Theo Eshetu, The Return of the Axum Obelisk 2009
video HD, 26’45’’
Courtesy dell’artista | Courtesy of the artist
Through its non-linear audiovisual narration, the work presents the return to Ethiopia from Italy of the Axum stele and its erection in Axum, Ethiopia. With this film, Theo Eshetu addresses the documentation of a historical event of fundamental importance to Ethiopian history, to the narrative of Italian colonial history and to bringing into question its legacy in the present. The work relates to Ethiopia’s founding myth of the Queen of Sheba, as recounted in the 12th century ‘Kebra Nagast’ (The Glory of the Kings), which links Ethiopia to the Holy Land and which tells of the introduction of Christianity to Ethiopia before its arrival in Rome […] The stele of Axum (erroneously dubbed an obelisk by Italians) – 25 metres high, weighing 160 tonnes and dating back to the third century CE – was a funerary stele of the monarchs of the Aksumite empire and in twentieth century Ethiopia preserved as a symbol of Ethiopia’s pre-Christian history, together with other stelae. After the introduction of Christianity, Axum became the religious capital of Ethiopia, and the ‘obelisk’, along with the other stelae erected in the oldest part of the city, embodied Ethiopia’s ancient pre-Christian civilisation, still present in the country’s daily life and historical narrative. During the Italian occupation of Ethiopia in 1937, the ‘Axum obelisk’ was brought to Rome and erected in front of the then Ministry of the Colonies; an important symbolic gesture, this represented a form of revenge for the defeat at Adua forty years earlier. After World War II, the Colonial Ministry became the headquarters of the FAO (Food and Agricultural Organization); the obelisk remained in front of the building as if to symbolise a post-colonial relationship between Ethiopia as the main recipient of food aid and the West. Never freed of its colonial connotations, the obelisk was then the subject of a political and diplomatic debate on the need to repatriate it, which also divided the Ethiopian community residing in Italy. In May 2002, it was struck by lightning and severely damaged and, rather than undertake an expensive restoration, the Italian government opted to dismantle it and send it back to Axum three years later, in 2005.
– Lucrezia Cippitelli, ‘Theo Eshetu’ in Colonialità e culture visuali in italia: Percorsi critici tra ricerca artistica, pratiche teoriche e sperimentazioni pedagogiche edited by Lucrezia Cippitelli and Simone Frangi, mimesis edizioni, 2021