Zerihun Yetmgeta
An Ethiopian Modernist

by
Esseye Medhin
Independent Scholar

I have always taught and explained to my people the benefits of accepting western civilization as it is or with some modifications . . .
              
Haile Selassie I, My Life and Ethiopia's Progress, vol..2

The work of Zerihun Yetmgeta comes directly out of the Ethiopian modern art tradition of the late 60s, which coincides with the rise of a middle class in the country's capital, Addis Ababa. This tradition originated at the turn of the century with author/painter Afewerk Gebre Yesuse who was expelled from the palace by order of the Empress, and with Agegnehu Engida who died mysteriously in 1950, after finishing his painting titled, Twelve Donkeys.

Zerihun, who studied handicrafts before joining the Addis Ababa School of Fine Arts in 1963, was cited many times as a not so regular student with little or no interest in the lessons given at the school. In his final years as a student, a dozen or so self-taught and church-trained dissident artists—some tutored by the founders of Modern Ethiopian art, Abebe Wolde Giorgis and Agegnehu Engida—were working in the studio at School of Fine Arts. These artists played a very important role during Zerihun's formative years as a young man thinking about art and creativity.

At the time when his school comrades were more or less satisfied with the then dominant academic style, a realistic style of painting, Zerihun revealed his fascination with and interest in a more personal form of expression and a different mode of representation. About this time, he met some sophisticated Western-educated artists including his teachers Gebre Kristos Desta and Skunder Boghossian, who provided him with an artistic foundation that evolved into a distinctive mode of self-expression. He found them to be kindred spirits who shared a common goal. It was at this time that Zerihun's prints and paintings began to take on a distinctive identity, and identity that eventually became a kind of national style.

In 1973, following his one man shows in the Addis Ababa City Hall Gallery and at Belvedere Art Gallery (Addis Ababa), Stanislaw Chojnacki wrote, "His [Zerihun's] only bonds with society are those based on his achievements in art, offering a new style of refreshing self-assessment and self-confidence to a new generation of Ethiopian artists". [1]

Today, over three decades after he began his adventure, Zerihun not only remains an inspiration to an new generation of Ethiopian artists, he is also carries the flag for Ethiopia's modernist movement. [2] As an artist, Zeriun is preoccupied with two fundamental ideas. Since his school days, he has regenerated or reformulated his methods and materials no fewer than half a dozen times, constantly developing new ways to approach the study of ancient Ethiopian painting and the art of Africa. As a print maker, he has few equals among contemporary Ethiopian artists—silk-screen, lithography and, of course, woodcut. Indeed, it was a series of woodcuts representing the Passion of Our Lord that won his first critical acclaim in 1968. He has tried his hand in the media and techniques associated with all plastic art, modern as well as traditional. His other preoccupation is the message he wants to convey through his art. To this end, he draws upon imagery found in ancient Ethiopian Christian manuscripts, Egyptian art, and the symbols of African masks and figurative sculpture, as well as contemporary universal signs. He is like a wise man who brings forth ideas and examples from a different time and space to inspire his disciples. He takes images and signs from all sources—monuments, masks, magazines, artifacts, billboards, talismans, illuminated manuscripts, even newspapers. He also creates his own signs and symbols. These are later transformed into expressive metaphors. Each of his works is like a game or puzzle where we are left at the virtue and mercy of our knowledge to fit together all the pieces in order to decipher and understand the themes that Zerihun creates. For some of his admirers the end result is just a work of art, for others, it is a moral and historical statement and a display of technical virtuosity that indicate his maturity both as an artist and as a thinker.

During the Biennale de l'Art Africain Contemporain, DAK'ART 96, Zerihun, who was Laureate for the Grand Prix de la Biennale de DAK'ART 92, was invited to have his own exhibit. On this occasion, the critic Abdou Sylla wrote: "Zerihun's art is an art with a message. And one must decipher signs and symbols to know how to read the message." [3] Zerihun's art, is indeed full of messages—it is magical, intriguing, inviting, humorous, and comforting. He brings out the repressed , latent past and the vivid present in his unique poetic style, making us all proud of what we have and what we are.

Zerihun stands on a stage like no one before him, a proponent of 20th-century Ethiopian art and contemporary Ethiopian creative genius. His success as an artist and his commitment to his unique artistic vision, has sustained and preserved the tradition of Ethiopian modernism even during the most difficult times.

Notes

[1] Stanislaw Chojnacki, "A Survey of Modern Ethiopian Art," Zeitschrift für Kulturaustausch 1973: 84-94.

[2] Over the last ten years, a much of what has been written on contemporary Ethiopian art have been devoted to artists residing abroad. When it come to artists residing in the country, Zerihun is often dominates the texts, at times he is the only artists represented in these commentaries. See Elisabeth Biasio, The Hidden Reality: Three Contemporary Ethiopian Artists (Zurich: Völkerkundemuseum der Universität Zürich, 1989); Jean Kennedy, New Currents, Ancient Rivers: Contemporary African Artists in a Generation of Change, pp. 123-139 (Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1992); Seven stories about modern art in Africa. edition, Clementine Deliss, pp. 127-139 ( Paris ; New York : Flammarion, 1995).

[3] Sylla, Abdou . "Zerihun Yetmgeta: A Spiritual Art," in DAK'ART 96 Biennale de l'Art African Contemporain, pp.82-86 (Dakar: May 1996).


return to index