CIVIL WAR AND BRITISH COLONIAL HISTORY
EXTERIOR : UNION STATION, D.C.
Fitsum Shebeshe arrives at Union Station in the afternoon around 3 pm, to meet with Serubiri Moses who has just arrived in D.C. by bus from New York City. Seeing time as being of the essence, they both get a quick lunch at Shake Shack. They take pictures in front of the Christmas tree in the Great Hall. They get into the car and drive around D.C.
Serubiri Moses: The last time we met, we discussed Fort McHenry in Baltimore. We also discussed the war between the Americans and the British. What are your thoughts on that?
Fitsum Shebeshe: The Americans and the British. Though the Americans were victorious in the Battle of Baltimore of 1812, the British were still able to control government buildings in D.C. I think they burned (I might be wrong) the White House or something, but I can check that.2 But it was such a mountain, the US troops, because they ended up winning the war somewhere in Baltimore here in Maryland, in 1814.3
SM: Yes, that’s the one I was thinking about.
FS: Yes. The war that ended in 1865 is the Civil War between the North and the South – the Union and the Confederacy, technically. That was in the making for actually some decades and some say the war was not only to abolish slavery. For the Union, when Abraham Lincoln got elected, he wanted to prevent the expansion of slavery into newer states, like to the west. Some of the states were still being acquired by the US then and he wanted to prevent the expansion of slavery; he, basically, didn’t abolish slavery in the South. I think some people have a problem with that. The idea was to not allow slavery in newer states that were in the west; but on the Confederacy side, they had some kind of disagreement with the federal government and I think in some ways they wanted to make a decision – especially when it comes to slavery – by just their states, not by the federal government. I think the reason the war started was that the Confederates ended up taking over federal forts. It was this place in South or North Carolina, that is where the actual war happened.
SM: Is it where the war started?
FS: Yes, that’s the beginning of the war.4
A car driving ahead interrupts the conversation.
SM: Yeah. So, you’re saying that the war started in the Carolinas? And it was because of the fort? Sorry – there was an attack on a fort?
FS: Yes. But by then, at least twelve of the Southern states had seceded. They abandoned the Union and they formed the Confederate states, and they were inviting other states to join them. The first ones were a few states in the deep South. Then, after the war started, Virginia joined the Confederacy and West Virginia joined the Union in Maryland. Border states like Maryland, Kentucky decided to remain neutral, but at the same time they aimed to allow the practice of slavery to continue. Maryland technically fought on both sides, like some people fought on the Confederacy side and the others fought on the Union side. They said one of the most important stations of the war was the Battle of Gettysburg – that was one of the most crucial victories for the Union.5 In the South, Ulysses S. Grant was leading the force in controlling the Mississippi basin, and that was the most important win for the Union. The war was not only physical fighting between soldiers, but the Union was successful in isolating the Confederate states from getting support from overseas by controlling all the naval ports. Confederate states were asking for the British to send them rifles, and they managed to do that, but it was just smuggling.6
SM: Ohhh, from the ports?
FS: Yes, they were able to use makeshift small boats and make them look like civilian boats, but they were smuggling rifles. That helped the Confederate states prolong the war. The British were looking for their advantage. The Southern states were confident that their cotton would help them get support from Britain, but the British effectively changed their market and shifted their cotton source to Egypt and India, which were both their colonies. So they almost put the Union and the Confederate states out of business because they were no longer importing cotton from the Confederate states, which was their number one income at the time. It’s an interesting story. I’ve seen books in Ethiopian libraries, by the way; we have mostly American books, which you can easily find in the Ale School of Fine Arts and Design Library at Addis Ababa University, which I went to.
THE LIMITS OF MODERNISM
INTERIOR : PHILLIPS COLLECTION, D.C.
Two East Africans go to the Phillips Collection to see the exhibition African Modernism in America (2023) and have a conversation around modernism, African artists in Ethiopia, Uganda, Tanzania, and their arrival in the United States. In the middle of the conversation, they are interrupted by a museum guard who says, “No video allowed!”
FS: These terms are mostly associated with Western art history, like modernism, postmodernism, contemporary primitivism. I think they are outdated at this point in history. Because first off, they are invented on this side of the world. And it’s really hard to try to give a meaning to an object or a work of art that’s made in Africa using a term that’s been invented on this side of the world. To me, I see modernism to be limiting.
SM: I think it’s limited.
FS: It’s an open-ended title: African Modernism in America. I can use this title to talk about the works of art being produced in Africa at this time, but that term is relative in a way that it can be problematic.
People are curating from collections. I have a problem with collection exhibitions, though not all of them. I still want you to see the show Ethiopia at the Crossroads (2023) in Baltimore, as they are focused on their collection. The curator, Christine Sciacca, did an excellent job of intensive research, and she tried to incorporate contemporary artists alongside what they have in the collection. She did like six years of research to present the show, which was absolutely excellent. I hope you will be able to see it. I also contributed a short essay for that show. I think my problem is, for example, the show we saw today, African Modernism in America, presented one of the Ethiopian artists, Tessema Mamu’s, arrival in the US in 1958 to be a significant chronology or timeframe in the show. But Tessema Mamu is just an artist, like, to the continent, to Ethiopia. Pretty much a lot of people don’t even know who Tessema Mamu is, because there are other artists like Ale Felege Selam, who came to the US prior to him, and who studied, went back to Ethiopia and founded the art school – obviously a school we all went to. But before Tessema, there were Ethiopian artists that were sent to Europe in late 1900 by Menelik II (1844–1913).
