Display of photos of Ethiopian Jews dilutes impact

January 25, 1994|By John Dorsey | John Dorsey,Art Critic

The impulse behind "Faith and Survival: Ethiopian Jewish Life 1983-1992" cannot be faulted, but the show as mounted at Goucher can.

At one time, there may have been as many as 1 million Ethiopian Jews, but today their numbers have dwindled to the tens of thousands and their way of life is threatened by the unrest in their country.

During the 1980s and early 1990s, Peggy Heilbronn Myers, an art history graduate of Goucher and a well-known classical ballet photographer, documented the lives of the Ethiopian Jews on visits to their country with her husband, who was working as a doctor. She photographed in several locations: the region of Gondar, an Ethiopian Jewish homeland; the Sudan, where some of the population had fled because of famine and strife; and in Addis Ababa, where many Ethiopian Jews migrated in hopes of being sent to Israel (eventually, most were).

As a testament to Myers' compassion for these people and their disappearing way of life, "Faith and Survival" is admirable. So are many of Myers' photographs. Without being arty or sentimental, she captures both the plight and the dignity of the people.

She also at times presents interesting images in terms of color and composition. Of note are the photograph of Kess (rabbi) Mola Alemu standing in the doorway of his synagogue, and the image of a group of children running across a field with the village of Wuzaba behind.

But the show at Goucher could have been better organized and better hung. Eleven photographs of the refugee camps in Sudan and eight in the Addis Ababa community are not enough to give us much of an idea of those places.

The principal interest of the show lies in the 26 works taken in the villages of Gondar, where the traditional life of the Ethiopian Jews, though coming to an end, was being lived as it had been for centuries. This is the heart of the exhibit, and we want more of it than we get.

Moreover, this section has been hung incomprehensibly at Goucher. To cite one example, four shots relating to synagogues, listed in the show's accompanying brochure as numbers 8, 9, 10 and 11, have been hung as numbers 5, 11, 13 and 25.

A show devoted completely to Myers' photographs of village life in Gondar, and logically hung, could have the effect that this one is supposed to achieve but doesn't.


What: "Faith and Survival: Ethiopian Jewish Life 1983-1992"

Where: Rosenberg Gallery, Goucher College, Dulaney Valley Road, Towson

When: 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. weekdays and evenings and weekends when events are scheduled in Kraushaar Auditorium, through Feb. 25.

Call: (410) 337-6333.

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