I was strolling through the
Smithsonian Museum of African Art when I saw a piece that
captured my attention. Taking a closer look at the painting,
I found out that it was the work of Skunder Boghossian, an
Ethiopian artist who worked and lived not far from the museum.
Since that day I have been trying to learn more about Skunder,
whom friends describe as a free-spirited, generous, eccentric,
and intelligent man. The threads for Skunder’s passion;
art, music, and Pan-Africanism are woven throughout his life.
Skunder’s contribution to the art world, a freedom to
experiment with all artistic modes while grounded on an African
foundation, has been internationally recognized.
Skunder Boghossian was born on July 22, 1937 in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, a year and a half after Italy invaded Ethiopia. He is the son of Weyzero (Mrs.) Tsedale-Wolde Tekle and Colonel Kosrof Gorgorios Boghossian, an officer of the Imperial Body Guard of Armenian origin.
Skunder’s father was active in the resistance against Italy’s occupation and consequently was incarcerated by the Italians when Skunder was just a one-year-old child. Skunder’s uncle, also an active member of the Ethiopian patriotic underground, used to drop in and recount stories of fights against the Italians. Skunder was eight years old when his father was eventually released after seven years of imprisonment. 1
Even though, Skunder showed interest in art at an early age, his father did not encourage him. Fortunately, his uncle provided the art material as well as moral support. When Ethiopia returned to peace, Skunder was able to travel throughout Ethiopia with his family. Even though he came from a wealthy family, he consciously observed and reflected upon the social and class inequalities all over Ethiopia. In addition, Skunder’s Armenian and Ethiopian background gave him a unique perspective on the worldwide power struggle – upon which he pondered throughout his life and depicted in his later works. 2
At Kes Timhert Bet, a traditional
kindergarten school system, Skunder studied the Ethiopic alphabet,
which later manifested in his art. In elementary and high
school, he was tutored by Ethiopian and foreign tutors becoming
fluent in Amharic, English, Armenian and French. Jacques Goboute
, his art teacher at Teferi Mekonen High School,
induced Skunder’s first foray into Abstract art.
3 Skunder’s distinctly abstract depiction of
the traditional painting of Saint George’s triumph over
the python was applauded by his teacher – urging him
to explore this new found form of expression.
Skunder started listening to
Jazz music at an early age, holding it close to his heart
and incorporating it in his art. Larry Erskine, Skunder’s
African American neighbor in Addis Ababa, introduced him to
the Voice of America broadcasting Jazz from Tangier, Morocco.
4 Solomon Deressa, Skunder’s friend since high school,
points that Skunder’s passionate love of black music
moved him to embrace African Americans as inspiration as well
as friends and teachers.
In 1955, during his late teens, Skunder left for England to study classical European Art on an Imperial Scholarship. He attended the St. Martin’sSchool, the Central Art School and the Slade School of Fine Arts in London. Impressed by the Négritude movement during his visit to France, he transferred to the Ecole Nationale Supérieure des Beaux Art and later to the Académie de la Grande Chaumière in Paris after a two year sojourn in England. Solomon Deressa states that Skunder never finished any of his formal education .
Skunder learned in the streets of Paris by working informally with other artists more than he did in formal settings. Skunder also learned a great deal from frequently visiting museums throughout Europe and through preparing materials for artists working in the mode of surrealism. In Paris, he was introduced to Wilferdo Lam, an Afro-Cuban voodoo surrealist, Max Ernst a German surrealist, and Gerard Sokoto a South African artist. These and other artists influenced the shape of Skunder’s early art. In addition, the works of Madeleine Roussea and Aimé Césaire encouraged Skunder to draw inspiration from his rich African heritage.
According to Solomon Deressa, who also followed Skunder’s art closely and has written several articles about him, Skunder’s inspirations are mistakenly identified to be of European origin, due to the influence African Art had over some European artists. Skunder rarely defended his art when people misunderstood the source for his ideas, which is a testament to his humbleness and confidence in this art.
