Ficre Ghebreyesus: I Believe We Are Lost
On ViewGalerie Lelong & Co.
I Believe We Are Lost
March 30–May 6, 2023
“To emigrate,” John Berger writes in And Our Faces, My Heart, Brief as Photos, “is always to dismantle the center of the world, and so to move into a lost, disoriented one of fragments.” For artist Ficre Ghebreyesus (1962–2012), who fled Eritrea during the period of Red Terror, after the country was annexed by Ethiopia, those fragments became the basis of a visual language that filled the images he made with flashes of memory from his early life and evocations of the loneliness of transience. Two dozen of his paintings and pastels make up Ficre Ghebreyesus: I Believe We Are Lost at Galerie Lelong. Most were made in the 1990s, when Ghebreyesus—who began his artistic career as a photographer and filmmaker—first turned to drawing and painting, but a small selection of later works are also included.
I have been curious about Ghebreyesus’s work since reading “Lottery Tickets,” a 2015 New Yorker essay by his widow, the writer Elizabeth Alexander, about his death at the age of fifty and her ensuing grief. I was so engrossed I missed my subway stop. In her book, The Light of the World: A Memoir, which was published later that year and from which the essay was excerpted, Alexander recounts in some of the most tender prose I have ever read the story of their life together in New Haven, where Ghebreyesus kept a studio in the house where they were also raising two boys. But starting at the end of a story is not always the best way to begin, and I worried that encountering him first through Alexander’s writing may have created for me an unrealistic expectation of Ghebreyesus’s work. I was wrong. The artist’s frank depictions of isolation, as well as the forlorn hope of a displaced person disarmed me, while his intricate compositions weaving figures, animals, vehicles, and trees within windows of shadow and light welcomed me into a world as promising as it is distressing. Ghebreyesus’s love of process is evident in thick brushstrokes of paint and smudged crayon. His enjoyment of color is infectious. In a small untitled canvas (ca. 1991–95), a diminutive trio huddles around a fire, indicated by the merest suggestion of orange paint. A watery surface behind them reflects a white splotch of moon hanging in a darkened sky. Possibly, Ghebreyesus’s figures are specific to his memories of Eritrea, or perhaps the days after he left, when he emigrated on foot to Sudan. Either way, they drew me in both visually and emotionally despite their small stature.
A series of pastels on paper from the 1990s portray the earthy landscapes and fields of Eritrea, their pastoral quiet disrupted by war. One untitled work (ca. 1990s) shows a mother running to snatch up her baby as an overhead airplane releases a cluster of bombs. In another, also untitled work (ca. 1990s) a green uniformed soldier opens fire on a woman while her child looks on. Road (ca. 1990s) in which an empty black ribbon of highway cuts horizontally across a terracotta plane, packs an especially poignant punch. Using the picture plane as a vessel of memory, the artist lays bare the devastation of military oppression and the unrelenting desolation of his migration.
I Believe We Are Lost (2002), a large painting on unstretched canvas and the titular work of the exhibition, sets monstrous forms against a cobalt background. An orange, bird-like creature seems to be devouring something while a green serpent rises from a midnight sea. The work’s deep-dive into nightmarish figuration and unspeakable horror aligns with both the paintings of the contemporary Iraqi American artist Ahmed Alsoudani and also Picasso’s Guernica (1937). Its title, taken from Erich Maria Remarque’s classic war novel All Quiet on the Western Front, posits anguish as a place from which escape is uncertain.
Ghebreyesus traveled from Sudan to Germany and Italy before arriving in the United States, eventually settling in New Haven and opening a restaurant with his brothers. He loved literature, music, and conversation. In her memoir, Alexander recounts that their marriage and family life were happy, and this suggestion of contentment is evident in later works like Five Figures with Horse Head (1999). In the kaleidoscopic picture painted in dense colors on burlap, musicians jam amid a swirl of birds, fish, an elephant, two red trucks, an open laptop, and a horse. The composition is anchored by a young man in a coral hoodie who stands at its center, just on the verge of belonging. In contrast to the austerity of Road or the trio with their fire, Five Figures with Horse Head shows a world of riches, a quilt-like image that pieces together objects and impressions of a life patinated not only with trauma but a heartfelt embrace of joy as well.