all photos by the author, unless otherwise noted

Visitors to private homes in Aksum, Ethiopia may notice a genre of painting that remains relatively unknown outside of the Tigrai Regional State (Fig. 1). Known as gama, which is also the Tigrinya word for “wedding,” the paintings depict a bride and groom, often with attendants, and key iconic images of Aksum, the birthplace of the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church (EOC).1 Produced by church-trained artists and their apprentices, gama stylistically resemble paintings found in Ethiopian Orthodox churches, in bars, restaurants, and hotels, and in the artwork carried home by foreign visitors as souvenirs. While Aksum's tourist shops are full of paintings on board and canvas depicting secular and religious themes, gama are much less visible to tourists, as they are either produced on commission or sold in small suqs2 (neighborhood stores) into which few foreign visitors venture (Fig. 2). Found in Ethiopian Orthodox households in Aksum and in Tigraian communities throughout Ethiopia, their prominent display in communal living spaces signifies that a family's daughter is married, and properly so, as her husband followed tradition by giving his bride's family a gama. This article explores the history of gama and their contemporary consumption and production and argues that they remain a prominent element of Aksumite expressive culture, even as photography has become a widespread and increasingly affordable means of documenting weddings.

1

Gama for Hagos Gebre Igziabher and Aksumawit Semera displayed in the living room of Aksumawit's mother's home. The gama, which is the more expensive “modern” type, was created by the priest-painter Abba (Father) Lakemaryam to commemorate the couple's wedding on February 5, 2000 (Tir 28, 1992 in the Ethiopian calendar [EC]). Aksum, Ethiopia. June 2009.

1

Gama for Hagos Gebre Igziabher and Aksumawit Semera displayed in the living room of Aksumawit's mother's home. The gama, which is the more expensive “modern” type, was created by the priest-painter Abba (Father) Lakemaryam to commemorate the couple's wedding on February 5, 2000 (Tir 28, 1992 in the Ethiopian calendar [EC]). Aksum, Ethiopia. June 2009.

2

Gama displayed in the suq (neighborhood store) owned by Wayzero Tsehaitu Reda and her husband Liq Berhanat Berhane Gebre Iyasus, an Ethiopian Orthodox priest-painter. The gama on display is the less expensive “traditional” type. Aksum, Ethiopia. June 2009.

2

Gama displayed in the suq (neighborhood store) owned by Wayzero Tsehaitu Reda and her husband Liq Berhanat Berhane Gebre Iyasus, an Ethiopian Orthodox priest-painter. The gama on display is the less expensive “traditional” type. Aksum, Ethiopia. June 2009.

AKSUM AS AN ARTISTIC CENTER

Aksum and its surrounding region have long been a historic center for the production of painting traditions associated with the EOC (Biasio 1993, 2009; Chojnacki 1964; Sobania and Silverman 2006, 2009, forthcoming) as well as for gold- and silver-smithing. While many painters from the Aksum area have moved to the regional capital Mekelle or the national capital Addis Ababa, the number of artists working in and around the city remains high. Many of these are priest-painters who hold offices within the city's churches in addition to their work as artists. They are active members of Aksum's ecclesiastical community and carry titles such as Mergeta (choir master) and Haleqa (chief priest) as well as honorary titles beginning with the Ge'ez3 word Liq (arch or chief), such as Liq Berhanat (Chief of the Light). They also work as teachers in a centuries-old apprenticeship system that remains strong in the region (Sobania and Silverman 2009: 29). Adult male painters train younger male relatives—most often sons, but also nephews, younger brothers, and even grandsons—as well as other boys and young men (Fig. 3). A few painters even train their daughters (Fig. 4), although work as a painter, particularly one focused on creating artwork for the EOC, remains an unusual occupation for women (Teklemichael 2009).

3

Liq Berhanat Berhane Gebre Iyasus with his son Abraham Berhane, then age 15. These were among the first gama Abraham created entirely on his own and were offered for sale in the family's store. Aksum, Ethiopia. May 2005.

3

Liq Berhanat Berhane Gebre Iyasus with his son Abraham Berhane, then age 15. These were among the first gama Abraham created entirely on his own and were offered for sale in the family's store. Aksum, Ethiopia. May 2005.

4

Liq Berhanat Berhane Gebre Iyasus watches as his daughter Melat Berhane, then age 5, draws in a notebook. A priest-painter by profession, he has taught all five of his children to sketch and paint. Aksum, Ethiopia. June 2009.

4

Liq Berhanat Berhane Gebre Iyasus watches as his daughter Melat Berhane, then age 5, draws in a notebook. A priest-painter by profession, he has taught all five of his children to sketch and paint. Aksum, Ethiopia. June 2009.

The consumption of painting—both active and passive—pervades daily life for Aksum's Ethiopian Orthodox Christians. In addition to the wedding paintings that are the focus of this article, they encounter hand-painted images on the walls of their churches, in the pages of manuscripts held by their clergy, and on the surface of takafatch (icons) used for public religious services and private prayer in the home. Representations of religious narratives, famous battles, and scenes from daily life appear on an ever-changing variety of wooden and metal crosses, icons, and other objects offered for sale in Aksum's tourist shops (Silverman and Sobania 2009, forthcoming). Canvas paintings of scenes from Aksumite history—including the erection of the famous Aksum stelae and the Queen of Sheba's visit to King Solomon—are prominently framed and mounted on the walls of bars, hotels, and restaurants throughout the city, and indeed, similar images are found in hotels, bars, and restaurants throughout Ethiopia and its diaspora.

In addition, painted representations of Jesus Christ, the Virgin Mary, other saints, and religious scenes are reproduced on chromolithographs manufactured in Ethiopia or imported from China and India (Simmons 2009; Silverman 2009). These mechanically produced images appear in churches taped to walls or framed and placed

on altars alongside hand-painted works. … Chromolithographs are also used individually to offer personal protection and to provide various avenues for creative expression on personal altars [in the home]. These religious images are often adorned and used with Ethiopian cultural objects such as woven baskets to assert a distinctly Ethiopian aesthetic and religious identity. Likewise, the images can also be turned into public displays of faith through placement on car dashboards and in shop windows or other publicly visible spaces (Simmons 2009: 48).

For many years, chromolithographs solely depicted European images of Christian figures and scenes. However, the continued development of Ethiopia's printing industry, along with the entrepreneurial efforts of artists and business owners, has led to the production of chromolithographs that reproduce Ethiopian figures and scenes, particularly those of popular EOC saints not normally found in European contexts. Usually, these Ethiopian-style chromolithographs are created from hand-painted images,4 providing a wider audience for church-trained artists. Today, chromolithographs illustrating both EOC and European Christian imagery are offered for sale throughout Ethiopia, including Aksum. In addition, these images appear in taxis and bajaj, the now seemingly ubiquitous blue and white three-wheeled vehicles imported from India (Endeg 2014; Simmons 2009). Painted Christian images are everywhere in Aksum.

Church-trained artists living and working in the city and surrounding region produce artwork for three client groups: the tourist trade, EOC churches, and Ethiopian Orthodox Christians. For each, they create work on commission and on speculation, both of which carry financial risk. Members of EOC congregations purchase paintings to donate to churches as thanks for an answered prayer or to celebrate life events such as a christening or graduation. Such gifts are often commissioned, although some clients choose to buy extant works even if doing so means they have no input on the final product. When a new church is constructed or an older church renewed, affiliated clergy commission an artist (or team of artists) to create paintings for it. In some cases, they choose an artist based on previous experience working with him; in others, they find a painter based on reputation or on first-hand observation of his artwork in another church. Artists receiving such commissions may be asked to paint a church's ceiling, maq'das (sanctuary), or exterior (Fig. 5). Relationships between tourist shop owners and artists are formed in a similar manner. Shop owners purchase artwork from artists who approach them with goods to sell or they develop patron-client relationships with artists whose work they find marketable (Sobania and Silverman 2009, forthcoming). Regardless of their type, commissions allow artists to engage directly with patrons, consulting on and taking into consideration client preferences regarding content, composition, color, and size of work, much as artists worldwide do when offered commissions (Johnson 2003, 2011). Most patrons pay for their commissions, but economic hardship can result in their abandonment, leaving the artist to find another buyer in order to recoup the time and money invested creating the work.5

5

The painted exterior of the Church of Enda Iyesu. Aksum, Ethiopia. May 2007.

5

The painted exterior of the Church of Enda Iyesu. Aksum, Ethiopia. May 2007.

