By Tecola W Hagos (8 June 2020)
Dedicated to the Dilla University Female Students, victims of kidnapping and captivity for months in Oromo Kilil, and whose fate is not publicly declared or known to this day. Shame on you officials of the Federal and Kilil Governments for your inactions to rescue our sisters, citizens of Ethiopia. You are in my heart all the time. GOD BLESS YOU ALL.
The gross misapplication and misunderstanding of terms dealing with the genera “abstract” painting is not limited to elites in the Ethiopian community, but is pervasive around the world’s art aficionados. All art is abstraction in the sense of being a human construct. In my long life, I have visited countless museums, art galleries, artists’ studios, and had a chance to see and ponder countless paintings, sculptures, prints et cetera from inception to end. And add to all that the years I spent in formal schooling. I am amazed and overwhelmed by the varieties of artworks in paintings and sculptures, which led me to conclude that art is part of human nature inscribed in our genes as a survival attribute. Look at Figure 1, from about the 14th Century book illustration of the books of the followers of Aba Estiphanos of the Dequiqe Stiphanos Ethiopian Orthodox Christian Sect. What is more abstract than this illustration even allowing for technical difficulties—superb design and drawing skill.
Figure 1: Annunciation, Ethiopien d’Abbadie 105, fol. 5, from AD 1200 to 1360, Axum area (photo: Bibliothèque nationale de France).
I would not have gone far enough in my understanding of art without having studied (pore over) Paul Klee’s incredible books and illustrations, starting at a tender age of five years old even without understanding a single word of German. Artistic sensibility is a language in itself. Moreover, the later translations to English did me wonders. [Paul Klee Footnotes, trans. Lund Humphries; 5th edition (1978)]. Though I studied his work and his books, I never wanted to paint as Klee did. At that tender age until my junior year in Highschool, I wanted to paint like Rembrandt for his intimate use of shadow and light was very attractive to my young mind. Finally, I fulfilled my childhood dream years later standing for hours in front of the great “The Night Watch” of Rembrandt at the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam. However, I think now that his “Aristotle Contemplating the Bust of Homer,” at the Metropolitan, NYC, is a far greater piece for its impasto and light/shadow renditions.
One must not forget that the arts in general are considered by several biologists as non-adoptive changes/activities in human evolution—in other words, of very little intrinsic value to mankind as a species.[Joe Carroll, The Adaptive Function of Literature and the Other Arts, ON THE HUMAN, http://nationalhumanitiescenter.org/on-the-human/2009/06/the-adaptive-function-of-literature-and-the-other-arts/ (19 June 2009)]. I respectfully disagree because such scientists seem not to allow for the primordial-instinct role in art and in our daily activities. Does this make me fatalistic? Not at all. I believe that it will be foolish to think of the creative process and the culture of artistic production as totally solipsistic.
It is doubtful whether human beings act in cases of conflicting interest with the dictates of the coercive power of society or the conscience directed from within. Most real life-behavior of people seem to have no moral content, no understanding of moral and ethical principles at all. The good that may well be is the result of individual actions based on overcoming short-term problems. I extend my observations on “beauty” and the “sublime” to cover moral, political, and social engagements. A good illustration on this point would be the courageous activities of the leaders of charitable organizations, both here and back home in Ethiopia. The kid with difficult physical disabilities whose greatest dream is to be able to run with his friends just around the block, and yet every day with courage faces reality is a testament to the great spirit of human beings. I often see as far better than that of the God or Gods and Goddesses we/they worship.
SYNOPSIS ON FEW ETHIOPIAN ARTISTS
I. Gebre Kristos Desta: the artist who created the best but died far less
Figure 2: Gebre Kristos Desta, “Green Abstract” oil on canvas 31” X 47” 1966
I had far more discussions on art and life in general with Gebre Kristos Desta more than anyone else. Gebre Kirstos was a very generous and sympathetic human being not only just a great artist. In my college days he used to come to my studio just to invite me to have a drink, and we usually go to the Bar at the Bel Air, which had a serene setting with an open space from the veranda adjacent to the Bar. That was a famous Bar, a hangout of the noted personalities in officialdom, elites, and a few artists. It was particularly attractive to me with the soft fading Sunset behind the hotel building in the West and much softer Dusk of the North-East facing me. Yes, he raised the issue of what I was planning to do after Law School. He never wanted me to pursue formal studies in an art school. He often mentioned that if I want to go down that route, it is extremely easy for him to facilitate the process for me. But he insisted that I pursue what I was doing in my artistic work. He often said that the West will destroy my great gift/ability born of pure love for the arts. Many of his students used to come to visit me at my studio, one of them later wrote her thesis for graduate degree on one of my paintings. So that you know that I admire Gebre Kirstos from far back in time.
