1590 Painting of Indian Prince in Ethiopian Lands

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For art enthusiasts, Switzerland is a must visit country, a country with a rich artistic culture and heritage, apart from the stunning landscapes and beautiful snow-capped Alps, the country boasts of over 900 museums and cultural institutions that are sure to thrill art lovers and history buffs alike from any corner of the globe. Art galleries are scattered all across the country and are particularly concentrated in Zurich.

   Art Basel, Switzerland Art Basel, Miami

Switzerland is home to the popular Art Basel – one of the biggest art exhibitions in the world that have currently expanded to three other cities across the globe. Art Basel is an international art fair. It is a platform for art galleries from all over the world to showcase and sell their works. The 2018 art exhibition had about 95,000 people come to Basel during six days of the exhibition and showcased works from over 35 countries. This global art exhibition started by Ernst Beyeler and some group of gallery owners in Switzerland as far back as 1970. Today, it has expanded to Miami, Florida, and Hong Kong.

Art is a big deal in Switzerland. Even some news organizations like Frieze magazine run an international art exhibition known as the Frieze art fair. There are a bunch of other international art fairs in Switzerland like the Geneva art fair (started in 2012 and not quite as big as the Art Basel), Art International Zurich, Kunst Zurich or Art Zurich and some other less popular local art exhibitions. There is no doubt Switzerland is a heavyweight when it comes to arts.


For many African art aficionados Switzerland might not seem a likely location to see African artworks, particularly 16th-century African arts, but then a visit to the Rietberg Museum in Zurich will leave you in awe. It is the third largest Museum in Zurich and the only museum in Switzerland to focus entirely on Asian, African, American and Oceanian arts and design while giving less attention to European arts and works. Opened in May 1952 and run by the city it consists of five buildings sitting on roughly 17 acres of land.

This museum houses a great deal of African and Asian arts like the idol of Suparsvanatha, Japanese sculpture of Acala the king of mystical knowledge, various artworks from the ancient Benin empire of Nigeria and a host of other important arts and ancient artefacts.

Rietberg Museum, Zurich

Fudo Myoo Museum Rietberg RJP 21.jpg

Fudo Myoo (Acala), König des mystischen Wissens; Japan, Fujiwara-Zeit, Ende 12. Jahrhundert; Zypressenholz mit Resten farbiger Fassung Museum Rietberg, Zürich; Geschenk der Novartis AG; Inv. Nr. RJP 21

One of the important artworks in this museum that is a must-see for African art lovers is a painting from 1590 depicting the visit of an Indian Prince to Ethiopia.


In the painting, a lone Indian prince can be seen dining with what appears to be well-to-do in an open section of a house enclosed by walls. The host and guest are surrounded by darker skinned Ethiopian women standing on both sides, 4 women on the left and six women on the right. The Indian man and his host seem to be the only ones eating in an open section of a house enclosed by a white wall while the rest of the women painted in the scene might have been family members of the host, servants and entertainers. And at a lower altitude outside of the walls of the house, there are paintings of other Ethiopians of a lower social status dining. The African dining with the Indian might have been royalty or a very important person in Ethiopian society judging by her clothes, the house or palace, the dining wares and the presence of what appears to be female servants. Which is richer and in sharp contrast with the paintings of the Ethiopians eating outside of the house and at a lower altitude, dressed casually and dining with regular wares with the absence of servants. The Indian skin colour is lighter, and his dressing depicts that of a well-to-do person, he with his Ethiopian host are both seated on a rich blue rug, unlike the Ethiopians outside that are dressed casually and seated on what seems like a mat. There are four women on one side of the house and six women on the other side with a single woman seated in the centre of the room that appears to be serving the food judging by her posture and the food items spread out on a mat before her. Outside of the house, there are ten men seated on a mat, four men on the left facing the six men on the right. Three men are standing behind the four men seated on the left. One of the three men appears to be carrying a calabash on his head that appears to be wine, unlike the scene of the people inside the wall. Inside, there is no calabash anywhere; rather, there are gold coloured jugs. There are two men further behind the three men that appear to be engaged in a conversation. The Indian is the only lighter-skinned person in the painting.

Painting of Indian Prince in Ethiopia


Relations between India and Africa specifically Northeast Africa has been dated to as far back as the first century; Northeast Africa and India have a long trade history. In those early days, Indians, Greeks and Romans referred to Africans generally as Ethiopians. The modern country of Ethiopia did not exist.

The Periplous of the Eritrean sea is very useful, especially in respect of the African Indian trade routes during the first century of our era. One of the African ports, the Port of Adulis, was very vital in trade relations between the two continents, particularly between Indian and North-eastern African traders. It was a transhipment point where goods and travellers switched from either land coming from Africa en route to the sea, or from sea coming from Asia going to land. Goods traded included ivory, spices, wine, metals, aromatic flowers, clothes, gold and precious stones. The ancient kingdom of Aksum, which included the present-day region of Ethiopia, became the middle man in trade relations between Europe and the Middle-East to the West and India and the Chinese kingdoms to the East, utilizing their Aksumite currency. This was after it had conquered large areas in the Arabian Peninsula and assumed control.

The Sultanate of Mogadishu was also a very important port for trade between Africa and India for centuries. The Sultanate of Mogadishu was an important trading empire between the 10th and 16th century AD. It ruled over large parts of the horn of Africa and had excellent trade relations with India. A diplomatic mission to India to further promote and expand trades resulted in not only more trades between the two kingdoms but also opened the door of trade relations with other Asian kingdoms like China.


Although the transatlantic slave trade dealt a blow to the image and public status of Africans, it certainly does not apply to all African people generally. A closer examination of the time surrounding the start of the slave trade will reveal it was clear Africans had class and sophistication and were not all regarded as slaves or simpletons, they clearly played major roles in world events, were treated with respect and were a powerful force in world trades. The cases of Alessandro De Medici in Florence, the Beachy Head Lady in Eastbourne and the Ivory Bangle Lady are proof that even in foreign lands some Africans had dignity and were respected. There have even been instances where Africans have been proven to be in the Court of Kings; there were Africans in the Royal court of King James IV and King Henry VIII.

This Painting of an Indian prince visit to Ethiopia is yet another Indicator to the Status of Africans during earlier times.

By being open-minded, we discover that deeply ignorant stereotypes of the state of some African civilizations in the 16th to 19th century were misreported by members of European society that needed to justify their prejudices and immoral treatment of human beings.





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1590 Painting of Indian Prince in Ethiopian Lands

by Editorial Team time to read: 6 min