I’ve recently returned from Ethiopia. The last thing I had expected to see while exploring the sights of Ethiopia with friends was enamelware.
I was fascinated and also surprised to see that colourfully decorated enamel dishes and bowls, whose purpose was primarily utilitarian, they would have been used for everyday domestic use had over time become treasured ornaments with which to lavishly decorate the walls of rooms in old traditional houses, notably in Harar a predominantly Muslim city in southeast Ethiopia.
We considered ourselves extremely lucky to stay in an old house enclosed within the walled and gated city of Harar. The house, which has been in the ownership of the same family for generations is used not only as their own home but also now as a guest house – the Rowda Waber Cultural Guest House. Ethiopia as you might imagine is not a mainstream tourist destination and the city of Harar’s proximity to Somalia may put some people off. Other tourists we met – there weren’t very many – tended to stay in what were described as rather dingy hotels outside the old walls of this ancient and holy city.
The house is accessed from a narrow alley through a cool enclosed yard where a pomegranate tree grows.
An old intricately carved wooden door in the yard leads to the stunningly decorated main room of the house (pictures 2, 3, 4). The walls and niches were covered in boldly patterned enameled plates, baskets, leatherwear and dark wooden bowls beautifully chiseled out of solid wood – a visual feast.
For the few nights we stayed in Harar we had the guest house to ourselves. When we felt the need to retreat from the hot sun and when tired at the end of a day from exploring the extraordinary and colourful city we were able to spend time relaxing in the main living area, enjoying the cool, beautiful interior.
This room is the main meeting place for family and guests so inevitably a place to show off possessions. It’s a place for mento socialise and to chew Chat. Chat or Qat as we call it in the west is a ‘mild’ narcotic.
It continues to provide a lucrative cash crop for farmers and the use of the drug appears endemic in the area. Qat is banned in much of mainland Europe but remains legal in Britain. The room has five carpet covered tiered seating areas. The master of the house sits and possibly also slept on the highest level. A tourist guide informed us that illiterates and women sit on the lowest level – the ground level by the main door into the house. Subsequently I read that women weren’t allowed in this room at all but must stay hidden away in a side room. My guess is that the confining of women to the side room probably occurred when male guests or non family members were in attendance.
What is clear is that the tiered seating acted as a way of defining status – top down – master from ‘servant’.
Note the three tightly rolled carpets that can just be seen above the entrance door to the house on the far left of this picture (5). Apparently this indicates the number of marriageable women in the household. As each daughter is married off a carpet is dispatched with the married women.
The colourfully patterned enamelware decorating the walls is given equal prominence along with the more traditional craft objects on show. Sadly but inevitably enamel plates are said to have usurped some traditional crafts. Once importation of these enamels plates and dishes for domestic use became widespread the intricately woven baskets crafted by women would not have been required in the same quantity.
The importing of these attractive but utilitarian enamelware, most likely manufactured in China would have been seen as a practical, even technological advancement on the traditional baskets – they of course were waterproof and more durable.
However they in turn have been superseded by the introduction of cheap plastic containers that are now common all over Ethiopia. The decorative enamelware that I saw in Ethiopia was mostly well worn – look closely at the pieces and virtually all have sustained damage to the enamel. It appears that the importing of the exuberantly patterned colourful enamelware in all probability is no longer happening at least not in quantity.
Another item of domestic enamelware that I saw in Ethiopia were these lovely old beakers (6). The enamel drinking vessels are similar in shape to the more traditional horn beakers. The enamel beakers much like the enamel plates and dishes would have partially replaced the horn drinking vessels common in Ethiopia prior to the introduction of enamelware.
Traditionally the beakers had been made from horn sealed at one end with a cork or wooden plug – the shape of the ‘modern’ enamel beakers now being sold in shops and stalls that specialise in ‘antiques’ reflected the form of the traditional horn beakers.
The Lion of Judah emblem (6) is seen throughout Ethiopia. It has been a symbol of Ethiopia and in particular the Emperors of Ethiopia since the 10th century when according to legend the Queen of Sheba returned to Ethiopia after a visit to meet with King Solomon in Jerusalem, pregnant with the future emperor of Ethiopia, Emperor Menelik 1.
Even trawling the internet it has been difficult to find information about enamelware in Ethiopia. However the British museum do have two beakers in shape (7) much like the one shown in the picture above. One beaker is blue and features the Lion of Judah in white enamel marching in the opposite direction to the lion on the beaker pictured (6) above. This apparently indicates that it dates from pre the coronation of Ras Tafari Makonnen as Emperor of Ethiopia in 1930.
So my enameled drinking beakers – I bought two – must be post 1930. Curiously one of my beakers is stamped on the base with what looks like ‘made in Ethiopia’ but I can’t find any evidence that Ethiopia ever had its own enamel manufacturer. Indeed the British museum’s white beaker proudly proclaims ‘Industria Italiana’.
The fact that enamel given the nature of the material can easily be used as a vehicle for political imagery (8) and sloganising is thought provoking.
In Addis Ababa we visited a sculpture park where one artist had made a sculpture depicting the currently defunct Ethiopia to Djibouti railway – there is a proposal to reinstate it at some point in the future. What interested me was the enamel plate (9) recycled into his sculpture with a stencilled image of Mickey Mouse on it!
I find it intriguing that an enamel plate decorated with an iconic Western cartoon image, probably manufactured in China and subsequently exported to and used as an everyday practical utensil in Africa, ends up recycled into a rather bizarre sculpture in Addis Ababa inspired by the loss of a railway in Ethiopia!