The Painter-Poet

Excerpts taken from The Painter-Poet - by Achamyeleh Debela - Phd, a professor of Art and computer graphics at North Carolina University, North Carolina, USA

In the Grotto, acrylic on canvas, 100 by 150 cm, 1979

 

Gebre Kristos Desta was born in 1932 in the Eastern province of Harar, Ethiopia. His father Aleka Desta was a clergyman and a graphic artist in Harar. Aleka Desta was trained as an apprentice in a church school and was familiar with traditional clerical literature and religious art of the Ethiopian Coptic-Orthodox Church. Like most accomplished traditional artists, he copied many religious manuscripts with illuminations that depicted events from the Old and New Testament, as well as the lives of saints and other traditional themes. 

 

 
 

 

Like most children at that time and of his age in Ethiopia, Gebre Kristos dreamt of becoming a solider. Instead, he joined the Science Faculty of the University College of Addis Ababa, but spent his spare time reading art and painting when he could. Up to his sophomore year in collage, Gebre Kristos was a self-taught artist, but his wish and conviction to be a professional artist remained. 

Gebre Kristos’s  overwhelming desire to study art abroad was realized when he won a scholarship in 1957. From 1957 to 1961, he studied painting at the Academy of Art in Cologne, West Germany, graduating at the top of his class. It was in Germany that he became interested in abstract painting. Among others, the works of the Russian abstractionist Wassily Kandinsky made a deep and lasting impression on him.  

 

Power, oil collage on hardboard, 81 by 90 cm, 1967

 

Flowers No. 5, oil on hardboard, 100 by 80 cm, 1975  

Flowers No. 5, oil on hardboard, 100 by 80 cm, 1975

 

Remembering Marga, oil on hardboard, 65.5 by 50 cm, 1963

Crystalline, oil on hardboard, 81 by 100 cm, 1975

 

Upon his return to Ethiopia in 1962, he introduced his art to his people in a solo show held at the School of Fine Arts in 1963, where he was also a member of the faculty. It was  at this junction that he began to face the challenges encountered by many African artists of his calibre. His art was met with criticism. His critics were quick to point out that he had come back with foreign art concepts and passed up Ethiopian traditional art opting for modern and alien forms. Gebre Kristos replied… “It is funny that people who know nothing about the history of art attach such exaggerated importance to the art of their own country. They don’t realize how international art is. Picasso could hardly have created “cubism” had he not seen African Art. Mattis was influenced by Islamic traditions. Gaugin went as fas as Tahiti to find new inspirations. We create ultra modern houses in our developing countries. We build super highways on which we drive our modern cars. We use all sorts of up-to-date technology, education, medicine. Why in the world should art be different?” (Head, 1969)

About the time of Gebre Kristos’s one-man show, in an attempt to enlighten Ethiopian “critics” who delegated abstract art as foreign to Ethiopia, art critic Solomon Deressa wrote “how much abstract can one get than the nonfigurative Ethiopian manuscript illuminations, or the steles of Axum, which are skyscrapers complete with windows and doors, but definitely closed to anyone trying to penetrate their mystery?” (Solomon, 1966-67)

Solomon further elaborated on the nagging concept at that time, that of the undefined concept of “Ethiopianism” in art:

“Just as asphalt roads built to connect two points of the Empire in Ethiopia, containing all the qualities and defects of the Ethiopians who build them, so to a house designed for the comfortable living of an Ethiopian family with this country is an Ethiopian regardless of whether the kitchen is inside or out. Now, a house built for natives of this country renders daily living. Both time consuming and uncomfortable is no un-Ethiopian, but simply bad. A skyscraper in some village in Wollega, however Ethiopian its motifs are, and would reflect on the builder’s lack of common sense….A portrait of a German girl by a good Ethiopian painter is necessarily more Ethiopian, than either a portrait of an Ethiopian face by a foreigner, or a schmaltzy portrait of an Ethiopian peasant by a slick Ethiopian painter. The schmaltz is neither Ethiopian nor un-Ethiopian but quite simply bad. In short, it is difficult to realize how a good work by a sincere Ethiopian artist can be anything but Ethiopian” (Solomon 1967)

 

 

Redefining Nude, oil on hardboard, 98 by 81 cm, 1973

 

