ETHIOPIA: MODERN NATION – ANCIENT ROOTS


Scholarly Web Conference

The Africa Institute presents the international scholarly web conference Ethiopia: Modern Nation – Ancient Roots, originally planned for March 2020 in Africa Hall but postponed due to COVID-19, the web conference will now take place from 17 to 25 October 2020.

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Ethiopia: Modern Nation - Ancient Roots calls for a range of interdisciplinary scholars to consider issues of Ethiopian modernity within a national and international context. In many areas including, but not limited to, Ethiopia’s image as a sovereign black nation influenced and came to dominate debates on movements that ranged from Pan-Africanism to Afrocentrism in the twentieth century. The conference aims to bring forth a transnational epistemological paradigm that can shed light on the current political, cultural and intellectual complexities of Africa’s oldest independent nation-state.

There is much in Ethiopia’s cultural and political identity that contemporary audiences will find inspiring. For instance, while the colonial thesis argues that Africa is singularly the invention of European colonialism, the non-colonial thesis in Ethiopian scholarship sees Ethiopia through the lens of exceptionalism, that Ethiopia which was never colonized, is in rather than of Africa. Yet, Ethiopia has been a symbol of pride for black people in the African continent and its global diaspora. As the late African American scholar William Scott has stated, “By the last half of the previous century it had become a mostly dead and dismissed doctrine, but the biblically based ideology of race deliverance and destiny now known as Ethiopianism had inspired black people belonging to Protestant faiths in parts of the African diaspora for almost 250 years.” Ethiopianism has a long history which Scott chronologically enumerated as: Proto-Ethiopianism 1700–1800, Institutionalized Ethiopianism 1800–1830, Classical Ethiopianism 1830–1865, Post-Emancipation Ethiopianism 1865–1915, New Negro Ethiopianism 1915–1930, Messianic Ethiopianism 1930–1945 and Modern Ethiopianism 1945–Present.

The late African American scholar, W. E. B. Du Bois had taken a keen interest in developing a productive relationship between Ethiopians and African Americans as Ethiopia represented for him the desire for decolonization and Pan- Africanist consciousness. By integrating the history of the Nile Valley civilizations into the Ethiopian past, Du Bois had attempted to incorporate Ethiopia into the broader field of Black/Africana studies. Most importantly, DuBois did not have an esoteric reading of the historical relations that took place in the Nile Valley. Rather, he posits the Nile Valley as, what Fikru Gebrekidan calls, “civilizational crossroads.” DuBois writes the following in 1915: “The intercourse of Africa with Arabia and other parts of Asia has been so close and long- continued that it is impossible to-day to disentangle the blood relationships.” Unfortunately, the field of Ethiopian studies did not live up to Du Bois’ vision of Black/Africana studies and modern historians have cut the history of the Nile Valley away from the history of Africa dismissing any connection between the two.

As much as it helps to debunk Eurocentric assumptions that places Ethiopia/Africa in the zone of passivity and to relocate Ethiopian studies in black studies, the DuBoisian perspective, particularly the earlier parlance, can serve as a mode of thinking to study Ethiopia as a crossroad that accounts for its peoples’ historical material relations with the rest of Africa, the black diaspora, the Arab world, and Asia, notwithstanding their vexed relation with the West.

Indeed, the process by which Ethiopian political identity became intertwined with the political identity of continental Africa was spearheaded by Emperor Haile Selassie, and a handful of Ethiopian diplomats who acclimated Ethiopia’s educated classes with Pan-African consciousness and ideology. However, even with the establishment of the Organization of the African Unity (OAU)– currently known as The African Union (AU)– in 1963 in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia’s transcendent and temporal relationship to people of African descent was and continues to be ambiguous. Most importantly, assumptions about Ethiopia as a nation and with distinct identity continue to operate within an insular statist historiography that engages history and culture without the theoretically eclectic and interdisciplinary currents of colonial studies. This perspective has not only sterilized intellectual discussions and research but also impoverished political practice.

The absence of a Pan-Africanist vision and a presence of a colonial political domination have indeed complicated the Ethiopian quest for a modern postcolonial identity. Still the tumultuous political history of Ethiopia in the 20th and 21st centuries has also produced knowledge that speaks, albeit obliquely, to the historical, political and ethical problems of the effects of colonialism. For instance, in visual arts and literature contemporary artists and writers have inspired as well as mobilized vigorous inquiries into the lives and experiences of Ethiopians as products of complex histories of power relations. Their concern about the urban revolution that has affected millions of lives, for example, questions Ethiopian urbanism’s strategy of privilege and exclusion, as well as its long-term implications. The works of Michael Tsegaye, Helen Zeru and Berhanu Ashagrie, as well as writers like Bewketu Seyoum and Shimelis Bonsa, among many contemporary artists and writers, feature forms of dominance and exclusion in the context of urbanism. Certainly these types of political concerns have also resonated among musicians and performers generating an important resource to critiques of inequalities and to call of equality and social justice.

In the late-twentieth and early-twenty-first centuries, Ethiopians have also experienced an unprecedented level of migration and have created new diasporas that have shaped how Ethiopians at home and abroad have imagined themselves and forged new identifications. Ethiopians now have large diasporic communities in North America, Europe, in addition to a sizable population in the Horn of Africa and the Middle East, a population that is contending with pressing contemporary questions of migration, race, and citizenship. Concerns arose in relations to such condition have influenced the work of diaspora Ethiopian artists such as novelists Dinaw Mengestu, Maaza Mengiste or filmmakers such as Haile Gerima and Yemane Demissie, who have provided us with narratives that put in relief the record number of Ethiopians who have left their country in the last half century. This new body of work opens up a critical space to think through questions of diaspora from the vantage of Ethiopian studies, and to think about the Ethiopian diaspora from the vantage point of Africana studies.

