Contemporary Ethiopian Painting in Traditional Style

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In: Proceedings of the 16th International Conference of Ethiopian Studies, ed. by Svein Ege, Harald

Aspen, Birhanu Teferra and Shiferaw Bekele, Trondheim 2009


Contemporary Ethiopian Painting in Traditional Style Beginning and Change

Elisabeth Biasio1

Since its Christianization in the 4th century, Ethiopia has followed a tradition of Christian religious painting. Emperors, kings, feudal lords and high clerics were the main patrons of the painters. After the foundation of Addis Abäba, expatriates and tourists started to buy paintings, and in an urban context, art generally became subject to fundamental changes.

Traditional painting

Since its Christianization in the 4th century, Ethiopia has followed a tradition of Christian religious painting. Emperors, kings, feudal lords and high-ranking clerics were the main patrons of those painters working independently or in the scriptoria of the monasteries. The patrons employed the painters at their residences, and had them write and illuminate manuscripts, paint icons and decorate churches with paintings. The development of Christian art reflects the internal development of the country as well as its different contacts with both the Eastern and Western Christian world, and with Islamic and Indian traditions.

The King of Šäwa and later on Emperor of Ethiopia, Ménilék II (ruled 1889–1909)2 laid the foundation stone of the new capital Addis Abäba in 1887. Like his predecessors, he and his wife, Empress Taytu donated churches and paintings,3 and the new capital was now a center of attraction for numerous painters. The reign of Ménilék II gave rise to two new themes, which are still depicted in paintings today, the visit of the Queen of Sheba to King Salomon and the battle of Adwa. Although the legend of the Queen of Sheba served as the legitimation of the Ethiopian royal dynasties and was of great importance in the Kébrä Nägäí t4, there was no actual depiction of it until the reign of Ménilék II. Staude (1957: 15) therefore supposed that the reign of a ruler, who adopted the throne name Ménilék II, reactivated

1 Hoehenweg 16, CH-8032 Zurich, Switzerland; Tel. +41 44 381 51 47, Fax: +41 44 381 51 42, e-mail: Former curator (1979–2006), Ethnographic Museum of the University of Zurich.
This is a modified and abridged version of the chapter “Von der traditionellen Malerei zur Touristenkunst” in Biasio 2006:14–38 and of Biasio 2009:14-25. I would like to thank Robert Clements for reviewing the English text. 

All historical books claim that the end of the rule of Emperor Ménilék II is 1913, the year of his death. On 24.08.2004 Wolbert Smidt of the University of Hamburg wrote to me that the seriously ill Ménilék only ruled till 1909, and that afterwards his wife Empress Taytu became regent.

3 Examples of such churches are: Éntotto Maryam, Éntotto Ragu’el, the old Íéllase church, the Ura’el church, the Giyorgis church in Addis Abäba and the Maryam church in Addis Aläm. (Biasio 2004:89f., figs. on pp. 88, 93–99)

4 The Kébrä Nägäí t is a collection of myths, historical traditions and texts, also from the Old and New Testament, which were compiled in the 14th century. Translation from the Ethiopic: Bezold (1909); further comments cf. Haberland (1965:29–34), and Hammerschmidt (1967:45–49). Elisabeth Biasio


The memory of the founder of the dynasty, Ménilék I, and that Ménilék II himself propagated this theme. Representations of the battle of Adwa as well served the glorification of the Royal, House, as Ménilék II defeated the Italians in 1896 and guaranteed the independence of Ethiopia.5


From traditional painting to contemporary painting in traditional style

As Haile Gabriel Dagne (1989: 215) has shown, traditionally, painters were compensated with so-called gult-rights, i.e. with the rights of use of land, awarded to them by the emperor or local rulers for their services.

Rulers and nobles also exchanged pictures ceremonially on the occasion of state visits by foreign rulers or envoys. (Biasio 1993) Beside this exchange of gifts, already in the 19th and early 20th century, foreigners also acquired paintings directly from the painters themselves, as Pankhurst (1966:20–29) showed in detail. 

