By Professor Achameleh Debela
Professor of Art & Computer Graphics
I want to tell the world that I lost a very dear friend and a brother. I hate the idea of facing the reality that he is actually no longer here — now, my miserable now. But I take solace and pride in what we shared with the short time we had for the last 50 years. After all, Yohannes Gedamu was my childhood friend. Together, as young as 16, we made plans and decided to go to the Addis Ababa School of Fine Arts. We took the two-month summer entrance course in 1963 and passed the exam, but the Director told us both we were too young and sent us back home. We cried together and later began to wait for Ato Ale Felege at the school entrance as he came to work and we prostrated, begging to be allowed to enter. We did this for several weeks (Dejtinat) but Ato Ale wanted us to go back and continue our academics. Yohannes returned to the Seventh Adventist Mission School in Akaki, but I persisted because someone had joined the 9th grade at Prince Mekonnen High School claiming to be me.
Ato Ale gave in after two months and both Yohannes and I joined the Art School (not September 18th like everybody else who had passed and joined the school that year, but some time in November 1963). We then began a five-year journey as art students. Daily, we walked to School from Merkato to Arat kilo, holding hands. We shared an innocent childhood and a wonderful five years in one of the greatest Art Schools in Africa, if not the world. It was a home away from home. We grew and matured together as young men, both as friends and as artists. We had our first joint exhibition at the Ghion Hotel. As time went on, perhaps we may have parted physically when I left to study Art in Nigeria, but whether in West Africa, Europe, or America, Yohannes Gedamu and I were never apart. While I was in Nigeria, Yohannes visited my mom, gave me updates, and helped her when she needed help. We corresponded, as good friends would, basically sharing every major happening in our lives. We wrote to each other, sometimes often and at other times after long intervals, but never stayed apart for too long. This includes a recent discussion we had on Facebook on his ailing health but his willingness to go on. I told him I was coming for a year beginning September and we were to have coffee with Belaynesh, but he could not wait, God had a different plan for him. He needed him to join the ancestors sooner than anyone expected.
His children were indeed the apples of his eyes. He loved them, he always talked about them, and I knew what a proud father he was by the way he talked about them. I want Jessica, Hanna, and Lidia to know not only was he a proud father but that he was one of Ethiopia’s greatest artist in his own right and of his own time.
Yohannes Gedamu was a dedicated disciplined painter who communicated his world view with all who can see with color, form, and texture and articulated his view in ways that only Yohannes the painter could. When he began a canvas he immersed himself in his work and, in his prolific way, he simplified complexity in symbolic lights and objects whose forms did not necessarily conform to our mundane everyday reality. His visual poetry refused a didactic interpretation but rather chose more of an interpenetrative play between the conscious and subconscious terrain, working with one composition or another. I know, that he knew that he lives through his works that would in time be more apparent and communicate more readily for generations to come.
He has always been a non-conformist both in life and in his art. As a young student at the Art school, he nearly did not graduate because he used a technique that was frowned upon by the then director. However, he survived because his favorite teacher, the late poet-painter Ato Gebre Kristos Desta, intervened. Yohannes used a rather high relief on the wall of the school a college in which he applied to sand, grog, and pebbles. This caused an outrage and his final project, a mural based on Ato Temachu, a hero from Bitwoded Endalkachew Mekonnen’s famous book, survived and Yohannes did graduate.
He was also defiant during the Mengistu Regime, which caused him to abandon his graphic design business establishment in Addis and flee to Nairobi on foot. He survived in Mombassa doing commercial art. His journey to Germany was influenced by the fact that he did not have enough time to paint and was completely tired of the hustle in Mombassa. The prospect of going to Germany was a challenge and an answer to his dream of living as an artist and learning more about art. After all, his teacher Gebre Kristos Desta was a graduate of one of the best art academies in Cologne, the Werkschule fur Bildende Kunst Und Gestaltung, but more importantly, destiny awaited. In Cologne, he met Doris, a beautiful schoolteacher, whom he married and with whom he later had three beautiful children.
He stayed and worked from a studio where he exhibited his works once or twice a year. Yohannes lived in Germany from 1980 to 1997. He then decided to go back to his beloved country Ethiopia and his beloved city of Addis Ababa and lived as a full-time studio artist. Back in Addis he worked afresh and exhibited often, always adding new works from his studio. He also exhibited abroad in Washington D.C, Durham, Winston Salem, and recently his work was part of the touring exhibition, “Continuity and Change: Three Generations of Ethiopian Artists”. In collaboration with the Goethe Institute in Addis, he was engaged in creating forums for discussions on art and roundtable discussions for his fellow Ethiopian artists. He was often seen on TV sharing his views and speaking about art. He served as a consultant, advisor to seniors, and junior art students at the Art School.
Yohannes loved life, and though life was not easy for him, he had a burst of infectious laughter and a big heart. I remember a few months back he told me how excited he was with prospective of going to Kulubi Gabriel, which has been his Mecca since his return home. He tried to never miss his yearly trip to Harar.
I know he is in a better place and would want his friends to celebrate and remember his life, his work and remember the best in him. I know he would want us to do so in spite of his untimely departure. Until we see each other, my friend, thank you for being my friend and you will never be forgotten.