Ethiopia used to be as distant from Vermont culturally as it is geographically. In today’s small world, however, the twain do sometimes meet — such as right now in the Fleming Museum of Art’s potent show of paintings by Wosene Worke Kosrof.
The 20 or so colorful acrylics by this native Ethiopian are on loan from Burlington-based collectors Paul Herzog and Jolene Tritt. The artist himself, who goes by the single name Wosene, lived in Vermont from 1984 to 1991, during which time he taught at three colleges in the state.
Another point of connection between Wosene’s art and Vermont is more subtle but may become apparent to local viewers of these pieces, most of which were painted in the past 10 years. The museum’s intimate Wolcott Gallery, where the show is hung, vibrates with solar yellow, blood red and ripe orange — the same palette that Vermont assumes in October.
Wosene, 61, may be drawing on memories of his autumns here. But it’s more likely that he’s conjuring the equatorial sun and pulsating street scenes of his homeland, even though he has lived in the United States for the past 35 years.
A couple of Wosene’s pieces make oblique references to the political and climatic disasters of Ethiopia’s relatively recent past. “Night of the Red Sky,” for instance, is said in a wall text to be a commentary on the Red Terror, the campaign of killings that accompanied a communist takeover of the country in the 1970s. Without that curatorial prompt, Vermont viewers would almost certainly miss the painting’s subtext. And were it not for another mini-exegesis hanging alongside “Witness,” uninitiated viewers might have trouble interpreting this large-scale painting as a response to Ethiopia’s drought and famine of the 1980s.
Both these compositions succeed aesthetically, however. “Night of the Red Sky” includes a thick painted border at the top of the canvas and horizontal bands of hieroglyphs and geometric forms, both typical components of Wosene’s work. “Witness” stands out because of its restrained arrangement and sere palette, accentuated by the addition of sand from a beach in Maine.
These two pieces, like all the others in the show, feature gestural improvisations on letters in the Amharic alphabet, one of Africa’s few ancient writing systems. “I relieve words of their conventional meanings and instead explore their aesthetic, sensual and visual content,” Wosene explains on his website. These deconstructions and recombinations enable him to see individual Amharic characters as “both familiar and strange,” the artist adds.
In focusing on the craft of writing, Wosene isolates and explores its metaphysical dimensions. As French scholar Jacques Mercier suggests in the catalog for a 2001 Ethiopian exhibit at Baltimore’s Walters Art Museum, the letters of the Amharic alphabet “were endowed with a significance that was integrally linked to the creation of the universe.”
In a similar vein, a few American modern artists have used numbers in their works. Jasper Johns, for example, gave single digits multiple representations, while a Robert Indiana piece, included in the Fleming’s contemporaneous show, “Systems in Art,” riffs on the numeral 6.
Wosene’s work calls to mind other artists, as well. He frequently incorporates African masks into pictorial patterns similar to those in Wilfredo Lam’s depictions of Afro-Cuban spirits. Wosene’s “Wisdom of the Ancestors,” which makes use of the textile motifs of Congo’s Kuba people, demonstrates reciprocal influences involving Swiss modernist Paul Klee. Some of the shapes and designs in this Wosene piece resemble certain canvases by Klee, who, in turn, drew inspiration from Kuba cloth.
African American influences can also be seen in Wosene’s work. One of the most explicit examples is “Quilt of Memory,” a small, acrylic-on-linen piece hung at the entrance to the show. Here the artist integrates his Amharic abstractions into a brightly colored and layered collage resembling something that might have been made by black quilters in the coastal Deep South, where connections to Africa live on.
“Wisdom of the Ancestors” points to Wosene’s occasionally pan-African scope, as does “Diary of the Healer,” which includes a fetish figure with nails driven into it — a magic symbol associated more with west or central Africa than with Ethiopia in the east.
But there’s plenty of magic in Ethiopia’s visual-arts tradition, in which Wosene is firmly rooted. The big, staring eyes found in many of his paintings also appear, in more figurative form, in the Christian iconography that is probably the genre of Ethiopian art most familiar to Westerners. Eyes likewise abound in that country’s talismanic art, indicating vigilance and defense against evil. Magic scrolls perform a similar function in the culture’s spiritual customs, which Wosene evokes in his renderings of text fragments.
The show achieves an overall effect similar to what Wosene seeks to evoke in his manipulations of Amharic lettering. For Vermont visitors, the exhibit is likely to prove both surprisingly familiar and wonderfully strange.