These examples show how traditional paintings were exchanged according to redistributive mechanisms and considered as a ceremonial gift – foreigners being integrated into this traditional system. Later on, art no longer circulated on the basis of traditional barter mechanisms, but rather according to the capitalist market system with its typical features of metal currency, the prestige attached to the possession of money, and consumption. (Harris 1983: 76) With this change and with the emergence of new art consumers, traditional painting altered fundamentally, and it is no longer adequate to talk about traditional painting, but about “contemporary painting in traditional style”, as I have shown in an earlier contribution to a conference. (Biasio 1993)

Together with the new art consumers the function of the paintings also changes. While paintings in the church representing the Holy events have to teach the audience and serve as propaganda for the social institutions, as I have shown in an earlier paper (Biasio 1994), the paintings bought by expatriates and tourists fulfill other functions. They can evoke a feeling of nostalgia of an idyllic, heroic past, untouched by western civilization, and tourists often appreciate a souvenir onto which they can project their memories of the trip.

There was also a further change in the second half of the 19th century: Whilst in earlier times the painters manufactured their paints themselves out of plants and earth, now synthetic paints were being imported. This not only facilitated the production of large paintings for the churches but also mass production. (Chojnacki 1978: 71)

Because of the modernization process of Ménilék II, more and more travelers visited the imperial court, and foreigners and legations started to settle in the capital. This caused a rise in demand for Ethiopian “souvenirs”, and church painters started to produce paintings for this new clientele as well. For the first time, paintings outside a church context became available in larger quantities.6

Pankhurst (1966: 29–32) has enumerated different foreigners, who bought paintings from painters in the capital at the beginning of the 20th century like for instance, the Russian physician Dr. A. I. Kohanovski (1907–13 in Ethiopia). The Frenchman Charles-Henri Steiner was another foreigner who lived in Addis Abäba (1927–29). He bought a considerable collection of paintings, partly by the painter Wäldä Mika’el who

5 Paintings of the battle of Adwa are described comprehensively by Pankhurst (1989:78–103).

6 In former times, the walls of palaces were rarely decorated with paintings. Pankhurst (1966:9) mentions the palace of Emperor Lébnä Déngél (ruled 1508–40) in Andotnoh Šäwa and the palace of Emperor Bäkaffa (ruled 1721–30) in Gondär. 


was in the service of the Ras of Šäwa. In 1973, 28 paintings of Steiner’s collection were bought from the Ethnographic Museum of the University of Zurich, where they form the basis of its very rich collection of Ethiopian paintings.

As late as at the beginning of the 20th century, painters were rather reluctant to sell paintings to foreigners. Pankhurst (1966: 39) has quoted Europeans who complained up until the beginning of the 1930s that paintings cannot be found on the market, but could only be acquired through good relationships. This also means that foreigners obtained works directly from the painters. In this way, the European traveler Kurt Lubinski, for instance, described how he met the artist Bälaóóäw Yémär and had him paint a portrait. (Girma and Raunig 1985: 21–24)

Sälomon Bälaóóäw told me in 1986 that his father Bälaóóäw Yémär was the first who had painted the legend of the Queen of Sheba in 44 scenes for the American legation. Later on, he had dedicated himself also to other themes, like the battle of Adwa, hunting scenes and scenes of everyday life. According to Pankhurst (1966: 39) either Bälaóóäw alone was the initiator of “tourist art” or he and his friend Tasäw Habtä Wäld.

The process of commercialization

At the beginning of the 1930s only rarely could paintings be acquired commercially. When the demand for paintings increased, they started to be produced in series in artists’ workshops, and untalented autodidacts, too, tried their luck, so that a loss in quality was inevitable.

Most probably, the Empress Mänän Handicraft School played a decisive role in the commercialization process. Founded in 1930 or 1931, it was closed under Italian occupation (1936–41), and later moved into larger premises. The school had its own painting workshop. (Anonymous 1957: 80–84) According to Mr. W. C. Guder, who taught at the school’s joinery workshop between 1955 and 1971, the students copied the paintings created by their teachers, the favorite theme being the legend of the Queen of Sheba. (Girma and Raunig 1985: 21) I obtained further information from Sälomon Bälaóóäw who had worked at the Handicraft School in the 1960s. He said that he made the drawings, while the less talented painters and apprentices applied the paints. Because the teachers also signed the works of their disciples, the signature alone no longer provided guarantee that the painting was an “original”. One wonders whether it would not be more appropriate to attribute the paintings to “schools” rather than to individual artists.

