L ‘Ethiopia, the Horn of Africa and Southern Arabia have been part of his universe for almost fifty years. As part of his research, work, exhibitions, conferences and publications, this perpetual backpacker, author of about twenty books, two of them with his friend and missionary Théodore Monod, remains as fond of discoveries as ever and encounters. In the Reine-de-Saba space, a cultural center dedicated mainly to Yemen, the country where he secured the restoration of Maison Rimbaud in Aden and the preservation of incense trees, José-Marie Bel has put together an extraordinary collection of hundreds of photographs from hundreds years ago when Italy was in East Africa, the Red Sea, Eritrea, Tigray, Abyssinia. The result of a very long study that reveals moving and magnificent places, landscapes, scenes and portraits.
Twenty years ago, the ethnologist from an Italian bookstore acquired an album of nearly three hundred old black-and-white photographs from 1900 to 1936. The title of the cover is engraved in golden letters “Fondazione dell’Impero”, accompanied by the date “IX maggio anno XIV”, in an elegant typographic art deco style from the 1930s, marks the creation of the Italian Empire in East Africa on May 9, 1936, AOI. Inside an invaluable collection of ethnic photographs, unknown scenes, poses, remarkable portraits of men, women and children, stunning locations and sublime landscapes. The researcher wonders about the story of his discovery. “Was it the result of a specific, official order? Could it have been a gift project intended for Mussolini, a product of the exaltation of conquered territories, presenting places, landscapes, animals and exotic peoples? A kind of exhaustive catalog of trophies? Proof of the invasion benefits and thus justify the exorbitant cost of the operation, partly funded by the gift of wedding rings offered by Italian women for the purpose? »
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The album with the luxurious cover is made by professionals, but the result is handcrafted. “No organizational sense, omissions and errors in carelessly typed, cut and pasted captions. Like Sherlock Homes, José-Marie Bel examines all the revealing traces: medals from a noble and proud veteran, texts on panels or signs, everyday objects, historical relics, masonry buildings, cottages. He manages to date, in the 1910s, certain images of Aksum (Tigray), a center of Ethiopian Christianity, and discovers other traces. This period corresponds to the beginning of archaeological research. Glad to have discovered an original, unique album, he will find nine others, all referenced in specialized institutes. He did not manage to identify the names of the photographers, but what he is sure of is that “this album is filled with the very first photographs taken in these own”. The route of the exhibition tells of this search in images, accompanied by objects and drawings retrieved from his various travels.
Exhibition “Photographic treasures found. Red Sea, Eritrea, Tigray, Ethiopia (1880 – 1936)”. Until Wednesday 13 July 2022 (closed from 19 to 28 June). On this occasion: three unique works by José -Marie Bel, Sites and sites found, Scenes of life found, Portraits found, Sepia editions. Open Tuesday to Sunday from 14.30 to 18.30 except Monday and by appointment. Admission: 6 €. Bookstore and association shop: free admission at specified times. Reine-de-Saba Space, 30 rue Pradier, Paris (19e). Such. : 01 43 57 97 92, www.espacereinedesaba.org/