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.
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