 
 

Untitled, oil on canvas, 47 by 97 cm, 1966

 

 

Determined with the conviction that there is as much need to advance in art as in science and technology, Gebre Kristos's dedication to abstract art was a courageous act that could have only been pursued by an artist of the pioneer spirit. Indeed, this contemporary African artist had boldly introduced a new approach and a new form of expression in art to African in general, and to the Ethiopian soil in particular. He eagerly shared his view about the world; his personal experience about life; his moments of contemplation, and conversation with nature - the human misery and complexity of modern man. He wanted us to see beyond the ordinary. He created visual signals via a new language and a new medium; the symbolic meaning of which we have to learn to see, a symbol by far different from the pictorial art of the predominantly Copto-Byzantine Art form of traditional Ethiopia.

Perhaps a most significant quality was Gebre Kristos's ability to give a sensitive analysis and interpretation of a student’s work. As a teacher, Gebre Kristos was highly inspiring and at times demanding. His instruction was derived from his personal discoveries and convictions and yet it did not constitute a constricting influence on his students. The force of his personality was not dominating; rather it was one that was at once respectable and lovable. 

Genre Kristos was truly an ambassador of his culture and his art. In 1965, he was the recipient of the Haile Selassie I prize for Fine Arts. In 1967, he was invited to exhibit his works in USSR, and Czechoslovakia. In 1970, he was invited by the Federal Republic of the West Germany to present his works and in 1972 he was invited by the U.S. Department of State to exhibit his works in United States - a most memorable moment of this visit that Gebre Kristos talked about was his meeting with the renowned African American artist Romare Bearden. 

In 1974, the Ethiopian revolution erupted.The “Derge”, which was then the provisional military government proclaimed what was known as  Zemecha, a National Campaign for Development Through Cooperation. Some 60,000 students from high schools and universities were dispersed all over the country to propagate and assist in teaching the rural Ethiopia about the new ideological changes gripping the country. Gebre Kristos, like many teachers, served in the campaign as an art expert of the Zamacha. On his return to the capital, in 1976, he was invited by the Municipality of Addis Ababa to start the first National Gallery of Ethiopia, which became known as the City Hall Gallery. In the following years, Gebre Kristos was clearly dissatisfied by the new developments that tended to perpetuate ideological rhetoric into the arts. He traveled to West Germany were he languished for a year. The German government chose not to give Gebre Kristos asylum, cautious of a reprisal from the Ethiopian government. 

In 1980, a Catholic Church in Lawton, Oklahoma offered assistance and Gebre Kristos Desta, once the cultural ambassador to his country, who with honors and pride exhibited in Yugoslavia, Greece, India, West Germany, USSR, USA, Canada, Kenya, Nigeria, Tanzania, Brazil, Ghana, Spain, Italy, and Belgium, came to Lawton, Oklahoma as a refugee. The pain and anguish and humiliation took its toll. He lived in a one-room apartment where he began to work on small scale stills. While in Lawton, Gebre Kristos taught art part-time in the local YMCA and later, at a high school. He was suddenly taken ill and died in 1981. 

 

A Long Day, acrylic on canvas, 65 by 50 cm, 1979

 

In 2005, about 30 works by Gebre Kristos made their way back to Ethiopia. The German Cultural Institute (Goethe) was entrusted with the pieces but couldn’t provide the space to hold and display all of the works, causing them to disappear from the public view. Professor Andreas Eshete, who at that time was President of the Addis Ababa University, and  other devotees of the artist decided to find a new venue that could accommodate all of the artist’s works. The answer came not in a brand new building but in the restoration of the former palace of Alga Werash Asfaw Wosen, close to the seat of the German Cultural Institute, that had been serving as public administration department of the Addis Ababa University. Thus, on October 10, 2008, the renovated and expanded Modern Art Museum named after Gebre Kristos Desta opened its doors. 

On its inaugural presentation, the museum featured 24 works of Gebre Kristos Desta from the 30 holdings brought from Germany as well as works of his contemporaries and disciples like Skunder Boghossian, Abdruhman Sherif, Yohannes Gedamu,Tibebe Teffa, Behailu Bezabeh, Bekele Mekonen and Bisrat Shibabaw.