During Skunder’s stay in Paris, the city was a haven for black artists wherein their talents were better appreciated than their respective homes. He befriended many prominent black musicians, artists, and writers, some in the Pan-African or Négritude movement; such as Cheikh Anta Diop, the Senegalese philosopher and Egyptologist, and the Congolese poet Tchikaya U’Tamsi. 5
He frequented Le Torrion café, where many Ethiopians, West Africans, African Americans and Afro-Caribbeans fraternized. He met his first wife Marilan Hoytt, a student on a study abroad program from Spelman College, in the Café. When Skunder first met Marilan, he asked her to model for him, which she did gladly. Even though she posed for him with a t-shirt and jeans, he clad her with an Ethiopian traditional dress on the portrait he painted. 6 His other acquaintances in Paris included Larry Potter, Dexter Gordon, Max Roach, Abby Lincoln, Ron Jefferson, and Betwdier. 7
This group of artists, including
Skunder, were involved in the Négritude movement, an
extension of Pan-Africanism that dates back at least to the
18th century when Blacks in the New World, tortured by the
brutality of slavery in the Americas and Caribbean naturally
yearned for their ancestral homeland and the dignity and freedom
it represented. The Pan-Africanists also challenged the racist
idea of white superiority and African backwardness, by looking
back into Africa’s history. They also dreamt about a
United States of Africa. 8
Pan-Africanism resulted in an artistic unity
more than economic or political harmony among Africans and
the African Diaspora. In the 1920s, the Pan-African movement
contributed to the creation of the Harlem Renaissance. A generation
of black writers and artists looked towards Africa for their
inspiration and identity, most noticeably, Zora Neal Hurston,
Claude McKay, Langston Hughes and Paul Robeson .
On the political front, Pan-African leaders including Patrice Lumumba, Léopold Senghor, Kwame Nkrumah, and Jomo Kenyatta fought to rid colonialism from the African continent. Most of these leaders, however, gave into nationalism after their countries gained independence and they gained power. Furthermore, the Organization of African Unity, founded in Addis Ababa under the leadership of Emperor Haile Selassie, turned out to be ineffective in producing economic or political unity among the African nations.
Arguably the only lasting legacy of the Pan-African movement was its sister artistic movement Négritude which sought to articulate and idealize a cultural and artistic essence common to all people of African descent.
Skunder’s close encounter, as a child, with the brutal Italian colonial power allowed him to identify with other oppressed peoples’ struggles. Skunder grew up when Ethiopia was a symbol of freedom to Black people around the world. During this time, the Black world looked at Ethiopia, as she fought and eventually expelled Mussolini’s fascist army. Many blacks equated Ethiopia’s fight for freedom with their own predicaments. Skunder was intensely aware of the symbolic importance of his country to black people around the world and this awareness permeates his work.
During this time, African artists and writers, like their Harlem Renaissance compatriots a generation earlier, successfully adapted Pan-Africanism and Négritude into their work. In the 1960s, many artists learned from each other to improve black self-image that was damaged by colonialism and slavery. At that time, no one realized the magnitude of influence Pan-Africanists will have on young Africans and the African Diaspora, but their work and teaching prevailed as a successful strand of the Négritude movement.
Many of Skunder’s artworks testify to this great environment of mutual learning created under the umbrella of Pan-Africanism and Négritude. For example, in Paris he painted, ‘Night Flight of Dread and Delight,’ which “is a visionary fantasy inspired by the novels of Nigerian writer Amos Tutuola, which are packed with spirits and supernatural forces.” 10 Skunder was also included in other people’s art. He is featured in an African American movie called “Paris Blues,” with Paul Newman, Sidney Poitier, and Louis Armstrong.
In 1966, Skunder rushed his pregnant wife to Addis Ababa so that his first child could be born in Ethiopia and be an Ethiopian citizen. During his stay in Ethiopia, Skunder was eager to share his knowledge and experiences with his Ethiopian colleagues and art students. While teaching painting, drawing, graphics, and abstract design at the renowned Addis Ababa School of Fine Arts, Skunder and others such as the prominent artist and poet Gebre Kristos Desta, Theodros Tsege Marqos, Endale Haile Selassie and Zerihun Yetmgeta were actively involved in the artistic revolution in Ethiopia. Skunder was one of the prominent Ethiopian artists revolutionizing not only Ethiopian but also African art and was an important catalyst to the Addis Spring renaissance.
