BY Rebecca Rose Cuomo in Reviews | 23 OCT 20

The Poetic Synthesis of Ficre Ghebreyesus

At Galerie Lelong & Co., the late artist’s paintings fuse real and imagined histories of his life in Eritrea

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BY Rebecca Rose Cuomo in Reviews | 23 OCT 20

Ficre Ghebreyesus’s art conjures liminal spaces where water and earth, beginning and end, reality and fiction converge. The late artist distilled these contrasting elements in the 21 paintings that constitute ‘Gate to the Blue’, his first solo exhibition at Galerie Lelong & Co., New York.

Born in 1962 in Asmara, Eritrea, Ghebreyesus was immersed from a young age in the rich and complex cultural fabric of his native city: modernist Italian architecture, Coptic Orthodox churches with biblical mosaics, and Islamic iconography in and around monumental mosques. In addition to these confluences, as the artist wrote in his application to Yale School of Art in 2000, ‘there was the unique and palpable visual aesthetic of death’, inflamed by the Eritrean War of Independence (1961–91). Conflict converted Ghebreyesus into a teenage refugee, migrating through Sudan, Italy and Germany to the US, where he settled in New Haven in 1992.

Ficre Ghebreyesus, Gate to the Compound, 2006,  acrylic on canvas, 122.6 x 122.6 cm. Courtesy: Galerie Lelong & Co., New York.
Ficre Ghebreyesus, Gate to the Compound, 2006, acrylic on canvas, 122.6 x 122.6 cm. Courtesy: Galerie Lelong & Co., New York

These distressing experiences resurface oneirically throughout his work. Gate to the Compound (2006) illustrates one particularly traumatic event from Ghebreyesus’s childhood, when Ethiopian soldiers invaded his home. In this painting – the first we encounter in the gallery – the exterior wall has been breached, its central gate slightly ajar. At the upper-right corner, a truck with armed, shadowy figures has broken in. The shallow pictorial space coupled with the loose, ethereal rendering of the scene complements Ghebreyesus’s own process of fusing real and imagined elements of his past: a synthesis of fact and fiction. For example, the arcaded architectural structures beyond the wall – elements that speak to the artist’s ancestral history – did not exist in the compound where he grew up. Outside the open gate, a lonely paper boat floats along the edge of a vibrant cobalt moat – a body of water that was never there.

Ficre Ghebreyesus, Gate to the Blue, c.2002-07, acrylic on canvas, 27.9 x 35.6 cm). Courtesy: Galerie Lelong Co., New York.
Ficre Ghebreyesus, Gate to the Blue, c.2002–07, acrylic on canvas, 27.9 x 35.6 cm. Courtesy: Galerie Lelong & Co., New York

Ghebreyesus previously portrayed the compound in Zememesh Berhe’s Magic Garden (c.2002), a painting on unstretched canvas. The largest work the show, spanning almost five metres, it is named after his mother. Here, the walls of her garden are reimagined in an exuberant polychromatic grid reminiscent of Eritrean textiles. To the left of the gate, a tree grows flowering vines and translucent bottles. The artist borrows from the African and Creole custom of placing bottles on tree branches to capture evil spirits and protect the home. (In Gate to the Compound, the same tree appears bare.) The bottles on Ghebreyesus’s tree are inverted, proliferating directly from the trunk. As historian Robert Farris Thompson details in his book Flash of the Spirit: African and Afro-American Art and Philosophy (1983), these vessels can also serve to collect and store the talents of the deceased. By turning the bottles upside down, perhaps the artist has released his mother’s spirit, gracing the scene with her metaphysical presence while syncretizing African and Afro-diasporic traditions.

Ficre Ghebreyesus, Zememesh Berhe's Magic Garden, c.2002, acrylic on unstretched canvas, 242.6 x 493.4 cm. Courtesy: Galerie Lelong & Co., New York.
Ficre Ghebreyesus, Zememesh Berhe's Magic Garden, c.2002, acrylic on unstretched canvas, 242.6 x 493.4 cm. Courtesy: Galerie Lelong & Co., New York

In Ghebreyesus’s paintings, colour is synaesthetic. The wave-like pattern in Gate to the Blue (c.2002–07) has an aural sensibility that brings to mind Mulatu Astatke’s ‘Asmarina (My Asmara)’ (1972), a melancholic and vigorous jazz arrangement led by Fèqadu Amdè-Mesqel on flute. Ghebreyesus was an avid listener and maker of music, versed in the krar (Ethiopian-Eritrean lyre) and kebero (double-sided hand drum), which appear in the works Angel and Musician, Seated Musician with Feathered Wing and Seated Musician VI (all c.2011). He was also a chef who co-founded New Haven's Caffé Adulis, a restaurant serving a fantasia of Eritrean and Ethiopian cuisine. His artistic practice was not separated from other elements of his life by clearly defined boundaries, but rather imbued his perceptions of the world with history, his past suffering with joy – and, in the process, opened up all of the senses to a greater range of possibilities. 

Ficre Ghebreyesus's 'Gate to the Blue' runs at Gallery Lelong & Co., New York until 24 October 2020.

Main image: Red Hats and Balloons, c.2002–07, acrylic on canvas, 61 x 91.4 cm. Courtesy: Galerie Lelong & Co., New York

Rebecca Rose Cuomo is an independent curator and writer based in Brooklyn, USA.

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