Looking at the Importance of Adwa from the Cultural, Artistic Perspectives

The great statue of emperor Menelik sitting on a powerful horse that is sanding on its hind legs and staring at the northern horizon from the center of the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa is a powerful and perennial reminder of the first immortal victory of an African nation over European power. It can also be interpreted as a reminder that the war between Africa and Europe is not yet over as the 21st century is proving that the interests of the Africans are not completely similar to those of the Europeans. In other words, the bad blood between the two continents and peoples has not yet healed as Europe is vying to re-colonize Africa in a different way.

For the last 125 years, dozens of books have been written about the history, significance and implications of the Battle of Adwa. There are also artistic representations of the Battle from the Ethiopian and foreign perspectives. The significance of Adwa has in the meantime grown from being an Ethiopian issue to being a symbol of international resistance against colonialism and in our time, against neo-colonialism and the global world black movement against imperialism.

Many poems have been written glorifying the Battle of Adwa as an unprecedented historical event for Ethiopia and for the world. Notable among the poems and poets is Poet laureate Tsegaye G/Medhin’s “Ode to Adwa” which is almost a national anthem in Ethiopia, particularly now that the country is facing the daunting task of protecting the sovereignty and territorial integrity of the only un-colonized country in Africa. Minor poets also continue to write verses in celebration of the Battle of Adwa.

One of the most important Ethiopian artists, who did a great job in bringing the Battle of Adwa to the attention of the world, is no doubt Haile Gerima who is considered one of the most important cinematographers of contemporary Africa’s cinema. Haile Gerima’s film about Adwa is entitled “Adwa-An African Victory” and the plot summary of the movie says that, “In 1896, Ethiopia defeats an Italian military bent on conquest and colonization. The Ethiopian people rise to triumph over the Italians at the Battle of Adwa. The event ignited a lasting flame of hope, of freedom and independence in the hearts of African people. The film illustrates an inspirational source of African empowerment.”

As the theme and significance of the Battle of Adwa is vast and almost inexhaustible, Haile Gerima came up with another version of the war film entitled, “the Children of Adwa-40 Years After” which was conceived as a sequel to his prize-winning documentary ADWA: An African Victory, The Children of Adwa tells the story of Ethiopia’s response to Italy’s invasion in 1935, forty years after Italy’s defeat at the Battle of Adwa in 1896.

The Children of Adwa combines personal accounts and memories of the war with age-old folklore, war chants, and praise poetry, to contour the communal trauma of the invasion and capture the collective spirit of resistance that ensured Ethiopia’s victory and enduring independence from colonial greed.

“For several decades, Haile has recorded personal accounts of resistance fighters and documented stories of patriot elders who were first-hand witnesses of the war. His extensive research for The Children of Adwa brings to light extraordinary images and little-known historical footage that weaves together a dynamic narrative of the people and events surrounding the war.”

There are also many minor and major Ethiopian painters who have been working on Adwa as the subject of their creativity. Foreign artists too have been attracted by this event to paint an enduring artistic legacy in commemoration of the Battle of Adwa. Notable among them is Jacobs, 2010. This painting that depicts the Battle of Adwa, and shows Emperor Menelik mounted on a white horse on the upper left. Below him are Queen Taitu, Orthodox priests, and his army.

This painting depicts the Battle of Adwa on 2nd March 1896, fought against the invading Italians hoping to colonize Ethiopia. It was probably painted in the 1940s, but the battle has been portrayed countless times by Ethiopian popular artists.

This painting chronicles the ferocity of the Battle of Adwa, in which Ethiopians defeated the Italian invaders. In the upper left, Ethiopian Emperor Menelik II commands his forces. In the lower left is Queen Taytu.

“Religious art conventions prevail. The righteous Ethiopians are seen as full-faced figures, the forces of evil are largely in profile Made by an unsigned Ethiopian artist.”

There is also the painting by an “unidentified painter” which was created back in 1968 and depicts the Battle of Adwa. The painting was given to the Smithsonian Institution in Washington DC as a gift by Joseph and Patricia Brumit. The event was reported in the following words, “As morning rose to noon that day, Ethiopian forces under Emperor Menelik II defeated an invading Italian army at the Battle of Adwa. In so doing, they prevented the imposition of colonial rule. Adwa became a ringing symbol of resistance to colonial oppression across Africa and its diaspora.

