Surge of interest in Ethiopian culture boosts case for return of treasures, says Sissay

Surge of interest in Ethiopian culture boosts case for return of treasures, says Sissay

An Ethiopian cultural surge – including a first national pavilion at the Venice Biennale and the rise of stars such as Ruth Negga and The Weeknd – is making the country’s calls for restitution of looted colonial-era artefacts harder to ignore, according to Lemn Sissay.

The poet and author, who is curating the country’s inaugural Biennale pavilion, where Tesfaye Urgessa’s work will be on show, said the event would be part of a significant cultural push from the east African country and its diaspora over the last two decades.

Sissay said the emergence of Ethiopians such as the Booker-nominated author Maaza Mengiste, the fashion model Liya Kebede, musicians such as Mulatu Astatke, and visual artists including Aïda Muluneh and Julie Mehretu was forming a critical mass that was forcing museums and governments to reassess looted Ethiopian items in their collection, such as those taken after the battle of Maqdala, fought between British and Abyssinian forces in 1868.

He said: “As Ethiopia articulates itself through culture around the world, it becomes less easy to ignore the battle of Maqdala. There were so many looted sacred objects, which means that part of the heart of what it means to be Ethiopian is missing.

“As Ethiopia rises, so does the discussion about what was looted in 1868.”

Head and shoulders photo of Maaza MengisteView image in fullscreen

Sissay told the Guardian the Venice pavilion was also a significant moment for Ethiopia because of its relationship with Italy – a country that occupied it for five years but failed to colonise it. “Ethiopia was never colonised, so we don’t have that relative trauma as a memory bookmark,” he said.

Sissay made the comments in the same week the Guardian reported that Returning Heritage, a not-for-profit organisation, had accused the British Museum of withholding information about items looted from the battle of Maqdala.

The Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) confirmed it was investigating the British Museum over claims that it has been secretive about a group of sacred Ethiopian altar tablets that have been in the collection for more than 150 years.

There have been calls for decades for the tablets, or “tabots”, to be repatriated to Ethiopia, and the country’s culture minister requested their return while on a visit to the museum in 2019. Some tabots have already gone back, such as one found in an Edinburgh church 23 years ago.

In February, the Ethiopian government successfully halted the auction of a shield taken from Maqdala in the UK, while Westminster Abbey agreed “in principle” to return to Ethiopia a sacred tablet it holds.

A period photograph showing several soldiers around a stone building with a grass roofView image in fullscreen

“[Maqdala] is not going away,” said Sissay. “More than ever, there is a much more sober conversation happening between the British and the Ethiopian authorities, and that’s happening because of the museums in Britain. These are the places where we are assessing what our role is in the world for the next 500 years.”

Nicholas Cullinan was appointed director of the British Museum last week, and the issue of restitution will be one of the biggest problems in his in-tray as he takes over from Hartwig Fischer, who resigned after news broke that hundreds of items had been allegedly stolen from the museum by a member of staff.

Sissay told Today on BBC Radio 4 that alongside a £50m revamp of the institution, “the reimagining of the British Museum may include restitution”, while he called for the 11 wood and stone tabots to be returned to the African country as a symbol of “friendship to the church in Ethiopia”.