Skunder: In Retrospect Precociously

By Solomon Deressa
  The very first one is from the London Evening News of mid-1957.
In it Skunder is quoted as having said, " Pro­fessional football would make a fine study for an artist." Of all the paintings that were on show at the Centre, the predominantly green canvas Riding Wild Beasts was perhaps the one that best typified Skunder's fascination with and felicity in handling violent but ordered move­ment.
   
  Another long article appeared in a Montelimar paper in 1959. The criticism ends on the following note: " His delicate and endearing Oiseaux de paradis is a model of composition in which his great sensitivity is confirmed. Skunder gives the material (he works on) a relief that heightens the forces of inspiration." The ingenious in­fusion of spirit into ostensibly prosaic objects was perhaps one of the most striking features of the exhibition at the Centre. The series of " illuminations," all of them done on cardboard mounted on square wooden supports; the " panels," collages on long narrow grass screens;
and parchments treated in diverse ways for varying effects; all
testified to Skunder's special feel for matter.
  The well-known art critic Count Philippe d' Arschot writing in Le Batisseur of June-July 1959:
   Like so many others at the beginning (of their career) Skunder's point of departure was a sclerosed figura-tiveness and a naturalism borrowed from the West. .. It is in fleeing this alien contribution whose mode of vision is not universal that he came across Klee . . . because Klee's endeavour is to awaken man to his dreams … If he (Skunder) tortures his heart, it is the better to trouble our consciousness on the sly.  Our consciousness is touched to the
quick by his works and we are given no occasion to escape by some easy alibi or some gimmick pulled out of the history of art or the history of criticism. Skunder's paintings struggle as do Van Gogh's Chaise . .
. Gericault's Chevaux and Sam Francis' double-intentioned ecorches.
Count Philippe, in 1959 saw in Skunder's canvases not only the young painter's future possibilities but a pro­gramme predestine.  "
Skunder seems to know that one can approach one's art according to one's desire, even if no more is attempted than to mask inecluctable reality . . . this one and only significant reality which once seen our
eyes will never again fail to recognize.
  In May 1963 when Skunder had almost completed the canvas,
pastel, gauache and pen and ink series Nourishers, Louise Atcheson
wrote the following:
Skunder's figures, painted with graphic precision and a dexterity of
line, rise vertically in totemic design, speaking to each other
sensually in a dialogue of organic force.
The very first of the Nourishers was a pastel colour drawing. In an
egg-shaped interior, forms and shapes, part animal and part human, kiss
and huddle up to other shapes that seem to have been borrowed from the
realm of inanimate matter. This "interpenetration" applied to the whole
series and continued into his other phases also, has become Skunder's
manner of spiritualizing things and revealing the reality they conceal.
To formalize the " biological interdependence " of man and the cosmos
is not only to free oneself but also to liberate the viewer of his
innate limitation—the limitation of separateness. That, I suppose, is
what the Congolese poet Tehicayo U'Tamsi (writing of Skunder's 1964
Paris exhibit) meant by " In these paintings there is an objective
intention of purity."
  Because the Paris critics were almost unanimous in their
positive appraisal of the exhibition which took place in January of
1964, at the Galerie Lambert in Paris, I think, it had to be important
to Skunder's development as an artist. It was his first one man show in
Paris and comments from established critics were bound to make a
difference. Therefore, instead of trying to recall what I then thought
and felt, I shall simply quote extensively from what I wrote at the
time.
  " To say of Skunder, or, for that matter, of any painter at all
(once he has hit on his own personal rhythm) that he is African or
Indian or Polynesian or Aztec—if the Aztecs were still here—takes us no
further than saying Hartung's works have had Central African
affinities. That he was born in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia in 1937;
that he struck up friendship with West African artists in London
between the years 1956 and 1959; that he was, during his formative
period, swept off his feet by the Bantu concept of
vital-force-residing-in-all-Being, one need not deny any more than one
need hush up that for a year or so he worked under the influence of
Paul Klee's ' magic, humour, poetry and mysticism'.
  " True, his colours (five years ago) exploded with the intensity
and directness of the equatorial sun. True, his 1963 canvases glow with
the subdued rage of a hearth covered up to last the night and come to
flames with the needs of dawn. But, is it ethnic origin for the one and
change of continent for the other that we are going to haul up for
explanation? Be that as it may, neither origin nor any other
circumstantial event would, if volunteered as explanation, be of much
help to the spec­tator of the twelve canvases that composed the Galerie
Lambert exhibit. The forms that one was called upon to contemplate, in
each case throbbed with a significance both familiar and out of reach.
Out of reach, because they represent the several facets of a reality so
thoroughly assimilated that they hover above the surface of the myriad
of daily images that we all swim in half unaware, Familiar, because
they are wrenched, or perhaps pulled up without effort, from the
nethermost of an individual's inner universe.
  " One is faced with a seeming lack of struggle, a per­petual
accomplishing, that a careless on-looker might mistakenly term
innocence.
  " In looking at the larger canvases the following must be borne in mind:
  " The African-sculpture immobility of the central figures that
indefinably seem to open on yet deeper im­mobility without, somehow,
contradicting the several graphic movements which indeed might be held
respon­sible for the immobilised harmony.
  " Eyes trained to witness objects as they are—a paint­ing hand
broken in to beckon up reality's perpetual motion, whose unrelaxing
relatedness the spectator undergoes in a state of vertigo until
deserved serenity dies into silence."
  After the exhibition at the Lambert, Skunder was invited to join
the avant-garde Phase movement in which such painters as Wildredo Lam
(whom Skunder had for a number of years admired from a distance) and
Enrico Baj participated. Five years earlier in 1959 Skunder had
exhibited at the Galerie Chirvan with Chagall, Vlamnick, Breyer and
other modern masters.
  In the later part of 1964 Skunder left Phase and for some time
worked with the founder of Surrealism, the late Andre Breton. In 1965
he was the only Ethiopian painter at the fourth Bianale de Paris. The
same year, he had the opportunity to closely collaborate with leading
black painters, writers and musicians working in Paris. In fact his
small Montrouge atelier was the group's work-shop. This collaboration
seems to have, in diverse ways, sped up his return to Ethiopia.
However, before leaving Paris he had been presented in the
international Roman avant-garde movement Manifesto Acctuale as the
youngest of all the painters chosen for the occasion. His 1966
participation in the Salon de Comparaisons was his last presentation in
Paris before taking the 'plane for Addis.

