'Ethiopian Orthodoxy': Spirited but spare

October 20, 1993|By John Dorsey | John Dorsey,Art Critic

Photographer Chester Higgins Jr. has visited 30 countries to record the lives of Africans outside of Africa; his goal, in his words, is to "provide a more human view of black life." One of his projects was "Feeling the Spirit," photographs of various forms of worship, in which he included the Ethiopian Orthodox Church in the Bronx, N.Y.

Step out of "African Zion," the exhibit of fourth- to 18th-century Ethiopian Christian art at the Walters Art Gallery, and you step into a gallery of Higgins' Ethiopian Church photographs. You have gone from the 18th century to the 20th, from painted icons to black and white photographs, from Ethiopia to New York, but in these contemporary images it's possible to recognize a good bit that seems to have traveled through time and space intact.

The cloth-draped, pierced crucifixion cross of the New York church closely resembles one from Ethiopia in the previous gallery. The icon of Mary and Jesus in one photograph displays the heavily decorated robes that were to be seen on figures in earlier icons, such as those on the archangels flanking a Virgin and Child from 18th-century Gondar in Ethiopia. The drum that a deacon carries in New York looks much like those carried by figures from another Ethiopian icon.

Aside from such examples of continuance, Higgins' photos have other rewards to offer. The richness of his black and white photography comes through especially well in photographs of individuals, such as the priest swinging a censer during the liturgy or the girl in traditional dress posed in front of a wall against which the figure stands out vividly. The children, here and elsewhere, have been photographed particularly lovingly. And one does learn about elements of church ritual and dress.

But this little show disappoints, ultimately, because it is so little. Only 19 photographs installed in a single gallery, it gives too little sense of the progression or spirit of the Orthodox services, the hierarchy of the clergy, the extent of the congregation or the spaces in which their activities take place.

The real problem with the show lies not in Higgins' photographs, but in the fact that there are not enough of them.

ART REVIEW

What: "A Legacy of Faith: Ethiopian Orthodoxy in the United States"

Where: The Walters Art Gallery, 600 N. Charles St.

When: 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesdays through Sundays

Admission: $4 adults, $3 seniors, free to students and those 18 and under

Call: (410) 547-9000

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