THEO ESHETU | The Return of the Axum Obelisk

This video installation consists of fifteen 4:3 monitors arranged in three rows of five. The formal arrangement is reminiscent of the narrative frames—like comic strips—of traditional Ethiopian painting. Into his non-linear video narrative of the epic return from Italy to Ethiopia of the Axum obelisk and and its resurrection in Ethiopia, Theo Eshetu integrates Ethiopia’s foundational myth of the Queen of Sheba, as narrated in the 12th-century Kebra Nagast (Law of Kings), which tie Ethiopia to the Holy Land. Not only did Ethiopia’s introduction of Christianity predate Rome’s but Queen Sheba was said to have visited King Solomon in Jerusalem and become pregnant. The son she bore King Solomon in Ethiopia later visited Jerusalem, returned to Ethiopia with the Arc of the Covenant, and ruled as King Meneluk I. Eshetu juxtaposes the symbolic power of the Queen Sheba narrative with the symbolic shifts attached to the monumental Axum obelisk. 

The Axum obelisk—a 25-meter, 160-ton stele, built in the third century—was originally a pre-christian phallic symbol of power and a funeral pyre for the monarchs of the Axumite Empire. After the introduction of Christianity, Axum became Ethiopia’s religious capital and the obelisk then stood for Ethiopia’s ancient, pre-christian civilization. During the Italian occupation of Ethiopia, in 1935, the obelisk was taken to Rome and erected in front of the then Ministry for the Colonies. Like the war prizes of the Roman emperors, now the obelisk symbolized conquering power—and revenge for Italy’s defeat in Ethiopia forty years earlier at the Battle of Ardua. After the Second World War however, the building was given to the UN and became headquarters of the Food and Agricultural Organization. The Ethiopian monument now stood for the FAO’s mission, symbolizing Ethiopia as a central recipient of food aid. But the obelisk never shed its colonial connotations, and political debate ensued about whether this massive African artifact should be repatriated. For Ethiopians in Rome and for the Ethiopian Orthodox Church the Axum obelisk was an important presence in the Eternal City, underscoring Rome’s and Axum’s shared links to the Holy Land. Perhaps alternative modes of restitution could be created while leaving the obelisk in Rome… but the matter finally was decided by an act of God: in May 2002 lightning struck and badly damaged the obelisk. Rather than undertake laborious restoration, the obelisk was dismantled and stored for three years at Rome’s military airport, and then returned to Axum in 2005. 

Theo Eshetu presents this unprecedented engineering feat, from dismantling in Rome to the resurrection celebrations in Axum, as a “ritual ceremony of transformation” that shifted the symbolic significance from the obelisk from a reminder of colonial conflict and postcolonial debate into a symbol of postcolonial reconciliation, peace, and unity. The symbolic significance of restituting this massive African object is of profound symbolic value not just for Ethiopia but for Africa as a whole. Renamed by the Axum people the “Rome Stele,” the obelisk can be said to represent a new form of balance in North-South relations and to stand for new forms of exchange and understanding in a globalized world.

Commenting on the formal structure of the work, Theo Eshetu says: “Harmonious compositions created by multiple repetitions and time shifts have counterpoints in compositions that unify fragments into a complete image across all fifteen screens. This is a work that fuses the painterly, the sculptural, the kinetic, the theatrical, the ritual, and the poetic, accompanied by varied musical counterparts. The technical complexities of the video installation echo, in miniature, the complexities of this engineering feat. ”