Rivers and seas with blue water flow through the canvases of the late Eritrean-born New Haven artist Ficre Ghebreyesus, but the blues his paintings evoke have a lot more to do with a faraway civil war in Africa.
A moving retrospective and posthumous exhibition of his work fills the bright main galleries of ArtSpace with a show that runs through April 24.
Perhaps best known in town before he died as the convivial owner and chef at Cafe Adulis, which closed in 2008, Ghebreyesus was a lifelong painter as well.
His close circle knew of his work; pieces are in private collections. ArtSpace’s “Polychromasia,” curated by Key Jo Lee with texts and programs organized by his wife, Yale Professor Elizabeth Alexander, is Ghebreyesus’s first solo exhibition.
Click here to read more about the exhibition.
From his large, bright, acrylic compositions full of water, angel fish, and other kinds of sea creatures, among other inhabitants of the canvases, you get the feeling that a chef of color is at work trying this image, mixing that color, adding spice, offering this taste, then that, starting again.
It’s a tasty visual experience throughout. To my eye the dominant color is blue, though the feeling is anything but.
When I think of Asmara, Eritrea, the capital and country Ghebreyesus fled during its long and brutal war of independence, I think of desert and dark browns. However, Eritrea has a long coastline with the Red Sea, which despite the name is quite blue.
Dark, almost imperial blues flow through the center of the appropriately named “City With a River Running Through It,” a five-panel canvas work and the largest in the show.
All kinds of multicolored market, cloth, basket, alphabetical, and religious imagery thrive above and below. The river running through is also the river anchoring everything.
A less kinetic, more lacustrine blue is the substance on which a mysterious vessel floats in his “Solitary Boat Beneath a Bridge.”
One wonders if on that vessel, where no survivor is visible, the artist is inviting the viewer to join him to understand, or at least through art to try to understand, how the primitive and basic human emotion of needing to belong is complicated beyond measure and even rendered desperate, dangerous, or ultimately impossible in the life of a refugee.
Perhaps that’s why the most gripping corner of the show for me occurs when you turn a corner in the trim galleries of ArtSpace to discover the juxtaposition of that bluesy boat with the sixth stanza of W.H. Auden’s haunting poem “September 1, 1939.”
That poem became a melancholy anthem for our national feeling and was often recited at readings, memorials, and other events in the aftermath of the 2001 attack on the World Trade Center.
To see the words in stark black and white beside the joyous memories and blue yearnings of the paintings reminds you that we are all afloat on the same waters and had better learn to navigate together, or else.
The show has its opening reception from 5 to 7 p.m. on April 5. On April 19 Yusef Komunyankaa headlines an evening of poetry and reflection inspired by the exhibition