Art of Darkness

David Grundy 18 October 2007

Ethiopian encounters

The Fitzwilliam Museum

Septempter 21, 2007–January 20, 2008

This is a rare opportunity to view watercolours by Sir William Cornwallis Harris depicting an expedition to Ethiopia in 1841-43 to establish diplomatic links with King Sehala Selassie. Harris was a military engineer for the East India Company, whose South African big-game hunting exploits had provided the material for a popular book; the frontispiece depicts him as archetypal Victorian adventurer–gallant, fearless and handsome, with rifle in hand.

He spent eighteen months hunting, observing, sketching, and writing detailed reports. His watercolour sketches form the bulk of the exhibition, with some oil sketches by official expedition artist Johann Bernatz and a book of lithographic plates from both men’s drawings (published in 1845), as well as contemporary reports on the expedition’s success. Though more polished than the sketches, the blander, Europeanised plates lose a sense of immediacy and ethnic difference. A fierce, scrawny cannibal, draped with “a coil of putrefied entrails” and the “shaggy mane of a filthy hyena” (Harris’s words), becomes a meditative, luxurious figure more like Lord Byron than an African warrior.

Harris’s drawings of people have a real sense of character. The Sultan of Tajoura is presented in an unflattering, even caricatural light: an old man with wizened features and a hook nose. By contrast, a ship’s captain appears more affable. The most notable portrait is of the King, whose noble bearing impressed the visitors. He is shown reclining; a robe covers the lower half of his face, making him appear somewhat unimposing, but his eyes look sharp and darting.

As well as individuals, Harris recorded large-scale events, such as a mission by Sahela Selassie’s warriors to collect unpaid taxes (Harris accompanied them, spending hours on horseback). Using a limited palette—browns and ochres, with occasional reds and blues—his drawings are unsophisticated, but effective.

The Fitzwilliam is putting on several associated events, including a small display of Marc-Henri Auffeve’s contemporary photographs of Ethiopia, in the courtyard (next to the cafe), various talks, and wax and gold writing and clothing/body ornament workshops.

The Auffeve photos provide a sort of updated version of Harris’s sketches, sharing their fascination for exoticism and difference, but juxtaposing ancient and modern in a way not possible at the time of the earlier expedition: in one photo, telegraph wires overhang a mosque. Sometimes traces of ‘progress’ are depressing–scrubland littered with barrels, a teenager holding a Kalashnikov; sometimes more playful–a little boy in ‘rapper’ pose. They can also be subtle, such as the image of a flautist sitting on a rock, appearing timeless except for his wristwatch.

Not merely a historical curiosity, ‘Ethiopian Encounters’ provides the opportunity to find out about Harris’s expedition and admire his sketches, which, though simpler than the carefully executed works of art in the main galleries, have a strong appeal and character. It also raises questions about the interaction between different cultures, the presentation of ‘difference’, and how much our views of Africa have really changed, 150 years later.

David Grundy