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Ficre Ghebreyesus’s Compositions Explore War, Displacement, Notions of Home: ‘When I Started Painting… The Pieces That Flowed Out of Me Were Very Painful and Direct’


Installation view of “Ficre Ghebreyesus: I Believe We Are Lost,” Galerie Lelong, New York, N.Y. (March 30-May 6, 2023). | © The Estate of Ficre Ghebreyesus, Courtesy Galerie Lelong & Co., Photo by Jon Cancro

 

AFRICA, EUROPE, AMERICA. Ficre Ghebreyesus (1962-2012) lived across the globe. Born in Asmara, Eritrea, he left his home country in 1978 during the War of Independence from Ethiopia. He was 16 when he became a political refugee, traveling by foot to Sudan and later spending time in Germany and Italy before landing in the United States. He stayed briefly in San Jose, Calif, moved to New York City, and eventually settled in New Haven, Conn.

Ghebreyesus resided in New Haven far three decades, far longer than he lived anywhere else in his lifetime. An artist and chef, it was in New Haven where he opened a successful restaurant with his brothers, met his beloved wife, welcomed two sons, earned an MFA from Yale, and eventually dedicated himself full time to his painting practice in 2008. Four short years later, Ghebreyesus died unexpectedly at age 50. He was at home.

“Ficre Ghebreyesus: I Believe We Are Lost,” the artist’s second solo exhibition with Galerie Lelong in New York, features two dozen paintings and pastels. Large and small works made between the 1990s and 2011 are on view with many being shown publicly for the first time.

 


FICRE GHEBREYESUS, Untitled, 1995 (oil on canvas, 60 x 90 1/4 inches / 152.4 x 229.2 cm). | © The Estate of Ficre Ghebreyesus, Courtesy Galerie Lelong & Co.

 

Ghebreyesus has a real facility with color, usually blending abstraction with landscape and figuration, often delivering dream-like compositions that suggest a narrative, if only thematically. The selections capture Eritrea, center his refugee and immigrant experience, and explore war and how notions of home took on new meaning over the course of his full life.

“When I started painting, I just did it. I had never felt a stronger urge. The pieces that flowed out of me were very painful and direct.”
— Ficre Ghebreyesus

In 2000, when he was seeking admission to Yale, Ghebreyesus submitted an artist statement with his application. In his late 30s at this point, he was already able to articulate clearly, with enduring accuracy, the urgency, purpose, and power of his practice. He called it a “miracle” and “final act of defiance.”

“When I started painting, I just did it. I had never felt a stronger urge,” Ghebreyesus wrote. “The pieces that flowed out of me were very painful and direct. They had to do with the suffering, persecution, and subsequent psychological dilemmas I endured before and after becoming a young refugee from the Independence War (1961-1991) in my natal home of Eritrea, East Africa.”

He continued: “Painting was the miracle, the final act of defiance through which I exorcised the pain and reclaimed my sense of place, my moral compass, and my love for life.” CT

 

“Ficre Ghebreyesus: I Believe We Are Lost” is on view at Galerie Lelong in New York, N.Y., from March 30-May 6, 2023

 

FIND MORE about Ficre Ghebreyesus on his website

READ MORE about Ficre Ghebreyesus in an Artnet News interview with the artist’s wife Elizabeth Alexander, and posthumous profile published by the New York Times

 


FICRE GHEBREYESUS, Untitled, circa 2002-07 (acrylic on canvas, 14 x 18 inches / 36.6x 45.7 cm). | © The Estate of Ficre Ghebreyesus, Courtesy Galerie Lelong & Co.

 


FICRE GHEBREYESUS, “Untitled (Dancers),” circa 1990s (oil on canvas, 39 7/8 x 29 7/8 / 101.3 x 75.9 cm). | © The Estate of Ficre Ghebreyesus, Courtesy Galerie Lelong & Co.

 


Installation view of “Ficre Ghebreyesus: I Believe We Are Lost,” Galerie Lelong, New York, N.Y. (March 30-May 6, 2023). | © The Estate of Ficre Ghebreyesus, Courtesy Galerie Lelong & Co., Photo by Thomas Müller

 


FICRE GHEBREYESUS, “I Believe We Are Lost,” circa 2002 (acrylic on unstretched canvas, 113 1/2 x 118 1/2 inches / 288.3 x 301 cm). | © The Estate of Ficre Ghebreyesus, Courtesy Galerie Lelong & Co.