It seems that not until the 1940s did a considerable commercial trade with paintings develop, these then being sold by middlemen. After the establishment of a significant market, it became more and more difficult for foreigners to acquire paintings from the painters themselves and to collect information on the artists. In order not to damage their business, the merchants did not reveal where the artists actually lived. (Biasio 1993; Mercier 1993: 38)

From canvas to parchment

In 1978, the Empress Mänän Handicraft School took the name “Handicrafts of Ethiopia”; it was the marketing division of HASIDA (the Handicrafts and Small-Scale Industries Development Agency of the Government of Ethiopia). In 1989 it changed its name to “Ethiopian Handicraft Center”. According to an export price list of 1984, the paintings offered for sale were mostly on parchment. The “Ethiopian Handicraft Center” did not operate a large painting workshop. Rather, artists mostly worked on a commission basis for the institution.

In the early 1970s, ETTC (Ethiopian Tourist Trading Corporation) was founded; since December 1992 it goes under the name ETTE (Ethiopian Tourist Trading Enterprise). Originally it was located on the premises of the Bole Airport where the corporation also operated a large shop. This was another organization, which produced paintings together with other handicrafts, especially in its own painting workshop employing deaf-mute artists who had graduated from the Fine Arts School. ETTC produces, among others, copies of traditional panels on wood and representations on parchment depicting historical events or scenes from traditional everyday life or from the Queen of Sheba. ETTE supplies the airport gift shop and souvenir shops in town. These two institutions flourish also on the tourist market and it seems that parchment corresponds more to the desire of the consumers than canvas, as will be explained later.

Fig. 1: Gäbrä Kréstos Sälomon at work
He produced framed skin paintings, which he sold on a commission basis in “Handicrafts of
Ethiopia” or in his father’s shop.
Photo: Doro Röthlisberger 1986


Contemporary painting in traditional style during the Mängéítu period (1974–91)

As already mentioned, the traditional painters benefited from the tourist boom in the 1960s. However, they no longer received state-commissioned orders for art work, because trained painters who had attended the Fine Arts School in Addis Abäba (founded in 1958/59) were in competition with them, and given preference. In addition, after the 1974 revolution, tourists no longer visited the country and the traditional painters lost their private customers as well. In 1986, Sälomon Bälaóóäw told me that he now only rarely painted traditional paintings, because demand had stopped. He started to copy subjects of picture postcards on parchment that could be sold more easily. Gäbrä Kréstos Sälomon, the son of Sälomon Bälaóóäw, who was initially taught by his father before enrolling in the mid-eighties in a two-year evening course of the Fine Arts School, no more painted any large paintings on canvas. He produced framed paintings on parchment, which he sold on commission via “Handicrafts of Ethiopia”, or in his father’s shop. (Fig. 1) However, still old traditional painters, whom I visited in 1986, produced large paintings on canvas, namely ññgeta Gämbäre Òaylu (1913–94)7, Wändému Wänd (1917–2002)8, Alämu Òaylä Maryam (1918–91)9 and Bérhanu Yémänu (1908–89)10. But “Handicrafts of Ethiopia” as well as ETTC competed with them. These organizations could produce more efficiently on the basis of work-sharing; they could adapt faster to the changing taste of a heterogeneous clientele, had a larger network in order to merchandise their products and easy access to the national and international markets. The older traditional artists, who in the seclusion of their studios created large canvas paintings, were only marginally able to adapt to changing consumer tastes and market conditions. Besides, they were only rarely able to exhibit their works in Addis Abäba, and if so, always on the initiative of Europeans living in the capital.11

Subjects of the paintings

In the course of the described development up until today, the traditional themes of church paintings like religous subjects, portraits of rulers, or hunting and battle scenes, have been still produced, but also new themes have been emerging, like daily life, church rituals and legends, above all the legend of the Queen of Sheba.

