Rasta root explored in rare exihibition
Rasta is resilient: That’s what comes through in the “I’N’I story” documental exhibition by the Rastafarian community at the gallery of the Alliance éthio-française from March 17 to 19. The community and its people have had to be resilient to survive.
“The community has had a history of struggle,” says Reuben Kush, a mechanical engineer who has lived in Ethiopia since the demise of the Derg.
The Shashemene’s ageing Rasta community has lived through decades of hardship and neglect.Local people have occupied and settled on much of the land given to them by Emperor Haile Selassie whom the Rasta consider as the Black Messiah who appeared in the flesh for the redemption of all blacks exiled in the world of white oppressors.
The Rastas says they have not always been taken seriously and often times have been portrayed as a source of “ganja” (marijuana) and some people also feel their strange hairstyle known as “dreadlocks” is wild and unattractive.
“The general public knows very little about who we are, where we come from and why we are here,” says Ras Kush.
Hence, the exhibition is an effort to try to answer to the questions and demystify the mystique of Rastafarism.The exhibition will challenge certain stereotypes about I’N’I and shows concept of ‘our faith and levity beyond the outer symbols of dreadlocks, ganja, reggae and Jamaica’, reads one note on the wall. “Knowing ourselves as Ethiopians, we also wish to display here some of I’N’I contributions to this country’s culture and development. We have come home with many diverse skills and talents that will enhance Ethiopia’s future in this new millennium,” it says.
Using artifacts, ritual objects, art works, photographs, and ephemera (pamphlets and notices), the exhibition explores the origins and religious practices of the movement, repatriation to Ethiopia, and the various business and development area the community is involved in. Clippings and wall writings feature testimony from Rastafari of different ages, nationalities, and racial and class backgrounds speak to Rastafaria of unity and to the spread of the movement. Rastafarian products such as knitted clothing, T-shirts, belts, headwears, baskets, mats, art works, wine, organic products, music albums and other sundries were for sale.
The exhibition was opened with prayer, recited with all the emotional tone of a deep worship experience. There was adoration of the Supreme Being Ras Tafari and there was supplication for the hungry, the infant.
“We are excited to bring aspects of this fascinating yet often misunderstood cultural movement to the public,” says Ras Kush.
The roots of the Rastafarians go back to slave rebellions in the Caribbean beginning in the late 1700s.They take their name from the charismatic personality of Ras Tafari Mekonnen, who ascended to the throne of Ethiopia In the 1930. His biblical title “King of the Kings and Lord of the Lords” triggered visions of revelations for some Jamaican leaders and led to the origin of the movement. These visions also had their roots in the teaching of Marcus Garvey who is said to have admonished his people to look for Africa for the coming of a black king who would be their redeemer. The descendants of African slaves in Jamaica interpreted this development as conformation that the day of deliverance had arrived. The Rastafarians movement began to grow in the 1930’s. It has since grown into a religious and cultural movement, and has spread around the world. At its peak the movement in Ethiopia counted thousands of followers from the Caribbean, the United States, and the United Kingdom residing on 500 acres of land granted by Haile Selassie in Shashemene.
Today, Rastafarians residing in Ethiopia occupy only about 11 acres of land in the town and number about 300 followers. The Marxist-Leninist government of Mengestu Haile Mariam reduced the land available to them.
The sizable Rasta community is not giving up. Ras Kush says the community is trying to integrate by involving itself in several projects such as carpentry, building, organic agriculture, electrical installation. “In fact, there are around 30 businesses in Addis Ababa run by the Rasa community and 20 in Shashemene. So we have tried to show sample of those works in the exhibitions”.
The Ethiopian World Federation currently runs two schools in the Shashemene community – one for primary students and the other at junior secondary level.The Rastas are mobilizing resources to have the birthplace of Ras Mekonen at Ejersa Goro developed as a faith-based heritage. A major pilgrimage to Ejersa Goro is being planned for July 23, 2011.
However Ras Kush says their great difficulty remains their lack of legal status and citizenship. Lack of legal status impacts all areas of their lives.
“Unless you are employed or engaged in investment, the government gives you temporary residence visa” explains Ras Kush. “So we are asking the Ethiopian government to look into our cases”, he says.
But with all the problems, the community is working hard and looking forward to be full citizen and participants of this country, not simply on-lookers. A message they are trying to send out in the exhibition. “A kind of story which can represent the past and the future of the mosaic of the community,” one participant says.