLR [manual, "single-lens-reflex"] cameras... so the price builds. Ifind my
digital camera gives me an advantage here, as it is soundless.25
The itinerary for the Omo trip is actually more like a list of "tribal" body adornment
practices and "ceremonies;" Safari Experts claim to provide a completely authentic
experience, "immersing" their customers in the unique cultures of the Omo River
peoples. They do, however, include a disclaimer: "there is of course no guarantee we
will succeed in finding...any sought after ceremony; but our local contacts give us the
best chance to locate and gain access to them."26 In addition to their "photographic
safaris" of the Omo River valley, Safari Experts also lead guided "pilgrimage" tours to
the rock-hewn churches of Lalibela, the imperial ruins of Gondar, and the ancient
obelisks of Aksum.
Beckwith and Fisher's African Ark gives readers a chance to go on a "photographic
safari" or "religious pilgrimage" in Ethiopia without ever leaving home. In fact, the book
was made as an extended travel brochure advertising the visual splendor of Ethiopia's
rich cultural diversity. Comrade Fisseha Geda, the former head of the Ethiopian Tourism
Commission, had seen Fisher and Beckwith's other photographic books about Africa and
invited them to conduct a similar survey of Ethiopia.27 Beckwith and Fisher began the
project under his guidance, and later worked closely with Yohannes Berhanu, Head of
Ethiopian Tourism Promotion. The Commission provided Fisher and Beckwith with two
guides, Worku Sharew and Zewge Mariam Haile, who both worked with the
photographers throughout their four and a half years of research in Ethiopia. In the
25 Safari Experts, L.C., P.O. Box 680098, Park City, UT 84068-0098.
Last accessed May 23, 2005. emphasis mine.
27Beckwith and Fisher, "Acknowledgements," African Ark, no page no.
acknowledgments section of African Ark, Fisher and Beckwith write: "With their
knowledge, devotion, and endless patience the difficult task of covering the entire
country became not only possible but one of the most unforgettable experiences in our
Tourism is a major source of revenue for many African countries, as well as for
many of Africa's "traditional" peoples. The Mursi may not like having their photographs
taken, but they depend on the money that tourism generates in order to buy goods and
food at the highlands markets, and to pay their taxes.29 They are aware of the exchange
value of their "looks," and are willing, begrudgingly, to perform their Mursi-ness for
spectators who insist on looking at their bodies. It should also be noted that the "tribal"
peoples of Ethiopia are not the only Ethiopians performing their "authenticity" for
tourists. Orthodox priests in the predominantly Christian highlands are entirely willing to
don their full regalia and display their church's hallowed treasures for tourists who wish
to take their picture. Like the Mursi, the priests expect payment, which they accept in the
form of a small donation to the church.
One of the photographs in African Ark shows a priest from the church of Ura
Kidane Mehret in Bahr Dar, a popular tourist destination on the shores of Lake Tana
(figure 3.6). The priest stands at the entrance to the maqdas, the "holy of holies" where
the sacred tabot (a symbolic representation of the Ark of the Covenant) is kept, holding a
processional cross and an illuminated manuscript. Like the priest descending the worn
staircase at Lalibela (figure 3.1), the body of the Bahr Dar priest is framed by an
29 Turton, "Lip Plates and 'The People Who Take Photographs," 3.
elaborate architectural space. Wearing a dimly golden cape and hat with a faded
sunflower-speckled red robe, the priest's small figure would be completely lost in the
brightly painted murals that surround him were it not for the gleaming silver cross that
reflects the glare from the camera's flash and directs the viewers' attention to his face.
Standing against the slightly open, large double doors leading to the dark, unlit interior
room, the priest meets the photographer's (and the viewer's) gaze with self-awareness.
