Battle of Adwa

Unidentified artist, Battle of Adwa, c. 1968, oil on canvas, 192.2 x 92 cm (Smithsonian National Museum of African Art)

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Dr. Peri Klemm: [0:12] We are at the National Museum for African Art at the Smithsonian, looking at a historical painting of a battle called the Battle of Adwa.

Dr. Steven Zucker: [0:15] This is one of numerous paintings of this scene. This is a tremendously important moment in Ethiopian history because it represents the victory of the Ethiopians over Italian aggressors.

Dr. Klemm: [0:27] Ethiopia never had a colonizing experience. It became this incredible symbol of resistance to European occupation in the Horn of Africa.

Dr. Zucker: [0:00] The painting is celebratory, but it’s also meant to instruct.

Dr. Klemm: [0:38] In the upper left-hand corner, seated on a horse and looking through binoculars, is Emperor Menelik. Below him, also seated on a horse and holding a revolver under this umbrella is Empress Taytu, his wife.

Dr. Zucker: [0:56] They are surrounded by what are meant to be the 100,000 troops that supported this campaign.

Dr. Klemm: [1:02] We see that depicted through a series of heads and arms. Rather than having all full-bodied figures, we have these crouching lines of heads with these strong diagonals from one side and the other.

Dr. Zucker: [1:11] The story behind the painting is one of the Italians’ interest in having control over the southern coast of the Red Sea, an area that was important to trade, and the Italians were making increasingly deep incursions into Ethiopia. A king was able to gather an enormous force to oppose the Italians.

[1:27] The Italians decided to try to advance their interests by taking new forward positions at night, but several divisions overshot their targets and virtually walked into the Ethiopian camp.

Dr. Klemm: [1:38] There was already an Italian presence in what is now Eritrea, and that group was slowly pushing southward. Meanwhile, Emperor Menelik, who had a small kingdom in Shewa, increased his kingdom and accrued this strong army. About 100,000 soldiers are supposedly depicted in this painting, fighting a troop of about 15,000 Italian soldiers, coming together at this very important point.

[2:01] But what we notice is while the Italian soldiers all have guns, and throughout Africa that’s the way in which Europeans were able to colonize, we see that through trade many of the African soldiers already had rifles and were able to use them.

Dr. Zucker: [2:14] But it’s not just pistols and rifles, we actually see cannon on both sides.

Dr. Klemm: [2:18] Rising from these crouching troops are a series of six figures, or more, who stand up with their swords and go after, in full force, the Italian soldiers waiting on the ground.

[2:30] These figures are depicted in tunics with white cotton trousers, the traditional dress of that time for soldiers, as well as men of some prestige, these Rases, these men wearing leather capes with lion mane and lion fur decorating the fringes of their headdresses, and those capes.

Dr. Zucker: [2:47] If you look closely, you can see that there’s blood on a number of the swords that they hold. The Italians are all wearing helmets. Their faces are largely obscured by their guns, and each of them is in perfect profile with only one eye showing.

Dr. Klemm: [3:01] For the Ethiopian soldiers, we see two eyes, with heads tilted to look towards the invading army, but then we have a series of figures who are standing and we see them frontally facing us.

[3:12] That hearkens back to this tradition of painting in the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, where good in the figure of saints, for example, are always depicted facing outward, and evil, whether it’s a demon or a stranger or an enemy, are always depicted in profile. The only Italian faces we actually see frontally are those that are deceased.

Dr. Zucker: [3:34] There is a real reverence for the dead.

Dr. Klemm: [3:36] Except in the case of one figure, who is stepping on the head of one of the dead Italian soldiers. In the center, a Ras is holding a shield in his hand, and we have another shield in the collection at the Smithsonian.

Dr. Zucker: [3:49] This is a large boss. It is really a sculptural form that comes forward in the center. In this case, the shield is covered with this metal embellishment that has a protective but also a decorative purpose.

Dr. Klemm: [4:04] We see in four places where the leather projects outward where a handle would be on the other side. This was made from a stiff, hard leather, so it was able to protect the holder from spears.

Dr. Zucker: [4:15] If you look closely at the leather, you can see that it’s been decorated with a series of concentric circles and geometric designs.

Dr. Klemm: [4:18] This was used by someone of very high status, because of the amount of metal used to decorate it.

Dr. Zucker: [4:24] The representation of the shield in the painting is remarkably similar to the shield that we have before us, but perhaps most important in the painting is, above all of the violence, all the chaos, we see an image of Saint George on horseback, holding a spear, which is pointed towards the Italians.

Dr. Klemm: [4:39] This ancient symbol of Saint George, which is part of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, usually depicts Saint George killing a dragon, but here he’s killing evil.

[4:48] This idea of divine intervention is also apparent if we look next to Menelik on the left, where we see part of the figure’s face with this red cloth, square headpiece on top, which represents a priest holding a replica of the Ark of the Covenant, the tabot, on top of his head.

[5:06] We actually find this replica in every Ethiopian Orthodox Church as its center, so it’s a way of showing that the hand of God is on the side of Emperor Menelik.

Dr. Zucker: [5:19] We have a successful African campaign against Europeans. This would have had profound impact on African nationalist sentiment.

Dr. Klemm: [5:30] This was such a thorn in the side of many Italians and Mussolini that in 1936 Mussolini invades Ethiopia, and we have a five-year occupation.

Dr. Zucker: [5:35] The way that the Europeans looked at the failure of Italians speaks to the racism and the sense of superiority that is so central to European thought in the 19th and early 20th centuries, but Africans celebrated and continue to celebrate this victory as a seminal moment in African self-rule.

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Raymond Jonas, The Battle of Adwa: African Victory in the Age of Empire (Harvard University Press, 2015)

Learn more about the Battle of Adwa with supplemental materials on Raymond Jonas’s website

Cite this page as: Dr. Peri Klemm and Dr. Steven Zucker, "Battle of Adwa," in Smarthistory, February 24, 2022, accessed July 13, 2024,