Skunder Boghossian: Artist of the Universal and the Specific

I still recollect the day I met Skunder Boghossian. Whereas I would like to recall that it was the more persistent and standing invitation on his part that drew me to his studio, it would perhaps be more befitting and candid for me to say that it was more of my tenacious, unsolicited and presumptuous visit to Skunder's studio that was the reality. Nevertheless it was a fortunate reality that had transcended my curiosity and transported me to dimensions beyond. The man, the pile of paintings around the man, the conversation, the music, all in that order, stood in harmony, depth and transparency. The music blared and the incense ("ctan") burnt. Sedate and spirited, the ambience resembled the oneness and congruous nature of a Buddhist ashram that I used to frequent in California. It was the Ethiopian Orthodox Church chant ("kedase") at first, followed by Coltrane and a prancing music from Mali. Strangely enough they all seemed to synchronize as one harmonious melody and Skunder made sure of that impression as he kept attributing each number to a birth place of thirty years ago that is so much embedded in him or to the dilemma of people of color that has so much been part of him. For Skunder, each contains the other.

His conversations are in fragments, always bouncing from one concept to another but always having an extraordinary process of tying up to one central element and a single focal chord. Working on one sketch or another through these conversations is typical of this artist. One quickly finds out in the midst of all this mystical organized chaos however, that Skunder Boghossian is not a painter. He is an artist and a thinker who happened to choose painting as his medium. For him, the systematic decomposition of culture, history and naturally of creativity on the psyche of people of color is sadly very significant. For him also, the universality in the culture of the creative history of people of color is a consequential reality and hence, the symbolic agreement of the jazz lyric of the African American, the harmonious chant of the Ethiopian and the rhythmical tune of the singer from Mali. In Skunder's words all his works are "a perpetual celebration of the diversity of blackness."

It was then that the shadow in me took some precise outlines. My own obsession to cling on to an identity on the verge of an abyss was what drew me to see Skunder in the first place. It had always been my opinion that the lives of men had been supported and inspired by shared values that symbolize their social order, civilizations, cohesion, vitality and creative powers. With the loss of these values, there follows uncertainty and with uncertainty disequilibrium and disintegration. It had also been my opinion that even though a human being's history, myth or culture is not a physical need, it is nevertheless a shelter and food for its soul. The lack of it not only inflicts emotional pain that kills the being's souls and spirits, but also severs all sense of continuity, so therefore the enchantment on Skunder Boghossian.

Perhaps one could say that everything about Skunder's life, the sizzling of his ideas or the overintensity of his artistic talent is an anecdote. It is like a tale in a book where one chapters, as seen in his life and his paintings. Even with personal illness that was a temporary sidetrack, the story of the book continues, with a new vigor and ever so vibrant now than any other time. When I expressed my intent to write an article on him, he presented me with a bulk of videos, tapes and books of Ethiopian history, of African American comedians of the 70's and of speeches of civil rights activists that I thought at first was totally inappropriate. He engaged me in unusual conversations that seem peculiar at first but always come out to be a treasure at the end. Riddled conversations like the Chalcedonian and Monophysite doctrine of the Orthodox Church came with full of exuberance. This doctrine, I later learnt, was the debate between the two ideologies whether Christ's nature remains altogether divine and not human even though he has taken on an earthly and human body with its cycle of birth, life and death.

Of course, I was puzzled by all these overtures at first but then I realized that it was as if he wanted me to see the metaphor of his work and rightly so as the paintings of Skunder Boghossian are deeply expressive in a spiritual way where art is more than a language spoken. It is metaphysics, a critical study or yet again a systematic view of Skunder's own natural environment. The Chalcedonian and Monophysite discussion was to show me the interconnectedness of cultures as Monophysites, I found out, were the ones that trekked down from the Near East and Middle East to the region of what is now called Ethiopia. It was James Baldwin that once said, "brilliance without passion is nothing more than sterility." (James Baldwin, No Name on the Street, 1972) and Skunder's artistic brilliance and passionate overtures though the different phenomenal stages of his creative career, connote a certain reality but always within a universal concept of ingrained myths, symbols and allegories unique to people of color. His conversations allude to the cultural universe of Third World dependency where creativity as well as culture, history and pride has been pulled along in the whirligig of European meaningless behavior. To him, people of color through no fault of their own but through the systematic destruction of their culture, have imitated everything European and have despised traditional culture and race while they fail to understand their own true needs. He thinks that western intrusions are slowly destroying the artistic cultures of indigenous societies and have destroyed the forms of creativity and indeed the very urge to create in those forms.