He knows that his photograph is being "taken" by a tourist. Beckwith and/or Fisher's
photograph may be compositionally sophisticated and have more snap and more "punch"
than unremarkable tourist versions captured with consumer-grade equipment by non-
professionals; yet, other than its obvious technical superiority, the photograph could have
been taken by anyone visiting the church in Bahr Dar.30
Few of the people depicted in Fisher and Beckwith's photographs in African Ark
meet the gaze of their photographers. Human subjects, the primary focus of the book, are
usually depicted in the midst of some "ritual" or activity, or they are shown gazing at
someone or something just outside the frame of the picture, such as the Suri woman in
figure 3.5. Most images that would qualify as portraits portray their subjects in this
manner. One exception is the striking image of a Konso man, seated inside a circle of
rocks on a steep outlook, presumably on the eastern slopes of the Omo River in southwest
30 In a volume of African Arts dedicated wholly to photography (August 1985), editors Herbert Cole and
Doran Ross suggest to that in order to improve their own amateur photography in the field, Africanists who
study African visual culture should: "Look through the pages of s.c cu l. 1 frican Arts, National Geographic,
Life, and other publications to see which photographs have the most sensitivity or punch, tell the best story,
bring Africa most alive." Herbert Cole and Doran Ross, "The Art and Technology of Field Photography,"
African Arts 18 no.4 (August 1985): 48.
Ethiopia (figure 3.7).31 The man looks straight into the camera, not quite smiling, but
almost, with his arms folded casually across his lap. The leaning tree trunk to his right
supports a tangled scribble of limbs, which occupy the top third of the photograph and
assume the position of the sky. The tree and the branches help frame the man's figure in
the foreground, drawing him out from the deep nebulous blur of seemingly endless
terrain beyond the cliff. A skinny, pointed elbow and a sliver of shirt corner and sleeve
are the only visible signs of the young child who hides just out of sight on the other side
of the leafless tree.
The image of the Konso man is formally outstanding, yet the tree, rocks and vast
landscape do not appear purely for aesthetic effect; they are included to convey
information about the Konso people. In fact, in Faces of Africa, a compilation of their
photographs published by the National Geographic Society in 2004, the image reappears,
only this time it is flip-flopped, depicted in complete reverse (figure 3.8, left). In African
Ark, the caption reads: "For the Konso, wood and stone are the two most highly valued
building materials."32 The fact that the picture's function is to convey information is
reinforced by its placement in the text, sandwiched in between several photographs of
Konso settlements and buildings. The same image of Konso architecture appears next to
the photograph in Faces of Africa, and the caption conveys the same vague information:
31 For information about the Konso, see Elizabeth Watson and Lakew Regassa, "Konso," in Peripheral
People: The Excluded Minorities ofEthiopia, ed. Dena Freeman and Alula Pankhurst (London: Hurst and
Company, 2003). The photograph appears on page 212 of African Ark, sandwiched in between several
images of Konso settlements and houses.
32 Beckwith and Fisher, African Ark, 212.
"Using gnarled roots and branches, the Konso build their houses on stony mountain
terrains, leaving the better land to be terraced and cultivated." (figure 3.8, right).33
Another image where the subject returns the photographer's gaze is a picture of two
young Hamar women, beautifully adorned for the "jumping of the bull" "ceremony," an
event in which young Hamar men run across the backs of their herds of cattle in order to
symbolically mark their entrance into adulthood (figure 3.9). This image is included in
both African Ark and Faces of Africa, though unlike the previous example, the figures in
the picture face the same direction in both pictures. The woman on the right watches an
unseen activity transpiring outside the picture's frame, seemingly unaware of the
photographer's presence; while the woman to her right, on the left side of the picture, is
gazing directly at the photographer. She smiles, wholly aware that her picture is being
taken. The caption, which is again similar in both books, emphasizes the elaborate and
plentiful jewelry both women wear, thus indicating that their adornments are what makes
them worth photographing.
