Sunday, January 30, 2022

Skunder Boghossian

Alexander “Skunder” Boghossian (1937-2003) had an interesting, wandering life. He was born in Addis Ababa in 1937 to an Ethiopian mother and an Armenian father. (There is an ancient connection between Ethiopia and Armenia, solidified by trade and religious ties, which is why the medieval and early modern art from the two places looks similar.)

Above is The End of the Beginning, 1972. Most of these works were either untitled, or I couldn't find a title; it seems they all date to the 1960s or early 1970s.

Boghossian showed artistic talent from an early age; in 1954 he won a prize in a contest staged as part of a jubilee celebration for Emperor Haile Selassie. He learned to read in the Amharic script and his early work was very much within the old Ethiopian tradition. 

He attended an elite high school where he learned English and French and was exposed to contemporary western art. An African American neighbor introduced him to jazz, which he loved for the rest of his life. He thought jazz was a wonderful expression of the communal spirit of Africa, uniting Black people worldwide, and he often had jazz music playing when he painted.

In 1965 he received a scholarship from the Ethiopian government to study in London. He then moved to Paris, where he taught at the Académie de la Grande Chaumière. In 1966 he returned to Ethiopia, but then in 1970 he moved to the United States, where he became an "Extraordinary Professor" (not there's a title!) at Howard University in Washington, DC.

Boghossian was from the generation that came of age with African independence, and in his writing he often invoked the themes of African solidarity, anti-colonialism, and Black power. But he, like so many others of that same generation, ended up living in that west. Reading online biographies of these people I often wonder what motivated them to give up lives as African artistic celebrities for sometimes rather mundane lives in Paris, London, or the US, working as professors or bureaucrats. Did they fall afoul of the regimes that emerged from post-independence turmoil? Or did the reality of African life, even for the elite, fall so far short of what they dreamed during their independence struggles that it did not seem worth it to stay home for work for a better Africa?

What fascinates me about artists like Boghossian is the range of influences you can see in their painting. Consider Night Flight of Dread and Delight (1964), the painting that drew me to Boghossian in the first place. In this work I see traditional Ethiopian or Armenian sensibilities, especially in the way the canvas is divided into a heavenly realm and an earthly one, separated by a stark line. I see modernist technique. But the main thing I see is an evocation of Goya's The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters (1790s). 

This, to me is the best thing about the creative side of the modern world – the way cross-fertilization of cultures and traditions has birthed hybrids of every description. We have musical fusions like Jazz, Reggae, and African heavy metal. We have artistic explorations of African imagery by Europeans and European imagery by Africans. We have Korean boy bands and Japanese Anime. We have Balkan rap, Taiwanese rap, Mexican rap. We have thriving cinematic traditions in Japan, Brazil, India and Nigeria that grew out of western film but have gone off on their own paths. We also have many other artists who continue to work within old regional traditions, whether that means Japanese woodblock prints, Romantic symphonies, Balinese dance, or west African mask carving; in fact many of these traditions are now sustained by the interest of outsiders. No one in history has been able to see as much as we can see, or learn as much about the world as we can learn. 

We have certainly paid a high price for our modern world, so we might as well celebrate what is great about it.

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