The Gebre Kristos Desta Modern Art Museum is a fitting tribute to a man who defined modern art in Ethiopia, a beloved poet and a much admired teacher - and today his works could be found living amongst those created by generations of Ethiopian artists that came after him. More than a few of them his pupils.

 

Go Green and Sustainable - Go Chic!

Photo from sabahar.com

Photo from sabahar.com

Sabahar is a slice of green utopia amidst the hustle and bustle of Addis Ababa. Sabahar is an Ethiopian company that produces uniquely designed, hand made cotton and silk textiles; entirely hand made in Ethiopia from natural fibers. Sabahar’s workshop is open to public - you will be able to see weavers, spinners, dyers and finishers. And yes, you can even meet the silk caterpillars that they keep on site.

Sabahar prides itself on its passion for preserving and celebrating the rich weaving tradition of Ethiopia combined with respectful and ethical work opportunities for marginalized people. Suitability and innovation are their core values - Sabahar supports and trains artisans to apply their ancient skills to modern, fresh designs - providing the bridge between the artisan and the global market, and creating reliable income for families. Sahara is a member of the World Fair Trade Organization, creating work opportunities for Ethiopian people with an emphasis on employment for women.

Photo from countingflowers.co.uk

Photo from countingflowers.co.uk

Weaving is an ancient craft in Ethiopia but silk was only introduced to Ethiopia about 15 years ago. Sabahar has adopted traditional technologies to new fibers and products, remaining loyal to tradition while adjusting to contemporary tastes of the world market. All of the cotton and silk used is locally sourced in Ethiopia and made by hand - every step of the process, from the spinning of the thread to weaving the cloth and even finishing the details on each of the products. Natural dyes, using local plants and herbs, create the most luxurious colors.

 
 

Sabahar exports to more than 20 companies in 13 countries and has a retail shop in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. Please contact them at 

sabahar@gmail.com

www.sabahar.com

 

Sensing the Word - The inspirations behind Wosene Worke Kosrof’s Artworks

By the time his mother died in 1998, Wosene Worke Kosrof was already an internationally established artist known for his inventive use of the Amharic script. However, the intimacy of the written word was brought home to him when his mother learned, in the late years of her life, to write her name. Watching her discovery, her play with the letters and delight in their beauty, renewed his own attachment to script, not just for his art, but as a deeply resonate form of cultural memory. 

“My mother learned to read a little at the end of her life. She had always known the beauty of the letter, but when she learned to sign her name, they really came alive.  That assured me, to see my mother so close to writing, and it made me think how script had always been - familiar. She told me the characters were dressed up, some in nice clothes, they reminded her of eucalyptus or oak trees; or maybe she saw animals in them. This affected me deeply. When I gave my mother a canvas and asked her to write, she replied, “But I don’t know how to”. No, you do, I said. Take a few colors. But she took black. She drew the letters she knew and liked and kept repeating and repeating them. Then she started to distort them, to break them up. I asked her what she was thinking, “its like a dream”, she said… Abstraction is a dream world - broken pieces coming together, creating new layers of reality. Because of my mother I’ve become even more fascinated in the deep play of the words; and as my life changes they tell my experience… they go back in time and they move forward. They travel with me”.* And so does his mother. Breaking with Ethiopian tradition, Wosene has taken a middle name - Worke; it is his mother’s name. (Allyson Purpura, Ph.D. Independent Curator, University of Michigan Museum of Art, Ann Arbor, Michigan, 2006)

In his book The Spell of the Sensuous, ecologist and philosopher David Abram has suggested that all language and alphabets arise out of specific physical landscape, but they can also become an unconscious replacement for that landscape. Language and writing can become a veil between us and the sensual or natural world, replacing our direct contact with that world with a text. We then live vicariously through our written language and have lost contact with a great living mystery, or in Abram's words, the "spell of the sensuous." Using the Amharic alphabet and written language as his foundation, Wosene takes us on the return journey of making the script/word/letter become landscape again, not its replacement.

Exploring the temporal and spatial dimensions of script has led Wosene to experiment with its deployment in constructions of place and identity. In his art, Amharic (official Ethiopian script) becomes an elastic means for communicating across the limits of time, place, and culture.