In photography, the returned gaze is a rhetorical device, marking the image as a
representation that always already incorporates a relationship to the subject from the
observer's perspective; the look back draws the viewer into a dialogic relationship with
the person in the picture, both visually and empathetically. In some cases, the returned
gaze may make the visual encounter more comfortable for the observer: it can "short
circuit the voyeurism identified as an important component of most photography,"
providing assurance that the person in the image is aware of being photographed-like a
33 Beckwith and Fisher, Faces ofAfrica, 176.
sign of consent.34 Smiles, especially, make the subject in the photo appear accessible by
defining a comfortable viewing space.35
A returned gaze can also be self-consciously seductive, inviting and confirming
open voyeuristic engagement. In The Colonial Harem, Malek Alloula demonstrates how
colonial audiences gazed at images of Algerian women on postcards to satisfy their own
Orientalist obsession with the harem.36 Alloula finds two dominant themes in the
postcards: Algerian or "Moorish" women are 1) idle, and 2) sexually available. Many of
the images depict women's "rituals"-the things they do to combat boredom while
imprisoned inside their harem, like drink coffee and smoke cigarettes. Figure 3.10 is a
postcard reproduced in Alloula's book depicting two Algerian women and a girl "having
coffee." The central figure is topless, and stares directly into the camera, paying very
attention to the small cup of coffee in her hand or to the young girl who serves it to her.
The woman's gaze is clearly directed towards a viewer that is expected to respond by
staring directly back. The excuse that authenticates the subject matter and gives viewers
permission to consume the image, so to speak, is the "ritual," the fact that the women are
drinking coffee. This deliberately tame subject matter is intended to mask-however
poorly-the openly erotic message the image conveys.
Colonial postcards have a great deal of historical baggage. They are rooted in a
system of exploitation that is now commonly recognized as a significant facet of the
34 Lutz and Collins, Reading National Geographic, 197.
5 It is important to not that the empathetic response to smiles in photographs is a culturally conditioned
response. See Lutz and Collins, Reading National Geographic, 96.
36 Malek Alloula, The Colonial Harem, translated by Myrna Godzich and Wlad Godzich (Minneapolis:
University of Minnesota Press, 1986).
meanings they hold for contemporary audiences.37 Bare-breasted women, however, are
still a major part of the Western popular image of "traditional" Africa.38 A photograph of
a young Konso woman in African Ark epitomizes the standard chest-up portrait that is
commonly encountered everywhere African people are represented in Western popular
culture (figure 3.11). From the pages of National Geographic, to calendars, note-cards,
and the internet, television, travel guides and tourist's photographs, as well as a plethora
of coffee table books, this type of image of African women is ubiquitous. The young
Konso woman in figure 3.11 looks directly at the viewer, gently supporting a sleeping
child on her back. Judging from young woman's apparent age, the child is probably not
her own, but rather a sibling or relative she has been charged with looking after.
Nevertheless, the caption reads: "In addition to working in the fields, a Konso woman's
everyday activities include carrying fire-wood, grinding corn and caring for her
children."39 The young woman depicted here doesn't have the same inviting expression
on her face as the woman on Alloula's postcard, yet her gaze establishes the possibility
for Western audiences to interpret the image in the same way.
37 For an analysis of colonial postcards, see Christraud Geary and Virginia-Lee Webb, eds., Delivering
Views: Distant Cultures in Early Postcards (Washington and London: Smithsonian Institution Press,
1998). Four essays dealing with representations of Africa and Africans in postal stamps, a very related
topic, are included in the Summer 2004 issue of African Arts. These include: Merrick Posnansky,
"Propaganda for the Millions: Images from Africa," African Arts 37 no. 2 (Summer 2004): 53-57, 94;
Agbenyega Adedze, "Re-Presenting Africa: Commemorative Postage Stamps of the Colonial Exhibition of
Paris (1931)," African Arts 37 no. 2 (Summer 2004): 58-61, 94-95 and "Commemorating the Chief: The
Politics of Postage Stamps in West Africa," African Arts 37 no. 2 (Summer 2004): 68-73, 96; and Jessica
Levin, "Sculpted Posts: Architectural Decoration on Gabonese Stamps," African Arts 37 no. 2 (Summer
2004): 62-67, 95-96.