When producing paintings on speculation, artists consider market demand and create in the hope that someone may buy an already completed painting. Such work may be highly innovative in terms of its subject matter and/or form (Sobania and Silverman 2009, forthcoming). Although not entirely uncommon, such innovation is usually driven by a particularly creative business owner or artist (Silverman 1999, 2005; Sobania and Silverman 2009, forthcoming). Until the late twentieth century, Aksum's artists worked primarily for the EOC market. However, “while a significant portion of artistic production in Aksum is still destined for use in the regions churches, the more lucrative market for the town's many painters and metalworkers is the foreigners who come to visit the historic town” (Sobania and Silverman 2009: 28). Today, few, if any, painters create solely for the church or for the tourist trade, choosing, instead, to take advantage of the economic opportunities that come from producing for both. This is true of artists based in Aksum, in other towns and cities in northern Ethiopia, and in the capital. In an increasingly challenging economic environment, some painters have further diversified their income by entering other trades, such as woodworking or shopkeeping. For example, the artist Liq Berhanat Berhane Gebre Iyasus now spends much of his time designing, building, and selling wooden office and household furniture in the workshop he runs with his eldest son Abraham, as the market for paintings has tightened due to the economic climate and the influx of chromolithographs.6

In addition to painting for the tourist market and for churches, Aksum's artists create gama for Ethiopian Orthodox Christians, specifically for those who closely identify with the city and its heritage and who claim affiliation to the Tigraian ethnic group. Thus, gama is very much an artistic and cultural tradition tied to Aksum. As with other work, artists create gama on commission and on speculation. For gama painters working on commission, the production of a painting happens well in advance of the marriage. Liq Heeruyan7 Gebre Wahid said,

The groom orders it for the bride's family and gives it to them on the third day after the marriage. It stays with the mother of the bride. You cannot finish a gama quickly. If I work full-time, I can finish one in a week or even three days. Two to four weeks is a more normal time period.8

Commissioned gama are usually larger and more complicated, appealing to an urban clientele with greater access to educational and financial resources and awareness of contemporary wedding trends. Well-known local artists, including Liq Berhanat Berhane, Liq Heeruyan Gebre Wahid, Ato9 Berhanemeskel Fisseha and his son Deakon10 Ephrem Berhanemeskel, serve such clients locally; but they also receive commissions from Tigraians based in other Ethiopian cities (Fig. 6).11 For rural customers, these artists create smaller, simpler gama, produced in advance and as multiples for sale in suqs.

6

Photograph of a framed, modern-type gama created by Deakon Ephrem Berhanemeskal for Yonas Alemayehu and Elsa Wolde Giorgis, a Tigraian couple living in Addis Ababa. They were married on September 30, 2007 (Meskerem 20, 2000 EC). The artist, who was using the gama depicted in the photograph as a model, had propped the photograph on top of the stretcher on which he was sketching a newly commissioned gama. Aksum, Ethiopia. November 2009.

6

Photograph of a framed, modern-type gama created by Deakon Ephrem Berhanemeskal for Yonas Alemayehu and Elsa Wolde Giorgis, a Tigraian couple living in Addis Ababa. They were married on September 30, 2007 (Meskerem 20, 2000 EC). The artist, who was using the gama depicted in the photograph as a model, had propped the photograph on top of the stretcher on which he was sketching a newly commissioned gama. Aksum, Ethiopia. November 2009.

Liq Heeruyan Gebre Wahid and Liq Berhanat Berhane each began painting in childhood after visiting churches and seeing the wall paintings in them. The son of a priest, Liq Heeruyan Gebre Wahid was trained by several priest-painters from an early age; he created his first gama around the age of 20.12Liq Berhanat Berhane is the son of farmers and did not have any training in painting; he is largely self-taught. He recalled,

The first gama I did was on paper with colored pencil. I sold it for 7 Ethiopian Birr (ETB). Then I did one with colored pencils on abujedi cloth of a half meter when I was 17 or 18 years old. I took the 7 ETB and I bought paint from a building materials store and I did a painting of Mary, which I traded for 100 kilos of teff. I sold it in the market to buy all the materials I needed to make more paintings.13

Both men have trained their sons and daughters to paint although none of their children worked as full-time painters while in secondary school. Several of Liq Berhanat Berhane's children once expressed a desire to work as full-time painters, yet as of the spring of 2016, only his eldest daughter Selamawit continues to paint. His eldest son Abraham manages the family's furniture workshop while his second son Daniel has a career in the church. His two younger daughters, Million and Melat, are students.

Gama artists paint in their homes, either in the living room or in a bedroom that also serves as a studio. Gama are created by priest-painters in the same manner as they produce paintings for the church and tourist markets. Cotton cloth known as abujedi is stretched and nailed to a wooden frame, then divided into sections, depending on the size of the work(s) being painted (Fig. 7). Painters who work almost solely on commission, such as Liq Heeruyan Gebre Wahid, meet with clients and sell paintings from their homes (Fig. 8), while others produce for suqs, where the works may be sold without an artist's signature. Until 2013, Liq Berhanat Berhane produced paintings at home, then sold them in the small store at the front of his house (Fig. 2). When he moved into furniture production several years ago, the store was closed. A sign advertising gama remains on the building, however, as the family still offer gama for sale during the primary wedding season, which starts after the celebration of Timket (Epiphany) in mid-January and ends when Lenten fasting begins in late February. Similar signs found outside shops and artists' homes now often include a cell phone number for easier client access (Fig. 9).

7

A row of gama under production. Whether creating gama or paintings depicting religious or secular scenes, artists work on several at once. In this case, Liq Berhanat Berhane stretched a length of cotton cloth known as abujedi onto a wooden frame before sketching the desired image onto the cloth, which was divided into sections as needed. Until they were able to produce paintings on their own, his children assisted him in creating such works by painting the floral and geometric motifs and filling in large blocks of color, such as the blue used for the cloaks worn by the bride and groom. Aksum, Ethiopia. December 2004.

7

A row of gama under production. Whether creating gama or paintings depicting religious or secular scenes, artists work on several at once. In this case, Liq Berhanat Berhane stretched a length of cotton cloth known as abujedi onto a wooden frame before sketching the desired image onto the cloth, which was divided into sections as needed. Until they were able to produce paintings on their own, his children assisted him in creating such works by painting the floral and geometric motifs and filling in large blocks of color, such as the blue used for the cloaks worn by the bride and groom. Aksum, Ethiopia. December 2004.

8

Liq Heeruyan Gebre Wahid discussing gama in the living room of his home. An in-process gama can be seen on the right. He created the painting hanging on the wall for his daughter Rahel's wedding to Negash Kidan on June 2, 2002 (Ginbot 25, 1994 EC). Aksum, Ethiopia. June 2009.

8

Liq Heeruyan Gebre Wahid discussing gama in the living room of his home. An in-process gama can be seen on the right. He created the painting hanging on the wall for his daughter Rahel's wedding to Negash Kidan on June 2, 2002 (Ginbot 25, 1994 EC). Aksum, Ethiopia. June 2009.

9

Located on the main road to the northern stelae field, this neighborhood store sells a wide variety of goods including gama. The blue and white hand-painted sign reads, “We have gama for sale” and includes the cell phone number by which the artist can be reached. Aksum, Ethiopia. April 2016.

9

Located on the main road to the northern stelae field, this neighborhood store sells a wide variety of goods including gama. The blue and white hand-painted sign reads, “We have gama for sale” and includes the cell phone number by which the artist can be reached. Aksum, Ethiopia. April 2016.

GAMA HISTORY AND MEANING

While it is unclear exactly when the practice of creating wedding paintings began, the meaning of gama is clear to the artists who create them and the families who display them. Gama are not intended to be portraits—in other words, the bride and groom depicted are not meant to physically resemble named individuals14—they function, instead, like a marriage certificate.15 According to Liq Berhanat Berhane,

If a man and woman are married without a gama then they are not officially married. The gama is about respect. It is like a kind of certificate. It includes the names and the date [of the marriage] but the figures are not defined specifically. A gama tells everyone that these people are respectable because they follow the rule. Their children are married legally in the church and they are faithful to the traditions. Other people can also learn from them when they see the gama, so it sets an example for society. If people don't have a gama, sometimes the community doesn't consider their marriage to be legal.16

Liq Heeruyan Gebre Wahid commented that

Almost everyone has a gama. … Even if people don't get married in the church, they want a gama. The number of people who want a gama hasn't reduced. In fact, it's almost become necessary—the husband has to buy it. It's an expression of respect and joy.17

Their clients, local shopkeepers selling gama, and other residents of Aksum agree. Repeatedly, I was told that gama means kibir (respect) and that it represents both local bahel (tradition) and a kal kidan (promise/covenant) between the bride and groom and their families. Wayzero18 Abeba Tsehaiyay, who sells gama in her shop near Aksum's northern stelae field,19 said. “It's a strong cultural obligation. Everyone does it.”20 Ma'areg Mesfin, a 30-year old bajaj driver in Aksum, commented, “If people get married, they have to have a gama. It's a promise. The wedding is like a promise to the family and the community.”21 Two of Wayzero Abeba Teklemariam's five daughters have married and she proudly displays their gama in the living room of her home (Fig. 10). When asked what gama mean to her, she immediately answered, “I feel joy. … The gama represents respect. It expresses that your daughter was a virgin and that she was married in a formal wedding ceremony. … It is Aksum tradition.”22

10

Wayzero Abeba Teklemariam's living room is richly appointed with a flat-screen TV, china cabinet, refrigerator, sofas and chairs in new slipcovers and hand-embroidered antimacassars, and numerous family photographs. Alongside brightly colored woven Tigrai baskets, a clock, and an image of Jesus Christ, two gama are prominently displayed on the walls. The gama on the right appears in Figure 1. The wedding painting on the left is a recent addition, celebrating the union of Wayzero Abeba's daughter Birkti Semera with Dawit Wolde Giorgis on January 25, 2015 (Tir 17, 2007 EC). Aksum, Ethiopia. April 2016.

