A selection of paintings by Ficre Ghebreyesus, courtesy of Ficre Ghebreyesus Fine Arts. Hover over an image for its title.
When Ficre and I met in the late spring of 1996, the first thing he wanted to do was show me his art. He was living at the time at 218 State Street, the New Haven Cash Register Company building, in an unfinished loft where he slept and painted when he was not cooking his Eritrean fantasia food in the kitchen of the restaurant he owned and ran with his brothers, Caffe Adulis. In those days before our family he used to chef through the evening, close down the restaurant, and then paint until dawn in that loft, with its salvaged Steinway piano, clothing racks he’d rolled down the street from downtown Macy’s when it went out of business, and graffiti scrawled on the heavy metal door by a previous occupant that read, “Foster Kindness.”
There were paintings everywhere, mostly large dark canvases lit with brilliant corners of insistent life. The paintings gave a sense of his beloved homeland in wartime—the Eritrean independence war began shortly before he was born—infused with the light of determined life that would not be deferred or extinguished. He showed me pastel drawings with the driving color concerns he would continue to explore and echoed Eritrean textile work and basketry as well as the hues of Matisse. There were linocuts and mono-prints he’d made in Bob Blackburn’s printmaking workshop and sketches he’d made while studying at the Art Student’s League with Joe Stapleton—New York years in which he was mostly working as a student leader and activist on behalf of Eritrean issues. And then there were portfolios of photographs—some of which would be exhibited at the Rayburn office building of the U.S Congress that summer—which told a story of Eritrea and its people in the saturated hues of the true painter he was.
He was a profoundly peaceful and peace-loving person, forged in the crucible of war.
When our first son was born in April 1998, we moved to 45 Livingston Street, where he painted in a garage studio in back of the house. There his practice and colors changed. He moved more fully into his brilliantly abstracted space; figures, landscapes, and icons were discernable but not strictly representational. With this work, he applied to the Yale School of Art, with recommendations from Kerry James Marshall, Robert Farris Thompson, and Bob Blackburn. Kerry was a Chicago friend of mine-turned-ours; Ficre revered his work as well as his dedication to his practice. He admired the purist in Kerry, the artist who made large epic works at his own pace. Kerry was working on his “Gardens Project” at the time, and I’d been lucky enough to see some of those paintings born in his tiny studio on Chicago’s State Street that could accommodate but one un-stretched canvas at a time (Ficre borrowed his own commitment to un-stretched, large-scale paintings from Kerry). And Thompson was an Adulis and Ficre aficionado who spent literally hundreds of nights in the restaurant, writing an entire manuscript on the white table paper which he’d rip off, fold up, and take home after eating his shrimp barka.
Ficre’s time in art school was a mixed bag. He was a “grown-up,” extremely open to learning, as he always was, but also not a malleable kid. He was a respected town professional and by that time, a father of two. His particular African diaspora aesthetics were sometimes mis-read by teachers. But he had a good experience as a teaching assistant with Richard Lytle and strong honest encouragement from Sam Messer. He loved outdoor painting excursions in New Haven’s mixed metaphor landscape of New England trees and industrial detritus. He made some fascinating text-based conceptual pieces in class with Mel Bochner. Most important, however, were some artist’s visits he helped arrange with his classmates. He had a wonderful studio visit from the painter Amy Sillman, whose use of color and commitment to abstraction spoke powerfully to Ficre. Having Adrian Piper and Martin Puryear in his studio was a highlight of his time in graduate school. Their encouragement and enthusiasm carried him all the way through. He revered each artist as a true master, and though his work looked nothing like either one’s, they asked him the deep questions that took his practice to the next level. It especially pleased him that Adrian Piper practiced yogic headstands during her visit in his studio, for he was beginning his own devoted yoga practice around that time. He cared deeply that people come in peace, for he himself was a profoundly peaceful and peace-loving person, forged in the crucible of war.
In a certain way Ficre was shy about his work. He loved to share it and loved to have visitors in his studio, but the marketplace was not for him. Dozens and dozens and friends in and out of the art world urged him to show and sell and begged to buy work. He was never quite ready, he mostly said, still finishing, still perfecting. It made me crazy, for I believed fervently in the beauty and power of the work and wanted him to have an art career commensurate with his talent and output. “People will know this work after I’m gone, sweetie,” he would say. He said it with a laugh, but he meant it. I don’t suggest that he knew he would leave this earth prematurely, but I do think he had faith in the long-run, and the lasting power of art, and that he also clearly knew what was his and his alone to do. He understood that ars longa, vita brevis, no matter when you die.
Having lost him, I feel grateful—awash with gratitude, actually—that he spent his time making the work, making more and more, and doing that which only he could do.