However, there have been innovations time and time again. Probably by reason of requests from foreign patrons, the painters had to create new themes, and if these were sold successfully, they were then included into their repertoire. For instance, political happenings like those of the time of the socialist military regime of 1974–91 were taken up by painters on the demand of art consumers. Most of these paintings originate from the painter Bérhanu Yémänu and Qanna Sambata.12 One of the works commissioned is composed of copies of propaganda posters of the EPRDF13, which Afäwärq Mängäša, a painter working for ETTE, painted from photographs, and could be seen in the Linden-Museum in Stuttgart on the occasion of an exhibition of modern African art. (Forkl



7 Girma 1989:73–75; Silverman and Girma 1999:157–66; Vasconcelos e Melo in: Ramos 2001, 2 pages (without page numbers)

8 Bibliographical notes: Girma (1989:72f.)

9 Bibliographical notes: Girma (1989:75f.)

10 Biographical notes: Girma (1989:76f.)

11 Biasio 1989:12; Mercier in: Girma and Raunig 1993:38f.

12 Cf. Mercier in: Girma and Raunig 1993:38f., figs. pp. 88–92, 94–97.

13 The Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front conquered the socialist military regime of

Mängéítu Òaylä Maryam 1991.


2004: 104–11) However, such topical themes are short-lived, and today artists still return to traditional subjects. Particularly popular are events of the life of Emperor Tewodros (ruled 1855–68), historic battles, scenes of everyday life, occurrences at and around Lake Tana, and above all the legend of the Queen of Sheba. Idyllic scenes of the life of the farmers, heroic hunts or battles idealize the cultural and political values of thepast. Therefore Ulli Beier (1982: 3) remarked: “The political realities (…) are not at all reflected in the paintings: the unjust distribution of land, the poor and exploited farmers, the droughts and the famines, disease and the political fermentation have no room in this touching world of art.”

Fig. 2: Detail from the legend of the Queen of Sheba
Painter: Afäwärq Mängäša, in the shop of ETTC. Typical for his style are the oversized eyes.
Photo: Doro Röthlisberger 1986



The style

The style of the paintings remains consciously traditional, but as I have already shown in an article in 1993, Ethiopian painting changes according to the same rules as Jules- Rosette (1984: 37–41) has formulated for African Art in general. I repeat here the most important principles:

1. The form of the human body, stylized in traditional art, becomes exaggerated or modified. This is clearly illustrated, for instance, in a representation of the legend of the Queen of Sheba by ETTE. The design, probably created by Afäwärq Mängäša, exhibits intentional stylization with exaggerated size of the eyes.14 (Fig. 2)

2. Progressive commercialization entails standardized, simplified and stereotyped designs. The social relations, which are expressed in traditional works through body posture and status symbols, now become less explicit and lose their cultural significance. In the “Battle of Lasta”, probably by Wäldä Mika’el and dating from the late 1920s, dress and status symbols are carefully represented, (Fig. 3) whereas such are of secondary importance in the “Battle of Mätämma” by ññgeta Gämbäre Òaylu. (Fig. 4) Nevertheless, paintings with carefully executed paraphernalia have also been created in recent years as well, as is evidenced by a painting by Bérhanu Yémänu depicting a horse show before Emperor Ménilék II, which I acquired in 1986. (Fig. 5) The painting showing the legend of the Queen of Sheba (Fig. 6) is, on the other hand, an example of a very careless work with simplified and stereotyped bodies.

3. Miniature painting and use of more typical materials. Probably up until the 1940s, large paintings on canvas or paper were predominant. Small paintings have generally been produced by the Ethiopian Handicraft Center or ETTE, but also by painters like Sälomon Bälaóóäw or Qes Läggäíä.15 We can assume that paintings on parchment correspond more to the desire of tourists for a typical souvenir of the country, because they are reminiscent of precious manuscripts, and possess that ethnic touch which foreign visitors appreciate so much.

