Walters' art gala canceled Ethiopian nationals protest patriarch's invitation to show

October 17, 1993|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,Staff Writer

About 30 protesters shut down the black-tie opening of an exhibit of Ethiopian sacred art in downtown Baltimore last night, charging that gallery officials should not have invited a controversial church patriarch to the city.

Walters Art Gallery officials turned away 2,000 guests at the door, saying they could not guarantee the safety of Patriarch Abune Paulos, leader of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, or of other guests.

But "African Zion: The Sacred Art of Ethiopia," an exhibit pulled together from 10 museums around the world, will be open this morning and will remain in Baltimore until Jan. 9 without Patriarch Paulos.

This is the exhibit's first stop on a nationwide tour. (The exhibit is reviewed in today's Arts and Entertainment section, Page 1H.)

"This is the first opportunity in the United States to see such important art," said Roderick Grierson, a London resident who raised $250,000 to bring the art, from the 4th through 18th centuries, here.

A spokesman for yesterday's protesters said they had no dispute with the art itself.

"Our opposition is with the guest," said Moges Gebremariam. "The patriarch was installed by the Communist clique, not the fTC church."

Protesters started gathering in front the gallery at Charles and Centre streets about 4 p.m., holding signs and shouting, "There is a criminal in there" and "I don't know why they invite the devil here." They dispersed about 7:30 p.m. Police made no arrests.

Minutes before the show was to open, gallery officials walked to the front gate and held up signs. One read, "Canceled, dear members. Please go home."

But many invited patrons milled around outside, watching the protesters and vowing to return at a later date to see the art.

"A person has a right to be heard in this country, whether you agree with him or not," shouted Isaiah Fletcher of Baltimore, visibly angry at being unable to see the show. "I wanted to hear what he had to say."

But Mr. Gebremariam said the patriarch stands by in impoverished, war-torn Ethiopia while Christians are killed, even in churches.

"He has no moral courage to speak out against atrocities by the fundamentalist Muslims against his own church," he said. "Churches were burned. Villagers were killed. But he did not utter a single word."

The patriarch was not available for a response.

While the protesters marched outside, Dr. Gary Vikan, the Walters' assistant director and curator of medieval arts, told staff members inside that last night's opening affair was being canceled for safety reasons.

A gallery source said security guards had received several threats of violence against Patriarch Paulos, who left the art hall with several archbishops and was escorted back to Washington, D.C., where he is staying. He is scheduled to leave the country in the next several days. He was visiting U.S. churches to get support for Ethiopia.

In New York last week, the patriarch, head of one of Christianity's most ancient branches, was pelted with eggs and stones.

But Howard D. White, the spokesman for the Walters Gallery, said gallery officials "had no inkling" that trouble might occur in Baltimore because the patriarch's arrival at Baltimore-Washington International Airport on Tuesday was uneventful.

The show's organizer, Mr. Grierson, said some of the claims by the protesters may be accurate, but he cautioned that Ethiopian politics are complex.

He said the patriarch's appearance last night was appropriate because "he represents the medieval church."

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