  Skunder on coming back to Ethiopia found the " sheer " quality
of light that Paris could not provide. The result, as was witnessed at
the Creative Arts Centre was more than satisfactory. Even in the more
sombre canvases these is an incandescent glow. Hold you hand over a lit
bulb in a dark room and you will see flesh lit from within—that is
precisely what Skunder does to objects. He illuminates them from within.
  Skunder uses materials, forms and images that Ethiopi­an sacred
and folk art have used for centuries. The insistence on detail, the
gossamer architectural composi­tion, the venerated central image, the
emblematic manner are all there. As in Ethiopian panel strips, the same
images are repeated from different points of view in an attempt to
force the prism to yield its mystery. Unlike the panel strips, however,
Skunder's intention is not to tell a linear story. Thus he
simultaneously breaks with and revitalises tradition.
  Skunder's paintings vibrate with a subdued violence emanating
from the tension of forces pulling in opposite directions. He makes use
of the traditional Ethiopian plastique vocabulary, yet refuses to
submit to the restrictions the traditional use of any set of images
im­plies. Also, although in these paintings spatial relations provoke a
dynamism very much akin to that which is central to African sculpture,
Skunder makes no attempt to negate the two-dimensional framework of
Ethiopian pictorial tradition.  The artist repeats neither his own
gestures nor those of ancestors. He merely makes signifi­cant moments
recur.
  The tree whose roots show the turtles that swim away from or
towards one another, the birds that so often come up are definite
images within a periphery that defines them by its relative vagueness.
Although Skunder doesn't use symbols consciously—(he says they come
forth because they were there)—the viewer cannot help charging them
with the values they have had for other artists, other peoples, other
times. What could symbolise continuity better than a tree seen from the
base roots to the tip of the still growing branches? The bird
pre­eminently stands for the " IS," for potency fulfilled. The egg has
been broken. The dark warmth has been left behind. Bird = life
actualised.
  The eagle that sits on the flat icon has its wings spread,
capable of imminent departure. And the texture, the rhythmic pattern is
still there, potentially capable of freeing yet other birds, other
images to be crystallized, were the available space not already
significantly
possessed.                                                     
 
  To beat the petrifying tendencies of a world bent on conserving
whatever wins its approbation, creative forces have to develop a genius
for perpetual motion. The artist's business is to assume ever new forms
to startle us like a restive snake in a glass jar. One anticipates
Skunder continuing to tap the Source of creation with increasing
deftness.