In his hands, letters become distorted , impressionistic shadows of their former selves, animating his canvases with pseudo-script that, as he puts it, "is divested of literal meaning, and transformed into a visual language that can be understood internationally". 

“I’m working to when these writings become a condition in which everyone of us tends to speak to it in all kinds of ways. Either we smell something in memory where we travel into space, or in a way we hear sound out of it. And, its a continuous agitation. Or is it a trumpet, a drum or a classical African instrument? Or could that be a Chinese instrument, or anything? I’m concerned with how these writings are really informing by mimicking how our position and place in memory is telling us something. How it is trying to tell us where we should go. All of that is, literally, imbedded in these writings. I try to tell my Ethiopian friends that I’m not writing this for you to read. That this is an old concept of illusion, a concept of exaggeration and distortion. Anyone could stand in front of this painting and absorb its message in the sense of being into it, or being able to read it and going into time and space wit it”, says Wosene.

Wosene’s concern with the process inside his paintings has helped him develop personal language of visual relationships. Not only are his paintings composed of specific types of symbols, letters, or words, but these elements have a relationship with each other. Working like a choreographer in dance, Wosene is playing with the language of their relationship. For Wosene, the suggestion of a dance relationship is an illusion he has created by taking the alphabet out of its “box in which it can’t breath”, out of its prison, and returned it to a spatial freedom in which it can move, interact and improvise. (C. Daniel Dawson Independent Curator New York City, 2006)

 

Masks of the Dancers, 1999. 

Masks of the Dancers, 1999. 

In the Garden, 2001. 

In the Garden, 2001. 

In addition to the fragments of Ge’ez script, Wosene’s paintings reveal patchworks of geometric ornament and bands of interlace (harag) used to frame illuminated manuscripts (see artworks above) 

 

The artist’s play with the grid also recurs in much of his work - the grid of his childhood, which he used for printing his first Amharic characters (see above)

 

 

While Wosene's Ethiopian descent informs his practice in significant ways, it does not define him or his art as essentially 'African' or 'Ethiopian'. The tendency to see the work of non-Western contemporary artists as representative of the artist's culture of origin not only limits the narrative possibilities of the work; it also locks the artist out of time and place, reducing him, his agency, his very history, to a stereotype that privileges tradition over modernity, the local over the global, and permanence over transience. If anything, it is precisely because Wosene's work is loosely biographical that it cannot be reduced to any one place, impulse, or time. Having lived outside Ethiopia since the late 1970s, the artist draws from all the places he has called home, and as such, he resists fixed and facile labels of identity. (Allyson Purpura, Ph.D. Independent Curator University of Michigan Museum of Art Ann Arbor, Michigan, 2006)

Lady Liberty. 1986.

Lady Liberty. 1986.

Words of Justice, 2002. 

Words of Justice, 2002. 

*All quotes are taken from Words from Spoken to Seen - The Art of Wosene Worke Kosrof - Curated by Allyson Purpura and Barbaro Martinez-Ruiz.

 

The Reversal Gaze - The Hypnotic Mystery Behind Traditional Ethiopian Art!

The “reversal gaze”, the epitome of traditional Ethiopian art - is depicted by the wide, almond shaped eyes of ancient Ethiopian iconography - and connotes a fascinating and almost eerie (at least for some) concept that it is not only the viewers who observe the paintings, but the paintings also observe the viewers, taking in the world outside - (making me wonder of what the characters must think of us - but that’s entirely another subject). 

The 4th century ushered Christianity into Ethiopia and marked the beginning of a tradition of religious paintings. Housed mostly in churches, paintings depicting characters and stories from the Bible, icons, crosses and illustrated manuscripts signified the onset of Christian art in Ethiopia.