 

“I Believe We Are Lost,” the exhibition’s title work features partially formed air, land, and sea creatures—a menagerie whose specimens do not naturally exist or thrive in the same environs, but together represent the animal kingdom.

    From Gallery Lelong: The titular work in the exhibition, I Believe We Are Lost (c. 2002), depicts a surrealist menagerie set against a dark blue background marked by mountains, calling to mind the Eritrean Highlands, where Ghebreyesus’s birthplace of Asmara is located. The painting visually references Pablo Picasso’s famed anti-war painting Guernica (1937) in its scale and method of representation. Vibrant animal-like beings twist into unrecognizable forms, while humanoid eyes and text from Erich Maria Remarque’s 1928 novel All Quiet on the Western Front peek through the blue background. Underscoring the composition is a thick white band, on which Ghebreyesus has written the title of the painting—also a quote from the same book, which examines the psychological toll of war. Ghebreyesus—who throughout his oeuvre drew upon a broad range of interests including music, language, and literature for inspiration—incorporates references to anti-war cultural hallmarks to communicate his own experience with the enduring trauma of war.

 


FICRE GHEBREYESUS, “Solitary Boat, Tethered,” circa 2002-07 (acrylic on canvas, 11 x 14 inches / 27.9 x 35.6). | © The Estate of Ficre Ghebreyesus, Courtesy Galerie Lelong & Co.

 


FICRE GHEBREYESUS, Untitled, circa 1995 (acrylic on canvas, 48 x 36 inches / 121.9 x 91.4 cm). | © The Estate of Ficre Ghebreyesus, Courtesy Galerie Lelong & Co.

 


FICRE GHEBREYESUS, Untitled, circa 1990s (pastel on paper, 19 5/8 x 25 1/2 inches / 49.8 x 64.8 cm). | © The Estate of Ficre Ghebreyesus, Courtesy Galerie Lelong & Co.

 


FICRE GHEBREYESUS, Untitled, circa 1995 (oil on canvas, 90 x 54 inches / 228.6 x 137.2 cm). | © The Estate of Ficre Ghebreyesus, Courtesy Galerie Lelong & Co.

 


Installation view of “Ficre Ghebreyesus: I Believe We Are Lost,” Galerie Lelong, New York, N.Y. (March 30-May 6, 2023). | © The Estate of Ficre Ghebreyesus, Courtesy Galerie Lelong & Co., Photo by Thomas Müller

 


FICRE GHEBREYESUS, Untitled, circa 1990s (pastel on paper, 25 1/2 x 19 1/2 inches / 64.8 x 49.5 cm). | © The Estate of Ficre Ghebreyesus, Courtesy Galerie Lelong & Co.

 


FICRE GHEBREYESUS, Untitled, circa 1990s ( pastel on paper, 19 x 24 inches / 48.3 x 61 cm). | © The Estate of Ficre Ghebreyesus, Courtesy Galerie Lelong & Co.

 


FICRE GHEBREYESUS, Untitled, circa 1990s (pastel on paper, 25 1/2 x 19 3/4 inches / 64.8 x 50.2 cm). | © The Estate of Ficre Ghebreyesus, Courtesy Galerie Lelong & Co.

 


FICRE GHEBREYESUS, Untitled, circa 2002-07 (8 x 10 inches / 20.3 x 25.4 cm). | © The Estate of Ficre Ghebreyesus, Courtesy Galerie Lelong & Co.

 


FICRE GHEBREYESUS, “Road,” circa 1990s (pastel on paper, 14 x 17 inches / 35.6 x 43.2 cm). | © The Estate of Ficre Ghebreyesus, Courtesy Galerie Lelong & Co.

