A recent journey to the Horn of Africa provided Tacoma artist Diane Hansen the inspiration “to create a monumental sampling of Ethiopian artifacts” that would stimulate viewers “on a primal level.” The result is Ethiopia Revisited, a new Spaceworks installation at the Woolworth Building featuring Hansen’s epic interpretation of the traditional African jewels she encountered in her travels. Hansen, a noted glass artist, integrated a variety of different techniques to create two window-size necklaces that suggest both feminine power and a spiritual centering.
Hansen says that the trip upturned her preconceptions of Ethiopia as an arid, desert-like land; instead she discovered a dramatic landscape of volcanoes, canyons, lushly vegetated rivers and waterfalls, populated by herds of African wildlife including elephants, warthogs and hyenas. It was also “filled with medieval castles, paintings and silver, along with intense agriculture.” Hansen was enthralled by the country’s history and culture, including its ancient tradition of Christianity.
Such revelations provide rich fodder for an artist. “Sheba was an area in Ethiopia from which the Queen of Sheba traveled north to meet King Solomon” as told in the biblical story, she says. “The ark of the covenant (think Raiders of the Lost Ark here) is said to be housed in Axum, Ethiopia….Basically, Ethiopia is a country where Muslims and Christians coexist peacefully.”
The specific inspiration for her sculptural pieces is drawn from relics of everyday life: “All of the Ethiopian Orthodox people wore silver Coptic crosses around their necks, and always on black cords.” A 15-year-old Ethiopian student showed Hansen her cross, and explained that the black cord was essential. The other necklace, she explains, is based on an amulet-style neckpiece worn for protection and good luck: “A prayer scroll is inserted inside the center tube, and then sealed shut for protection. You never open the necklace.” The amulet piece in silver is worn by women; the Coptic cross is worn by both sexes.
The painted panel accompanying Hansen’s amulet necklace also references a traditional art piece, a painting of the winged heads of 80 Ethiopian cherubs. “Every church and cathedral had paintings on wood. They were reminiscent of Greek Orthodox religious paintings. I loved the raw imagery. The Ethiopian people from the north look exactly like these angels. They had HUGE round eyes, and physically were very Egyptian or Middle Eastern-looking to me.”
Hansen’s monumental rendering seems to put the African religious relics under a fantastic magnifying glass: “I was so inspired and excited by the beautiful works I saw. I wanted to present them on a grand scale so they would command attention.” Ethiopia Revisited, the Woolworth Building, 11th & Broadway, Nov. 15, 2011 – Feb. 28, 2012. www.dianehansen.com