Born in Addis Ababa in 1937 to an influential Armenian father and an Ethiopian mother, Skunder studied art informally at the then Teferi Mekonnen School. He also studied under Stanislas Chojnacki, a historian of Ethiopian art and watercolor painter who was then librarian at University College and later professor at Haile Selassie University. It was Stanislas Chojnacki that taught him to proceed and transform beyond the technique and to metamorphose the reality into a fantasy, which was a difficult concept for Skunder at the time, but as he said, "It is when one realizes the difficulty of something in painting just as life that things become easy. In 1955, this 17 year old was awarded a scholarship to study abroad for two years where he studied at St. Martins School and the Central School in London and in 1957 moved to Paris, as he says it "to find himself and work and study on his own." It was in Paris that he studied at the Ecole Superieue des Beaux Arts and the Academie de la Grande Chaumiere and it was in Paris that he fell in love with an African American woman from Tuskegee, Alabama and got married in 1966 in Tuskegee, Alabama.

I always wonder what it is about the 1960's, with its motif of the powerful and the powerless that gives its generation a sense of passionate furiousness. It is as if they belong to a special group of people unable to leave the world alone, unable to look at inequity for too long without becoming troubled by its very existence. Silence is alien to them. They do not romanticize poverty as many of us do but rather get motivated by it. This painter, or then again this artist is a product of this generation in Paris. Often with dramatic gestures as is typical of his conversations, he told me very movingly of the beliefs of Fanon, of Aime Cesaire and of Diop. One concludes as I have, that his experience, in Paris is what crystallized the conviction of his creative psyche. Paris brought a long, deep retreat inward and backward, backward as it were in time, to the histories and myths of people of color and inward into the spirit of fulfillment and new courage.

With this potent stimulus, Skunder returned to Addis in 1966 with a wife and a baby girl, Aida Mariam on the way and started to teach the Fine Arts School where another maestro by the name of Gebre Kristos Desta was already leaving a great thrust to the concept of abstract painting. As the 1969 publication of the Ethnological Museum of the University of Zurich entitled "The Hidden Reality, Three Contemporary Ethiopian Artists stated," Gebre Kristos Desta and Alexander Boghossian gave important impulses to abstract painting. They were both instructors at the Fine Arts School where they had great influence in the style and personality of the new generation of students. It was Skunder's mode of painting in particular, which produced great fascination, although he was effective in Ethiopia for only three years (1966-1969). His works seemed to have set the standard for Ethiopian modern art, ever since his first exhibition in Addis Ababa in 1966. And undeniable so, Skunder has inspired and left a powerful impact on a generation of students that were captivated or rather awed by an aesthetic genius who has managed to mesmerize the essence of their creativity.

Perhaps it was because Skunder captured the very gist of the Ethiopian self. It was an era where jitter prevailed in the creative mind. It was an era where the senses got awakened and caught a glimpse of a world that was in an influx of change. As was said, it was an era of Nkrumah, of Diop, of Aime Cesaire, of James Baldwin, of Nyrere and of Senghor's "Negritude." It was an era where literature and politics of freedom blended with so much unison and complete harmony. The metamorphosis of change therefore was only natural and imprative to the creative mind. After all, the battleground for sovereignty away from the battle was right in the capital, within the halls of the OAU. Literature was at its turning point. To the painter, tuning traditional Ethiopian art to the universal reality was inescapable. For Skunder who was part and parcel of the world of creativity of resistance in Paris, as he was closely associated to the Pan African and Negritude movements, the rage to create was even more and so he dared to reform; surrealism some called it; abstract expressionism others, but nevertheless unprecedented paintings, unfamiliar and yet so familiar to the Ethiopian self.

Skunder Boghossian left Addis Ababa for the United States in 1969 as an invited resident instructor in sculpting, painting and African design at the Atlanta Center for Black Art in Atlanta, Georgia and also as an artist in residence at Atlanta University. Just like in Paris, Skunder again could not have chosen a better place than the South of 1971 as the South was the historical pivot of the black man's struggle for justice, liberty and equality. The fever of defiance and the vision of a cultural unity of the African continent that had its origins in Pairs and that had matured in his native land again followed him to the United States. It was in the United States that he got involved with the "Black Power Movement" and with African American intellectuals. Grand and magnificent paintings have come out from this experience. He joined Howard University in 1971 as an Artist in Residence, the cultural and political median for black activism as well as for progressive culture whether it be visual arts, poetry or literature.