One of them was called Afeweke Gebreyesus,7 not Afewerk Tekle (the famous one), but the first Afeweke. He studied in France, where he was sent along with another artist and, upon his return, he was asked to paint Menelik’s wife, Taytu Betul’s portrait. So, Taytu Betul had a dental problem with her teeth.8
FS: What do you call it when your teeth are like that? No, I don’t know.
SM: They were protruding? What were they?
FS: It’s natural, for some people. They keep it because that’s how they were born, but some people appreciate it. Taytu Betul happens to be one of them. And this artist painted what he saw, but it was not appreciated because there were things that Taytu Betul didn’t appreciate. So he was exiled because of what happened with the painting, and I think he never returned to Ethiopia after that. But there were other artists after him. The art historian Elizabeth Giorgis has written about this.9
Yes, like the pioneers who are so-called modernist, in a term – modernist can be also different. I would say in the Ethiopian case, probably those people who separated stylistically from a church scene can be considered modernist because they technically also parted from the so-called Ethiopian church painting style, and they tried to portray or adapt a new technique. I can relate to that artist, but exhibitions like this may need to go a little bit deeper when they want to really say “modern” in Africa. I think the first thing they need to clear up is their interpretation of modernism.
SM: But they don’t, because they precisely subscribe to an American idea of modernism and they precisely subscribe to a sort of 20th-century Euro-American modernism. That is from, precisely, a scholarly point of view and therefore, when you talk about Africa, you’re not talking about “modern” and “contemporary” (as these terms carry colonialist baggage when viewed in Africa) and I think a lot of people were struggling.
This is why I like Okwui Enwezor’s approach to the question. He was associating it a lot with the idea of history and archives, and he was talking about the production of history and how history was being produced in Africa.10 And he was talking about how artists like Malians Seydou Keïta and Malick Sidibé, et cetera, were part of that production of archives, that they were making a kind of archive through which one could read history. That wasn’t the same thing as saying that these artists were the same as some European artists, or that they were copying the modernism of Europe, right? But that they were archiving, they were part of something; that in their work, you can actually see traces of events, narratives that had been happening in Africa.
For me, this is a very interesting idea and the other part of it was that his idea of global modernity was also about regionalism and universalism. It was about thinking about Africa in relation to other parts of the world. Africa in relation to Asia, Africa in relation to Latin America, to the Caribbean. To, of course, Europe, but it was not about Africa in isolation. African modernism was not treated in isolation in Enwezor’s work. It was also about a space of thinking about Africa in terms of its geographical relationality, which is also what we were talking about in our exhibition More Than One Memory, and the history of the “global” as an event. This notion of the history of the globe and histories of colonialism are included in that.
1 *This title and the conversation is inspired by Nkule Mabaso and Ram Krishna Ranjan’s collaborative journal article, “When Two Southerners Meet on a Tram in Gothenburg, Sweden” in Parse Journal (Issue 15, No. 3, Autumn 2022).
2 “Capturing Baltimore privateers coming down the bay Admiral Cockburn proceeded to attack small towns along the Maryland’s eastern shore. The towns of Elk Neck (Elkton), Georgetown and Havre De Grace were attacked and burned to the ground.” See: https://www.nps.gov/fomc/learn/historyculture/the-chesapeake-campaign.htm
3 See: https://www.nps.gov/fomc/learn/historyculture/the-chesapeake-campaign.htm
4 “At 4:30 a.m. on April 12, 1861, Confederate troops fired on Fort Sumter in South Carolina’s Charleston Harbor. Less than 34 hours later, Union forces surrendered. Traditionally, this event has been used to mark the beginning of the Civil War. In the Senate, however, the fall of Sumter was the latest in a series of events that culminated in war.” See: https://www.senate.gov/artandhistory/history/minute/Civil_War_Begins.htm
5 For more on North Carolina in the Civil War, see: https://www.ncpedia.org/history/cw-1900/civil-war and https://historicsites.nc.gov/resources/north-carolina-civil-war/north-carolina-civil-war-battlefield
6 South Carolina Confederate Relic Room and Military Museum curator Allen Robertson said that 500,000 guns were smuggled in from Great Britain. See: https://abcnews4.com/news/local/sc-museum-buys-confederate-weapons-smuggled-in-from-britain
7 On Afeweke Gebreyesus, see: Abel Assefa, “The Value of Ethiopian Modern Art on the Contemporary Art World.” https://www.academia.edu/42248050/The_Value_of_Ethiopian_Modern_Art_on_the_Contemporary_Art_World
8 For more on Taytu Betul, see: https://blogs.loc.gov/international-collections/2022/03/taytu-betul-the-cunning-empress-of-ethiopia/
9 Elizabeth Giorgis discusses Afewerk Tekle, as well as Taytu Betul. See: Elizabeth Giorgis, Modernist Art in Ethiopia (Athens: Ohio University Press, 2019).
10 See: Okwui Enwezor, Archive Fever: Uses of the Document in Contemporary Art (ICP: 2008); Okwui Enwezor, The Short Century: Independence and Liberation Movements in Africa, 1945–1994 (MoMA PS1: 2001); Okwui Enwezor, In/Sight: African Photographers 1945 to Present (Guggenheim: 1996).
Fitsum Shebeshe and Serubiri Moses are the co-curators of More Than One Memory, part of Unit’s online programme The Sun Never Sets. Shebeshe is a curator and painter based in Washington, D.C. and Baltimore. He is currently the curator of States of Becoming, a travelling exhibition produced by Independent Curators International. Moses is an author and curator based in New York City. He is the author of several book chapters, translated into five languages, and the editor of Forces of Art: Perspectives from a Changing World (Valiz, 2021). They both moved to the US in 2016 and, prior to this, Shebeshe was Assistant Curator at the National Museum of Ethiopia, while Moses currently serves as faculty in Art History at Hunter College, CUNY.