10

Wayzero Abeba Teklemariam's living room is richly appointed with a flat-screen TV, china cabinet, refrigerator, sofas and chairs in new slipcovers and hand-embroidered antimacassars, and numerous family photographs. Alongside brightly colored woven Tigrai baskets, a clock, and an image of Jesus Christ, two gama are prominently displayed on the walls. The gama on the right appears in Figure 1. The wedding painting on the left is a recent addition, celebrating the union of Wayzero Abeba's daughter Birkti Semera with Dawit Wolde Giorgis on January 25, 2015 (Tir 17, 2007 EC). Aksum, Ethiopia. April 2016.

The importance of a woman's virginity prior to entering into marriage was also mentioned by priest-painters and their clients. When I first asked Liq Berhanat Berhane about gama more than a decade ago, he said that when the tradition began, families would sometimes take a piece of bloodstained cloth or hide from the bed on which the newly married couple first slept and nail it over the gama to publicly demonstrate that the bride had been a virgin at the time of the wedding.23 He then commented that while people in the city no longer practiced this part of the tradition, those in the countryside sometimes did. When asked if gama are given when a woman is no longer a virgin, Wayzero Abeba Teklemariam demurred before saying, “Yes, it could be; but the original idea of gama is to show that the woman was a virgin and was married in a respectful manner.”24

The first gama were probably created in the late nineteenth or early twentieth century, following the emergence of what Elisabeth Biasio refers to as “contemporary painting in traditional style” (2009: 14). The establishment of Addis Ababa in 1886 led to increasing numbers of foreign visitors to Ethiopia and resulted in growing demand for paintings that reflected the country's history and culture, as these ferengi (foreigners) were eager to acquire souvenirs. Church-trained artists began producing paintings with both religious and secular imagery for this market. Gama appears to have evolved during this artistic shift from painting solely for royal and church patrons toward a broader clientele, one that included both Ethiopians and ferengi. Biasio would term gama a form of either “folk painting” or “traditional elite painting.” The former is “work produced by local artists for local indigenous consumption,” while the latter “was produced on commission, often from a ruler, by the very best artists.” These are “art forms grounded in local communities. They fulfill indigenous functions, are produced by artists with a traditional, often church-based training, and are intended for local consumption” (Biasio 2009: 14). Based on her definitions, whether gama qualifies as “folk painting” or “traditional elite painting” depends upon the artist and the socioeconomic status of the client. Key to the genre, however, is that it is intrinsically local, both produced and consumed by Tigraians. Unlike “contemporary painting in traditional style” or several forms of “popular painting,”25gama have not yet attracted significant attention from collectors and collecting institutions,26 which helps explain why they have not yet been the subject of academic study.27

The earliest extant wedding painting I have seen is a type referred to as zemenawi (“modern”) because it featured a bride in a white dress and groom in a suit and tie standing in front of Aksum's northern stelae field. Commemorating the marriage of a woman who was in her 70s in 2002, it was probably created in the 1940s,28 but the tradition is believed to date back more than a century. According to Liq Berhanat Berhane,

The practice of gama began in Aksum. … During the time of Menelik II [r. 1889–1913], photographs were not available for people to record the marriage. So, we wrote the date of the wedding on a gama as a way of remembering it and giving it respect. People would say, “Bekal kidan tegebu (They were married by promise).”29

Wayzero Likeyelshi Belay Gessesse, who celebrated her fiftieth wedding anniversary in 2016, had a gama for her marriage, as do each of her married daughters (Fig. 11).30 She said that the tradition dates back to the time of her grandfather Dejazmatch31 Gessesse, who served as governor of Tigrai in 1905 (Rosen 1907: 488–89).32 Similarly, Liq Heeruyan Gebre Wahid commented that the practice dates back at least to the early twentieth century. “Before Haile Selassie I [r. 1930–1974], the gama was very simple, with just the bride and groom, the cross above and names below. After [his coronation], the gama became more complicated.”33Liq Berhanat Berhane agreed that a modern type of gama developed during the reign of Emperor Haile Selassie I.34 This was a period of great modernization and innovation in Ethiopia, one building on the efforts of previous emperors including Tewodros II (r. 1855–1868), Yohannes IV (r. 1871–1889), and Menelik II. From the late nineteenth century onward, the import of North American and Western European goods and technologies into the country affected myriad aspects of Ethiopian society, including weddings.

11

Wayzero Likeyelshi Belay Gessesse standing in front of the gama for her daughter Askale Tilahun's wedding to Daniel Haile Selassie on January 30, 2016 (Tir 22, 2008 EC). Above the wedding party, the painting depicts the repatriated Obelisk of Aksum, the 20th century New Cathedral of Maryam Tsion, the Chapel of the Tablet, the 17th century Old Cathedral of Maryam Tsion, and King Ezana's Stela. Her eldest daughter's gama is displayed in the same room in Figure 13. Aksum, Ethiopia. March 2016.

11

Wayzero Likeyelshi Belay Gessesse standing in front of the gama for her daughter Askale Tilahun's wedding to Daniel Haile Selassie on January 30, 2016 (Tir 22, 2008 EC). Above the wedding party, the painting depicts the repatriated Obelisk of Aksum, the 20th century New Cathedral of Maryam Tsion, the Chapel of the Tablet, the 17th century Old Cathedral of Maryam Tsion, and King Ezana's Stela. Her eldest daughter's gama is displayed in the same room in Figure 13. Aksum, Ethiopia. March 2016.

Just before the Second World War, introduction of elements of Western value influenced traditional institutions. Marriage dress and weddings were affected to some extent … trendy college and high school graduates readily adapted Western wedding attire: the white dress and veil for the bride, the black suit or the tuxedo for the groom (Mengesha, Deressa, and Imagnu 1996:114–15).

The arrival and increasing availability of foreign styles of wedding clothing were soon reflected in gama.

Ethiopian marriage practices are extremely varied, which is not surprising given the country's ethnic and religious diversity.35 (For more on marriage in Ethiopia, see Augustyniak 2009; Beyene and Tolera 2006; Fafchamps and Quisumbing 2005; Kebede 1989; Mengesha et al. 1996; Pankhurst 1992; and Ullendorff 1960.) Shared religious beliefs provide for commonality of practice amongst fellow believers, while distinguishing them from other groups, as ethnic traditions also do. Increasingly, economic stratification and urbanization further promote both commonality and diversity. For example, photography is nearly ubiquitous in documenting urban weddings of all faiths and at most income levels, but is very uncommon in remote rural areas. In Ethiopia's northern Christian highlands, several forms of marriage traditionally existed. These include what historian Edward Ullendorf referred to as damoz,36 or short-term marriage by contract; kal kidan,37 a form of “binding civil marriage”; and kal kidan bekwerban,38 in which the marriage is performed as both a civil ceremony and a religious ceremony incorporating communion (1960:179–80). Kal kidan bekwerban is “strictly speaking, indissoluble … Church ceremonies are customary also among the ruling classes and are compulsory for clergy” (Ullendorf 1960: 180; see also Augustyniak 2009: 102; Pankhurst 1992: 69). In Aksum, this form of marriage is widespread for several reasons, including the city's history as birthplace of the EOC and the correspondingly deep religious beliefs of its residents. The clerical offices held by many men also encourages kal kidan bekwerban, as these roles necessitate this form of marriage. Couples participating in kal kidan bekwerban marry in a church while wearing a kaba (cloak) and zewde (crown) (Fig. 12). The “symbol of this royal [rite of] passage is the officiating priest placing the crowns on the couple's heads” (Mengesha, Deressa, and Imagnu 1996: 122–23; interpolation in original). It is this type of marriage that is represented in the earliest form of wedding paintings, which Aksumites now refer to as bahelawi gama (Figs. 23, 7).

12

Purchased in Addis Ababa in April 2016, this photograph depicts the kal kidan bekwerban marriage of Dejazmatch Kassa Wolde-Mariam, first president of Haile Selassie I University (now Addis Ababa University), and Her Royal Highness Princess Seble Desta, granddaughter of Emperor Haile Selassie I, on January 31, 1959, in Addis Ababa. Both wear modern wedding attire in addition to crowns and, in his case, a kaba (cloak). The couple were imprisoned when Emperor Haile Selassie I was overthrown in 1974; Dejazmatch Kassa did not survive imprisonment (Kelly 2014) but his wife was freed, along with other family members, in 1988. Collection of the author.