38 Bare-breasted non-white women are an iconic symbol in the Western world, particularly in National
Geographic. Lutz and Collins discuss how "the nude black woman" was incorporated into the magazine to
boost sales. White women were never portrayed nude; in fact, in one issue, a group of bare-breasted
Polynesian women were airbrushed darker so they would not be mistaken for white women. See Lutz and
Collins, Reading National Geographic, 115-116; and Howard S. Abramson, National Geographic: Behind
America's Lens on the World (New York: Crown Publishers, 1987): 143.
39 Beckwith and Fisher, African Ark, 217.
Awareness of the photograph's ability to function as erotica can make the looking
experience unpleasant for some viewers. For example, a photograph very similar to the
one in figure 3.12 was included in a recent exhibition of Fisher and Beckwith's
photographs at the Ralls Collection, a private gallery specializing in contemporary art
located in Georgetown.40 The show, titled "Cultures on the Edge," was co-sponsored by
the National Geographic Society and also included photographs by Wade Davis, Chris
Rainer and Phil Borges.41 One visitor to the show had the following to say:
I started feeling uneasy looking at a picture by Beckwith and Fisher. It shows a shy
nomad girl with her shirt off, her breasts are just beginning to bud and she wears a
gorgeous beaded necklace. Her eyes meet the camera with a look so docile and
vulnerable that I couldn't help but wince. I began wondering whether she really
wanted the duo to take her picture or whether she just couldn't say no. There's a
quality of coercion in this picture that makes me uncomfortable. Or maybe I'm
reading too much in. That's the trouble with seeing a photograph in this context.42
Like the photographs of the Suri men's penises, the photograph of the Konso woman's
body acquires a new set of meanings when it enters a Western system of representation.
40The Rails Collection Gallery confirmed that the Konso woman's photograph was not included in the
show, although they did not know which photograph the review refers to. Personal communication, May
2005. The Ralls Collection specializes in "contemporary photography, works on paper, and sculpture."
41 Wade Davis, Chris Rainer, Phil Borges, and Carol Beckwith and Angela Fisher work together on an
"online magazine," also called "Cultures on the Edge." (
See also Wade Davis, "Vanishing Cultures," National Geographic 196, no. 2 (August 1999): 62-89. These
photographers-Davis, Rainer, Borges-work in the same mode as Beckwith and Fisher. Phil Borges has
also worked extensively in Ethiopia and his black and white, art-like photographs present their own set of
problematic issues, which are beyond the scope of the present study.
42 Quoted in Jessica Dawson, "At Ralls, Photographs With an Unsettling Glare," The Washington Post
September 11, 2003: C-5. After being shown at the Ralls, "Cultures on the Edge" traveled to the United
Nations, where it was shown in the Visitor's Lobby from the 10th of May to the 10th of August, 2004 as part
of a larger exhibition titled "In Celebration of Indigenous Peoples." The UN show marked the third session
of the Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, which met at the UN Headquarters from May 10-21, 2004 to
discuss the theme "Indigenous Women." See United Nations Press Release Note #5866. "Art Exhibit: In
Celebration of Indigenous Peoples."
accessed May 2005.
Authenticity as Spectacle and the Politics of Display
No matter what the context of a returned gaze is, it always seems to ground the
image by assuring the viewer that the subject is aware of being photographed; the
reciprocal look provides a platform for dialogue, a direction for how to empathize with a
photographed subject-even when looking at the image is difficult. Figure 3.12 depicts
an Amharic woman being sprayed with holy water by an Orthodox priest near the source
of the Blue Nile in highlands Ethiopia. The photograph is not published in African Ark,
but does appear in Faces of Africa. In situ, the image appears opposite a standing portrait
of Priest Aba Wolde, whose green sleeved left arm holds the hose in the former picture.
The caption for both images is the same: "Right and Left: Priest Aba Wolde treats a
young woman possessed by the Zar spirit."43
Out of the five figures in the possession image, Aba Wolde is the only individual
given a name. The "young woman" whose nude and drenched body is prominently
framed front and center-obviously the most visible body in the scene-is patently
anonymous. Not only is the woman not named, she is also blinded, prevented from
returning her observer's gaze by an iron cross held in front of her eyes. The man who
stands just behind her, however, looks out towards the observers' space, and his gaze
immediately makes the viewer realize that the woman whose body is palpably on display
is not aware that she is being photographed. Unlike the more formal, and certainly
43 Beckwith and Fisher, Faces of Africa, 168. The photograph appears in the chapter titled "Inner
Journeys." Several images of Orthodox priests from African Ark appear at the beginning of this chapter.
