Word Play

Ethiopian Artist Explores Beauty of Amharic Symbols, Letters



     If you’re a fan of Ethiopian cuisine, you may agree that the appeal is a blend of flavor, color, texture and aroma. The most distinctive spice is the classic turmeric-orange berbere made from chile peppers, garlic, ginger, dried basil, korarima (Ethiopian cardamom), rue, white pepper, black pepper and fenugreek. It helps that the food lends itself to eating family-style and sharing. And that Ethiopia is known as the birthplace of coffee. 
     “You cannot be Ethiopian and not be influenced by food,” says Wosene Worke Kosrof. 
     It is two weeks since Wosene — he typically uses only his first name as is customary in Ethiopia — returned from Addis Ababa to the Berkeley home he shares with his wife, muse and business partner, Patricia diRubbo. He has a small house with a studio in Addis as well. It is less than 24 hours since his most recent exhibition opened at the Bekris Gallery, an upscale space in downtown San Francisco’s artist’s row. 
      In Berkeley the morning after, we are talking art and food and coffee in the kitchen that is a blend of Wosene’s Ethiopian heritage and diRubbo’s Italian-American roots. Every so often we duck into the living room. Both rooms are veritable galleries of Wosene’s work. We have strolled across the garden to his lofty newly-built studio. 
     Wosene, 61, received his bachelor of fine arts degree in 1972 from the Addis Ababa University School of Fine Arts. In 1977 he left the country of his birth to further his career as an artist, enrolled at D.C.’s Howard University College of Fine Arts in 1978, and obtained a master’s of fine arts degree in 1980. While at Howard he began a unique artistic journey. He became the first Ethiopian artist to focus on the beauty, plasticity and communicative potential of the written symbols — the letters or script — of his native Amharic, Ethiopia’s unique and official language. His work — creative, alive, powerful, complex, sometimes playful and often colorful — has been called “a celebration of Africa’s intellectual and cultural achievements.”
     Arguably Ethiopia’s best-known living artist, he has paintings in the permanent collection at the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art, the National Museum of Ethiopia, the Rockefeller Collection and at the United Nations, among many other august institutions. In the East Bay you can see his work at the Claremont Hotel’s Terra Firma gallery. In California wine country, you can see it at Terra Firma’s sister galleries in Sonoma or Healdsburg.  
     Whether in Addis or Berkeley, Wosene typically begins his day at a coffee shop. He tells me that he will often start the creative process by getting into conversation with himself. Feeling fired up, he will return in haste to his studio and get to work — adding paint, scratching at the paint, adding a different color, stepping back and viewing the canvas taped to the wall, which allows for a more robust interaction than if he used an easel. 
     “Cooking and painting are pretty much the same to me. When I paint, it’s like I’m cooking and tasting the letters as I paint them,” he says. “My mouth is tasting the colors. In Africa the ceremony behind food is a big part of life. It tells about marriage, death, the harvest, life.” 
     When he paints, “I am in conversation with the canvas. I give it life. It gives me life. Where is it going?” He calls the process “accidental intention.” Painting is not only like cooking. It is also like making music, says Wosene. Some critics have suggested looking for the riffs and rhythms in his work. “(Hugh) Masekela, when I listen to him, is not just playing trumpet. What I hear is poetry. What I hear is the poetry of the entirety of human life.”
     Similarly his intention is to create art that is fluid and unrestrained by borders; that speaks a universal language. Amharic-speaking Ethiopian viewers often try to make literal sense of the letters, he says. But that is to place limitations on his work. The letters are simply — and profoundly — how Wosene chooses to express his world. He is a global citizen. He draws from all the places he has called home. He gets inspiration from scraps of paper, overheard conversations, smells, sadness, love, excitement, joy, freedom, memories. They’re all embedded in the visual field, reflected in his interpretation of the letters. Like all good artists part of his intention is to help each of us “to see things differently.” The visual feast he scripts makes it impossible not to. 

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