12

Purchased in Addis Ababa in April 2016, this photograph depicts the kal kidan bekwerban marriage of Dejazmatch Kassa Wolde-Mariam, first president of Haile Selassie I University (now Addis Ababa University), and Her Royal Highness Princess Seble Desta, granddaughter of Emperor Haile Selassie I, on January 31, 1959, in Addis Ababa. Both wear modern wedding attire in addition to crowns and, in his case, a kaba (cloak). The couple were imprisoned when Emperor Haile Selassie I was overthrown in 1974; Dejazmatch Kassa did not survive imprisonment (Kelly 2014) but his wife was freed, along with other family members, in 1988. Collection of the author.

GAMA TYPES

The two primary types of gama are identified by artists and their clients as bahelawi (cultural/traditional) and zemenawi (modern). Clear distinctions exist between these types, each of which appeals to a particular customer base. Bahelawi wedding paintings are divided into two primary registers, with an additional blank space at the bottom of the painting for the artist to add the names of the bridal couple and the date of the wedding (Figs. 23, 7). One register, usually the lower, features a bride and groom depicted in the clothing and accessories associated with a church wedding. The second register features geometric or floral motifs or a representation of one of Aksum's famous stelae. Zemenawi wedding paintings, which are created as a single scene, depict a bride, groom, and their mizeotch (attendants) standing in front of the city's iconic architecture (Fig. 13). They wear clothing now associated with modern, urban weddings in Ethiopia and in many other parts of the world: a white dress and veil for the bride; suit and tie for the groom and groomsmen; and long, usually colorful, dresses for the bridesmaids. Textual information about the couple and their wedding is either painted directly into the scene—this is particularly common with older zemenawi wedding paintings (Fig. 13)—or at the bottom of the gama in a space specifically designated for this purpose. The practice of inscribing information about the bridal couple and the wedding date has been part of the gama tradition from its origins, as previously mentioned.39

13

Zemenawi gama for Mekonnen Kidane Maryam and Genet Belay, who married on January 23, 1988 (Tir 15, 1980). The bride, groom, and single attendant stand on an ornate carpet flanked by two pillows and a water pitcher, all elements of a traditional t'ilosh, or dowry. King Ezana's Stela appears to the upper left with the Chapel of the Tablet and the Old Cathedral of Maryam Tsion appearing above the couple. The gama is displayed in the main reception room of the bride's family home, as is her younger sister's wedding painting, seen in Figure 11. Aksum, Ethiopia. March 2016.

13

Zemenawi gama for Mekonnen Kidane Maryam and Genet Belay, who married on January 23, 1988 (Tir 15, 1980). The bride, groom, and single attendant stand on an ornate carpet flanked by two pillows and a water pitcher, all elements of a traditional t'ilosh, or dowry. King Ezana's Stela appears to the upper left with the Chapel of the Tablet and the Old Cathedral of Maryam Tsion appearing above the couple. The gama is displayed in the main reception room of the bride's family home, as is her younger sister's wedding painting, seen in Figure 11. Aksum, Ethiopia. March 2016.

Bahelawi wedding paintings are simpler in composition, physically smaller, and, therefore, less expensive than modern-type gama. They are produced for geberayotch (farmers) and yegetir sowotch (people from the countryside). Artists state that residents of the small villages in the Aksum region have a preference for bahelawi gama due to their lower price, which makes them more affordable, and because they like “simpler paintings.”40 Rural customers are also thought to prefer depictions of the bride and groom in the clothing associated with a church wedding, with which they are most familiar. Traditionally, each figure in a bahelawi gama wears an embroidered cloak and a crown; and the only visible distinctions between the couple are that the bride wears earrings and has long hair. Very rarely, the woman may be depicted as physically smaller. Although less ornate than their modern counterparts, traditional-type gama provide for artistic freedom of expression in the geometric and floral motifs, which allow painters to use bright colors and a variety of shapes including circles, squares, diamonds, and hearts (Fig. 7).

Zemenawi wedding paintings are created for yeketema sowotch (city residents). Artists explain that urban dwellers prefer zemenawi gama for several reasons. First, these paintings are physically larger and more ornate, which makes their presence in a family home more prominent, as do their many vibrant colors. Second, the higher price of a modern-type gama serves as a public and private indicator of the socioeconomic status of the brides family, whose daughter is worthy of such an expensive painting, and of the groom, who is able to afford it. “If the groom doesn't bring a good quality gama, it can become a problem; so, to make the brides family happy, he has to order a good quality painting.”41 Finally, the fact that many zemenawi gama are produced on commission enables clients to customize paintings, choosing the color of the clothing worn by the bridal couple and their attendants, the depiction of particular churches, or the color of floral motifs and other objects incorporated into the painting.

One iconic element appears in both bahelawi and zemenawi wedding paintings: the carved 21-meter-tall stela (hawlti in Tigrinya) known as King Ezana's Stela. Until September 4, 2008, when the repatriated 24-meter-tall Obelisk of Aksum42 was unveiled,43 King Ezana's Stela was the tallest standing monument in Aksum's northern stelae field, which is integral to the city's designation as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.44 It served as the primary icon for Aksum and the region, and one of the primary symbols of Ethiopia.45 Images of the hawlti have long appeared on the cover of guidebooks and in advertisements promoting Ethiopia, and they have been reproduced innumerable times in magazine and newspaper articles about the country, on websites and t-shirts, and in small stone replicas offered for sale in Ethiopian tourist shops. In bahelawi gama, the upper register usually depicts a cross-like symbol or the northern stelae field, with flowering bushes and smaller stelae surrounding King Ezana's Stela. If the obelisk does not appear as the focus of a register in traditional-type gama, it is depicted between the bridal couple. According to Liq Berhanat Berhane, “The cross at the top is given by God, no one knows how it arrived … The hawlti is a symbol for when you get married.”46 Increasingly, both the cross-like symbol and King Ezana's Stela are incorporated into bahelawi gama, with the cross at the top and the stela appearing between the bridal couple (Fig. 7). When the stela appears in the upper register, a metal water pitcher is depicted between the bride and groom (Fig. 2). This vessel, which represents hospitality and respect, also appears consistently in zemenawi wedding paintings.

Artists incorporate several objects in modern-type gama that comprise the bride's t'ilosh, or dowry (Fig. 14). “In the past, the woman had a dowry that included a mintaf (carpet), an alga tras (bed pillow), and a kuskust47 (water pitcher).”48 The dowry's inclusion in gama highlights yeduro gize bahel (past traditions), which, although no longer always practiced by urban families, remain symbolically important. According to Liq Berhanat Berhane, Liq Heeruyan Gebre Wahid, and numerous other Aksumites with whom I spoke, t'ilosh was traditionally given to young couples by the bride's parents to provide them with some of the goods needed to establish a household.

14

Zemenawi gama painted by Liq Berhanat Berhane for his wife Tsehaitu Reda for their wedding on July 12, 1987 (Hamle 5, 1979 EC). In the top half, he included the New Cathedral of Maryam Tsion, with bell tower, King Ezana's Stela, the Chapel of the Tablet, and the Old Cathedral of Mary Tsion. The bottom half depicts the bridal couple and attendants as well as components of the bride's dowry. Family photographs placed nearby are of deceased relatives. The gama and Tigrai baskets have been covered with plastic to protect them from dust and roof leaks. Aksum, Ethiopia. June 2009.

14

Zemenawi gama painted by Liq Berhanat Berhane for his wife Tsehaitu Reda for their wedding on July 12, 1987 (Hamle 5, 1979 EC). In the top half, he included the New Cathedral of Maryam Tsion, with bell tower, King Ezana's Stela, the Chapel of the Tablet, and the Old Cathedral of Mary Tsion. The bottom half depicts the bridal couple and attendants as well as components of the bride's dowry. Family photographs placed nearby are of deceased relatives. The gama and Tigrai baskets have been covered with plastic to protect them from dust and roof leaks. Aksum, Ethiopia. June 2009.

In the old times, people gave their children what they needed to live when they were married. Part of the tradition is for the family to wash the hands and feet of the bride and groom, like was done for Jesus Christ. In the past in rich households, people had this kind of water pitcher in their house. It demonstrates respect because it is [normally] only to be used by guests.49

The dowry also represents the esteem that should now be accorded to the newly married pair. “The pillow indicates respect and that no one else has power over them because now they are a couple who lie down together.”50 This is often indicated by the inclusion of two pillows, one for the bride and one for the groom (Figs. 1314). Once married “they were no longer two separate persons, but two in one flesh; and that so in like manner should their hearts and wills be” (Alvares quoted by Pankhurst 1992: 45). Including dowry components in gama demonstrates the bridal family's commitment to the marriage; in turn, her husband recognizes their support through his purchase of a gama. Visual reference to the dowry also provides an outlet for creative expression. While the water pitcher is generally represented in yellow or gray, referencing the metal from which such vessels were made, the carpet and pillow are painted in bright colors and embellished with geometric or floral motifs.