When Ficre was a child, one of his nicknames was mangia libro, “book eater,” and indeed, his hungry lifelong reading life is everywhere in his work. As new lovers talking night after night through the night, we shared the books we cherished. I was constantly amazed at the range and depth of his knowledge. Our knowledge-bases were varied, but some passions were shared, like The Diary of Anne Frank—we loved to think of ourselves as children born just three months apart across the globe from each other, reading that book as ten-year olds and being so moved by it.
Connected to his love of books and his insatiable curiosity of mind was his relationship to languages. When our children began studying Latin in school Ficre excitedly unpacked his Latin, taking infinite pleasure in running etymologies with them. He spoke seven living languages well—Tigrigyna, Amharic, Italian, English, Arabic, German, and Spanish. He could say hello and thank you in dozens of other languages (“What could be more important to know in a language besides “thank you”? he used to say) and was teaching himself Mandarin and French. His language acquisition was an emblem of the politics of colonialism and exile: when he left Eritrea as a teenager, his life as a refugee took him to Sudan, Italy, Germany, and then the states. Eritrea was for some time an Italian colony; he received a beautiful early education from Italian nuns and that was the language of extensive book study for him. Amharic, also, was a colonial language for a long, fraught period. Spanish came from many years of restaurant work, communicating intimately with the people he worked with in many kitchens. But his relationship to language also said everything about his respect for others, his sense of all of us as connected global citizens, and his constant curiosity to learn and then amalgamate different ways of thinking and being in the world. As others have noted, his paintings were very much about language and communication. There is so much language in them. I think of him as an Esperantist, someone who understood profoundly that languages are epistemologies as well as human bridges.
His musical life was also crucial to his art. Polyrhythms provide a governing logic for his paintings. He especially loved jazz and the blues. He played the Eritrean lyre-like instrument k’rar and also practiced West African drumming and kept a djembe close at hand. His music tastes were extremely varied, knowledgeable, and esoteric, and music was always his companion during his long hours in the studio. He loved the syncretism of music of the black diaspora, the complexity of polyrhythms—you see painting where many things are happening at once, in a mysterious holding together—and the simple driving, forward movement of great black music.
The life force within the space literally brought me to my knees.
The last two years of his life were radiantly productive. He worked every day in his double-width studio in Erector Square. He always had a large, wall-sized, un-stretched mural—scrolls, as he called them—in process, and in those painting especially could be seen the language logics that informed the work. He would toggle between several pieces of different scale at once: the epic, the medium-scale, and then the beautiful little palm sized canvas post-cards. He was making photo-collages of his pictures of coconuts, a long-time obsession. He worked his last day on earth and then shut the studio down early to pick the children up from school and take them to the orthodontist. Then he died at home, suddenly, out of the clear blue sky, but at home with the three of us.
When I first went into his studio a few weeks after he died, the life force within the space literally brought me to my knees. He was utterly present, but of course he was not present. He had left the studio tidy and ordered. As I began to take in what was there—the hundreds and hundreds of canvases, not to mention the photographs, multi-media pieces, short animated films, charcoal and pastel sketches, and much more. I had seen every line and mark he ever made at some point, but taking in everything together, as we have been over the last sad months, has been revelatory. He left us with his eyes on the world. He left us with an entire life’s work.
Every morning and every night I open and close my eyes to Ficre’s painting “Visitation.” It allegorizes our first meeting in the State Street studio, when I walked through the “foster kindness” door into my future. In the painting, a man and a woman meet with offerings. From the woman, scarlet red tomatoes, her own fecundity held in cupped hands at her womb. She is wearing all white: the white of Yemaya (with her blue nearby in the background), and the white of Obatala, the creator of all human bodies. The solemn brown man humbly offers an eye on a plate. That is what Ficre gave to all of us, his eyes on the world. We stand inside of him and have the privilege of seeing out as he did. The eye is also an icon, a protective evil eye that a caretaker offers for his coming family. As in so many of his paintings, he has created a spirit house.
Though the pair is meeting for the first time, they are surrounded by the images of the children they will soon have, and their sons are painted as angels, for in Ficre’s work, there are angels everywhere in landscapes where ancestors are conjured and present.
A curtain of flowers rains down over the woman’s space, illuminating her. “Visitation” has Ficre’s characteristic sense of what Amy Cappellazzo called in his work “tutti,” the unshakeable belief in beauty, in overflow, in everythingness, the bursting, indelible beauty in a world where there is so much suffering and wounding and pain, as he well knew. Derek Walcott wrote this line in another context in a poem Ficre loved, and it is what I keep hearing when I think about Ficre: “O Beauty,” Walcott wrote, “you are the light of the world!” He was, and he is.