During this period, two different yet equally important and progressive pillars that lifted Ethiopian Art to a higher level emerged: Skunder and Gebre Kristos. Both taught at the School of Fine Art and exhibited throughout Addis Ababa producing many disciples, who to this day continue to create a vibrant art atmosphere in Ethiopia and abroad. Skunder and Gebre Kristos along with Ibrahim al Salahi, a prominent Sudanese artist who also studied at the Slade School of Fine Art, are some of the earliest African artists who reclaimed the African art persuasion that had inspired certain modern European art movements including cubism .
The Addis Ababa of the 1960s was teeming with a generation of modern educated Ethiopians who were eager to ameliorate the country’s conditions. This environment created many writers, musicians, and artists, who appreciated each other’s life and work. Skunder, Theodros, Zerihun, Endale , and others lit Ethiopia with artistic excitement. According to Tesfaye Tessema, a student at the art school in Addis Ababa, Skunder was the trend setter in the art community not only with his revolutionary artistic methods but also with his suave style: big black eye glasses, chemise, kaki pants, and flip-flop shoes. This budding and vibrant movement created a genre that experimented, rationalized and philosophized to achieve artistic solutions. 11
Solomon Deressa kept a good record
of the time by writing articles about the renaissance, because
of his interest in art and his close friendship with artists.
In retrospect, Solomon Deressa coined the term ‘Addis
Spring,’ to describe the artistic learning and experimenting
that took place in Addis Ababa. The writers, poets, musicians
published and performed their work, while the artists exhibited
at the Belvedere gallery, Haile Selassie I University, School
of Fine Arts and other studios.
Skunder inspired and led the artistic renaissance by example. He incorporated in his art several distinct Ethiopian traditional artistic symbols and methods: Oromo and Konso carvings; Adere embroidery; brana (healing scrolls)colors – handmade earth tone colors; patterns from Tiletes (the geometric inlay border pattern of traditional dresses); Mesobs (traditional food plates and tables); iconic images; biblical stories; cross designs and historical sites. 12
Furthermore, he integrated mythological images and masks from other African countries. He used abstract expressionism to amalgamate eclectic inspirations and to make them his own. The addition of modern (primary) colors gave Skunder’s art a vibrant look and allowed him to tell a complex poetic story. According to Esseye GebreMedhin , Skunder pointed out the untapped and yet unexplored world, the frontiers of which had been crossed before only by tableaus of Gebre Kristos Desta. That is why some refer him as the “patriarch of a generation of Ethiopian artists.”
Many prominent Ethiopian artists, such as Wosene Kosrof, Endale Haile Selassie, Tesfaye Wolde, Yohannes Gedamu, and Berhe Temelso, took Skunder’s innovative ideas further by incorporating them into their own style and techniques. 13 His influence on Ethiopian art is apparent to this very day and is expected to continue affecting future generations as well. 14
During his stay in Addis Ababa, Skunder’s art was exhibited in several group and solo exhibitions. He had as much as three exhibitions running in Addis Ababa at one time and his art sold rapidly. 15 Several American and European diplomats as well as Peace Corps volunteers bought Skunder’s art. This was the first time in Ethiopian history that being an artist had become a lucrative profession. 16
After Skunder and other prominent artist left Ethiopia, the Derg regime suffocated the exciting and groundbreaking Addis Spring art movement. While some artists were regimented to stay in the socialist realism lane and work mainly to advocate the government’s propaganda and educational illustrations, others remained true to their honest artistic inclinations. 17 During this time, images of Marx, Lenin, and Engels made mostly by Koreans decorated Ethiopia, as if the country had no artists of its own.
Skunder left Addis Ababa with his family on an invitation to teach Art in Atlanta Georgia, before the Derg regime imposed artistic constraints in Ethiopia. This was not Skunder’s first trip to America. He had been to Tuskegee, Alabama once before, to meet his fiancée’s, Marilan, parents and the time to marry her. He frequently visited Tuskegee, attracted by the city’s predominantly black population and his artistic father in-law with whom he liked to paint.
Skunder landed yet in another prominent place in the Pan-African history, Washington, DC. He lived most of his life in the US capital, where the fathers of the Harlem Renaissance lived or hanged out. 18
Before moving to Washington, D.C., Skunder taught painting, sculpture, and African art at the Center for Black Arts in Atlanta, Georgia, where he was an invited guest teacher. He was also invited as a visiting artist at Creighton University in Omaha, Nebraska, and later at the Atlanta University College Center. During his short stay in Atlanta, he received the first prize at the 29 th Annual Show of Black Artists at Spelman College.