Artists also exercise creativity in their depiction of the attendants. In zemenawi gama, the bride wears a modern white wedding dress, known as a velo, while the groom and his groomsmen wear suits, usually of dark colors, often matching and with colorful ties. The bridesmaids' long matching dresses are brightly colored and often ornately flounced. Representing attendants is a relatively recent practice, following the development of zemenawi gama. According to Liq Heeruyan Gebre Wahid, “We began adding the attendants to gama at the end of the Imperial period or beginning of the Derg51 [circa 1974]. In the past, we used the cross but no attendants.”52 Today, three bridesmaids and three groomsmen are standard in modern-type gama, regardless of how many mizeotch actually attend the bride and groom.

In addition to the couple, attendants, dowry, and stela, at least one of Aksum's iconic buildings is ubiquitous in zemenawi wedding paintings: the Old Cathedral of Maryam Tsion.53 When the Aksumite king Ezana converted to Christianity in 333 ce, locals believe he built a church on what is now the site of the Old Cathedral (Phillipson 1998: 115–16). Thought to have been torn down in the tenth century, it was rebuilt before being destroyed yet again during the Abyssinian-Adal War (1529–1543) by the forces of Ahmed Gragn (Henze 2000: 86–87).54 The current structure, built by Emperor Fasilides (r. 1632–1667), dates to the seventeenth century (Munro-Hay 1991). Because the Old Cathedral only admitted male worshipers, Emperor Haile Selassie I commissioned the construction of a massive new cathedral in the 1960s. This project included construction of a bell tower and the Chapel of the Tablet.55 The latter building was created for a unique purpose: Inside, “according to the traditions of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, is kept the Ark of the Covenant, brought to Ethiopia by Menelik I, the son of [King] Solomon and the Queen of Sheba” whom Ethiopians claim as their own (Phillipson 1998: 7).

All three edifices form an ecclesiastical complex, or “Cathedral precinct” (see Phillipson 1998: 52–53) that is “the holiest place in the Ethiopian Christian kingdom” (Munro-Hay 1991). They serve as physical reminders of Ethiopia's ancient past and of the longevity of the EOC as well as its status as guardian of the Ark of the Covenant. Based on artistic license or client request, modern-type gama may also include the Chapel of the Tablet or the modern Cathedral of Maryam Tsion (Figs. 1314). Artists and their clients state that the inclusion in gama of these iconic structures reinforces their EOC faith and local history and culture. The Old Cathedral of Maryam Tsion is, however, always represented because it is Aksum's oldest church, literally and figuratively grounded on the ancient civilization for which the region is renowned and physical home of the Ark of the Covenant until the Chapel of the Tablet was constructed. (Phillipson 1998: 114–15 provides a description of the ancient Aksumite podium on which the Old Cathedral is built.)

Much as with other gama elements, artists use Aksum's iconic architecture as a means of adding color and complexity to their paintings. Bright primary and secondary colors predominate, especially the red, yellow, and green found on the windows, doors, and fence of the Old Cathedral and the Chapel of the Tablet and in the stained-glass windows of the new Cathedral of Maryam Tsion (Fig. 14). The stelae are, however, usually depicted in gray, referencing the granite from which they were carved. The color scheme in zemenawi gama depends on a painters artistic intent, client preferences, and the availability of paint in the local market. The use of color also varies in bahelawi gama, but stylistic conventions require that the kaba, zewde, and hawlti are always rendered in appropriate colors. For example, the crowns worn by the bridal couple are always a golden color, while their cloaks are blue, indigo, or purple, with metallic or embroidered embellishments painted in white or a gold or silver color.

These decorative details are added to gama by apprentices, who are also allowed to add blocks of color to large, sketched-in areas on a canvas (Sobania and Silverman 2009: 29, 32–33). Later in their training, they produce bahelawi gama by themselves, eventually progressing to painting the larger, more detailed zemenawi gama on their own. Before his children were allowed to paint directly onto gama, Liq Berhanat Berhanes sons and daughters sketched with color pencils or pen on paper (Fig. 15). Liq Berhanat Berhane did not guide or correct their sketches; he says they learned what to include in a gama by watching him and their older siblings create paintings.56 A series of sketches created in 2009 by his son Deakon Daniel Berhane, then 15 years old, are compelling for their use of color, experimentation with layout, and signatures, which indicated his aspirations for a career in the EOC and for marriage. His representation of a bahelawi gama includes, as one would expect, the bridal couple wearing cloaks and a stela surrounded by flowers and geometric forms; however, he listed himself as the groom and signed the sketch, “Haleqa (Chief Priest) Daniel Berhane,” a title he did not yet hold (Fig. 16). Initially, Liq Berhanat Berhane sold the gama created by his children as his own, a common practice in the apprenticeship system. Later, he allowed them to sign their own names to paintings, because their skills had improved and because his church responsibilities had increased, leaving him with less time to paint. Their gama were displayed for sale in the shop run by their mother, continuing a family tradition, and contributing economically to the support of their parents, siblings, and themselves (Fig. 2). Today, this practice continues, to some extent, with Wayzero Selamawit Berhane creating both bahelawi and zemenawi gama for sale.

15

Zemenawi gama sketched by Melat Berhane, age 5. The bride, with either veil or long hair, and groom stand in front of King Ezana's Stela and the Old Cathedral of Maryam Tsion. The young artist's signature appears below the couple. Collection of the author. Aksum, Ethiopia. November 2009.

15

Zemenawi gama sketched by Melat Berhane, age 5. The bride, with either veil or long hair, and groom stand in front of King Ezana's Stela and the Old Cathedral of Maryam Tsion. The young artist's signature appears below the couple. Collection of the author. Aksum, Ethiopia. November 2009.

16

Bahelawi gama sketched by Daniel Berhane, age 15. At the time a deacon in the EOC, Daniel's hopes for the future are indicated by his identifying himself as the groom—the text in the yellow register reads “Gama of Haleqa Daniel Berhane, Aksum”— and as the artist, indicated by the bottom line of text, which reads, in part, “Artist Haleqa Daniel Berhane Gebre Iyasus.” In both inscriptions, he identifies as Haleqa (Chief Priest), a title he did not yet hold, but one that his father, by then Liq Berhanat Berhane Gebre Iyasus, had previously held for many years. Collection of the author. Aksum, Ethiopia. November 2009.

16

Bahelawi gama sketched by Daniel Berhane, age 15. At the time a deacon in the EOC, Daniel's hopes for the future are indicated by his identifying himself as the groom—the text in the yellow register reads “Gama of Haleqa Daniel Berhane, Aksum”— and as the artist, indicated by the bottom line of text, which reads, in part, “Artist Haleqa Daniel Berhane Gebre Iyasus.” In both inscriptions, he identifies as Haleqa (Chief Priest), a title he did not yet hold, but one that his father, by then Liq Berhanat Berhane Gebre Iyasus, had previously held for many years. Collection of the author. Aksum, Ethiopia. November 2009.

The smaller size and simpler composition of bahelawi gama makes them more easily affordable. In 2002, they could be purchased for 25–30 Ethiopian Birr (USS3–4), while in 2009, they sold for 50–80 ETB (USS4–6). In 2016, artists and shop owners quoted a price of 400 ETB (US$20). Due to their larger size and complexity, zemenawi gama command higher prices, with the greatest prices paid for the largest, most ornate gama or for those produced by well-known artists such as Ato Berhanemeskel Fisseha. In 2009, one painter commented, “For the modern gama, the price used to be 150 ETB. Now, it's 300 [US$24], 500 [US$40], 700 [$56], 1,000 [US$80] ETB. Even the price can reach 1,700 ETB [US$136].”57 That year, a medium-size zemenawi gama from Liq Heeruyan Gebre Wahid cost 300 ETB (US$24), identical to the price charged by Liq Berhanat Berhane. In 2016, the price quoted for a medium-size zemenawi gama ranged from 1,000 to 1,500 ETB (US$50–75). The significant price increase in gama between 2009 and 2016 can be attributed to several factors. First, the recent global recession has had a lasting and negative effect on Ethiopia. Rising inflation rates combined with poor terms of exchange for the Ethiopian Birr caused prices to rise on most goods and services, further deepening the poverty in which many Ethiopians live.58 Artists vary their prices based on a painting's size, level of detail, and quality of execution as well as the cost of materials and the time needed to complete the work given other concurrent commitments. Gama prices increased markedly during this seven-year period because the cost of materials rose, as did the cost of consumable goods, housing, education, and other services for which artists must pay.