 

An untitled pastel, “Road” consists of a single stroke of black against a rust-hued, brick red ground. The image is stark and incredibly simple and, at the same time, fraught and loaded with symbolism. Earlier this week, art historian and curator Key Jo Lee and writer Enuma Okoro were in virtual conversation about the exhibition and at one point about “Road”:

    Enuma Okoro: “It made me think, both historically but in other ways, about borders, you know? I can’t look at this without thinking of all the history around the Ethiopia and Eritrean border—and also how borders are so…they’re not real. They’re made up; they can shift depending on who’s in power.

    Key Jo Lee: Yes, I think he makes that so present materially by using this pastel. The way the red intervenes on the black, like you can’t get that clean edge; those boundaries are always porous, they’re always made up…The way that this black bisects that rust, it’s this spilling over. So even the roads that are built on dusty land, it’s this kind of imagined control over that space.

    Enuma Okoro: Besides the borders of the canvas, there’s no beginning or end to this road and in some way, I think about the ongoing journey. Not just of us as people, but of refugee status and of people who are forced to flee for various reasons, that even when you reach that supposed destination of safety things are far from over—that journey is ongoing in so many ways.

 


FICRE GHEBREYESUS, Untitled, circa 1990s (pastel on paper, 19 3/4 x 25 1/2 inches / 50.2 x 64.8 cm| © The Estate of Ficre Ghebreyesus, Courtesy Galerie Lelong & Co.

 


Installation view of “Ficre Ghebreyesus: I Believe We Are Lost,” Galerie Lelong, New York, N.Y. (March 30-May 6, 2023). | © The Estate of Ficre Ghebreyesus, Courtesy Galerie Lelong & Co., Photo by Thomas Müller

 


FICRE GHEBREYESUS, Untitled, 2011 (acrylic on canvas, 24 x 24 inches / 6 1 x 61 cm). | © The Estate of Ficre Ghebreyesus, Courtesy Galerie Lelong & Co.

 


FICRE GHEBREYESUS, Untitled, circa 2002-07 (acrylic on canvas, 16 x 20 inches / 40.6 x 50.8 cm). | © The Estate of Ficre Ghebreyesus, Courtesy Galerie Lelong & Co.

 


FICRE GHEBREYESUS, “Tree,” circa 1990s (pastel on paper, 17 x 24 inches / 43.2 x 35.6 cm). | © The Estate of Ficre Ghebreyesus, Courtesy Galerie Lelong & Co.

 


FICRE GHEBREYESUS, “Five Figures with Horse Head,” 1999 (acrylic on burlap, 66 1/4 x 93 1/2 inches / 168.3 x 237.5). | © The Estate of Ficre Ghebreyesus, Courtesy Galerie Lelong & Co.

 

A masterful composition, “Five Figures With a Horse Head” fills the entire picture plane with more than five figures and motifs that represent the people and places the artist has called home.

    From Galerie Lelong: Ghebreyesus continues his explorations of the two places he called “home” in Five Figures with Horse Head (1999). Figures, animals, and objects common in everyday life fill the burlap canvas, facing away from each other and lacking connection despite their physical proximity. Interspersed throughout are pockets of intricate patterns—common in Ghebreyesus’s work and evocative of Eritrean textiles—as well as trains, cars, birds, and airplanes that create a persistent sense of movement. Painted shortly before Ghebreyesus began the MFA program at the Yale School of the Arts, this painting signals the emergence of many motifs that would become recurrent in his practice.

 


Installation view of “Ficre Ghebreyesus: I Believe We Are Lost,” Galerie Lelong, New York, N.Y. (March 30-May 6, 2023). | © The Estate of Ficre Ghebreyesus, Courtesy Galerie Lelong & Co., Photo by Thomas Müller

 

BOOKSHELF
The exhibition catalog “Ficre Ghebreyesus: City with a River Running Through” documents a solo show dedicated to the artist at the Museum of the African Diaspora in San Francisco. Published three years after the death of Ficre Ghebreyesus, “The Light of the World” is a brief, but incredibly fulsome and heart-wrenching memoir of love and loss by his wife Elizabeth Alexander, the poet, professor, and president of the Mellon Foundation. Alexander shares the details of their love story, the arc of the artist’s life, the development of his practice, and his sudden death from heart failure. Described as a “prose elegy,” the book was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in Biography (2016).

 

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