Skunder was embraced by Howard
University, which at that time was yearning to establish radical
and Afro-centric curriculums. 19 After joining the faculty
of the university as an artist in residence, Skunder became
an Assistant Professor in 1974, and was promoted to Associate
Professor in 1978. Just as he did in Addis Ababa and Paris,
he continued to draw knowledge and inspirations from the path
he carved for his life with strong dedication to his art and
to afrocentric endeavors.
Skunder was a very enthusiastic
teacher. At Howard University, he armed generations of African
American artists with the tools and sensibility that would
help them transcend borders, just as he did in Ethiopia. 20
Furthermore, according to Akline Lynch, Howard University
found itself in a privileged position because Skunder created
a link between Africa and African Americans through an essential
dialogue between the two.
He continued to exhibit his art in solo and group shows, with fellow African American artists. He had an enormous impact on prominent Black artists such as LeRoy Clark and Norris Ikin. 21 That is why Skunder has been called “the contemporary African artist most influential on Afro-American art.”
A quite and petit man with a prominent nose, soul piercing eyes, brown skin, and curly Afro hair, Skunder was not a morning person. During his later life, his day would not start until late morning. He taught graduate level students painting and sculpture from 3 to 9 PM on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Skunder was known for being an energetic teacher who constructively critiqued his students. He was a compulsive painter and was known to paint in the classroom, at the Howard University studio and in his apartment throughout the day and late into the night. Skunder worked on his paintings months to years until his creation communicated to him that it was complete. 22
In and outside of the school, Skunder continued sharing his life experience generously with any one who was willing to learn and experiment with art. He encouraged and mentored many artists. Skunder communicated to his students both the process of and reasons for creating art in a non-regimented, informal and friendly manner. He conveyed the idea that art is a cultural representation that should be timeless, and devoid of propaganda. He also encouraged artists to live art, and to create artwork that reflected their well-examined philosophy and to exhibit an artistic responsibility to society. 23
Skunder incorporated African American literature and history in his art. Skunder was an avid reader whose personal collection of books ranged from texts on Egyptology and African American literature to books about art history and colors. He was also deeply concerned about African and African American problems, and closely followed what was going on in Ethiopia and around the world by reading the news daily. 24
Skunder did not have much of an appetite for food but had an insatiable hunger for music, art, and people. He often would bring his Walkman to Howard University. One would see Skunder riding his bike throughout Washington DC, including inside the Howard University campus listening to music on his Walkman.
When it is one of those days that he lost himself in music and if someone, attempted to talk to him, he would tell the person to speak louder so he could continue listening to the music while conversing. And when Skunder felt he must share the joy he was getting from listening melodic sounds, he would take his headphone off and would offer it to a person. The lucky person might then hear Jazz, Blues, Rap, Hip Hop, Reggae, or all African song.
Skunder also exposed his students to music. Besides listening and talking about music most of the time, he befriended several musicians and applied the lessons he learned from music to his art. As avante garde Jazz artists, such as Ornette Coleman, John Coltrane, Sun Ra and Miles Davis freed their music; Skunder broke away from traditional constrictions to develop improvisational compositions.
How wonderful it is to see music in a colorful painting? Skunder’s art reflected hallucinatory effects and arrays of emblematic and mythical images, colors, lines and shapes that give the perception of graceful movement making the viewers eyes dance. His art also and tells poetic stories while arousing the viewer’s emotion. 25
Skunder saw art in everything. He would often go treasure hunting around his neighborhood with his daughter, Aida, in Mount Pleasant, Washington D.C. Searching indiscriminately, Skunder then would find an artistic element in objects people consider trash. Once, he picked up a discarded chair and carried it back to his apartment to incorporate it into one of his paintings five years later. 26
On September 30, 2000, Skunder retired from Howard University after teaching for twenty-six years. However, he continued painting and teaching out side of school, until he was weakened by a sickness, which might have been caused by the drinking habit that he had developed. His eagerness to always be around people and music and his passion for insightful conversations regarding the plight of Ethiopian as well as other black people in the world led him to Jazz bars and Ethiopian restaurants in the Washington area. Unlike many of his colleagues, Skunder was popular among the working class in the neighborhood, from where he drew inspiration. 27 Whether in Paris, Addis Ababa or Europe, Skunder was never afraid to approach musicians in nightclubs and ask them what they where trying to do with their art.
