I first learned about artist Ficre Ghebreyesus after he died at the too young age of 50. His wife, poet, Elizabeth Alexander penned a memoir called Light of the World and painted such a picture of her husband that I needed to see more of his art. I’ve written about Alexander’s memoir and there’s a painting on the cover of a boat (a recurring theme) painted in jazzy blue and coral stripes. The colors and the composition depict stillness coupled with an energy and movement that compelled me to search for more. Google did not lead me astray. The images it pulled up were vibrant, some like a veritable patchwork that might have seemed too busy in any other hands, but in his, it all just worked. In the way that some art moves us and we can’t quite reason the whole why, his art spoke to me of joy and peace.
One afternoon, I happened upon the Museum of the African Diaspora in San Francisco and couldn’t believe my eyes: Ficre Ghebreyesus had an exhibit! And it was in its final week, closing the weekend upcoming! I made a date and we walked the compact, well-appointed galleries the following Saturday for the first time, listening to a docent talk through his work.
The piece for which the entire exhibit was named, “City with a River Running Through” is actually four pieces and all told measures over 18 feet long. Can you imagine what it must be like to envision the still unpainted entirety, while working on each section? Unlike some artists who do pre-sketches or small paintings as a way to work out composition and color ideas, he went in wholly invested in the final outcome only he could see. I lingered in front of the painting for a few minutes, walking up to different sections wanting to see the detail work of his brush and get a sense for how he might have thought the green swatch needed to go next to the coral one with wavy lines on it. The painting is enormous and it hung well on the wall, me grateful that there was a space that we could see such a large painting displayed.
It reminded me of why I like museums, that sense of discovery and seeing the world in a different perspective that can shift our own. It also emboldens me to think how artists work in private and sometimes get to see acclaim while they’re alive, but also how their work lives on after they do, even if in back rooms and how it takes someone who believes in their work to put it out into the world and how that work can sometimes bring a needed light into the world, even after the creator’s light is extinguished.
Through this exhibit and its curated pieces of work, I saw a broader scope than what the online search had afforded. He painted scenes from his home country of Eritrea like a painting called Paradise influenced by the Adam and Eve garden of paradise, but this time offset with bottle trees reminiscent of Eritrea.
In several of the paintings, boats cropped up, both placid and yet symbols of movement. One painting that became a new favorite involved a boat on water that’s green then blue, the boat itself striped in greens and swatches of periwinkle and pale purple. Underneath the central boat there is another boat that looks like a shadow. I could stand in front of this painting for hours and find new insights it provides. The tranquil colors kept me transfixed as the subject kept me wondering, if I climbed into that boat where would I go? Or, how sometimes, when difficulties arise, wouldn’t we want a boat to just sit in or go to another part of our lives, rowing out past the difficulty. And, right now, the thing I wonder as I look again at the boat is if there is a shadow self who wants something else from life hovering underneath what everyone else can see, and yet also supported by an unseen hand that holds those dreams and hopes intact.
When Ghebreyesus was alive, he and his brother owned a cafe in New Haven, Connecticut—I remember that from reading Alexander’s account. He came to painting later in life, studying and making art until the end.
“I started painting ten years ago, but I suspect I have been metaphorically doing so all my 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. 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 in my natal home of Eritrea, East Africa. 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.”– Ficre Ghebreyesus
Even though he died of a heart attack at 50, what a prolific body of work he left behind! And, what does it say about doing the work you know you must do with urgency?
It makes me question where next he would have gone artistically if he was still alive today—what motifs would continue showing up in his work. Would he have gone through a blue period or started a new school of thought or methodology? Might this refugee offer refuge to others? Would his connecting to where he was from and where he lived today and the latent struggles of being an immigrant in today’s United States have resonated with others disillusioned by the current state of affairs. I like to think he would have continued offering joy by way of brushstroke, layering colors that at first glance don’t seem to have anything to do with one another, but when the final detail is filled in, culminates in a canvas that thrums with life.