Elizabeth Street Fine Arts
209 Elizabeth Street, Nolita
Through June 30
NYT – In 2005 the London dealer Sam Fogg blew us away with an exhibition of Ethiopian Christian liturgical art: open-work processional crosses cast in metal or carved from wood, along with brilliantly painted icons and illuminated Gospels, some made centuries ago in the great court ateliers of post-Byzantine Africa.
Now Mr. Fogg, in association with Milos Simovic of Elizabeth Street Fine Arts, follows up with a smaller show of 18th- and 19th-century objects that emerged from Ethiopian popular religion. And they are equally, if differently, wondrous.
Magic or healing scrolls usually take the form of long, narrow, often segmented vertical strips of parchment covered with handwritten texts — protective prayers, spell-casting formulas — interspersed with drawn and painted images. Such scrolls were, and still are, created by traditional healers and diviners. The Ethiopian Orthodox Church has always viewed the art with deep suspicion, in part because it mixes canonically sacred and heterodox elements: figures of warrior-saints and archangels rub shoulders with uncouth demons; talismanic designs derived in part from Islamic, Judaic and pre-Christian folk sources mingle with New Testament quotations.
But whatever their religious status, these scrolls are visual knockouts. One of the oldest in the show, dating to the late-18th or early-19th century, is punctuated by the image of an eight-pointed star, known as Solomon’s Seal, with a pair of starting eyes at its center and other eyes jutting from the sides like wings.
Eyes, meant to spot evil and stare it down, abound in this art, in abstract patterns but also in the faces of angels and devils whose identities can be hard to tell apart. A fantastic creature with a Tweety-bird head and tiny birdlike beak could be either celestial or hellish, as could a dark-skinned presence of ethereal grace who bares a set of ferociously sharp teeth. In certain cases the affiliation is unmistakable. That being in the head-to-toe coat of puffy rainbow clouds? Divine, obviously.
What is clear in every detail of these objects is a believed-in vivacity. They were created to generate live spiritual power in the material world, which is why the devotees carried them everywhere during the day and hung them unfurled on the walls of their homes at night. Like computers in sleep mode, scrolls were always on, ready to power-up into action.
And they translate easily into a Western context. The art historian Jacques Mercier has compared the dynamic of healing scrolls to the work of Western painters like James Ensor and Adolf Wolfli, for whom art had a deeply personal, psychologically ameliorating dimension. In the art of contemporary Ethiopian artists like Gedewon Makonnen (1939-95), scroll imagery blurs the boundary between traditional function and modern abstraction.
Although the Metropolitan Museum of Art has in recent years been putting together a significant collection of Ethiopian religious art, magic scrolls, so far, don’t seem to play a large role in it. This makes the Elizabeth Street exhibition — installed, rather startlingly, in the rear section of a gallery otherwise specializing in, among other things, Coney Island artifacts — one of the few opportunities anywhere to see this extraordinary art. While you’re there, don’t miss the accompanying display of processional crosses. Fabulous.