The succession

The question now arises, whether the sons will continue the work of their fathers. Bérhanu Yémänu’s son, Getaóóäw Bérhanu, learned painting from his father, and he very proudly showed me his sketchbook in 1986. At that time, his drawings were not similar to his father’s, but imitated the western academic style. He wished to attend the Fine Arts School in Addis Abäba. But his father died in 1989 just after Getaóóäw had finished High School, and the young man had to earn his living and to support his family. In spite of this, he became a successful painter who has worked in traditional style. When I visited him together with Peter R. Gerber, my partner, in May 2004, he introduced us to his neighbor Gérard Leroy, a Frenchman, who had already bought many of Getaóóäw’s paintings and who had also helped him to market them. Getaóóäw had also held exhibitions at the Alliance Française and at the Italian Cultural Institute. In addition, he is also known as a book illustrator. Among other things, he has illustrated a UNICEF brochure concerning the rights of children. 

14 An identical representation with the signature of Afäwärq Mängäša is to be found in Girma and Raunig (1985, fig. 1)

15 Paintings on parchment are also reproduced in Ricci (1989:120–152) and in Bender (1984).

Fig. 3: The battle of Lasta
Canvas; 80 x 149 cm
Painter: Wäldä Mika’el 1926 or 1927
Collector: Charles-Henri Steiner 1927–29
Ethnographic Museum of the University of Zurich. Invt. No. 16846
Photo: Kathrin Leuenberger and Silvia Luckner

In the battle of Lasta (12th century), Lalibäla defeated his brother King Harbe and became King himself. In this painting dress, status symbols and horse trappings are carefully represented.

Fig. 4: The battle of Mätämma
Canvas; 81 x 117 cm
Painter ññgeta Gämbäre Òaylu
Collector: Elisabeth Biasio 1986
Ethnographic Museum of the University of Zurich. Invt. No. 20031
Photo: Kathrin Leuenberger and Silvia Luckner

In this painting no status symbols of the warriors are represented. In the battle of Mätämma (1889) Emperor Yohännés fought against the Mahdists from the Sudan and was killed.


Another painter, Qanna Sambata (1945–91), should also find mention here, although he is not a son of one of the aforementioned painters, but he had learned to paint around 1970 with Bérhanu Yémänu. He was an Oromo from Šäwa, who moved to Addis Abäba and became a photographer. Initially, he painted from photographs he had taken of Bérhanu’s paintings. Then he developed his own compositions and frequently painted the life of the Oromo. During the socialist regime of Mängéítu (1974–91), Jacques Bureau and Jacques Mercier, French researchers living in Addis Abäba, asked him to paint a parade on the Revolution Square (Mäsqäl Square) and other actual themes. For some time, Qanna was supported by Denis Gérard, a Frenchman, who worked as a development-aid worker in Addis Abäba. Gérard bought him painting utensils, let him work in his house and acquired several of his paintings.16 Later on, Qanna painted in Jacques Bureau’s house, where Mercier purchased paintings, some of which have appeared in the catalog of the Institut für Auslandsbeziehungen in Stuttgart.17 Qanna held an exhibition at the Alliance Française in 1989, where above all expatriates bought his works.

Marqos Gämbäre (born 1958), too, learned to paint from his father, and he is a gifted artist. His paintings are very similar to his father’s earlier works concerning style and composition. However, he did not receive a traditional church training like his father, but attended the public schools in Addis Abäba, where he also received painting lessons. Although his teachers encouraged him to attend a professional art school, his father did not allow him to do so, and this lead to a split between father and son. Eventually, Marqos became a civil servant. (Silverman and Girma 1999: 166–69)

Gäbrä Kréstos Sälomon continues to run his father’s shop and he is a talented painter and a master of different styles. When we wanted to visit him in May 2004, he was unfortunately away in Goggam. However, his son Gigar Gäbrä Kréstos provided us with the desired information. Gäbrä Kréstos works mostly on a commission basis. Thus he had painted for Richard Pankhurst, an English historian living in the capital, a traditional style picture representing the battle of Adwa. But he also executes icons or paintings in a realistic-academic style.

The latest developments

We again visited HASIDA in order to learn about the latest developments in painting. In 2001, HASIDA changed its name and is now called FEMSEDA (Federal Micro and Small Enterprise Development Agency). This federal organization promotes small and smallest enterprises of all kinds. Handicrafts are still produced, but paintings are no longer sold.