The iconographic forms and principles of presentation in traditional Ethiopian church art were kept and passed from generation to generation. Painters knew how to draw in a flat style - not deceptive neither illusive, direct, objective and without a background and using only black, white, and the colors yellow, green, red and blue. At the height of its stylistic perfection, Ethiopian art renounced the illusion of volume, depth and perspective. The paintings were “conceptual” and composed of a series of image-signs according to spiritual considerations. These image-signs, arranged on a flat surface, are meant to give the impression of an idea or a narration. Human figures, the apotheosis of Ethiopian art, are characterized by non-realistic head and body proportions and usually static poses. (Stanisław Chojnacki, University of Sudbury, Ontario)

Within these paintings a human face had three forms; two-thirds, frontal and profile, and each format symbolized different concepts and personality. The saints were painted in reversal gaze so as to hypnotize the onlooker, which also used what is known as the frontal technique. To avoid the reversal gaze and to depict sinful and devilish people, the painters used the profile technique by drawing only one eye.

 

Change and evolution was apparent when in the 16th and 17th centuries the Jesuits brought with them depictions of the Virgin Mary, and was further emphasized in the 1890’s with the arrival of printed images from Egypt, Jerusalem, Greece and France. By the 20th Century, Ethiopian artists began to deal with other topics and themes. However, even today, many Ethiopian artists choose to revisit the many elements of their artistic roots - reviving the “iconic eyes” to depict spiritual connection and meditation in their contemporary works. The “reversal gaze”, especially for those art viewers who are familiar with its meaning, is a very powerful artistic element that elevates Ethiopian paintings to a unique platform, embracing the remarkable history and  heritage of the country and its people.


Modern Interpretations of The Reversal Gaze in Contemporary Ethiopian Art 


What’s in a Name? To Name or Not to Name Your Artwork?

With more and more artists getting on line to promote and sell their art on the world-wide-web, naming artwork has almost become as important and ubiquitous as naming your child. You would not want to be lost in the virtual vacuum of the internet amongst millions artworks tagged as “untitled”, your creation un-findable by the tentacles of search engines that do not have eyes to differentiate - with the same ratiocination as you would not leave your child to fare in this world unnamed. 

But aside this technical outreach that we need, it seems nowadays, to universally adhere to if we are to survive in the art business, what is really in a name?  

Artists habitually use various methods to name their work (usually siting five  kinds of titles: Sentimental, Numerical, Factual, Abstract and Mysterious) - choosing titles tied to a specific source material that inspired a particular piece, based on the form the painting ultimately takes during the process of its creation or by the visual concept that it was set out to convey. 

Many are beginning to pull away from the sterility of “untitled”, trying to identify some elements that are significant to the works, just enough to give a starting referecne without stifling the viewer into a holding-pattern of a single direction or idea. Many artists see it as an opportunity to convey what they mean instead of leaving it up to everyone else, believing and maybe even hoping, that doing so would not stop viewers from taking what they may from the artwork.

In today’s expeditious and fast-paced world, it's prudent to assume that the viewer expects at least some information right up front; and the title can provide the immediate gratificatiotn, and can even be used to broaden the 'readership' of the work.

Gossip by Makeda Bizuneh
610.00
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Untitled 7 By Workneh Bezu
1,000.00
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The inherent risk in conventionally naming your work is that most viewers seem to judge an artwork based on how close it reflects the title - or at least the 'perception' of the title - in a sense, making or breaking an art-piece by enforced association. Art buyers also have grown weary of seeing “untitled” on the wall as it isn’t very informative and does not give much in a way to convey the thought process of the artist, especially if the work is abstract. Buyers often express a preference to have a starting point - and a title can often give that to the viewer. Some buyers feel that artists who don't title their work appear to be going through the motions of making art and that perhaps their work has stopped speaking to them mid way through the creation process.

On the other hand, some artists are concerned about applying titles that lead or direct the audience, when they want the works themselves to perform that task. These artists also want to leave the ‘what, where, when, why and how’ questions to the journalistic genre; not all questions need be answered in titling art.

Some artists also fear that titling their work pigeonholes the viewer into a preconceived subliminal allegory; finding that with time, many of their creations would benefit from a change of name if not of personality - arguing that despite the viewer's desire to 'know' the title, the title should only be vaguely suggestive and open-ended of what the artist intended the artwork to mean.

Still other creators let their creation grow into the title - having collections still unnamed - in spite of trying on several titles. And at other times - albeit it rare, works were 'titles' first - with the physical manifestation emerging next - particularly with whimsical and didactic art. 

At the end, to name or not to name seem to be a personal choice - although technological nuances of today’s social-media driven world seem to stir us away from the 'unnamed'.