PRESENTING AND DISPLAYING GAMA

A man's presentation of gama to his wife's family is a form of symbolic exchange, as the painting serves to uphold social norms, connect families, and reinforce local tradition (Fafchamps and Quisumbing 2005: 349; see also Mengesha et al. 1996: 114). Rather than enhancing a couple's financial or physical capital, a gama strengthens their social capital and that of the bride's family through its prominent display. In addition to the important role played by family members in organizing and supporting a wedding economically and socially (Augustyniak 2009; Beyene and Tolera 2006; Kebede 1989), the couple's closest friends are involved. Their participation is reflected in modern-type gama by the mizeotch who stand on either side of the bride and groom, divided by gender. In some wedding paintings, the attendants are represented as physically smaller, reinforcing their status as individuals serving the bride and groom (Figs. 1, 1314). As one Tigraian friend stated, this practice “is the influence of the old traditional church art [in which] slaves are portrayed as smaller than the kings [they serve].”59 While female friends help the bride with her hair, clothing, and make-up for wedding festivities, the groom's closest friends are responsible for hanging the gama in the home of the bride's mother at the mels (literally “answer” or “return”), a feast hosted by the bride's family on the third day after the wedding. Commonly practiced by Ethiopian Orthodox Christians, it welcomes the bride and groom to her childhood home as a married couple, enhancing public recognition of their new social role. In Aksum, the mels further reinforces this change of status by incorporating presentation of the gama. After the groom acquires a wedding painting, he gives it to his best man and groomsmen. They are then responsible for presenting the painting to the bride's parents and placing it in a prominent position on a wall in their home (Fig. 17).

17

Memhir (Teacher) Sisay Hagos and Lake Gebre Giorgis hanging the modern-type gama painted by Selamawit Berhane for her wedding. She was married on February 17, 2013 (Yekatit 10, 2005 EC) and the gama was presented three days later during the mels, a party welcoming the newly married couple to her childhood home as man and wife. Collection of Liq Berhanat Berhane Gebre Iyasus and Wayzero Tsehaitu Reda. Aksum, Ethiopia. April 2016.

17

Memhir (Teacher) Sisay Hagos and Lake Gebre Giorgis hanging the modern-type gama painted by Selamawit Berhane for her wedding. She was married on February 17, 2013 (Yekatit 10, 2005 EC) and the gama was presented three days later during the mels, a party welcoming the newly married couple to her childhood home as man and wife. Collection of Liq Berhanat Berhane Gebre Iyasus and Wayzero Tsehaitu Reda. Aksum, Ethiopia. April 2016.

A gama is normally displayed on the wall of a family's salon (living room) opposite the main entry door, where all visitors can immediately see it and recognize that the family has a married daughter and has followed local tradition (Figs. 1, 8, 10). According to Liq Heeruyan Gebre Wahid, “we learned the tradition from our parents—before, people did not hang their gama on a nice wall because they did not have one, so they had it on a pillar in the tukul60—a mud-walled, thatch-roofed, single-room circular house commonly found throughout the northern Christian highlands. Woven Tigrai baskets in brightly colored geometric patterns, plastic flowers, photographs, and other objects of value, such as clocks, metal garlands, and chromolithographs, are hung nearby—or even on—gama, reinforcing and enhancing their status as important objects (Figs. 1, 8, 10, 14). In many instances, gama are covered with plastic for protection (Figs. 1, 14). Even in the case of divorce, gama stay on display: “It remains on the wall because it expresses her virginity and the respect that they are unified.”61 If a woman inherits her parent's home, her gama remains on display. The wedding painting Liq Berhanat Berhane painted for his wife Wayzero Tsehaitu Reda hangs in the home in which he now lives because, “It was at her mother's house, which is this house. It stays always in this house [because] it shows we were legally married.”62 The only instances in which gama are intentionally removed is if a house comes under new ownership and a family moves or if it is destroyed or damaged beyond repair, for example, by a leaking roof or renovations.63

INNOVATION AND CHANGE IN THE PRODUCTION AND CONSUMPTION OF GAMA

Like all cultural practices, the production and consumption of gama has not remained static. Throughout the past century, numerous changes have occurred in the ways in which gama are displayed—e.g., on walls instead of tukul pillars—and in how they are produced, as paper and pencil have been replaced by canvas and paint. Their cost has, of course, increased, and further changes have occurred in the type of wedding ceremony depicted, as attendants, hearts, and modern clothing are now options along with the cloak, cross, and crown. Another key innovation is the training of daughters as gama painters. By her early 20s, Selamawit Berhane was considered skilled enough by her father to create and sell large zemenawi gama under her own name. For her September 2013 wedding, she created her own gama; in the spring of 2016, while expecting her first child, she was the only painter actively working in the family (Fig. 18).64 In Aksum, at least one other young woman, also the daughter of a priest-painter, produces gama, although she primarily creates artwork for the tourist market.65 In Zana, a small town 100 kilometers southwest of Aksum, Wayzero Lemlem Gebremeskal, a self-taught artist, creates paintings, including gama, for sale to her local community (Teklemichael 2009: 43).

18

Wayzero Selamawit Berhane and her father Liq Berhanat Berhane holding the zemenawi gama she created for her wedding to Gebre Melak Nirayu. In the spring of 2016, she was the only active painter in the family, as her father and siblings were pursuing other economic and educational opportunities. Aksum, Ethiopia. April 2016.

18

Wayzero Selamawit Berhane and her father Liq Berhanat Berhane holding the zemenawi gama she created for her wedding to Gebre Melak Nirayu. In the spring of 2016, she was the only active painter in the family, as her father and siblings were pursuing other economic and educational opportunities. Aksum, Ethiopia. April 2016.

Over the past decade, further innovation in gama production has been driven by Liq Berhanat Berhane and his children. In 2005, he began painting traditional-type, two-register gama with the bride in a white dress and the groom wearing a suit and tie, as they would normally appear in larger zemenawi gama (Fig. 19). In 2016, his eldest daughter Selamawit was painting two-register, small gama that were a further hybrid of the bahelawi and zemenawi type. These feature two stelae and the Chapel of the Tablet in the top register while the bride and groom, flanked by attendants, appear below wearing crowns and modern clothing, with the bride also wearing an embroidered cloak (Fig. 20). When asked about the innovation, she replied, “I just thought it would be an interesting idea. When people get married in the church, they wear a velo (wedding dress) and suf (suit) with the kaba (cloak) covering it. So, these paintings show this”66 (Fig. 12). Thus far, the only gama I have seen incorporating these innovations were produced by Liq Berhanat Berhane and his children, and they have proven to be marketable.

19

These four wedding paintings were complete and ready for sale in early 2005. The top three gama adhered to convention; the bottom painting, however, was a new innovation. It depicted a bride and groom wearing the modern wedding attire typical of larger, zemenawi gama in the size and two-register design traditionally associated with bahelawi gama. Liq Berhanat Berhane created the works with assistance from his eldest daughter and son. Aksum, Ethiopia. January 2005.

19

These four wedding paintings were complete and ready for sale in early 2005. The top three gama adhered to convention; the bottom painting, however, was a new innovation. It depicted a bride and groom wearing the modern wedding attire typical of larger, zemenawi gama in the size and two-register design traditionally associated with bahelawi gama. Liq Berhanat Berhane created the works with assistance from his eldest daughter and son. Aksum, Ethiopia. January 2005.

20

Building on her father's earlier innovation (see Figure 19), Selamawit Berhane began creating small, two-register wedding paintings that blend elements of the bahelawi and zemenawi types. Their dimensions and layout are standard for traditional-type gama, as is the presence of the stelae, but several other elements are unusual for gama of this size. The Chapel of the Tablet does not typically appear in bahelawi wedding paintings nor does a full dowry or mizeotch. The inclusion of crowns and the bride's cloak is unique when accompanied by the modern wedding attire normally found in zemenawi gama. In these hybrid wedding paintings, Selamawit more accurately represents the way in which Ethiopian Orthodox Christians appear during kal kidan bekwerban ceremonies, at least since the mid-20th century (see Figure 12).

20

Building on her father's earlier innovation (see Figure 19), Selamawit Berhane began creating small, two-register wedding paintings that blend elements of the bahelawi and zemenawi types. Their dimensions and layout are standard for traditional-type gama, as is the presence of the stelae, but several other elements are unusual for gama of this size. The Chapel of the Tablet does not typically appear in bahelawi wedding paintings nor does a full dowry or mizeotch. The inclusion of crowns and the bride's cloak is unique when accompanied by the modern wedding attire normally found in zemenawi gama. In these hybrid wedding paintings, Selamawit more accurately represents the way in which Ethiopian Orthodox Christians appear during kal kidan bekwerban ceremonies, at least since the mid-20th century (see Figure 12).

When this project began, one question I had about gama production was how depiction of King Ezana's Stela would change with the repatriation and subsequent re-erection of the Obelisk of Aksum. Once the stela's repatriation was confirmed, Liq Berhanat Berhane began incorporating the Obelisk of Aksum into his gama. “Even before it returned, I started to paint two stelae in my gama. And when people asked why, I said, ‘Because it is coming back. If you make a gama with two hawlti, you get even more respect for the marriage!'”67 Depicting both stelae is now standard, and throughout Aksum, I have seen examples of both bahelawi and zemenawi gama featuring the reunited stelae (Figs. 10, 18, 20). When asked about the meaning of the repatriated stela and its inclusion in gama, priest-painters, their clients, and local shopkeepers consistently replied that it represented local tarik (history), bahel (culture), and kibir (respect). Many also mentioned that the Obelisk of Aksum's return symbolized Ethiopian independence and strength, given that it is one of the few instances in which African material culture has been repatriated by a former occupying power.

