Friday, September 21, Dr. Neal Sobana, a graduate of Hope College, class of 1968, taught a lecture entitled “Giving Art, Seeking Salvation: Encounters with Artists and Donors in the Ethiopian Orthodox Church.” The lecture was intended to supplement the new exposition in the Kruizenga Art Center, open now until December 15. Dr. Sobana provided some insights that enhance the viewing experience of the exposition, of which he was the primary provider of the pieces displayed. When he graduated from Hope, he joined the Peace Corps and was relocated to Ethiopia, where he became fascinated by their culture and devotion to Christianity.
Located on the Eastern edge of Africa, Ethiopia has been host to a large Christian community, which dates back to fourth century C.E., long before Christian evangelists arrived. Dr. Sobana stated that as many as 60 percent of the population are Christians (though he did say that the statistics can vary depending on the sources, as some states number closer to 45 percent). The Highlands of Ethiopia serve as home to the majority of the Christian population and the setting of which the art displayed in the exhibit comes from.
The exhibition itself is entitled “Living Tradition,” which accurately describes the circumstances of which the works featured were created. Upon entrance into the exhibit, an eruption of color disrupts the stark white walls of the Kruizenga. Each piece is a vibrant tribute to critical events in Christian history. A particularly striking piece is an image of Mary holding Jesus, the infant. What is so remarkable is the great use of color. Compared with many Western depictions of the scene, which are relatively muted and painted in impressionist styles, this work is rich with color, as Mary is draped in a fine blue robe and surrounded by warm reds and golds. Many of the other pieces featured in the exhibit share that same strong use of bright colors and bring a new perspective to scenes commonly portrayed in muted tones. Dr. Sobana used this image of Mary and several other featured works to explain another facet of Ethiopian Orthodox Christian art. He told the story of an Ethiopian nun who had the piece commissioned but passed away before its completion.
As a tribute, the artist included her in the painting in the lower left-hand corner. It is fairly common for artists to include the commissioners or loved ones in their paintings. He told another story of a father who commissioned an artist with his deceased son’s money to create a work to be donated to the church and include his son in it as a final tribute to him. This brings us to the heart of the importance of these works in Ethiopian Orthodox Christianity: art as a tribute. The very epicenter of the exhibit is generosity. Dr. Sobana explained that a huge part of Christianity is giving. He reasoned that when people give money to the church, they do not really know where it goes, but when they give art, they can see it and know that others can learn from those images. This is why giving art to the church is so much more common; it is a tangible donation. Art is how believers express gratitude and how they pay back for what they have received.
To close his lecture, Dr. Sobana expressed how this tradition of giving art to the church, while very much alive, is under fire. He explained that much has remained the same: the reasons for creating and the inspiration behind it. What has changed are the artists and those who create these incredible images. The tradition of handmade art continues, but it must compete with modern printmaking and reproduction, which he explained don’t have the same heart behind them. It is his hope, in the creation of this exhibit, that the traditional hand-painted and carved works will persevere and that heart and generosity remain the root of the creation of it.