New York (TADIAS) – “As a 25-year old, I did not know what to expect, but I knew that I was not traveling to Africa to see the animals,” photographer Chester Higgins Jr. said in the announcement of his current exhibition in New York entitled: My Soul Flies to Africa: Images from an Ongoing Journey.
Higgins, who has been a staff photographer for the New York Times since 1975, has traveled to Africa more than 30 times in the last forty years providing us with stunning photographs that stand in contrast to the endless stream of negative images that often dominate world headlines concerning the continent. He focuses his lens on people, historical locations, and cultural ceremonies – from Ethiopia to Mali – highlighting his deep sense of wonder, grace and connection to his subject matter.
How often does he go to Africa these days? “I try to return to Africa once a year,” Higgins told us. “My most recent trip to Ethiopia was in November through December 2011.”
In the early 1900s, when Armenians were faced with genocide orchestrated by the Ottoman empire, scores of families escaped and some arrived and settled in Ethiopia. Armenians make up one of the oldest immigrant communities in Ethiopia. Vahe Tilbian, a 4th generation Ethiopian-Armenian, told TADIAS magazine that “historically Armenians worked as goldsmiths, carpenters, builders, teachers, embroiders, silk makers, and carpet makers.” His great grandfather Tavit Aslanian was a carpet maker in Empress Zewditu’s palace, his paternal grandfather was a tailor in Addis and his maternal family members were cobblers.
Armenians have likewise contributed heavily to Ethiopian modern music. Kevork Nalbandian was an Armenian who composed the first national anthem for Ethiopia as well as served as the musical director of Arba Lijoch. His nephew Nerses Nalbandian was involved in the founding of the famed Yared Music School as well as led the Municipality Orchestra.
Besides Ethiopia, a small Armenian community also exists in Sudan. The capital, Khartoum, features an Armenian church. South Africa, too, has seen an Armenian population growing in number over the past decades, with some community organisations and activities taking place.
Individual Armenians have for their part found their way for this reason or that to all sorts of corners of that giant continent. One off-beat story is that of cargo airline pilots from Armenia who were arrested for unwittingly being involved in a coup attempt in Equatorial Guinea in 2004. They were later released. Another much more to-the-beat story is that of George Avakian, a South African Armenian who made an impression beatboxing on a television talent show. To give another example, Armenians from the United States, Belgium, and Lebanon have established businesses in the mining sector in Ghana in recent years.
And then there is Krikor DerBalian who moved from Egypt in 1964 to Swaziland – a tiny kingdom of about a million people mostly within South Africa. A corner of the land he bought became the site of the Sourp Haroutun Armenian Chapel, which was built by hand between 1985 to 1989 by him and with local help. The furniture, seating up to 24 people, and other religious items, were donated by both Armenian and non-Armenian friends.
TEZETA is a small reflection of a much larger Ethiopian-Armenian historical and cultural romance. It’s focused on music as a vehicle to deliver a broader and deeper history to a larger international audience. There are books that are being written that aim to thoroughly document the history of the two cultures. Currently, there are plans to create a museum celebrating the long history and legacy of Armenians in Ethiopia. I would say that there is hope, even though the community has declined over the years. ( Aramazt Kalayjian, film maker of TEZETA)