Lot 69
  • 69


40,000 - 60,000 GBP
Log in to view results
bidding is closed


  • Crossroads
  • signed (upper and lower left); signed, dated and titled (on the reverse)
  • acrylic on celotex
  • 114.3 by 114.3cm., 45 by 45in.
  • Painted 1992-1997


Acquired directly from the artist by the present owner


New York City, New York, Contemporary African Art Gallery, Skunder Boghossian, 1997  


Please note that this work is framed and has not been examined outside of its frame. Upon very close inspection there appears to be a handful of hairline cracks as well as areas of very minor loss to the paint surface. There is a further crack visible within the upper right-hand quadrant of the work, measuring approximately 10mm long. Please note that there is approximately an inch of the canvas visible along all four edges of the work. There is excess oil paint, as well as minor surface marks visible in this area, all of which appear to be contemporary to the creation of the work. Inspection under a UV light reveals no sign of restoration or repair. Overall the work appears to be in very good condition. Accretions are visible across the surface. Discoloration and staining are visible across the surface. Scratches can be seen across the surface. Cracking in the paint is evident across the surface. Loss of paint is visible in the center right quadrant. Possible tear or deep scratch is visible in the lower center quadrant.
"In response to your inquiry, we are pleased to provide you with a general report of the condition of the property described above. Since we are not professional conservators or restorers, we urge you to consult with a restorer or conservator of your choice who will be better able to provide a detailed, professional report. Prospective buyers should inspect each lot to satisfy themselves as to condition and must understand that any statement made by Sotheby's is merely a subjective, qualified opinion. Prospective buyers should also refer to any Important Notices regarding this sale, which are printed in the Sale Catalogue.

Catalogue Note

“I like porous surfaces,” Skunder had said to African-American jazz scholar Thomas Porter in 1980, “especially things that remain in sands, textures left by sneakers, tractors, a tank, things which witness their time."[1] The ‘magical scrolls’──the magnificent paintings that were made by Ethiopian debteras, a form of knowledge that Skunder believed was excluded from the disciplines of modernist thought──whose purpose is to fend off evil became Skunder’s examination of time through which knowledge gleaned from the historical past witnessed the temporal perceptions of the present. Debteras are particularly well known for their amulets in which a scroll of illuminated parchment that includes Christian and non-Christian symbols and texts──names of angels followed by symbols of evil spirits which seduce humans to sin──are scribed. People who are inflicted with illness wear these amulets around their neck to be treated from their maladies, and in some cases to protect themselves from bad spirits. In cases where the amulets are not needed, the patient looks fixedly at the scroll and enters a healing trance. For many believers in the Orthodox Church, icons of the Church are generally worshiped as instruments of miraculous intervention and as a link between the human and the divine. But for the debteras who are trained in the traditions of the Orthodox Church and who are learned church scholars who complete the same studies as priests, equally important are non-Christian practices such as astrology, scribe and fortune telling that can invoke Satan to do good or evil. It is this unique blend of the debtera religious practice that fascinated Skunder and the source of his luminous scrolls.

'Crossroads' is an archetypal representation of the debtera scroll where symbols that express the ambiguities of good and evil appear and dissolve. Richly textured, it embodies the delicate weaving of lines and the complex interlacing of symbols. The concept that Skunder indicates as kulflfu (the interlocked) or hareg (vine weaving) that is found in Ethiopian illuminated manuscripts can easily be identified in 'Crossroads'. Besides depicting Orthodox Christian symbols, 'Crossroads' also represents West African spiritual symbols such as the serpent that are identified by Skunder as jujus.[2] To this end, he imagined his fate to be predestined by the ancestors, whether it was one of the Orthodox Church or the West African juju. For him, they were one and the same, not as declaration of faith but as secular concern for a fundamental respect to African heritage.

Skunder’s fascination with the scrolls takes on a unique dimension in 'Red Snapper' where the defining features of the scrolls are ‘dancing,’ a term I take from Skunder for works that positioned the scrolls in impressions of motion and seeming transition, and where he indicates, the jujus were in perpetual celebration to the glories of the gods. And without a doubt, the iconography of 'Red Snapper’s' exquisitely embellished jewel-like depiction of four translucent scrolls signifies a sense of movement that invites the viewer to participate in the liminal space of joy. His weaving composition or kulflfu is visibly apparent with a delicate relationship to African symbols and iconographies.

Here it is important to note Skunder’s intimate relationship with music and particularly jazz. “Jazz,” says his friend, poet and art critic Solomon Deressa “is so fully assimilated into Skunder’s myths of birth, change and dissolution that to this day I cannot look at Skunder’s painting without hearing Sonny Rollins or Coltrane or Miles Davis.”[3] Indeed Skunder danced to the music as he painted. Perhaps he was dancing to the beat of jazz as he was coaxing 'Red Snapper’s' several art techniques since the image visibly signals a shifting synthesis of music and poetry that intimately encounters the debtera’s magical whims.

Certainly the scrolls completely absorbed Skunder Boghossian until the end of his life. As Solomon Deressa had said, the scrolls proved to Skunder that “surrealism is not a one-time European invention but an innate human urge, to delve into the unconscious with or without Freud and Jung. And he painted it all, not as a recapitulating explorer might, but as a native son enthralled by the poetic power of the vision of ancestors who can only be honored by being subsumed.”[4] Clearly one can relate most of Skunder’s form and style to the free play characteristic of the Surrealist Movement and of this movement that he is frequently related. However, while Skunder was interested in the Surrealists’ fixation of objects that were created or discovered by the unconscious, he was also engrossed in the objects’ political potentials.

The art of Skunder Boghossian has left a quintessential mark on African modernism. His vigorous imagery presents an absorbing and critical account of the political culture of the colonial and post-colonial eras. By positing a historical continuity of ‘Africanness’ that spreads from early civilizations of Africa to the Ethiopian Orthodox Church and its multiple expressions, he imaginatively combined two significant themes; a traditional approach of culture and its complex tie with the historical development of European art.



[1] T. Porter, Skunder Boghossian: Spaces. Exhibition Catalogue Trisolini, 1980, Gallery of Ohio University

[2] Jujus are ancestral spirits that are mainly related to West Africa religious practices

[3] S. Deressa, Skunder in Context. (1997, January-February), Ethiopian Birr, p.2

[4] Ibid, p.3

Elizabeth W. Giorgis (PhD)

Associate Professor
College of Performing and Visual Art
Modern Art Museum: Gebre Kristos Desta Center
Addis Ababa University