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