Figure 3: “Crystalline” Oil on board 31” X 39” (1975
In my judgment, a work by Gebre Kristos Desta is the best painting I have ever seen and/or studied of all times in the World. There is no other painting that feels up my very being as this deceptively simple monochromatic composition in green/blue work does. Some of the outstanding features in “Green Abstract” (Figure 2) are as follows: the size/dimension of the canvas is based on the golden ratio, and the composition itself is based on the rule of thirds method. It has a perfect coherence, for the fact that if one takes a single element from its position, one will affect the outcome in a major way. It has incredible luminosity. Gebre Kirstos is truly a genius, and this particular painting is his very best, he never surpassed it, not even come in close proximation to it. I had an enlarged color printout at home in DC for a couple of decades. I used to stare at that copy/painting for hours at a time, and completely get lost in it, where time is suspended and reality encasing me as a cocoon with the bubble of blue, green, flash of white, et cetera.
Even his impressive works ten years later were far less subtle, less painterly (in the sense of the Swiss art historian Heinrich Wölfflin used the term), and less emotive. Take for example a 1975 painting ”Crystalline” even though masterfully executed, is an echo of his “Green Abstract” masterpiece painting of the 1966. Gebre Kristos’s range of tonal variations on a rich field of all the hues known to man is absolutely mind bending. I can imagine the great labor not only in the processes of physically mixing paints but also the superb intellectual aesthetics choices made thereof. It is obvious that no amount of labor without talent and genius could produce such great works of art. These efforts are labors of love—the creative impulse manifest.
Out of curiosity and also to affirm the obvious, I counted the number of hue-tone variations Gebre Kristos used, they were over fifty in tone and over twenty-five in shades. Yes, there are some pigments Gebre Kristos uses that annoyed me especially his use of pure Black. His genius is also in the harmony of these tonal orchestration that is symphonic. What is tragic is the fact that with the coming into power of the Military Regime, Gebre Kristos was suckered into the frenzy of the period and played a major role in organizing a sort of proletariat artwork force becoming the type of artistic forum in support of the Soviet ideal of the USSR. He produced a series of schematic canvases filled with symbolism and ghastly disturbing skeletal beings with hallowed eyes and chest-ribs protruding, in a revolutionary semi-representational depiction of the famine and suffering of Ethiopia’s peasants. In regard to expressing raw pain and suffering, Gebrre Kristos has done it in his unparalleled masterly 1963 work “Golgotha”, blood-red crucifixion on dark cross. Amazing work, and difficult to look at without breaking down.
Figure 4: “Golgotha” Mixed medium, 1963.
Several Ethiopian artists, some of whom former students from the School of Fine Arts experimented with the clustering images of Gebre Kristos with less success. Mostly they did not understand the subtle almost bubble-frothing element in Gebre Kristos’s work that is almost impossible to repeat. For example, an earlier attempt by fellow artist Eskinder Boghossian, two to three years later from the “Green Abstract” painted his “Blue Composition” (Figure 4) in Acrylic on a large board that was sketchy underdeveloped piece that clearly shows how even talented artists could imitate Gebre Kristos but never even come close to the magnificent “Green Abstract” by Gebre Kristos. Another artist, Gebre Kristos’s student, Desta Hagos, a well-respected artist on her own right, had attempted in some of her Paintings the clustering of images, but she failed completely to generate the type of dynamism, clarity, and harmony that Gebre Kristos achieved in his paintings (Figures 2 and 3).
Gebre Kristos stands out unique among Ethiopian artists, for it is difficult to see any influences from identifiable artists either local or foreigners on him. He had overcome all that in his student days. He is authentic—an original. For example, one can identify Afework Tekle with EL Greco, Eskinder Boghossian with Georges Henri Rouault, Daniel Twafe with Salvador Dali et cetera. For young Ethiopian artists, in their final years at their Fine Arts School, they are encouraged to the abstract expressionist style of heavy black lines and an assortment of tiny geometric designs all over the tableau that is perfect and easy to imitate. An artist just starting out would find such executions easy for there is no demand on how to compose in the context of the whole canvas, for simply adding mosaic like little designs is far less demanding than conceptualization in relation to the whole canvas mode of artistic presentations.
