An inspirational painter with a historian’s mission : Martha Nassibou

Moonlit sea medium 1

I had always liked and admired Martha.

Years ago, we’d meet up for holidays and festivities. Both our families were variations of modern “nomads” – we shared many cross-generation friendships in our respective families. Martha was born in Ethiopia to a family of the upper aristocracy, and lived her early childhood in an extraordinarily privileged fairy-tale setting, in the luxury of abundance, houses and servants. Italy invaded her country in 1935, bombed it aggressively and over the course of the following 5 years, fought the partisans with chemical warfare – some 500 tons of chemical weapons were used against the Ethiopians. Martha was taken hostage together with her mother and siblings, while her father died in a European clinic, his lungs collapsed by the mustard gas. Mussolini’s government subsequently transferred the family to Italy, from town to town, prison to prison, 12 wartime moves in all, one of which was to the remote sands of Libya.

After the end of WW II, with the defeat of Italy and Fascism, her family was able to return to Ethiopia, but Martha chose to study in Europe. She eventually started her travels again, as the wife of a diplomat related to Emperor Haile Selassie of Ethiopia. Which meant that with the Communist Revolution of 1973 she became once again an exile…

By the time I met her in Rome in the 1980s, she had settled down with her second husband and her extended family. I marveled at her ever-present energy, perennial good mood and sense of humor, and the way she had adapted to a simple family life in the suburbs. Her home was always full of comings and goings, her children, their friends. I recall walls covered in the exuberant colours of her paintings*, and also her many creative projects. Eons before elegant designer T-shirts became fashionable, she made her own unique models, patiently sewed glossy confetti in glorious rainbows and animal shapes: for many years, one of her T-shirts was my very special beautiful favourite I wore with pride and cared for like a maniac.



In 2005, she launched herself on her core life-project, which had always been at the back of her mind. She started to write a personal and historical memoir of her years in Ethiopia, to restore visibility to a little-known span of history which had been ignored by mainstream historians, and swept under the carpet by official Italian historians. With the passing of time and direct witnesses, it was in danger of fading away for good.

It took her years of determined writing, correspondence and contacts with relatives and historians, rewriting and starting all over again. She had her personal childhood memories to dig out and check with her far-flung surviving relatives (many were killed in the aftermath of the Revolution). She had to get it right, to describe the world of the Ethiopian aristocracy of the 20s and 30s correctly, the tensions of a feudal tradition versus encroaching modernism. The convoluted relationships between the Italian generals responsible for her country’s invasion and her family’s saga had to be accurately checked in libraries, with academics, by means of a seemingly endless exchange of correspondence and consequent re-draftings. Just finding an editor, then an Italian publisher, and getting the book to print took a full year of uphill efforts.

The whole project had high and low moments, and turned out to be exhausting and far more demanding than she could have imagined. She put it on hold a number of times but never gave up.


After 5 years, her efforts paid off beautifully. The first edition of her book** was well-received in Italy. It was immediately noticed, and she was invited to congresses, to participate in discussion panels, on travel and cultural TV shows, and was extensively interviewed. She had managed to keep the tone of her book factual, though the undercurrents of colonial brutality and racism are clearly present, and her greatest satisfaction was to see the visibility and attention her book raised in the Italian press and media. The period and events she covered had been overlooked, and after her book appeared, new studies and theses and discussions were launched both in academia and for the general public.

Her book is now in its 3rd edition, and she has also consulted for a number of recent documentaries on Ethiopia.

I had always been fascinated by her unusual life, sunny character, coping skills and creativity, but it’s been outright admiration since Martha embarked on her ambitious and worthwhile book project. She overcame considerable objective difficulties, completed the book and managed to have it successfully published. It’s inspiring that she’s become an acknowledged expert on the period, and continues to contribute as a source of direct information for a new generation of Ethiopians who want and need to know more about their country’s roots and past.


3 pictures of paintings by permission Martha Nassibou © 2005

“Moonlit Sea” – “Ethiodance” – “Yellow Flowers”

*Martha is listed in the Smithsonian Library files as “Ethiopian painter”

** “Memorie di una principessa etiope” (Memories of an Ethiopian Princess”) Neri Pozza Editore 2005

It has been translated into English by the University of Durham (U.K.), and is due to be published this year.


I always love it when people start on new projects later in life… and succeed too! Any thoughts, or similar examples?


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9 Responses to An inspirational painter with a historian’s mission : Martha Nassibou

  1. Bea dM says:

    Unfortunately no. She died a bit more than a year and a half ago. It still feels like yesterday to everyone who knew and loved her.

  2. equipsblog says:

    Wow, a fascinating story. Is the lady still alive?

  3. kevinbcohen says:

    Fascinating story. Thank you for sharing it.

  4. Mél@nie says:

    très beau… je n’ai aucun talent artistique, donc mon admiration sincère et mon respect profond pour tous les artistes! 🙂

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