All of the images of "civilized" religions appear at the beginning (Christianity, Judaism, Islam, 140-151),
while all other kinds of "inner journeys" follow: Himba possessions, 152-157; Ewe "voodoo healing
hospitals," 158-161; Ashanti possession, 162-165; more Ewe "voodoo," 166-167; the Amhara woman
being sprayed by an Orthodox priest, also a possession, 168-169; and to end the chapter, one more image of
a Ewe man practicing "voodoo," 70-171. Although she is being sprayed by an Orthodox priest in "what
seemed like a normal Christian church service," the Amhara woman appears late in the chapter,
sandwiched in between images "voodoo" rituals.
posed, frontal portrait of Aba Wolde shown on the left; the image of the young Amhara
woman shown on the right appears to have been captured with her unaware, incapacitated
by her own spiritual suffering.
Aesthetic and technical decisions are not the only representational choices
photographers regularly make. The power to represent other people, particularly using
verisimilar media such as photography and film, comes with certain ethical and moral
responsibilities that cannot be totally subverted through artistic or even objective,
documentary consideration. Even when human subjects in photographs are not given
names, their bodies are lasting impressions of their presence as individuals; they are
visible signs of human subjectivity. The image of the Amhara woman is very difficult to
look at. Her obvious agony and apparent vulnerability invite viewing subjects to
empathize with her, to emotionally respond to her and view her as an individual; yet, For
Beckwith and Fisher, the fact that the woman is "possessed" is what makes the event
"authentic" and worth photographing. Like the postcard showing Algerian women
"drinking coffee" discussed above, it is the "ritual"-in this case, an exorcism-that
claims to justify the viewer's engagement with the scene. The Amhara woman is cast as
an anonymous actor, un-knowingly staging her own "authenticity," while her individual
subjectivity is relegated to the periphery.
The concept of"authenticity" has been thoroughly unpacked by several Africanist
scholars in discussions of what is commonly referred to as "tourist art."44 These studies
44 See Ruth Phillips and Christopher B. Steiner, eds., Unpacking Culture: Art and Commodity in
Postcolonial World (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999); Sydney Kasfir, "Samburu Souvenirs:
Representations of a Land in Amber," in Unpacking Culture: Art and Commodity in Postcolonial Worlds,
ed. Ruth B. Phillips and Christopher Steiner (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999): 67-83;
Christopher B. Steiner, "Authenticity, Repetition, and the Aesthetics of Seriality: The Work of Art in the
Age of Mechanical Reproduction," in Unpacking Culture: Art and Commodity in Postcolonial World, ed.
Ruth B. Phillips and Christopher Steiner (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999) 87-103;
examine how an object's "authenticity" is constantly being redefined by the way people
respond to and interact with the objects-especially in the marketplace. As far as the
African art market goes, "authenticity" is usually deployed as a standard for measuring an
object's value.45 This is, or course, nothing new. Walter Benjamin, in his study of the
affects of mechanical reproduction on artistic practice, argued that the "aura" of art-its
quality of uniqueness-declines when objects are mass produced; this dissemination, he
later wrote, shifts the definition of "authenticity" away from the object itself, and into the
realm of the political, into the arenas where meaning is constantly being negotiated.46 It
is important to note, however, that "judgments concerning authenticity are not limited to
works of art; people, cultures and practices may also be deemed authentic or
In photographs of real people, the concept of "authenticity" changes: a human
subject's unique "aura"-their subjectivity-is always present regardless of how many
times the picture is reproduced. In Beckwith and Fisher's work, the subjectivity or
"aura" of the individual is always subjugated to the "authenticity" of the role they fulfill
in the photograph. In other words, Beckwith and Fisher's subjects are cast as actors, not
Christopher B. Slc inci .Ifrican Art in Transit. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994; and
chapters three and four in Victoria L. Rovine, Bogolan: \1hp-, Culture ;l, ,,'hi Cloth in Contemporary
Mali (Washington and London: Smithsonian Institution Press, 2001).
