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The following is an excerpt from a short introductory article written in 1985 on the occasion of

Zerihun Yetmgeta's 10th one-person show. It was first printed in part on the invitation distributed
by The German Cultural Institute, Addis Ababa.


Courtship
mixed media on bamboo strips
100 x 55 cm

Zerihun Yetmgeta
I am fortunate enough to have observed not only
the success and astonishing creative achievements
of artist Zerihun Yetmgeta, who is now considered
to be one of the major symbols of modern art in
Ethiopia, but also to be able to introduce Zerihun,
the man, my long time friend. Zerihun, is a well-built
man with a gray mustache and beard that points
decidedly downward, an anxious face, and a
feverish watchful eye. Looking at him, one may say
he is born artist.

Zerihun's temperament and outlook are
fundamentally Ethiopian. He loves his profession,
his family, and his art students who constantly need
his care and advice. His simplicity and frank
character allows him to share his passion with
people of all ages or social standing. Zerihun is the
type of artist who creates a comfortable
atmosphere and entertains everybody at a party or
social gathering. It is not surprising to see him in
downtown Addis exchanging warm greetings with
officials or diplomats, businessmen or football
players, comedians or authors. Popular as he is
among his fellow citizens and foreigners alike, he is
independent and proud of his achievements and
has always worked as his own master.

Always true to himself and his inspiration, he
systematically arranges his creative moments in
order to produce the many works shown at his
annual exhibitions and to finish private or
governmental commissions. These aspects of
Zerihun represent an iota of a facile mind and do
not sufficiently explain his phenomena. The best
key, and the only useful guide to understanding
him, is still within his art.

Although the dilettante who is dazzled and
fascinated by his annual exhibitions is eager to
know and read more about him, I found it very hard
to introduce in this very short commentary this
inexhaustible astonishing creative person,
dedicated art teacher, and devoted father. However
as I try to explain his unfathomable works, I hope
the curious reader might come to know something


Get to Heaven
mixed media on bamboo strips
100 x 45 cm


more about him. What is most striking about
Zerihun's work and retains a viewer's attention is
his daring and lively assimilation of modern painting
trends and techniques with traditional art
production, combination of modern and traditional
materials, and the use of modern ideas with
traditional themes. He applies modern painting
methods such as grattage, collage, frattage, or
decalcomania on traditional supports such as wood
and sheepskin. Unlike other artists, none of these
pictorial devices are used for their own end. Instead
he intervenes on the free forms at a conscious level
with his imaginative and technical fertility thus
making works with familiar, traditional images or
composed of strange creations and simply-formed
decorative motifs from artifacts. He constantly
references Ethiopian yet he is able to assimilate
and master a variety of artistic trend and styles.

Associating traditional images or religious
iconography with historical or contemporary,
secular ideas and symbols, he enhances the formal
and thematic suggestions by delineating the
images and forms with a paintbrush or a pen. The
images produced are achieved through successive
serial and simultaneous waves. For example in
Weekend, The Shield and the shadow, Traditional
view, The Window, and Research from Manuscript,
the figures are similar, however their tonality and
the harmonious organization of plastic elements
differ. These figures located in flat planes of color
and distorted from the natural world appear to be a
representation of veiled Ethiopian priests. They are
simultaneously juxtaposed and superimposed upon
one another, sometimes floating on a boat, or
standing at the faade of a church. These works,
which involves skillful manipulation of brushwork
and color harmonies, probably metaphorically
symbolize contemporary church ideas, and as
such, respond so intensely and so imaginatively to
specific events and the changing conditions and
challenges of an institution.

Again in the African Mask Research series and An
Overview African Mask and From the Stage we
notice figures derived from traditional African arts.
he gives us a gratuitous clue to the association
through the titles. Without mimicking the models yet
remaining faithful to their iconography and
disposition, he gives African Masks a new sense
and meaning, using them to solve the plastic
problems of line, space, form, color, and texture.
He altogether destroys their "fetish" character; by
injecting his own creative imagination to the

One Family
mixed media on bamboo strips
100 x 45 cm



The Philosopher
mixed media on bamboo strips
100 x 60 cm



African Mask research series
mixed media on bamboo strips
100 x 60 cm

spiritual expressiveness of their forms and made
them Fine Arts.

His Illumination series is made on sheepskin like
the ancient illuminated bibles we find at Kebrane
Gabriel or other monasteries done centuries ago by
those anonymous Ethiopian painters. In these
series a synthesis of most of his works can be
seen. All kinds of mythological birds and animals,
traditional artifacts, magic scrolls or talisman,
religious iconography, and decorative motifs, and
images of African masks are skillfully and
laboriously drawn. Some of these mythological
birds and animals, African mask-like creatures in
his other works such as Freedom, The search and
The Bird View can be identified. The principal
media in his Illumination series are pen and ink with
some color-wash, and a monochromatic support.
While in other works, the feeling of serenity and
loftiness in the cosmos is expressed in a flat plane
of blue combined with vivid colors, which serve to
create a sensuous and strange delight.

Another motif of Zerihun's works reminds us of the
innumerable calm and expressionless faces of
saints and angles painted in our churches. In The
Fishing, Bon voyage, See the Dragon he
schematizes and deforms the anatomy and head
with slender, staring, nervous eyes. These simple
and sober forms in delicate tones of yellow create
many paradoxes and contradictions. In tune with all
aspects of reality in contemporary situations, these
formal concepts are perhaps intended to express
social events in which humor and irony mingle.

Zerihun has a cosmopolitan outlook. Modern
concepts and ideas reside in him firmly and, as
such, do not seem to be disturbed by technological
progress. He is rather obsessed by traditional
beliefs, superstitions, and taboos that are still
practiced in traditional Ethiopian society, and he
seems determined to ridicule and exorcise their
mystery using his pictorial imageries. His paintings,
woodcuts, and drawings are in tune with 20th
century universal art trends and as such should be
judged from this perspective. Since his first group
show in Europe in 1966 and his first one-person
exhibition in Addis Ababa in 1970, he has
participated in over 25 group and solo shows, and
has produced thousands of pictures. In all of his
exhibitions he has been communicating ideas, and
feelings effectively, intensely, and vividly by
altogether abandoning the science of anatomy,
mathematical, single-point perspective, and


The Bride and the Groom
mixed media on bamboo strips
100 x 55 cm

traditional western representation. Zerihun applies
his artistic methods, approaching, if I may say, the
style and characteristics of Ethiopian art and the
rules of Ethiopian aesthetics.
Esseye Medhin
1985