II. Eskinder Boghossian: the artist who influenced much
It is also important to mention here that the Artist that had and still has the most impact on generations of Ethiopian Artists is Eskinder Boghossian. One can easily see that he was a watershed point. Some of the Ethiopian artists who had imitated his style had finally in recent times evolved their own identity.
Figure 5: Skunder Boghossian, “Blue Composition” Acrylic, 1969
In a way, I believe Eskinder’s influence was not positive on the development of Art/Painting in Ethiopia in general, for he killed (through his personality, bohemian life-style, and successful commercialization of his works) the very imagination of young artists from exploring other possibilities in their approach to painting. The lure of easy-sale is not to be underestimated either. If one imitates Eskinder, he/or she would sell at least a few works to foreigners living in Addis Ababa. Moreover, Eskinder is very easy to imitate for his paintings do not really advance or solve painterly/artistic challenges or dilemmas.
III. Tecola Worq Hagos: the artist obliterated by “Hagos”
What I value most is painterliness. I subordinate content to skill. It is often argued by a number of artists I know that an artist should not “blabber” about his/her work for the work speaks for itself. There is no need to muddy the water by using substitution (words) in trying to elaborate or explain that which is presented already. I agree with that sentiment to a great extent, especially in music. On the other hand, even such limited exclusion would have deprived us also the superb writings of many great artists (writing on their art), such as Joshua Reynolds [Joshua Reynolds, Seven Discourses on Art, Biblio Bazar, 2006], who held that beauty is man’s improvement of nature, and that “perfect beauty” originated in the artist’s act of creation or assembly of a composite representation from different sources considered to be beautiful; Leo Tolstoy [Leo Tolstoy, What is Art, New York HY: Penguin, 1995] who had a moralist’s approach to writing, for “art” in his hands was a teaching tool; Ben Shahn [Ben Shahn, The Shape of Content, Cambridge MA: Harvard Univ Press, 1957] who insisted that content (beauty) is in the presentation as well.
[Figure 6: Self Portrait, Wodaje Lebe (detail), Oil/Canvas (36” X 24”), as a young HSIU School of Law Student (age 21), 1969. Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.]
I do not deny that there are some abatements by some artists. Nevertheless, there are several outstanding written works by Twentieth Century well known artists as well, whose writings in the treatment or discourse on art may in itself be considered as literature of the first quality as evidenced by the writers I cited above. For example, if we consider Shahn’s rather slim work, it is far more lucid and its ontology deeply embedded in the very soul of the artist, which form of writing is far more authentic than any historian or art critic had written on the subject of content in art in far thicker books. When it is a question of content in any artwork, maybe it is the creator of such work that is most favorably situated to address such question. ከባለቤቱ ያወቀ ቡዳ ነው ፡፡
Figure 7: “The Ethiopian,” as symbol of courage, 96″ X 60″ (1970), Oil on Canvas, by Tecola W. Hagos (age 22), Photo by Ephrem Girma (www.blengrafix.com); Debre Hayq Ethiopian Art Gallery.
Once upon a time I was also an aspiring painter with plenty of native talent, I was thus told by my seniors in the arts. I stopped painting because I realized that to survive as an artist in the West after I relocated my venue in 1975, I had to imitate the art cultural trends of the society and produce art works that embodied the pictorial sensibilities of the West, its style, theme, execution, even philosophy. I chose to remain authentic and stopped painting altogether (except occasionally a painting here a painting there) and shifted my creative energy to reading and writing. (Figures 6,7)
IV. Wosene W Kosrof: the artist who overcome Skunder
However, despite Eskinder’s bad influence, a number of young Ethiopian artists have escaped his Savonarola like clutches. For example, Wosene W Kosrof is a very productive and well received artist, quite succeful among Eskinder’s followers. Early in his paintings, it was almost impossible to distinguish between Eskinder and Wosene, but in time specially in the last decade, Wosene seems to have freed himself and is far less tight and more conceptual expressionist than dogged geometric little mosaic-tiles type constructionist. One can easily see how he had evolved in his paintings, which I find quite refreshing and in the right direction in achieving greatness. Wosene is my other favorite Artist whose personality I also admire.
