“I saw the world” at Pump Project

Imperialism and identity compete in Betelhem Makonnen’s solo show about a 19th century Ethiopian prince

<i>intervention II (Prince Alemayehu of Abyssinia)</i>
intervention II (Prince Alemayehu of Abyssinia)

Betelhem Makonnen's latest exhibition, "I saw the world," explores the visual representation of dichotomy through the lens of colonialism. Hosted by Pump Project and curated by gallery director Rebecca Marino, the solo show tells only a small fraction of Ethiopia's history in the crux of British control at the turn of the 19th century, narrowly focusing in on Prince Alemayehu Tewodros.

In history's telling of the prince's story, Alemayehu was rescued by the British after his father committed suicide on the battlefield at the Battle of Magdala. He was brought to England and educated with the British elite before dying of pleurisy at a young age. In another version of the same story, the 7-year-old Alemayehu was kidnapped as a prize after the British ran his father's army into the ground. His mother died en route to what would become an isolated prison, leaving him an orphan. His new caretaker, Captain Tristram Speedy, shooed away his entourage, so Alemayehu remained completely alone as a child in a foreign country without anyone from his native Ethiopia to navigate this new world alongside him. He was stripped of his cultural identity and would never return home, dying at the age of 18. Notably, Queen Victoria wrote in her diary after Alemayehu's death, "It is too sad! All alone in a strange country, without a single person or relative belonging to him .... His was no happy life."

Makonnen's multimedia work exposes both sides of this narrative. Images of Alemayehu as he was received in British court show a despondent child being bandied about as a mysteriously foreign entity against the upper echelon of English society. Makonnen manipulates some of these photos against mirrors in a series of four, titled cut I-V (Prince Alemayehu of Abyssinia), creating distorted portraits of both the young prince and his steward Speedy. These are juxtaposed against archival ink prints that read "encounter, subject" and "adopt, steal" (encounter | subject and adopt | steal, 2016) in black and white print. At the flanking wall, a meticulously detailed sitting room installation mourns Alemayehu.

At every turn, Makonnen chooses mediums that translate sophistication through simplicity. The grandiose need be expressed only in the easily accessible: dismantled mirrors, books, and charcoal, to name a few. And for Makonnen, each piece resonates a portion of the history of Ethiopia, by extension, her own history. "I saw the world" eulogizes the life that Alemayehu should have lived and the life that Western history invented for him, in thoughtful, concise detail – and, in that, provides a new depth to the legacy of Makonnen's work.


“I saw the world”

Pump Project, 702 Shady
www.pumpproject.org
Through Jan. 28

A note to readers: Bold and uncensored, The Austin Chronicle has been Austin’s independent news source for over 36 years, expressing the community’s political and environmental concerns and supporting its active cultural scene. Now more than ever, we need your support to continue supplying Austin with independent, free press. If real news is important to you, please consider making a donation of $5, $10 or whatever you can afford, to help keep our journalism on stands.

Support the Chronicle  

READ MORE
More Arts Reviews
Mary Moody Northen Theatre's <i>Violet</i>
Mary Moody Northen Theatre's Violet
In this moving production, a young woman learns the nature of true beauty and true love

T. Lynn Mikeska, April 20, 2018

“Nick Schnitzer: Inevitable Reckoning” at Dimension Gallery
“Nick Schnitzer: Inevitable Reckoning” at Dimension Gallery
Structures degraded by time and other materials provide a pointed view of dramatic change at work in the world

Melany Jean, April 20, 2018

More by Caitlin Greenwood
Kevin McNamee-Tweed: The Exit Interview
Kevin McNamee-Tweed: The Exit Interview
As he leaves Austin, the award-winning curator and artist reflects on the city's artists and art community

March 10, 2017

"Angelbert Metoyer: Life Machine" at the Canopy
For this Co-Lab Projects exhibit, a gallery at Canopy becomes a tomblike space for exploring religion

Nov. 27, 2015

MORE IN THE ARCHIVES
NEWSLETTERS
AC Daily, Events and Promotions, Luvdoc Answers

Breaking news, recommended events, and more

Official Chronicle events, promotions, and giveaways

Updates for SXSW 2018

All questions answered (satisfaction not guaranteed)

Information is power. Support the free press, so we can support Austin.   Support the Chronicle