Skunder: His first Addis Ababa exhibition
By Professor S. Chojnacki

  In November 1966 Skunder held his first art exhibition in Addis
Ababa. It was preceded by news of his successes in Paris and on the
other side of the Atlantic. In such cases we tend to have very high
expectations, and happily we were not disappointed. Skunder's art shown
at the Creative Arts Centre was up to the most ambitious dreams. We saw
for the first time in this city an entirely new aspect of art, joyfully
refreshing, immensely in­spiring and truly original.
Skunder is at the beginning of his artistic career and certainly there
is a lot to expect from him, but already at this stage he has given
proof of his tremendous possi­bilities. Above all he has demonstrated
that his long stay abroad did not result in a simple copying of foreign
models. His art is obviously permeated by trends and achievements of
modern art; these, however, are digested and moulded into his own
style. Skunder has that rare quality of a truly great artist, he has
his own artistic personality, which, like mirrors in Japanese temples,
reflects his own thoughts, expectations and feelings.
  It is frequently said about the art of modern Ethiopians that it
should reflect the characteristics of their origin, and it is rightly
thought that there should be a sort of
continuity of achievement starting from the mediaeval or Gondarene
artists to the endeavours of modern paint­ers. In fact, several
contemporary artists tend to perpetu­ate the manner of past centuries.
Skunder is obviously not indifferent to the charm of illustrated
manuscripts or " comic strips " painted on skin (the latter seem to be
quite an innovation in Ethiopian painting, without any connection with
the great traditional art) but he has the great merit of not copying
them. He only takes them as a basis, or rather a pretext, for his
joyful jeux de lumiere. Skunder in his paintings has revealed to us the
intensity of light in the matter he treats, to a degree not previously
seen here. This luminosity, often centred in one spot of the painting,
creates such a depth of radiance in his can­vas that it is impossible
to think in categories of tradi­tional dimensions. The luminosity
escapes any measure of reality and becomes a whirl of cosmic dust, a
move­ment tout court. In this, Skunder is essentially a man of this
century, of relativity and atoms. Between his world of constant change
and the flat immovable world of mediaeval illuminators there is an
abyss. Whereas the old masters captured a petrified eternity of the
moment, Skunder captures the suspension of interrupted change.
 
  For the old roasters, colour determinated the light; for
Skunder's seemingly limitless virtuosity, darkness is also light itself. In The Clan or Lucy the dark, glowing red or amber or brown shines in the same way as on the cupolas of Byzantine churches—one would almost say that in them Skunder's Byzantine ancestry is as strong as his Ethiopian. Skunder obviously likes to play with the luminosity implicit in darkness, and he brings out of it the magic of concentrated star-light, a Milky Way of creation. Gradually from one stage of green, red, brown or blue dissolved in thousands of shining dots of atoms, he leads us in gay crescendo to explosions of radiance. In the Thin Kuta, the glowing red blended with infinitudes of blue turns into a cosmic
fall which makes me think much about the Maiestas Domini, a 16th
Century canvas at Daga Istefanos, also a poem in red and also a whirl
of cosmic movement.
  Red and brown are plainly the latest expression of Skunder's mood, well suited to his jeux de Jumiere. He
shows, nevertheless, the same mastery when he plays with green. Here luminosity seems to dissolve the matter and its gravity. In " Grave," possibly the most striking work of the whole exhibition, there is no reality at all, no starting point and no end on which the eye can rest.
The luminosity vibrates constantly like a column of light in a dark
forest in which move myriads of shining atoms. The Creative Arts Centre should be warmly congratu­lated on staging this exciting exhibition.
Even the atmosphere of the opening was quite unusual; one might think of a premiere in the art galleries of Paris or New York: the
expectations of connoisseurs were blended with cheerful competition to have " one Skunder". That the artist can count here on an enlightened and enthusiastic public is the best prospect for the future development of art. I think that the " miracle" of Skunder has greatly contributed to it. ____

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