The Sigh of the True Cross

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The Sigh of the True Cross

The Sigh of the True Cross is a large mixed media sculpture by Mel Chin (born 1951 in Houston, Texas) at the Birmingham Museum of Art.

The sculpture takes the basic form of an oversized stringed instrument, specifically a masinqo or “spike lute", which is used in Ethiopian music. A hollow block-like "soundbox" is impaled on the end of a curving blade, both caked with a dry, cracked surface comprised of ash and mud bound in acrylic resin. The point of the blade penetrates the center of a red cross on the top surface of the box, and tensions a string of garlic-rubbed bull gut at the point where it is tied into a braid of eragrotis teff (a native food grass) which is looped around a wood plug at the edge of the block. The upper end of the string is wound around the handle of an upside-down hammer which serves as a tuning key. The hammer, in turn, is wedged into a hole drilled through a turned wood neck which is secured to the upper end of the blade. Turning the hammer to tighten the string would simultaneously tear the roots of the grain at the other end. The ragged inside edge of the curving blade, which resembles a sickle as well as the curved bow of the masingo, is cut to the shape of the nation of Ethiopia on a map. The fact that it pierces the instrument's soundbox suggests the silencing of traditional voices.

The symbolic references in form, material and composition, allude to the expulsion of the International Red Cross by Mengistu Haile Mariam, the head of Ethiopia's Marxist government during widespread suffering caused by a long drought in the northern part of the country in the late 1980s. Chin was also struck by the contrast between the horrors of starvation and war along the Eritrean front and the lavish spectacle hosted by Mengitsu to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the military coup that brought his Derg party into power. The timing of the celebration coincided with the "Festival of the True Cross", a Coptic Christian observance based on a tradition that the cross of Christ was divinely moved from Jerusalem to a mountain in Ethiopia's Wollo province. Masingos are used in the festival.

The work was included in Chin's first major solo exhibition, curated by Ned Rifkin in the Spring of 1989 at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington D.C. alongside other works of political commentary relating to U.S. interventions in Latin American and Asia. Over the next two years the sculpture traveled with the exhibition to the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, Minnesota and the Menil Collection in Houston, Texas. It was purchased by the Birmingham Museum of Art with funds provided by the National Endowment for the Arts. Chin donated a portion of his fee to the Gulelie Children's Home in Addis Ababa which housed hundreds of young survivors of the Ethiopian drought and conflict.

At the Birmingham museum, Chin's work has been exhibited in the American Galleries, and as part of the "Third Space: Shifting Conversations About Contemporary Art" exhibition curated by Wassan Al-Khudhairi.


  • Wetenhall, John (1993) "The Sigh of the True Cross" in Masterpieces East & West. Birmingham: Birmingham Museum of Art ISBN 0931394384
  • Weizenbach, Michael (February 1, 1989) "Art" column. The Washington Post

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