Sadly, the attention he received, in his later years, did not match his lifelong contribution to the art world. His artwork, a channel for African art to shine all around the world, was first exhibited at the Smithsonian Museum of African art only in 1992. Even though Africa is blessed with many contemporary artists, often this museum makes it look like artistic production stopped in the 18 th century. By its own account, the museum admits, “… it seems clear that the institutional terrain of the international art world has not, as yet, shifted significantly in favor of Africa’s artists. They are, for the most part, still locked out of the galleries and storerooms of our sister modern and contemporary arts institutions.” 28
Regardless, even at the lowest and loneliest moments of his life, when the world turned its back on him, people testify that Skunder continued lighting the room with his smile.
Skunder was pronounced dead on May 4, 2003 at the Howard University Hospital. He was 65. Skunder is survived by his daughter, son, sister and brother as well as his many students all around the world.
Some artists call him a door opener. He must have known that he was standing at a crossroad when he painted Forbidden Door, which depicts Ge’ez letters on the vibrate red background that clearly say, sealed Door, or was he trying to reflect the injustice he studied throughout his life?
Skunder used his art to stand against injustice. He received a certificate of appreciation from the United Nations for his artwork, which placed his piece on a stamp issued by the Special Committee against Apartheid. Skunder described this award winning art, titled Combat Racism, as depicting “…a feeling of no compromise - deep roots in my work - sensitivity to time - the flame to destroy social decay, giving birth to the desirable new. In pen and ink this work appropriately releases the internationalist orientation that informs my creative impulse and sense of responsibility and commitment as an African artist.” 29
Skunder was a model for artists who struggle against being associated with governments. When he earned the chance to decorate the entrance of the Ethiopian Embassy in Washington DC, he depicted Ethiopia’s timeless history and culture, by incorporating highland and lowland images devoid of any political representation or propaganda. Skunder was never hungry for attention. When he got a lifetime opportunity to leave a mark on Ethiopia’s history, he shared the limelight with his student and colleague Kebedech Tekeleab by inviting her to work on the project.
In his art, Skunder illustrated his understanding of the Black world that he studied throughout his life and preserved it for history. “Skunder has that rare quality of a truly great artist. He has his own artistic personality, which, like mirrors in Japanese temples, reflects his own thoughts, expectations and feeling.” 30
Skunder has set a high but attainable goal to fellow artists, that of involving the viewer in the art. Solomon Deressa is a witness to Skunder’s ability to involve his audience in a work where only an imaginary break in an imaginary time-line separates the artist from the viewer. Others affirm that to see Skunder’s works is to see what is in front of us right now, as opposed to seeing Ethiopian art from memory. 31
Skunder lived life to its fullest and was enchanted in being a life long student learning from people, music, books, and life experiences while presenting his understanding honestly, beautifully, and colorfully.
- Second Prize at the Jubilee Anniversary Celebration of Ethiopia’s Emperor Haile Selassie I. (1954)
- *The First contemporary Ethiopian artist whose work was bought by the Musée d’Art Moderne in Paris (1963)
- The first African Artist whose works were purchased by the Museum of Modern Art in New York (1965).
- The Haile Selassie I Prize for Fine Arts (1967)
- The winner of UNESCO’s Artists of the World Against Apartheid Award. (1983)
- Certificate of Appreciation from the Mayor of the District of Columbia , Marion Barry.
- A Key to the City and a certificate of by Mayor Alex Daoud of the City of Miami , Florida . (1985)
- Smithsonian Museum of African Art , Washington D.C.
- Museum of Modern Art, the Studio Museum of Harlem , New York
- The Blanchette Rockefeller Collection, New York , NY .
- The Harmon Foundation and the National Archives and Records Services, New York \
- The Musée d’Art Moderne, Paris , France
- Hilton Hotel, Addis Ababa , Ethiopia
- Ministry of Foreign Affairs Building, Addis Ababa , Ethiopia
- Ethiopian Embassy, Washington DC