The arts are not always in a prominent place on the political agenda in Africa, Latin-America and Asia. Nevertheless, an increasing number of governments recognise the importance of culture in itself and in connection to social and economic development. Part nine in a series on cultural policy in non-Western countries.
As one of the world’s longest-standing countries, Ethiopia has been able to resist the forces of colonialism down through the centuries, something that has made it into a symbol of hope and independence amongst the other African states. The culture of Ethiopia is so wide-ranging in nature that in 2004 it led to the publication of the first volume of an encyclopaedia: the Encyclopaedia Aethiopica.
The Ethiopian government employs a broad definition of culture that encompasses not only the no less than 80 native languages and contemporary art but also the eating habits, ritualistic ceremonies and system of traditional leadership. The cultural policy approved by the council of ministers in 1997 guarantees equal access to culture for ‘all nations, nationalities and peoples of Ethiopia’. This was an attempt by the responsible Ministry for Young Persons, Sport and Culture to put an end to the discriminatory measures practised by the dictatorial Derg regime, which was overthrown in 1991 after a period of bloody struggle.
The age-old civilisations within Ethiopia’s borders have not been spared the theft of some of their artistic treasures, however. Nevertheless, these days a key feature of Ethiopia’s cultural policy is the preservation and reclaiming of its cultural heritage, with the government launching such a campaign in early 2004. It scored a landmark victory in early 2005, with the return of the Axumite obelisk that had been plundered from Ethiopia in 1937 on the orders of the Italian dictator Mussolini. This 1,700 year-old monument, which used to mark the graves of the rulers of the legendary kingdom of Axum in the north of Ethiopia, had stood on a square in Rome for more than six decades.
Ethiopia has other art treasures that still need to be brought home, however. In fact, the organisation Afromet has been campaigning for decades now for the return of the Maqdala treasures, which the British stole during their invasion of 1868. Such stolen works of art continue to be prized exhibits at American - and in particular European - institutions such as London’s British Museum and Victoria and Albert Museum.