45 Rovine, Bogolan, 31.
46 Benjamin, Walter. "The Work of Art in the Age of its Mechanical Reproducibility," in Selected T~i ,,,, ,
vol. 3. Ed. Howard Eiland and Michael W. Jennings (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2002): 101-
47 Rovine, Bogolan, 30.
48 For Benjamin, the role of the human subject as actor in film does not retain the same "beckoning aura"
he finds in portrait photography. He attributes this to the actor's knowledge of his audience: "While [the
"Authentic" people, cultures and practices are the focus of Beckwith and Fisher's
two volume masterwork, African Ceremonies. Most of the images portray anonymous
human subjects; like the "young women possessed by a Zar spirit," their "authenticity" is
defined and limited by their participation in the "rituals" and "ceremonies" being
depicted. Published in 1999, the book contains 744 pages, 850 photographs, costs $150,
weighs 15.5 pounds and "documents" 43 "ceremonies" in 26 African countries. In the
introduction, Fisher and Beckwith write:
As we have come to admire the beauty, strength, and vitality of Africa's people and
traditions, we have also realized how vulnerable many of these cultures have
become... Some groups we visited a decade ago have now disappeared, and
Western ways are eroding the belief systems of many cultures. Concerned that
these traditions are in imminent danger of being lost, we embarked on this project
to document these vanishing ways of life and create a visual record for future
Though they clearly state that the book is intended to be documentary, Fisher and
Beckwith maintain that they "approached the project not as anthropologists but as artists,
following [their] creative spirits."'5
The book has received mixed reviews. Some of the photographs make audiences
uncomfortable, or, make them question the relationship between the photographers and
their subjects. For instance, in his review of African Ceremonies for the New York Times,
Anthony Appiah asks, "What did it take...to persuade Masai [sic] and Taneka men...to
allow a foreign woman to photograph the moment of their circumcision, their transition
actor] stands before the apparatus, he knows that in the end he is confronting the masses. It is they who
will control him." See Walter Benjamin,"The Work of Art in the Age of its Mechanical Reproducability,"
112. In Beckwith and Fisher's photographs, it is Beckwith and Fisher who are "confronting the masses"
that they know will "control"-and of course, consume-their images.
49 Beckwith and Fisher. African Ceremonies v. 1, 12.
to manhood?"51 Another set of problematic images are the photographs of a young
Maasai girl undergoing a painful excision surgery without any anesthesia. Like the
torment apparent on the face of the drenched Amhara woman in Faces of Africa, and on
the faces of the Maasai and Taneka initiates, the Maasai girl's agony is forcefully
tangible. The caption for a dark, fuzzy close-up of her face reads: "As the cutting
processes the girl screams in pain and appeals to her relatives to let her go, but they
continue to hold her down, believing that the procedure is being performed in her own
best interests..." (figure 3.13).52
A slightly smaller photograph appears above the close-up shot, and here, the viewer
sees the girl being cut, but also looks at several of her relatives who gaze at her writhing
body bearing wide, joyful smiles (figure 3.14). Western viewers cannot approach this
image without bringing their own subjectivity to bear on their interpretation; in a culture
where excision is not practiced, it is no wonder that these photographs can be read as
cruel. This example illuminates the slippery process of intercultural representation-no
matter how much the image generates an empathetic response, it cannot be assumed that
the photograph means the same thing to Maasai and Western audiences.
