Coffee The Ethiopian Ceremony (2002) expresses an ancient tradition central to people across Ethiopia and Eritrea. The coffee bean, seen painted at the bottom right corner, has been harvested since the tenth century according to oral tradition, and is still exported today. To participate in a coffee ceremony can take several hours, during which time close friends share life issues, acquaintances chat, or hospitality is extended to strangers. The ceremony itself is performed by women. First the beans are roasted, then ground, and finally brewed during a lengthy, leisurely process until the aromatic liquid is expertly poured into small cups. Across the center of the painting, there are several faces in a horizontal row ranging from dark color to light. As people of any and every hue and culture drink their coffee, they engage language to share in the communal experience. This is reiterated in the painting by an earth colored coffee pot containing diamond shapes filled with alphabet characters just below the coffee bean and to the left.
Coffee transcends place. On the one hand, Wosene stops by a coffee shop every day in Berkley. Experienced by people living outside of the Horn of Africa in diasporas, the coffee ceremony also invokes Ethiopian identity, tradition, and memory. In fact, the top half of the painting contains checkerboard designs famously found in traditional illuminated manuscripts from the Horn of Africa. In the sense that both are traditional and African, the manuscript art form complements the coffee ceremony represented in the painting.
The Card Game II depicts a card game occurring under a red roof within the domestic space of a home filled with conversation and human interaction. We see language characters lined up in horizontal rows. The top row contains the suits of the cards: spade, diamond, and heart. The phases of the sun or moon mark temporality in the top corners above the roof of the house.
In Word Game II, the artist enjoys the energy and vibrancy of Amharic as characters tumble together in exquisite layers, shapes, and sizes. Yet the artist insists that we do not need to know the Amharic language to access his art. The canvas reveals to us language as art, and also art as language. What are the possibilities of painted script, which, when combined, can create grammar, and when systematized, can facilitate communication? Color, art, alphabet sounds, and aesthetics are key to basking in the energy, dynamism, and multisensory beauty of the painting. Wosene illustrates both the simplicity and the complexity of language as visual communication.
In the painting, three red and green triangles to the left of center spell “country” or “nation.” Overall, the predominant colors of Word Game II are red, green, and yellow; the pan-African colors of the Ethiopian flag. How might alphabets orchestrate communication and community within the nation-state, as well as transnationally? This artwork can be understood as a reflection of the artist’s cross cultural identity and freedom of expression now that he lives in the United States. It may also be a memory of struggle that was involved in striving for the qualities the Ethiopian flag represents, including freedom of speech. The Red Terror was a genocide that occurred in Ethiopia on the heels of a 1974 Marxist-Leninist revolution. It forced a mass exodus as people fled to save their lives, including the artist’s own departure in 1978.
The artist signed the artworks in the bottom right corner in English and in Amharic. Wosene Worke Kosrof has exhibited internationally in shows that include Seven Stories about Modern Art in Africa at London’s Whitechapel Gallery, Ethiopian Passages: Dialogues in the Diaspora at the National Museum of African Art of the Smithsonian, Inscribing Meaning: Writing and Graphic Systems in African Art at the Fowler Museum at UCLA, and Encounters Beyond Borders: Contemporary Artists from the Horn of Africa at Ohio University, USA. Solo exhibitions have been held at the Sharjah Museum Calligraphy Biennial; Körsbärsgården Museum in Gotland, Sweden; the Newark Museum in Newark, NJ; the Mexican Heritage Plaza in CA; and the National Museum of Ethiopia, Addis Ababa.
Andrea E. Frohne (PhD)
African Art History
School of Interdisciplinary Arts
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