Figure 8: “Building with Words V” 2017, 28 x 28 inches, acrylic on canvas
I used to be extremely annoyed with Clement Greenberg, despite his great reputation as a maker or breaker art critic, reading his numerous pieces on artists mostly and tangentially on their art works. After reading such pieces by Greenberg, I am often left thinking that the man was clueless about art in general and the concept of beauty and the concept of the sublime in focus. Some of my friends who saw me so agitated/upset used to say, “Don’t read him if he is getting so much under your skin.” The mystery to his enormous influence on the art-world and his personal success in a life of luxury became understandable much later once I discovered/learned later that he was a CIA implant aimed at undermining the realism propaganda art of the Soviet Union. However, even then, I admit grudgingly that he had great command of the English language—extremely readable.
V. Julie Mehretu: the artist with no Ethiopian artistic sensibility
In the contemporary artists’ discourses on art, the term “beauty” let alone the concept of “the beautiful” ever enter their vocabulary. The other day, I was watching a taped interview of Julie Mehretu, the young “Ethiopian American” artist—an interview done on the occasion of the opening of her exhibition of six of her recent works at the Guggenheim Museum NYC, May 14 to October 6, 2010. What is striking in that interview is how very little there was in her statements on the treatment of the subject of “beauty” in her paintings. She frequently used terms like “geometric abstraction,” “developing a language,” “ghost image,” “intuition” et cetera, and these are familiar sounding postmodern art terms but used in a supporting role in earlier discourses. All of her artistic endeavors have been on her craftsmanship and execution she might as well be a carpenter or a welder. or a bricklayer. There is serious disconnect between what Julie says and what her work is. Her Studio is full of studio assistants doing the cutting, painting, pasting, sanding et cetera, in the tradition of the Old Masters. In fact, what one studio assistant said in an interview is the point that it is a carpenter’s garage not an art studio.
Figure: 9: “Stadia II,” Ink and acrylic on canvas, 3’ 6”x 4’7”, 2004.
Julie Mehretu is my least favorite artist because of her exhausting inauthenticity. She talks much about the plight of African Americans and the native indigenous population on how they were persecuted, some annihilated, some enslaved under brutal conditions in America’s South, the Mid-America frontier settlements, pioneers to the West et cetera. None of that history has
anything to do with Julie’s background and formative years. Her Father is Ethiopian, a professor,
and her Mother a Caucasian schoolteacher, a solid middle class family. Her childhood was in Ethiopia. She grew up in Addis Ababa to the age of eight and moved to Michigan with her Family. She earned her Bachelor of Arts degree from Kalamazoo College. She spent her junior year abroad at Cheikh Anta Diop University in Dakar, Senegal. She attended the Rhode Island School of Design in Providence, Rhode Island, where she earned a Master of Fine Arts degree in printmaking and graphics in 1997. She led a privileged life not in the Ghettos. Where is the connection with the Black experience in the United States? She had been awarded prestigious awards over the years including the MacArthur Award in 2005.
Despite all that acclamations, in my eyes, Julie Mehretu is a construct of critics and art dealers in the manner Guillaume Apollinaire created Picasso and the Modernist movement of Cubism that branched out into modern expressionism and its endless variations to this day. [Guillaume Apollinaire, The Cubist Painters, 1913, trans Peter Read 2004, UC Press. Collected writings 1905 -1912.] Julie’s ouvere is devoid of painterly sensibilities, empty of coherent content. In few of her paintings, she did use color/hue wisely, with a degree of discerning restraint. (Figure 9). She is essentially a printmaker not a painter, and her approach to her work is very mechanical and she uses all kinds of devices and equipment and the labor of a large number of studio assistants. Her recent work is just puzzling doodling and crisscrossing heavy black lines on white negative space, may be a subtle form of sublime beauty yet to be digested. However, despite my criticisms, I have great admiration for her work ethics and devotion to her craft.
I understand intimately the mind of the artist, his sacrifices, and aspirations far more accurately than any of the imitators and cultural vandals and mercenaries. It is a misunderstanding to think of Ethiopian traditional art form anything but abstract. What could be more abstract than the non-representational supra-natural art form of Ethiopia whether it is expressed in symbolic religious thematic form or in secular decorative art expressed in all kinds of utensils, clothing, hair style, food presentations et cetera? Thus, the issue per se is not the so called “modern” art form but the authenticity and respect to one’s own cultural heritage—the source of the creative impulse. In all of Julie’s countless interviews, I never heard her mention Ethiopia or her childhood in Addis. One simply cannot take over as one’s history someone else’s narrative. Her lifestyle that cannot be delaminated from her artistic endeavors is also antithetical to Ethiopian tradition and culture.
Tecola W Hagos
8 June 2020
Copyright © Phineaus StClaire, 2020 [text only]