Like father, like son ... It is not unusual for a son to follow in his father's professional footsteps, but as Gebrekristos Solomon, one of Ethiopia's most celebrated artists, explained to Stephen Williams, it might all have been so different.
He is obviously passionate about his chosen career, following not only in his father, Solomon Belachew's, footsteps but his grandfather, Belachew Yimar's as well. Nevertheless, in his youth he aspired to become a popular singer and got a taste of this dream too.
He was born in 1950. Shortly after leaving high-school, he secretly managed to pass the entrance exam to study with Ethiopia's National Theatre, simultaneously securing a regular spot singing at the Zula Club, one of Addis Ababa's top nightclubs. But he could not keep these activities secret from his father, who hatched a plot. It sounds dramatic now, Solomon admits with a laugh, but his father persuaded a policeman friend to go to the club and arrest him!
Leading him away in handcuffs in front of the patrons did little to endear him to the nightclub's management, and a short spell in the police cells and a stern warning was enough to persuade the "prodigal son" to drop his ambitions to be a crooner. The singing world's loss was to be the art world's gain. His father insisted he became a painter like him and his grandfather before him.
Solomon's grandfather had been a famous painter, working in the family's home town of Gojam near Gondar. He was particularly noted for his paintings illustrating one of Ethiopia's most famous legends--how the Queen of Sheba travelled to the court of King Solomon and returned to Ethiopia pregnant with a son, thereby beginning the Solomonic dynasty.
Gebrekristos' grandfather and father were also both renowned for paintings depicting the defeat of the Italian invaders at the Battle of Adwa, one of Ethiopia's most famous battles and the one that saved the country from European colonialisation.
Around 1952, Gebrekristos' grandfather moved the family to the Mercato market district of Addis Ababa where he opened a studio and helped decorate the church at Entoto, on one of the hills just outside the city. His father also began to make a name for himself, particularly after the 1960 Olympics when he painted the story (in the traditional Ethiopian "strip cartoon" fashion) of the Ethiopian marathon gold medallist, Abebe Bikila, who famously won the race barefooted. It was decided that Gebrekristos should also learn to paint and carry on the family tradition, but his father was wise enough to recognise that his son would benefit from understanding modern techniques and enrolled him in a three-year night-school diploma art course at the School of Fine Arts, now part of the University of Addis Ababa.
During the day, Gebrekristos would either paint with his father or at the state handicraft school that also sold his work through the city's government hotels and the Ethiopia Tourism Commission. By night he would study for his diploma.
His father's fame secured a move to the studio in Piazza, a lively district with hotels, restaurants, bars and a favourite area for foreign tourists. That has been important, explains Gebrekristos, for although Ethiopians do appreciate art, they rarely buy. Most of his customers are foreign visitors.
Like his father, Gebrekristos sells not only his own paintings but those of other painters. And he still has a number of paintings that his father collected. He asked his two children, son Sursel and daughter Ulssabel to show one to New African, a work that has huge historical significance.
It is a painting of Emperor Haile Selassie meeting with Winston Churchill in 1945. If you read the February 2008 issue of New African, Santorri Chamley wrote in The Rise and Rise of Black Consciousness that not only was Haile Selassie a pivotal figure in pan-African black consciousness--helping found the OAU and ECA in Addis Ababa--but Churchill himself (somewhat patronisingly) described the Ethiopian emperor as "the only enlightened Abyssinian prince".
The painting, by Daniel Tofae--who appears to have been an official painter for Haile Sellasie--was rescued by Gebrekristos' father during the purge by the Dergue, the revolutionary movement led by Colonel Mengistu Haile Miriam who led an uprising in 1974 that first marginalised, and then murdered, Emperor Haile Selassie. The Dergue had wanted to erase all references to Haile Sellasie but Gebrekristos' father had rescued it from the palace and kept it hidden, at considerable personal risk, for the many years of the "Red Terror". When I asked Gebrekristos what he planned to do with the painting, he said he either wanted to find a wealthy private buyer or, better yet, a museum that could exhibit such an important painting.
Yet, even though he appreciates contemporary art, even non-figurative abstract art, it is the work inspired by Biblical stories that Gebrekristos would like to be remembered by. He may have been feted with exhibitions at the Ethio-Francaise Institute, the US embassy, and many international contemporary art galleries, but he insists that he is still "totally amazed" by the church paintings found in Tigray and Gondar. "How did those artists paint by candlelight such beautiful works 200 years ago, getting such brilliant colours with just natural pigments?" he wonders.
He also recommends that visitors to Addis Ababa should visit St George's Church in the centre of the capital to see some of the finest paintings in Ethiopia. Then, of course, they should visit his shop next to the Hotel Taitu to choose a work of art that will continue to support one of Ethiopia's greatest artists and one of the continent's greatest cultural traditions.
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|Date:||May 1, 2008|
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