A second question was how improved access to photography would affect gama production and consumption. Over the last decade, digital photography has become widespread in Ethiopia's urban centers, including Aksum, and the costs associated with it have become increasingly affordable as the price of related equipment has fallen and the number of digital photography studios has increased. While it is clear that photography is an important aspect of contemporary weddings in Aksum, it fulfills a different function than gama. “For marriage, gama is the main way we remember it. Photography is additional to this practice.”68 A couple's gama is an idealized representation intended to fulfill a specific social function, one that is not yet seen by young people and their families to be met by photography. Many local residents commented that one can get married without photographs, but not without a gama, although I was told repeatedly that “most people have both.” That said, families invest significant funds to document their children's weddings with photography and video. Photographs and video footage are shot of the various ceremonies and feasts, including the mels, to celebrate the wedding and to document the individuals involved in them. Once produced, photographic images are printed and framed for display in the homes of the bride and groom and their parents (Fig. 8). They are also compiled in photograph albums that can be shared with visitors to the home long after a wedding has occurred.69

In considering the effect of contemporary social change on traditional marriage practices, Yilma Kebede writes, “it can be assumed that due to the impact of modernization, young men and women are not paying due attention to some of the traditional activities and hence marriage and other traditional ceremonies are weakening” (1989: 96). Yet young adults born and raised in Aksum closely identify with the city's culture and traditions, including the practice of acquiring and displaying gama. Wayzero Askale Tilahun and Ato Daniel Haile Selassie, who live and work in Addis Ababa, extensively used photography to celebrate and document their January 2016 wedding in Aksum. They posed for a large photographic banner to be displayed in the courtyard of her parents' home to welcome guests; following the festivities, it was hung inside the house (Fig. 21). They also hired a photographer to document the wedding and related feasts, including multiple images within the northern stelae field—access to which requires the payment of a 1 ETB per person admission fee—and with the new Cathedral of Maryam Tsion in the background.70 When Selamawit Berhane married on February 17, 2013, her family spent more than $100 to hire a photographer and videographer, in addition to paying the required admission fee to the northern stelae field.71 The photographs, which were compiled in a photo album, contain numerous images of the couple and their family and friends in front of the stelae (Fig. 22). In this sense, then, wedding photography in Aksum attempts to replicate the imagery produced in gama. Yet when I asked priest-painters and their clients if photography will supplant gama, every single person responded in the negative, often vehemently. The closest anyone came to suggesting a photograph-related change to gama was Temesgen Gebrekidan, a young engineer-turned-entrepreneur, who suggested that gama might be more appealing to a younger generation if they were created in a smaller format and with a more realistic depiction of the specific bride and groom, then framed, much as wedding photographs are.72 He was, however, adamant that gama could not be replaced by photography.73 Another young man commented,

The culture has been like this for a long time. Photography will not stop it because gama and photography are different. Gama means the church [cathedral precinct], the hawlti … everything together in one painting. In a photograph, you can only have the stelae park or only the church, you cannot represent all that is important about Aksum and our culture in a photograph. Only the gama can do that.74

21

This photographic banner was created for Askale Tilahun's wedding to Daniel Haile Selassie on January 30, 2016 (Tir 22, 2008 EC). It was hung in the family compound throughout the wedding festivities before being moved inside her parents' home, where it was displayed in a living room. Their gama was displayed in the main reception room of the house (Figure 11).

21

This photographic banner was created for Askale Tilahun's wedding to Daniel Haile Selassie on January 30, 2016 (Tir 22, 2008 EC). It was hung in the family compound throughout the wedding festivities before being moved inside her parents' home, where it was displayed in a living room. Their gama was displayed in the main reception room of the house (Figure 11).

22

Selamawit Berhane and her husband Gebre Melak Nirayu posing in front of the Obelisk of Aksum and King Ezana's Stela. Collection of Liq Berhanat Berhane Gebre Iyasus and Wayzero Tsehaitu Reda. Aksum, Ethiopia. April 2016.

22

Selamawit Berhane and her husband Gebre Melak Nirayu posing in front of the Obelisk of Aksum and King Ezana's Stela. Collection of Liq Berhanat Berhane Gebre Iyasus and Wayzero Tsehaitu Reda. Aksum, Ethiopia. April 2016.

Innovation in gama production is certain to continue, as is the practice of producing and displaying gama. The market for wedding paintings appears to remain steady and families hundreds of kilometers away continue to commission gama from Aksum's painters. The number of young artists, such as Deakon Ephrem Berhanemeskel and Wayzero Selamawit Berhane, is also promising, as they see gama as a means of earning a living and expressing themselves artistically, while maintaining family tradition and ensuring the continuity of local culture.

Notes

I am indebted to a number of individuals who supported this project, including the artists and other Aksumites mentioned in this article. Institutional support was provided by the Institute of Ethiopian Studies (IES) at Addis Ababa University, where I was a Visiting Scholar from 2001–2007, and by Wheaton College. In addition, my thanks to Professor Raymond A. Silverman and Professor Neal Sobania for first introducing me to Aksum's priest-painters, to Lemlem Bekele, Mulugeta Gebrekidan, Temesgen Gebrekidan, Meaza Hezkias, Dereje Negussie, and Brook Tadesse for translation and/or other research assistance, and to Mollie Denhard and Zephorene Stickney Helmreich for commenting on earlier drafts. Finally, I extend thanks to the anonymous African Arts reviewers for their comments and suggestions.

1

In this article, I will use the shorter, more commonly heard Ethiopian Orthodox Church, or EOC. In Ge'ez, the liturgical language of the EOC, tewahedo means “unified” and refers to the Ethiopian Orthodox belief in a monophysite Jesus Christ.

2

Unless otherwise noted, all terms are transliterated from Amharic, the official working language of Ethiopia's national government. It is important to note that more than seventy-five languages are recognized in Ethiopia.

3

Ge'ez is written in a script usually referred to as fidel, which is also used to write Amharic, Tigrinya, and several other Ethiopian languages. I have chosen to transliterate the fidel into the Latin alphabet without using diacritical marks and in a form that closely approximates pronunciation in the original language. Proper names, which are often transliterated based on personal preference or historical precedent, have been written based on the preference of each individual, when known.

4

In January 2014, I saw several Ethiopian-style chromolithographs that appeared to have been produced from images created on a computer.

5

When I first met Liq Berhanat Berhane Gebre Iyasus in 2002, one wall in his home was covered by a massive painting depicting the nine saints credited with expanding the EOC in the fifth century The work had been commissioned by a local farmer who planned to donate it to his church. When famine struck northern Ethiopia that year, the farmers crops failed and he was unable to purchase the painting, leaving the artist to find another buyer.

6

Liq Berhanat Berhane Gebre Iyasus, interviews with the author, Aksum, Ethiopia, March 31 and April 1, 2016.

7

Chief of the Chosen Ones.

8

Liq Heeruyan Gebre Wahid, interview with the author, Aksum, Ethiopia, June 25, 2009.

9

Ato refers to a man who does not hold another title, whether military, noble, professional, or religious.

10

Deacon.

11

Ato Berhanemeskel Fisseha and Deakon Ephrem Berhanemeskel, interview with the author, Aksum, Ethiopia, November 2, 2009.

12

Liq Heeruyan Gebre Wahid, interview with the author, Aksum, Ethiopia, June 25, 2009.

13

Liq Berhanat Berhane Gebre Iyasus, interview with the author, Aksum, Ethiopia, June 25, 2009.

14

See Peffer and Cameron 2013 for an engaging consideration of portrait photography throughout the African continent.

15

To the best of my knowledge, even given the presence of Judaism in Ethiopia, no connection appears to exist between gama and the Jewish prenuptial contract known as a ketubah.

16

Liq Berhanat Berhane, interview with the author, Aksum, Ethiopia, June 25, 2009.

17

Liq Heeruyan Gebre Wahid, interview with the author, Aksum, Ethiopia, June 25, 2009.

18

Wayzero denotes a married woman and Wayzerit is used for an unmarried woman. Individuals with professional titles such as Professor or Doctor use those instead of Ato, Wayzerit, or Wayzero.

19

Numerous other stelae fields are found throughout the city of Aksum and surrounding region; however, the northern stelae field is the most visible and well-known, given both the size and number of the stelae it contains and the field's proximity to the cathedral precinct.

20

Wayzero Abeba Tsehaiyay, interview with the author, Aksum, Ethiopia, April 1, 2016.

21

Ma'areg Mesfin, interview with the author, Aksum, Ethiopia, April 1, 2016.

