Painting by major Ethiopian artist uncovered by Scottish art historian – in Oklahoma

Tuesday 11 June 2024

One of the last artworks by a major Ethiopian artist has been uncovered by an art historian from the University of St Andrews in Scotland during a research trip to Oklahoma.

Dr Kate Cowcher made the surprise discovery of the painting by Gebre Kristos Desta at the council offices in Lawton, Oklahoma, alongside Professor Emily Burns from the University of Oklahoma.

Gebre Kristos, as he was known, was a revered artist who was at the heart of the rich cultural scene known as the ‘Addis Spring’. He had escaped Ethiopia in 1979, after a revolution had turned violent, arriving in Oklahoma as a refugee in spring 1980, hosted by a Catholic church in Lawton.

Dr Cowcher, a lecturer in the School of Art History in St Andrews, had travelled to Lawton as part of her research into the artist’s late works for a book project on art and the Ethiopian revolution.

Dr Cowcher’s research in the archives of the Lawton local newspaper revealed articles documenting Gebre Kristos’ participation in the local art scene, including donations to charity auctions, the teaching of art classes, a major exhibition featuring 47 artworks, and a mural at a local school.

Despite this activity, the locations of artworks from Gebre Kristos’ time in Oklahoma – the last paintings he produced in a highly prolific career – remained unknown.

Dr Cowcher reached out to Professor Burns, Director of the Charles M. Russell Center for the Study of Art of the American West at the University of Oklahoma, who invited her to share her research at the University of Oklahoma, in the hope that more information might come to light.

During Dr Cowcher’s visit they travelled to Lawton, where they met with Jason Poudrier, Arts and Humanities Administrator at Lawton City Council, Jim Whiteley, Collections Manager at the Museum of the Great Plains, and Sharon Cheatwood, who had previously worked with the city’s art collection.

Dr Cowcher said: “In our meeting, Mr Poudrier shared the details of the collection, which didn’t include any works under the artist’s name. Professor Burns asked if there were any unattributed artworks and Mr Poudrier went back to the office, where he found one: a painting of luminous, kerosene lamp, with a mirror behind, the provenance of which had been lost.”

Dr Cowcher immediately recognised the style of painting and believed it to be by Gebre Kristos Desta. She continued: “Close examination of a faded signature in the lower right revealed ‘KRISTOS 1980,’ very similar to another painting by the artist from 1973. The work seemed likely to be one of the 47 pieces shown at his last exhibition.

“I then contacted colleagues in Ethiopia, including the artist Elisabeth Habte Wold, who recently worked on an augmented reality project featuring Gebre Kristos’ works from the 1960s. She messaged back immediately to say that ‘the colour and technique are his’. Another artist and curator Konjit Seyoum also agreed with the attribution, describing the find as ‘a gift.’

“I had originally planned to be in Oklahoma with Professor Bekele Mekonnen, an artist and the director of the Gebre Kristos Desta Centre at Addis Ababa University, but he had to delay his travel. When I let him know about the painting, he was excited by the find and immediately noted that the style of lamp – Fanos in Amharic – would be an object that would remind Gebre Kristos of home.”

Similar lamps are familiar in Oklahoma, and Jim Whitely produced one from the collection of the Museum of the Great Plains, which Gebre Kristos may well have seen.

Professor Mekonnen will visit University of Oklahoma and Lawton later in 2024, where he will lead conversations about how best to remember the artist in the place in which he died. There are hopes for a memorial artwork, and Professor Mekonnen will work with Oklahoma-based Ethiopian artist Eyakem Gullilat on such a project.

Professor Mekonnen said: “Gebre Kristos was a pioneer painter and poet, but we have no idea what happened to him in Oklahoma. Everybody is longing to know, which is why Kate and I had been planning to come to Lawton. Gebre Kristos is still loved by the art community, by every Ethiopian, by his home country.”

The Russell Center, led by Professor Burns, aims to schedule further events focused on Gebre Kristos’ short exile in Oklahoma, in collaboration with Dr Cowcher and the School of Art History at St Andrews.
For Professor Burns, the uncovering of Gebre Kristos’ artwork widens an understanding of the Art of the American West. Professor Burns said: “His is a pivotal human story of tenacious artistic practice amid forced migration.”

Dr Cowcher said: “Gebre Kristos died prematurely in spring 1981, and the general understanding of his time in Oklahoma is that it was beset with heartbreak. But a very different picture is now emerging of someone who, though he had clearly suffered immensely, arrived in exile and worked intensely. The Mayor warmly opened his exhibition by saying that Lawton was lucky to welcome ‘an artist of the world’.”
It is hoped that more of the 47 artworks featured in Gebre Kristos’ final exhibition will now come to light.

Dr Cowcher said: “The beautiful Fanos is the first known example. There must be many more, bought by those who attended that exhibition. These artworks are highly significant to global histories of Ethiopian and African art in the twentieth century, and, more importantly, to artist communities in Addis Ababa who, as Professor Mekonnen has said, are keen to understand what happened at the very end of the career of a much beloved modern artist.”

For now, the painting will remain in the collection of Lawton City Council, under the care of Jason Poudrier and his team.


From left: Amber and Eyakem Gulilat with their daughter; Dr Kate Cowcher; Jim Whiteley and Professor Emily Burns at the Russell Center; University of Oklahoma.

Issued by the University of St Andrews Communications Office.

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