Wosene Worke Kosrof and Jazz
'If you’ve got the feeling and if you’ve got the beat, you can play jazz on anything.'
I was flipping through my old LPs and that quote popped out at me from a liner note. This idea of the beat, for an artist, is the foundation of everything – the rhythm behind life, culture and language. In the context of Wosene, that pulse is inherent in every work he makes. He’s got the feeling, and he’s got the beat: Wosene riffs off it, works patterns in and out of it, slows it down and often shatters it.
To this writer’s eye, Wosene’s work is both about language, and is language. As he puts it, each painting is a story but the writing is “distorted, an exaggeration, until the writing becomes air, like a wind turning things around.” To engage with his work is to reflect on what language is in all its components – his paintings invite us to consider the optical aspects of written language as well as the intangible, the inchoate.
His visual notations emerge from his native Ethiopian tongue of Amharic, spoken by almost 25 million worldwide and barely translatable in any agreed sense into written English. But for Wosene words are more than just pods of meanings that form a sentence. The graphic curves and serifs that define the characters of Amharic in script are the “matter” with which he communicates in paint, and for Wosene their positions on the canvas, emerging and descending into fields of color and gestures, are of more value than specific definitions.
While some cultures consider Amharic as somewhat encrypted by religion, Wosene sees this code as strictly non-denominational. These forms are traces of memory, evolved and developed in his practice over decades and decades until they’re like a palimpsest. These “remembered” systems of his Ethiopian youth are filtered strongly by his expatriate status. Wosene has been in the U.S. for more than forty years, most currently in Berkeley, California, and this latest work in particular seems to manifest a traveled and varied life where inspiration arrives from myriad directions.
In the end, the implied musical improvisation in Wosene’s compositions make up yet another layer of this matrix of language, with each “note” interacting with the next in an Archie Shepp- like blast of spontaneous rhythm. And, like all great veteran improvisers, Wosene balances freedom with structure, benefitting naturally from the mastery acquired from 50 years of doing it. His paintings are a jam session of immense proportions.