At the end of February Deputy Head of Conservation Andrew Hughes and myself drove the Museum van to Osney Island, Oxford to collect an Ethiopian painting kindly donated to the Museum by Alan Goodwin. Due to the unforeseen circumstances of the Covid -19 pandemic the painting remains in the Museum’s quarantine quarters for processing. Alan had sent photographs of the painting but I was really excited to see it in the flesh. The painting is a visual treat depicting a vivid and lively battle scene commanded by Ras Gobena, General under Ethiopian Emperor Menelik II. Ras Gobena and Menelik II used guns manufactured in Europe to bring Southern and Northern areas of Ethiopia under a centralised rule. The painting clearly depicts Ras Gobena’s men painted with lighter skin attacking the Amhara Ethiopians from the Northern highlands of Ethiopia depicted in the painting with darker skin. The painting is full of contrasts; mud huts/tents, guns/spears, black/white, Christian/Animist, tunics/beaded loin cloths. This is interesting as ultimately it was the unity of Ethiopia, a country of multiple ethnicities and languages, culminating in its victory over the Italians at the Battle of Adwa in 1896, ensuring Ethiopia’s sovereignty and freedom from colonialism. The triumphant victory at Adwa brought Ethiopia to the world’s attention, strengthening the country’s image as defender of African independence.
The painting is by the artist Solomon Belachew. It is very similar in style to a painting held by the British Museum depicting the battle of Adwa. There are stylistic similarities in the conventions used to paint the figures and conventions applied in Ethiopian religious paintings. The battle of Adwa was a popular subject for Ethiopians to paint and Solomon Belachew also painted the scene in a painting which is now at the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art. In our Painting the lighter skinned Oromo Ethiopians are always painted as full-faced figures whilst some of the darker skinned Amhara Ethiopians are painted in profile distinguishing the forces of good from evil. The ferocity of the battle is captured in Belachew’s depiction of blood-spattered victims strewn on the ground.
Alastair Goodwin photographed in Africa during the 1940's.
The painting was purchased by Alan Goodwin’s father Alastair Goodwin in 1946 when he was posted to HQ British Military Mission to Ethiopia (Addas Ababa and Jimma) between May – October 1946. Solomon Belachew’s son is also an artist and continues to sale his own paintings and those of other local artist in his studio and shop in the Piazza tourist district of Addis Ababa. It was during Solomon Belachew’s father Belachew Yimar’s time that such contemporary paintings in traditional style became popular souvenirs in the 1940’s for foreign visitors such as Alastair Goodwin to take home.
Deputy Head of Collections