Gebre Kristos Desta -The Painter-Poet
This month the Goeth-Institue Addis Ababa -Gebrekirstos Desta Center has launched two books -an anthology of his poetry and an art catalogue of the artist’s paintings.R.S Matthew, a contributor to this blog,who is doing his his post gradute studies at Addis Ababa University has taken a look at the catalogue.
The catalogue comprises of essays on various aspects of Gebrekirstos Desta and a colllection of full color painings by him.The publication of this book is of enormous siginificance not just as a way of paying tribute to one of the greatest modernist artists of the country, but also as a means of recognizing , in the words of the editor Elisabeth Wolde Giorgrigis, to an art world which opens “text on Ethiopian contemporary aesthetic and art practise.”She further notes though the number of artists coming to the scene is on the rise ,”this has made little impact on the institutional strucure of critical discourse.”
Hence, this book is expected to play part in filling this lacuna by bringing together ” essays by scholars and critics for interpreting and classifying the works of Gebre Kirstos Desta with view points that shape modern art in Ethiopia.”
The first essay is by Achamyeleh Debela, Professor of Art and Computer Graphics at North Carolina Central Universty and focuses on the biography and artistic journey of Gebrekirstos Desta.Professor Achamyeleh traces the artist’s preocupation with portraying the opressed and the poor to his early encounter with the ralities of unemployment, begging , prostituation and diseases.He follows the artist’s journey from General Wingate School to the Science Faculty of Addis Ababa University, then to Acadamey of Art in Colgne and his return to his country, then to Oklahoma where he died.The professor also tells us of the ordeal the artist went through as he defended himself against the charge that he betrayed his Ethiopian root by some critics who considered abstract art as alien to Ethiopia.
Shiferw Bekele, Associate Professor of history at AAU in his article ‘State and Society in Ethiopia(1930’s to 1970’s):Contextuallizing Gebre Kirstos Desta’ provides the social and intellectual context in which the artist lived and worked. According to shiferaw, the 60s ,the time the artist produced most of his works ,were “the golden age of Ethiopian art and the most dynamic period for Ethiopian literature.”He described the times by discussing briefly such as the cnstruction of education , building cultural instiuations and the emergence of new social groups.He places the poetry and paintings of Gebre Kirstos Desta in the context of the famous writers and painters of the day such as Eskunder Bogossian, Afework Tekele, Be’alu girma, Tsegaye G/medhin and others.
Rita Pankrust in her article,”Gebre Kirstos Through the Eyes of Friends and Relatives” interviews thirteen of the aritst’s friends and acquintances who reminiscences about the complex personality and the possible extent his skin disease affected him personallly.Much in the same manner ,Elisabeth Biasio of the University of Zurich presents the picture of the artist as reflected by his former students.
In what is the most theoretical piece in this book, “German Expressionasim and the Art of Gebre Kristos Desta,” Elizabeth W.Giorgis of the Institue of Ethiopian Studies delineates the terrain of modernism and its Ethiopian version in particular.Within the frame work of postcolonial modernism, she discusses the emergence of Ethiopian modern art.She credits Gebrekirstos along with Skunder Bogossian as being the avant-garde Ethioian modernist.
The core of her argument is that the “genesis and fabric of GebreKristos could only be comprehended with our understanding of modermismas a theme which German expression was part and parcel of.”
In the final article entitled ,”Gebre Kirstos Desta, The painter’s Eye,the Poet’s Hand”, Heran sereke Birhan focuses on the poetry of the artist, some of which she relates what his poetry means to her personally and discuses his poetic craft and ingenuity.For Gebrekirstos, painting and petry were complementary.”As a pioneer abstract artist and an elequent poet, he moved easily and with rare fluency between the two mediums.”As was the case in his painting he broke with traditional style of poetry and forged his own poetic path and explored wide range of issues in his poetry.As the book also includes 41 full color paintings by Gebre Kristos, it should be on the shelf of art lovers, artists and historians.