We also paid a visit to ETTE. In 1996, the enterprise moved from Bole Airport to Asmära Road, today called Gäbrä Òaylä Íéllase Road. In the painting workshop deafmute artists still continue to work.

16 E-mail from Denis Gérard of 6.12.2004.

17 Mercier in: Girma and Raunig 1993:38, figs. pp. 70f., 94f. Further figures are in Desestrés and Kaiteris

(1987, without page numbers) and in Faber (1997).

Fig. 5: Horseshow before Emperor Ménilék
Canvas; 96 x 194 cm
Painter: Bérhanu Yémänu
Collector: Elisabeth Biasio 1986
Photo: Kathrin Leuenberger and Silvia Luckner
Ethnographic Museum of the University of Zurich. Invt. No. 20036

In this painting, the paraphernalia of the warriors, like capes and headdresses of lion’s manes, as well as the horse trappings are carefully executed.

Fig. 6: The legend of the Queen of Sheba
Canvas; 60 x 114 cm
Painter: unknown
Acquired by the museum: 1986
Ethnographic Museum of the University of Zurich. Invt. No. 20043
Photo: Kathrin Leuenberger and Silvia Luckner

This is an example of a very careless painting with simplified and stereotyped bodies. Such paintings came into being in the time of booming tourism and can be still found today in souvenir shops.

Hence, in the ETTE studio only scattered canvases in traditional style painting are to be found. Paintings on parchment, some of them in wooden frames, or academic paintings on canvas outweigh. This could also be noticed in the shops. The assortment has not changed fundamentally since 1986, except that academic works are also on offer. Analyses of the market are in progress in efforts to find out which products meet with most favor. Therefore at the moment ETTE concentrates on realistic styles. It is true that traditional motives are still being painted on parchment, but increasingly on other materials also, for instance as screen prints on scarves, on woven materials and embroidery.

We also visited souvenir shops in order to find out if large traditional-style paintings still find buyers. In Gäbrä Kréstos Sälomon’s shop, paintings in traditional style continue to hang, above all, those of dead artists, such as his father Sälomon Bälaóóäw, Gämbäre Òaylu or Bérhanu Yémänu. We were also aware of a similar situation in other souvenir shops on the Mercato. Apart from large older paintings that are relatively expensive and cost about US$ 500, small dilettantish, carelessly executed paintings, above all with scenes of the legend of the Queen of Sheba, are on offer for about US$ 12. In addition, conventional paintings on parchment, partly in wooden frames, are also on sale. In the “Ethiopian Antiques Curios and Souvenirs” shop in Churchill Road, run by the so-called Šéfta (bandit), in addition to cheap new products, a lot of paintings by Qanna were shown to us for around US$ 850 each.

It is true, that there are today still some traditional painters with a church education, like for instance Qes Addamu (Silverman 1999: 133–136, 144–147, 152–155; Silverman 2005), who produce large canvases in good quality, just in the same way as do the sons of traditional painters like Getaóóäw Bérhanu or Gäbrä Kréstos Sälomon, but this tradition is vanishing. The efforts of foreign nationals to support traditional painters, as was the case with Qanna Sambata and is still so with Getaóóäw Bérhanu, can slow down, but not totally stop the demise of large traditional-style paintings. This is also the opinion of the specialist for Ethiopian painting, Stanislaw Chojnacki (e-mail of 16.11.2002), and João Ramos (e-mail of 11.02.2002), an anthropologist in Lisbon who also deals with this kind of painting and possesses many paintings by Gämbäre Òaylu. Girma Fisseha, former curator of the Ethiopian collection in the State Museum for Ethnography in Munich also argued along similar lines in November 2002. We can assume that paintings on parchment correspond more to the desire of tourists for a typical souvenir of the country, because they are reminiscent of precious manuscripts, and possess that ethnic touch which foreign visitors appreciate so much. At the same time, small, cheap paintings on canvas are bought by tourists every so often. Such paintings are clearly easier to transport and can be better placed in a living room than large versions which not uncommonly measure 170 x 90 cm. These latter works are often purchased by foreigners living in the country or collectors who sell them at a profit to museums.



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