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From Emperor to Military Dictator: Shemelis Desta's Ethiopian Archive 1963-1982
Shemelis Desta.

LONDON.- The Photographer’s Gallery will present From Emperor to Military Dictator: Shemelis Desta’s Ethiopian Archive 1963-1982, on view 13 September – 11 November 2007. This exhibition will present a selection of images from the substantial photographic archive of the Ethiopian court photographer, Shemelis Desta. These works, in colour and black & white, document the period of Ethiopian political history that included both the past rule of Haile Selassie, Emperor of Ethiopia (1930 – 74) and the military-led government of the 70s and 80s. As Desta’s first major exhibition in a gallery space, this archive offers a unique insight into a secretive and tumultuous period in recent Ethiopian political history.

Throughout the world during the early 20th century societies were embracing photography as a new invention. Ethiopia too embraced the attraction of the camera, but there were very few who actually had access to and permission to use a camera. However, even with this strict limitation Ethiopia quickly became a country that now holds comprehensive visual record of court and political life of the past century. Within this tradition Shemelis Desta (b. 1937) discovered photography as a teenager and embarked on a 40-year career. Largely self-taught, he gleaned tips from visiting Western photographers and learnt how to process film by American missionaries. At the start of his career he worked for the Ethiopian Tourist Board until the 1960s when he was taken on as the official court photographer for Emperor Haille Selassie I. Following the infamous 1974 military coup and subsequent deposition of the Emperor, Desta continued to record government activity under the rule of the military dictator, Mengistu Haile Mariam.

Desta’s photographs employ the necessary formality appropriate for portraits of leading international leaders of the 20th Century but also, and as a more personal choice, guided by his own creativity, of casual informal shots of events and observations. Throughout his career he continuously used two cameras including a small Rolleiflex camera and, when necessary, a zoom lens. For both professional and personal work Desta was awarded prizes and presented many exhibitions, notably during 1977 in Europe (Moscow, Rome and Madrid) and again in London, Birmingham, Wolverhampton and Sheffield between 1985 and 1991. During his time as ‘official’ photographer, for eight years during military rule, he faithfully hid his negatives of previous and current work. Escaping to the UK in 1982 he ensured his unique historical archive, of approximately 7,000 images was spared destruction and sent to him, through a special arrangement, after his own safe arrival in the UK.

This exhibition not only celebrates the power of the documentary photograph and the discovery of such a monumental archive, but also the story of a very personal journey and a country that is rich in culture, tradition and history. Curated by Indra Khanna and David A Bailey of Autograph ABP this exhibition coincides with the Ethiopian calendar’s millennium celebrations on 11 September 2007.

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