The question of his identity had never been so crucially allied with the reality of this era and Skunder continued to produce vivid, energetic and intense work and consequently started to be celebrated in places such as The Studio Museum of Harlem. From a commentary on his exhibition in 1972 at the Studio Museum Rosalind Jeffries said, "Skunder has continually evolved in the past under the influence of African philosophy and mythology. There is one certain thing about his creations they are pregnant with energy. His canvases bear witness to energy and force at a fantastic range of intensity, or vibrations. The energy is sometimes overpowering, violent, sometimes a mere frenzy, sometimes calm, sometimes a lyrical clear peaceful melody, but always in perpetual motion. These forces are not only inner forces but they relate to outer moons, suns, air, atmosphere, shifting patterns and images derived from Ethiopian sacred and folk art used throughout the centuries." It is no wonder that Skunder remains a legend among African American artists of this era. Skunder continued to produce extraordinaty paintings, magical ralities, "pregnant with energy," through the 70's and 80's with wide acclaim and praise throughout the art world.

It is not the interest of this writer to enumerate the number of credentials that Skunder has attained nor is it an interest to list the numerous exhibitions held, although it would be dispassionate to omit mentioning, as he gives me pride of my heritage and identity, that Skunder is the most internationally exhibited African artist to date. It would also be an outrage to omit that Skunder was the first African artist whom the Musee d'Art moderne (Paris) bought a work and the first Ethiopian painter whose work is represented in the Museum of Modern Arts in New York. Discussing Skunder's Paris exhibitions as well as his successful one man show in Galerie Lambert in 1964, "The Hidden Reality, Three Contemporary Ethiopian Artists stated." Considering how difficult it is for painters of the Third World to clear the hurdles of established art museums, one sees that Skunder was considerably successful.

It is the intent of this writer however, to show that art is an expression of emotion that could only correspond to awareness of the nature of life itself. The inner world is the world of your energies and your structures and your possibilities that meets the outer world. What the artist does is less important than what he is. It is the innate spiritual potency or vigor of the artists that resonates immaculate creativity and manages to translate the incomprehensible as something real and true. It is the spiritual dimension of the artist that amplifies the canvas and in Skunder's words make "fantasy" and reality become indistinguishable.

I can only speak for myself but I can only believe that I am nothing but a reflection of a generation of Ethiopians where the quandary between the illusions of what is called "civilization" and "backwardness" has become a contradictory prevalent force in our lives. My generation, products of a futile revolution in our own country, victime of psychological injustice in the one we are living in, is baffled between which is right and which is wrong that it has lost all hope, identity, intrinsic value and a sense of responsibility. For me, Skunder is like a perpetual spiritual force as forefathers past. It was but an obligation of the ancestors to instill wisdom of culture and heritage as opposed to knowledge. When Skunder tells you the tales, the parables and the myth of his disposition, product himself of the same vices but yet aware of it, it is as if the ancestors and him have become one and the same.

It is also beyond this writer's potential to analyze the various techniques of Skunder Boghossian's work. The metaphor of his work through his paintings has yet to be researched by our own historians. This writing is only a mere exhibition of the man, his thoughts and this sense of obligation to creativity. Many European "experts" of the art, perplexed by his work, abandoning its own intimate value, always compare his work to an influence of such artists as Paul Klee or Jackson Pollock. It would not be presumptuous to say that it is ironic to theorize the influence of European art to African artistry when it is well known that in the decades immediately before and after 1900 that African art began to make a distinctive impact on European artists that were looking for new artistic experience. It was Georges Braque, Europe's own who said, "les masques negres m'ont ouvet un horizon nouveau" (Negro masks opened a new horizon for me).

It is probably why Skunder scorns any suggestion of influence from other artists, as his work is always a direct manifestation of his natural surrounding. The mythologist Joseph Campbell once said, "the earth is a heavenly body, most beautiful of all, and all poetry is obsolete that fails to match the wonder of this view." The symbol is always an object pointing to a subject. It is no wonder then that Skunder repeatedly told me that one's natural reality is always a starting point and the evolution to be autonomous as an artist always followed. When he talked about his first introduction by Stanisls Chojnacki to a Raphaelite work, he talked about the unfamiliarity and strangeness of the work to his state of being rather than the effect of Raphael on his work.

Africa has always contributed its richly varied artistry to the cultural heritage of mankind. The most exciting development in contemporary African art are in painting and graphics and posterity will judge the second half of the twentieth century to have been a period of African artistic renaissance. To me, it would not be a gross statement to state that Ibrahim al Salah of the Sudan, Gebre Kristos Desta and Skunder Boghossian are among the pioneers that have set the standard of the 20th century African modern art. Skunder Boghossian therefore is Africa's and Ethiopia's own treasure and pride.

Skunder Boghossian is currently an associate professor at Howard University. Celebrated and cheriched by his students and the faculty at Howard, he continues to produce phenomenal paintings. He currently resides in Washington D.C. and is a happy father of two children, Aida Mariam and Edward Addisu.


Elizabeth W. Giorgis lives and works in New York City. She is among the few Ethiopian art collectors who help organize Ethiopian artists living in the United States. She is also a contributing editor for Ethiopian Register.