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Theo Eshetu
Zimmerstr. 90/91, 10117 Berlin, Germany
February 1, 2014 - March 15, 2014

Monument Man: Theo Eshetu’s The Return of the Axum Obelisk
by Dakota DeVos

Given the media’s recent fascination with the Cornelius Gurlitt case in Munich, and the blockbuster fanfare surrounding the premiere of George Clooney’s Monuments Men, the world seems abuzz with the thorny issue of repatriation. The daadgalerie in Berlin brings an interesting voice to this conversation with their presentation of Theo Eshetu’s 2009 work The Return of the Axum Obelisk, on view through March 15th.

Eshetu’s video installation follows the 2005 repatriation of the Axum Obelisk from Piazza di Porta Capena in Rome to its place of origin in Axum, Ethiopia. Eshetu’s own Ethiopian heritage, as well as his multinational upbringing in England, Senegal, Serbia, and Italy explain the astute eye and subtle complexity that inform his documentation of the obelisk’s return. This work fits squarely into Eshetu’s oeuvre, demonstrating a proclivity for themes of international and intercultural clashes, particularly those relating to subjective interpretations of history and religion.

Theo Eshetu, installation view, The Return of the Axum Obelisk, 2009, 26 min. loop; Courtesy of the artist and daadgalerie, Berlin.


Eshetu’s visual language has a strikingly musical quality, which could well stem from his artistic beginnings DJing and photographing the likes of David Bowie and the Velvet Underground. In The Return of the Axum Obelisk, video screens stacked three high and five wide function like instruments in a fifteen piece ensemble, each chronicling the transport and installation of the Axum Obelisk through imagery that alternately syncs and diverges in a rhythmical flow across the grid of screens. The installation’s corresponding soundtrack consists predominantly of waves of bass notes broken intermittently by the odd construction drill, pinging of a hammer, or hum of a religious chant.

The twenty-six-minute video loop begins with close-ups of tableau paintings depicting various scenes from the Queen of Sheba’s visit to King Solomon. This origin myth for the modern state of Ethiopia is your standard biblical yarn, rife with sexual intrigue, a divinely ordained monarch, camels, and goats. Eshetu’s screens next flicker to a pageant reenactment of this story. The camera jarringly cuts from the glittery embroidered costumes of the pageant to black and white footage of the Italian Conquest of Ethiopia and Mussolini’s 1937 unveiling of the Obelisk of Axum in Rome.

Theo Eshetu, installation view, The Return of the Axum Obelisk, 2009, 26 min. loop; Courtesy of the artist and daadgalerie, Berlin.


This sequence of scenes sets an historical backdrop for the obelisk’s 2005 return to Axum. The screens return to color film as a cargo aircraft touches down in Ethiopia, greeted by a jubilant crowd of trumpet-playing Ethiopians. Eshetu’s camera follows the monument’s progress from airplane, to construction site, to unveiling. But, like an atonal symphony, the installation’s fifteen screens sporadically intersperse this narrative with the reactions of the people living in Axum. Here we see children cartwheeling next to the construction site, there a religious procession with UNESCO representatives riding camels, here a grandmother radiantly smiling and clapping. For Eshetu, the return of the obelisk is not just about the role this monument plays for Ethiopian national identity, but even more so about how its repatriation affects individuals.

Above all, Eshetu invites the viewer to consider the malleability of meaning assigned to the Obelisk of Axum. This impartial stone monolith has acted as a blank canvas for each people who have claimed it as their own throughout history. Today it is a symbol of national pride for the people of Ethiopia. Under Mussolini it stood as a symbol of Italy’s imperialist might and as a reference to Italy’s Roman heritage. And that’s not to mention its original purpose: to commemorate an Ethiopian royal whose name has long been forgotten.  


Dakota DeVos 



(All images: Theo Eshetu,The Return of the Axum Obelisk, 2009; © Theo Eshetu.)

Posted by Dakota DeVos on 2/20/14 | tags: video-art installation rome italy obelisk Ethiopia repatriation monuments

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