22

Wayzero Abeba Teklemariam, interview with the author, Aksum, Ethiopia, April 1, 2016. A girl or woman's virginity at the time of marriage is an important factor for ethnic groups throughout Ethiopia. See Augustyniak 2009, Beyene and Tolera 2006, and Mengesha, Deressa, and Imagnu 1996.

23

Liq Berhanat Berhane, interview with the author, Aksum, Ethiopia, June 14, 2003. Liq Heeruyan Gebre Wahid made a similar comment when I spoke with him in June 2009.

24

Wayzero Abeba Teklemariam, interview with the author, Aksum, Ethiopia, April 1, 2016.

25

Biasio defines this as “art that developed in urban settings, often created by self-taught artists and directed toward the local population” and references Alvin Sher's 1997 article on butcher shop signs in Ethiopia and Eritrea (Biasio 2009: 14). Only a few forms of Ethiopian “popular painting,” such as signs for tej baitotch (honey-wine bars), have become collectible in the eyes of museums and collectors.

26

Several foreign researchers have purchased gama in my company when I introduced them to Aksumite artists who create wedding paintings. In April 2016, I was told that the IES Museum had gama in its collection; however, the example I was shown had been painted in Addis Ababa and depicted a wedding banquet scene. It closely resembled examples of “contemporary painting in traditional style” sold in tourist shops and was unlike any gama I had ever seen.

27

An esteemed academic and accountant, Professor Johannes Kinfu (1936–2017) also studied gama. Born in Aksum, Professor Johannes was interested in many of the city's cultural traditions, including gold-smithing, which was his father's profession. To the best of my knowledge, his gama research was never published, although he gave a public talk on gama at Addis Ababa University in February 2010 as part of a lecture series organized by the Society of Friends of the IES.

28

Given the painting's location high on a wall, I was unable to read its inscription; however, if one assumes that the woman was approximately 15 years old at the time of her wedding, the painting would likely have been created in the late 1930s through late 1940s.

29

Liq Berhanat Berhane, interview with the author, Aksum, Ethiopia, November 3, 2009.

30

Wayzero Likeyelshi Belay Gessesse, interview with the author, Aksum, Ethiopia, March 31, 2016. Wayzero Likeyelshi's husband Ato Tilahun purchased a gama for their marriage in 1966, but it was damaged by a leaking roof and is no longer extant.

31

Dejazmatch is a military title corresponding to general, although some scholars have translated it as equivalent to “commander” or “count.”

32

Wayzero Likeyelshi Belay Gessesse, interview with the author, Aksum, Ethiopia, March 31, 2016.

33

Liq Heeruyan Gebre Wahid, interview with the author, Aksum, Ethiopia, June 25, 2009.

34

Liq Berhanat Berhane, interview with the author, Aksum, Ethiopia, November 3, 2009.

35

More than eighty-five ethnic groups can be found in Ethiopia, which has a young and growing population currently estimated to have surpassed 100 million. The country is also home to a number of world religions, including Islam, Judaism, and various forms of Christianity, and to a range of animist beliefs.

36

Amharic for “salary.” Can also be transliterated as demoz.

37

Amharic for “covenant” or “promise.” The word is more accurately transliterated as qalkidan; however, for consistency, I will retain Ullendorf's transliteration throughout this article.

38

Amharic for “promise/covenant by communion.”

39

Some artists also paint the name of the churches depicted in gama above the relevant building (Figs. 13, 19).

40

Liq Berhanat Berhane Gebre Iyasus, interview with the author, Aksum, Ethiopia, June 25, 2009.

41

Liq Heeruyan Gebre Wahid, interview with the author, Aksum, Ethiopia, June 25, 2009.

42

Technically, the stone monuments found throughout the Aksum region are stelae, not obelisks, as they do not have a pyramidal top. The stela removed by Mussolini's forces in 1937 has long been referred to as the Obelisk of Aksum or Aksum Obelisk and this is the name by which it continues to be referred.

43

After decades in Italy, the Obelisk of Aksum was repatriated to Ethiopia in April 2005.

44

The ruins of the ancient town of Aksum, now covered by the modern city, were inscribed on the World Heritage List in 1980 (http://whc.unesco.org/en/list/15).

45

Images of the paired stelae now regularly appear in advertisements and other media related to Ethiopia; however, they have yet to completely supplant images of the single hawlti, particularly in architectural settings, e.g., building facades or fences, throughout the Tigrai Regional State.

46

Liq Berhanat Berhane, interview with the author, Aksum, Ethiopia, June 25, 2009.

47

This is the Amharic term for the engraved metal pitchers imported for centuries from the Arabian Peninsula into Ethiopia as luxury goods. (The Tigrinya term is diskuskusti.) Made of brass or bronze, they held ts'bel (holy water) or water to wash the hands and feet of guests. Although few are still extant in private households, several museums in Ethiopia, including the Dessie Museum, have examples of kuskust in their collections. Today, such pitchers are made of plastic.

48

Liq Berhanat Berhane Gebre Iyasus, interview with the author, Aksum, Ethiopia, June 25, 2009.

49

Liq Heeruyan Gebre Wahid, interview with the author, Aksum, Ethiopia, June 25, 2009.

50

Liq Berhanat Berhane Gebre Iyasus, interview with the author, Aksum, Ethiopia, June 25, 2009.

51

Amharic for “committee”; Derg was the term generally used to refer to the military government of Colonel Mengistu Haile Mariam, which ruled Ethiopia from 1974–1991.

52

Liq Heeruyan Gebre Wahid, interview with the author, Aksum, Ethiopia, June 25, 2009.

53

Our Lady Mary of Zion, i.e., the Virgin Mary, Saint Mary.

54

Ahmed ibn Ibrahim al-Ghazi was Imam of the Sultanate of Adal in the early sixteenth century, from approximately 1527–1543. He was dubbed Ahmed Gragn, meaning Ahmed the Left-Handed, by the Abyssinian forces he defeated. See also Munro-Hay 1991; Phillipson 1998: 27–28, 115.

55

In 2011, a leak was discovered in the roof of the Chapel of the Tablet. Following a successful fundraising effort, a new chapel was constructed to the east of the existing structure and consecrated on January 28, 2014 (Makins 2011). I have not yet seen the new Chapel of the Tablet represented in gama.

56

Liq Berhanat Berhane Gebre Iyasus, interview with the author, Aksum, Ethiopia, June 25, 2009.

57

Liq Berhanat Berhane Gebre Iyasus, interview with the author, Aksum, Ethiopia, November 4, 2009.

58

I travelled to Aksum twice in 2009 but not again until March and April 2016, and to Addis Ababa in 2011, 2014, and 2015. During each visit, I was struck by the rise in prices for most goods and services and by how often friends and colleagues shared stories about the high cost of rent and other commodities.

59

Ato Mulugeta Gebrekidan, interview with the author, Aksum, Ethiopia, April 1, 2016.

60

Liq Heeruyan Gebre Wahid, interview with the author, Aksum, Ethiopia, June 25, 2009.

61

Wayzero Abeba Teklemariam, interview with the author, Aksum, Ethiopia, April 1, 2016. When asked the same question, other artists, shopkeepers, and gama owners responded similarly.

62

Liq Heeruyan Gebre Wahid, interview with the author, Aksum, Ethiopia, May 10, 2005.

63

For example, when Wayzero Beyenesh Weleabzgi's house was renovated, the gama it contained was damaged and removed from the wall before being discarded. Interview, Aksum, Ethiopia, March 31, 2016. See also fn. 30.

64

To the best of my knowledge, she is the first woman artist to paint her own gama.

65

Ato Ephrem Semera, interview with the author, Aksum, Ethiopia, April 1, 2016.

66

Wayzero Selamawit Berhane, interview with the author, Aksum, Ethiopia, April 1, 2016.

67

Liq Berhanat Berhane Gebre Iyasus, interview with the author, Aksum, Ethiopia, June 25, 2009.

68

Wayzero Teshaitu Reda, interview with the author, Aksum, Ethiopia, November 4, 2009.

69

Video footage is edited and then transferred to families in a format that can be viewed using the technology they have accessible at home. For many years, wedding videos were produced on VHS cassette tapes; today, DVDs or flash drives may also be used, while families with computers may receive digital files of their wedding videos.

70

According to staff at the ticket booth for the northern stelae field, admission is tiered: 1–5 Ethiopians = 4 ETB each; 6–10 = 3 ETB each; 11–20 = 2 ETB each; 21+ = 1 ETB each. Foreigners pay a significantly higher rate. Interview, Aksum, Ethiopia, April 1, 2016.

71

Wayzerit Million Berhane, interview with the author, Aksum, Ethiopia, March 31, 2016.

72

Ato Temesgen Gebrekidan, interview with the author, Aksum, Ethiopia, March 31, 2016.

73

Ato Temesgen Gebrekidan, interview with the author, Aksum, Ethiopia, March 31, 2016.

74

Ato Ma'areg Mesfin Gebrehiwot, interview with the author, Aksum, Ethiopia, March 31, 2016.

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