These disturbing photographs also raise another issue: is this still art, and is it
appropriate to put this kind of imagery on display? The intersection of photography, art,
and life is indeed precarious and has occupied much of the discourse surrounding
51 K. Anthony Appiah. "The Rite Stuff," New York Times Book Review (December 5, 1999): 13.
Interestingly, another line from Appiah's article is used to advertise the book on Beckwith and Fisher's
website. It reads: "These are sumptuous photographs...a visual feast...and they reflect the photographer's
gift for gaining the trust of their subjects and the reciprocal generosity of African men and women." The
line appears at the beginning of Appiah's review, before he launches into a critique of Ceremonies. On
Beckwith and Fisher's website, the quote is attributed to "The New York Times Book Review." See
52 Beckwith and Fisher, African Ceremonies v. 1, 89.
photographs of real people.53 In September, 2004, twin exhibitions titled "Inconvenient
Evidence: Iraqi Prison Photographs from Abu Ghraib" were shown simultaneously at the
Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh and the Manhattan International Center for Photography in
New York.54 The now infamous Abu Ghraib photos were taken by United States soldiers
stationed in Iraq and portray the soldiers abusing, humiliating, and torturing several Iraqi
detainees being held at the Abu Ghraib prison. Putting these difficult images on public
display intensifies the tacit and inescapable anxiety of looking at human suffering.
In her scathing condemnation of the Abu Ghraib phenomenon (not the exhibit)
Susan Sontag writes that rather than deal with the "complex crimes" the pictures depict,
"the Bush administration and its defenders... sought to limit...the dissemination of the
photographs" and refused to address the word "torture."55 "The administration's initial
response was to say that the president was shocked and disgusted by the photographs-as
if the fault or horror lay in the images, not in what they depict."56 In effect, Sontag
argues, this "displaces reality" onto the images themselves-and allows the subjectivity
of both the American soldiers and the Iraqi prisoners to be overlooked.
53 For the relationship of the body to photography, see Alan Sekula, "The Body and the Archive," October
39 (Winter 1986): 3-64; Laura Mulvey, "Visual Pleasure and the Narrative Cinema," inArtAfter
Modernism: PF. di,,ikl,, Representation, ed. Brian Wallis (New York: The New Museum of Contemporary
Art, 1984): 361-373; and John Pultz, The Body and The Lens: Photography 1839-to the Present (New
York: Abrams, 1995).
54 There was a significant difference between the two shows-at the Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh, the
Abu Ghraib pictures were exhibited along with photos depicting atrocities committed by the other side.
Apparently this was done to lesson the blow of the harsh show in Pittsburgh, which is near the hometowns
of several of the U.S. soldiers depicted in the incriminating imagery. See Paul Lieberman, "Putting
Brutality on Display," Los Angeles Times (September 17, 2004): El.
55 Susan Sontag, "Regarding the Torture of Others," New York Times Magazine (May 23, 2004): 25.
This abused subjectivity is precisely what the curators at the Warhol Museum and
the International Center for Photography bring to the foreground by re-presenting the
images to the American public. Yet, the curators (and Sontag) were not just questioning
the subjectivity of the photographers and their subjects, they are also questioning the
subjectivity of the American public that consumed-i.e. looked at on T.V., the web, or in
an e-mail from a friend or loved one-the Abu Ghraib pictures by looking at them and
showing them to others. The two exhibitions also highlight the implicit power imbalance
of most photographic encounters. In the exhibition brochure, Seymour M. Hersh points
out that not only are the Iraqi prisoners being tortured, the photographic act was "part of
the dehumanizing interrogation process" because the prisoners knew they were being
The Abu Ghraib prison photographs represent suffering inflicted as torture, while
Beckwith and Fisher's harsh representations of Maasai circumcision and excision
ceremonies portray suffering in the name of "tradition." Neither set of pictures is easy to
view, yet it would be unfair and incredibly dangerous to say that the conditions of
representation were the same: the Maasai girl who is being operated on is not being
"tortured" by her smiling relatives and their intentions are neither malicious nor cruel.
Similarly, the priest who administers treatment to the "young woman possessed by a Zar
spirit," as well as her three male attendants, wish to help the possessed woman, not do her
harm. It is important to note, therefore, that unlike the Abu Ghraib pictures, in Beckwith
57 Hersh is quoted in Lieberman, "Putting Brutality on Display," El. The exhibition brochure essay was
written by Brian Wallis, director of exhibitions at the International Center of Photography and Seymour M.
Hersh of the The New Yorker.