Ohio University Press · Swallow Press ·

Modernist Art in Ethiopia

By Elizabeth W. Giorgis

Short-listed for the Fage & Oliver Prize for outstanding scholarly work published on Africa · Finalist for the 2020 African Studies Association Book Prize · Winner of the 2020 African Studies Association Bethwell A. Ogot Prize for best book on East African studies

“Giorgis has assembled the archive of Ethiopian modernism that she brilliantly critiques. With deep personal knowledge, she takes us from magical healing scrolls to miniskirts, from monarchy to socialist tyranny, from Paris to Oklahoma. The details are fascinating and the artists’ works themselves extraordinary, but the real revelation is Giorgis’ understanding of the politico-cultural cross currents that converged in Ethiopia. Her presentation of them with an unflinchingly critical eye does more to celebrate Ethiopia’s singular achievements than any narrowly national story could provide.”

Susan Buck-Morss, author of Hegel, Haiti, and Universal History

“For scholars and students of Ethiopian and African studies, as well as those situated in the emergent field of comparative or alternative modernities, this book makes a landmark contribution. Indeed, Modernist Art in Ethiopia opens up an uncharted scholarly terrain and we ought to welcome it as an important harbinger of a new, critically minded study of Ethiopia.”

Northeast African Studies

“[This] volume places Ethiopia in a rich pan-African context by evoking how the arts, both visual and literary, can elucidate one country’s intellectual, political, and social history.”

Dominique Coulet du Gard, African Studies Review

“A compelling and substantial vision of modernist Ethiopian art not as a single homogenous instantiation, but rather as a series of fascinating twists and turns from different perspectives within a variety of contexts. Overall, this dense analysis of intellectual thought as it relates to Ethiopian modernism stands out as an intellectual artistic contribution in its own right.”

Andrea E. Frohne, International Journal of African Historical Studies

If modernism initially came to Africa through colonial contact, what does Ethiopia’s inimitable historical condition—its independence save for five years under Italian occupation—mean for its own modernist tradition? In Modernist Art in Ethiopia—the first book-length study of the topic—Elizabeth W. Giorgis recognizes that her home country’s supposed singularity, particularly as it pertains to its history from 1900 to the present, cannot be conceived outside the broader colonial legacy. She uses the evolution of modernist art in Ethiopia to open up the intellectual, cultural, and political histories of it in a pan-African context.

Giorgis explores the varied precedents of the country’s political and intellectual history to understand the ways in which the import and range of visual narratives were mediated across different moments, and to reveal the conditions that account for the extraordinary dynamism of the visual arts in Ethiopia. In locating its arguments at the intersection of visual culture and literary and performance studies, Modernist Art in Ethiopia details how innovations in visual art intersected with shifts in philosophical and ideological narratives of modernity. The result is profoundly innovative work—a bold intellectual, cultural, and political history of Ethiopia, with art as its centerpiece.

Elizabeth W. Giorgis is the former director of the Institute of Ethiopian Studies and the dean of the College of Performing and Visual Art of Addis Ababa University. She is currently associate professor of critical theory and criticism as well as art history at the College of Performing and Visual Art and the Center of African Studies at Addis Ababa University.   More info →


Review in the Journal of African History, Vol. 61 No. 1 (March 2020)


Review in Northeast African Studies 21, no. 1 (2021)


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New African Histories




Retail price: $39.95, S.
Release date: February 2019
53 illus. · 360 pages · 7 × 10 in.
Rights: World except Eastern Africa, and Horn of Africa

Retail price: $90.00, S.
Release date: February 2019
53 illus. · 360 pages · 7 × 10 in.
Rights:  World

Release date: February 2019
53 illus. · 360 pages
Rights:  World

Additional Praise for Modernist Art in Ethiopia

“Giorgis succeeds in giving a sense of the tumultuous reality in which these artists worked. Modernist Art in Ethiopia is a valuable scholarly introduction to 20th-century Ethiopian art history.”


Modernist Art in Ethiopia is a necessary addition for libraries that hold collections in Non-Western art, postcolonial studies, or modern art…. While parts of the book are complex/theoretical, it also presents a linear historical account of modernist art in Ethiopia which can serve as an introductory text or starting point for further research.”

ARLIS/NA (Art Libraries Society of North America)

“A landmark study on Ethiopian modernism and experiences of modernity beyond the West. (Modernist Art in Ethiopia)presents a vital and under-documented history of the experience of modernity and the artistic movements surrounding Modernism, coming from a unique place that will appeal to a wide-ranging readership and is likely to become an important and treasured text.”

Africa at LSE blog (London School of Economics)

“With Modernist Art in Ethiopia, Elizabeth Wolde Giorgis writes a powerful indictment of Ethiopian exceptionalism…. Against the established, formalistic way of looking at Ethiopian artworks, Giorgis looks at visual arts and artists in the broader context of intellectual history. Hence, her five chapters contain rich analyses of novels, poetry, newspapers, and advertising, as well as an account of the relationship between artists, writers, and cultural institutions.”

Journal of Modern African Studies

“[A]n important contribution to transnational-global discussions about coloniality, decoloniality, modernity, global capital, and the political and cultural ramifications of these discourses and practices. Modernist Art in Ethiopia is as much a book on Ethiopia as it is about the world, its exclusionary configurations, and their differentiating implications. This makes this well-written and illustrated book an essential text.”

Shimelis Bonsa Gulema, Journal of African History

“This is an indispensable text for anyone interested in the Ethiopian modern art.”

Ethiopia Observer

Modernist Art in Ethiopia offers an incisive account of twentieth and twenty-first century art in Ethiopia. Drawing on original archival sources, and using a rigorous interdisciplinary approach, Elizabeth Wolde Giorgis reads Ethiopian modern art against the broader literary, cultural, and political contexts that have come to define Ethiopian modernity. A major achievement, Modernist Art in Ethiopia will be a touchstone for anyone interested in Ethiopian and African visual culture and intellectual history.”

Dagmawi Woubshet, author of The Calendar of Loss: Race, Sexuality, and Mourning in the Early Era of AIDS

“Modernist Art in Ethiopia is the first critical study of Ethiopian modernism. Opening with a long-overdue critique of the Orientalist gaze that has biased writing about Ethiopian art, the book presents a provocative analysis of the social, political, intellectual, and aesthetic dynamics of Ethiopia’s tumultuous twentieth century. Giorgis masterfully weaves insights gleaned from untapped primary texts written by and about artists with reflections upon her encounters with artists who shaped the visual and literary arts of modern Ethiopia.”

Raymond A. Silverman, Painting Ethiopia: The Life and Work of Qes Adamu Tesfaw

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