This conference, therefore, aims to investigate the history of Ethiopia in and of itself, and its complex relationship to the histories of the African continent, the wider African diaspora, and the world at large.

Saturday, October 17

5:30 PM – 6:00 PM
(UAE Time)
Introductory Remarks

Hoor Al Qasimi, President, Sharjah Art Foundation and The Africa Institute

Salah M. Hassan - Director, The Africa Institute, Goldwin Smith Professor and Director, Institute for Comparative Modernities, Cornell University, Ithaca, USA

Elizabeth W. Giorgis – Associate Professor of Theory and Criticism, Addis Ababa University, Ethiopia

Dagmawi Woubshet - Ahuja Family Presidential Associate Professor of English, University of Pennsylvania, USA

Surafel Wondimu Abebe - Assistant Professor at the Centre for African Studies and Researcher at the Institute of Ethiopian Studies, Addis Ababa University, Ethiopia

6:00 PM – 8:00 PM
(UAE Time)
Session 1

Exceptionalism and Historiography of Ethiopia | Learn More
Moderator & Discussant
Tibebe Eshete - Pocock Family Distinguished Visiting Assistant Professor of History, The College of Wooster, Ohio, USA
Click To Register

8:15 PM – 9:15 PM
(UAE Time)
Keynote 1

Ethiopia: Symbol of Black Dignity and Independence | Learn More
Bahru Zewde - Emeritus Professor of History, Addis Ababa University, Ethiopia
Click To Register

Sunday, October 18

6:00 PM – 8:00 PM
(UAE Time)
Session 2

Ethiopia and the Black Diasporic Imagination | Learn More

Moderator & Discussant
Salah M. Hassan - Director, The Africa Institute, Goldwin Smith Professor and Director, Institute for Comparative Modernities, Cornell University, Ithaca, USA
Click To Register

8:15 PM – 10:15 PM
(UAE Time)
Session 3

Tumultuous Times: Ethiopia Revolution and Derg Years | Learn More

Moderator & Discussant
Shimelis Bonsa Gulema - Associate Professor of Modern African History and Politics, SUNY Stony Brook University, New York, USA
Click To Register

Monday, October 19

6:00 PM – 7:00 PM
(UAE Time)
Film Screening + Talk: Spacial and Other Memories: Meskel Square’s Contribution
(Films will be streamed on The Africa Institute website)

Square Stories Trilogy | Learn More
2010 | 75 mins
Ye Wonz Maibel – Deluge
1997 | 61 mins
Directed by Salem Mekuria

Salem Mekuria – Filmmaker and Professor Emeritus, Wellesley College, Massachusetts, USA
Dagmawi Woubshet - Ahuja Family Presidential Associate Professor of English, University of Pennsylvania, USA
Click To Register

7:30 PM – 8:30 PM
(UAE Time)
Film Screening + Talk: The Modern Archive
(Film will be streamed on The Africa Institute website)

Twilight Revelations: The Life and Times of Emperor Haile Selassie |
Learn More
Directed by Yemane Demissie
2009 | 58 mins

Yemane Demissie - Professor, New York University, USA
Takele Merid - Director of the Institute of Ethiopian Studies, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia
Elizabeth W. Giorgis - Professor of Theory and Criticism, Addis Ababa University, Ethiopia
Click To Register

Wednesday, October 21

6:00 PM – 7:00 PM
(UAE Time)
Session 4

Artist Focus: A Dialogue with Julie Mehretu | Learn More

Moderator & Discussant
Salah M. Hassan - Director, The Africa Institute, Goldwin Smith Professor and Director, Institute for Comparative Modernities, Cornell University, Ithaca, USA
Click To Register

7:30 PM – 9:00 PM
(UAE Time)
Session 5

The State of Visual Art in Ethiopia: A Roundtable | Learn More

Moderator & Discussant
Salah M. Hassan - Director, The Africa Institute, Goldwin Smith Professor and Director, Institute for Comparative Modernities, Cornell University, Ithaca, USA
Click To Register

Saturday, October 24

6:00 PM – 8:00 PM
(UAE Time)
Session 6

Writing Ethiopia: Identity and the Literary Imagination | Learn More

Moderator & Discussant
Elizabeth W. Giorgis – Associate Professor of Theory and Criticism, Addis Ababa University, Ethiopia
Click To Register

8:15 PM – 10:15 PM
(UAE Time)
Session 7

Modernity and Memory: Ethiopia’s Histories | Learn More

Moderator & Discussant
Surafel Wondimu Abebe - Assistant Professor at the Centre for African Studies and Researcher at the Institute of Ethiopian Studies, Addis Ababa University, Ethiopia
Click To Register

Sunday, October 25

5:00 PM – 7:00 PM
(UAE Time)
Session 8

Diasporic Ethiopia: Migration and Exile | Learn More

Film Screening: Va’ Pensiero – Walking stories

Moderator & Discussant
Dagmawi Woubshet¬ - Ahuja Family Presidential Associate Professor of English, University of Pennsylvania, USA
Click To Register

7:15 PM – 8:15 PM
(UAE Time)
Keynote 2

Beyond Exceptionalism: Ethiopia in the History of International Law |
Learn More
Adom Getachew - Neubauer Family Assistant Professor of Political Science and the College, University of Chicago, USA
Click To Register


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