Solomon Belachew—an artist renowned for depicting religious scenes—captured the ferocity of battle in his painting through the use of opposing diagonal lines, suggesting action between the two opposing sides, and his depiction of blood-spattered and decapitated Italian soldiers.Consistent with artistic conventions governing Ethiopian religious painting, the unidentified artist of the second version of the scene depicts the righteous Ethiopians as full-faced figures, while the forces of evil (the Italians, in this case) are shown largely in profile. Because the Battle of Adwa fell on March 1, St. George’s Day, the popular saint is depicted astride a horse and ready for battle as he descends from the sky.“Paintings of the Battle of Adwa remain popular diplomatic gifts that the Ethiopian government has presented to visiting dignitaries and foreign diplomats stationed in the country. The message seems clear: “we remain unbowed.”

Ethiopia indeed remains unbowed to this day and this has been proven by ongoing battles and victories to protect the independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity of the country. The Battle of Adwa is a huge theme and source of immense proud for all Ethiopians. This is why despite recent events that proved unfavorable to the legacy and spirit of Adwa, Ethiopians in all corners of the nation and in every walk of life remain united when it comes to the glory of the battle of Adwa that has become a collective memory of all Ethiopians.

As one commentator on the Battle of Adwa wrote, “Collective historical memory is a highly heterogeneous and complex constellation of momentous events, figures, and phenomena that help a nation define its identity and place in the world. It comprises stories of revolutions, wars, victories, defeats, and conquests – events that most profoundly affect lives and arouse passions and for that reason shape the political, social, and cultural fabric of a given people. The collective historical memory is the repository of a people’s own self-perception, awareness, and beliefs. It is the formative ground for societal collective consciousness.”

Many commentators have written a great deal about Adwa and Haile Gerima’s contribution to making the Battle of Adwa as a rallying point for Africans both in Africa and in the Diaspora. Many writers have paid tribute to Haile’s contribution to African freedom and forced an artistic vision to realize the dream more than any artist in the continent. Adwa and Haile Gerima have become inseparable as Adwa inspired the cinematographer to produce something unique out of the history of the battle, while Haile became its most formidable mouthpiece, becoming on the way the most powerful artist who is weaving the story of the battle with the destiny of the African continent.

As one critic of Haile Germia’s importance as an artist says, “I would like to postulate that one of the remarkable achievements of Haile Gerima’s film work concerning Africa has been three fold: 1) A search for the real Africa; 2) An endeavor to put Africa behind revolutionary principles; 3) An attempt to postulate the Africa to come. This triadic quest is apparent in three films of Gerima made about Africa: the 1976 film Harvest: 3000 Years; the 1993 film Sankofa; and the 1995 film An Imperfect Journey. I think the film we are about to see tonight, Adwa: An African Victory may follow within this epistemic pattern, since it is centrally about African resistance to European colonialism, domination and imperialism.”

Raymond Jonas, a writer on Adwa “offers the first comprehensive account of this singular episode in modern world history. The narrative is peopled by the ambitious and vain, the creative and the coarse, across Africa, Europe, and the Americas—personalities like Menelik, a biblically inspired provincial monarch who consolidated Ethiopia’s throne; Taytu, his quick-witted and aggressive wife; and the Swiss engineer Alfred Ilg, the emperor’s close advisor. The Ethiopians’ brilliant gamesmanship and savvy public relations campaign helped roll back the Europeanization of Africa.

Figures throughout the African Diaspora immediately grasped the significance of Adwa, Menelik, and an independent Ethiopia. Writing deftly from a transnational perspective, Jonas puts Adwa in the context of manifest destiny and Jim Crow, signaling a challenge to the very concept of white dominance. By reopening seemingly settled questions of race and empire, the Battle of Adwa was thus a harbinger of the global, unsettled century about to unfold.”

The statue of emperor Menelik that is standing near Saint George’s church in Piazza is bound to remain as a silent witness of a historical event that has deeply impacted world history and the history of black resistance anywhere in the world. Meanwhile, the Battle of Adwa is bound to influence African arts, cultures and literature in the years, decades and centuries to come, because Adwa is a never ending story that is reproducing itself and winning over many followers and admirers as time passes and the past continues to recreate itself in the wombs of the future.

While most Ethiopians are expounding of the battle of Adwa and its implications for the black people of the world one paradox however stands out as stunning exception. The issue continues to divide Ethiopians along political faultiness as the ruling elites in Tigray have always undermined or ignored the significance of the historic event. People in the remotest part of the country celebrate and recognize the significance of Adwa as a basis for emerging Ethiopian identity while the Tigrayan elites try to ignore a historic event that took place in their own region.



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