"In the revolution in Ethiopia, dead bodies were eaten in the streets by vultures and hyenas," said Falaka Armide. "The next time the fire will destroy everthing, and there will be nothing left for the vultures to eat."
The artist was talking about one of his prints. "The Vulture," which he brought with him when he "escaped" from his native Ethiopia three months ago.
This symbolic depiction of the political conflicts all over Africa mirrors a rugged past that consistently crops up in his art.
Armide is one of an increasing number of artists from all over the world for whom Washington has recently become a haven, either by choice or for political reasons. Several new galleries devoted primarily to helping these artists have recently opened in the area.
His work turned up in one such establishment, the Elan Gallery, in the basement of the arcade of 7720 Wisconsin Ave., Bethesda.
Armide had escaped once before. As a teen-ager, he ran away from his home in Ethiopia "to see the world." In a Yemenite forest, he said he found a "friend" who turned out to be a slave trader and who sold him to a rich Saudi Arabian merchant as an "abid," or slave.
After three months of slavery he ran away again, and returned to South Yemen where he worked as a carpenter and in a photographic studio. "It was then that I became interested in art," he said, "though I had come from a family of basket-weavers."
By age 23, Armide was a student at the Fine Arts School in Addis Ababa, subsequently gaining a major reputation as a teacher and woodcut artist with exhibitions in Italy, France, Austria and Germany.
After a semester at Howard University in 1972, he returned to Addis where the revolution had begun, and he was not allowed to return to the United States.
"It was a very touch life," he said, "pointing to a messy 3-inch scar on his foot that had come from a stray byllet.
One of his good friends was fellow teacher Wossene Kosrof, a painter.
"We were being pressured by the new regime to do propaganda art," said Kosrof.
"Three months ago, we came here by getting invited to show in Kenya the nearest "safe harbor," and then from there had an invitation from the Elan Gallery."
In the back of the two-room basment space, the work of both artists show they are also accomplished craftsmen. Not surprisingly, their choice of subject matter is highly political but subtle and packs a wallop than makes much current American art seem almost effete by comparison.
Armide's virtuosity is clear in several works, most particularly a series of illustrations he made in 1968 for a book of Ethiopian folk tales published by Oxford University Press.
Wossene Kosrof, a painter of great skill and sensitivity, works on parchment and skin stretched from handcraved wooden frames that are part of the work of art. The colors, forms and calligraphy were inspired by his study of the early Coptic monuments and murals in his native Ethiopia. He used goatskin there, "because it was easier than trying to find canvas." He is now discovering that canvas is considerably easier to find in America than goatskin. The works on goatskin are by far more interesting than the few he has done on canvas, and despite their ancient look, they deal subtly and symbolically with the very contemporary problems of African poverty and starvation.
In one drawing called "Bushwoman," a woman lies dying in the forest because she has no money. "I am lost, I am useless," says the calligraphy.
In "Black Poem." painted on skin and stretched on a carved wooden frame, symbols of day and night float over a hungry African woman in patterned dress, crying out over her dead son who lies at her feet. "She is thinking about what should have been, and her dream a educating her son."
"This is my poem to say what I've seen." says Wossene Kosrof, who is more reticent to talk about his family, his father an army officer who died young and his mother who has struggled all her life to help him gain an education. He was included in an exhibition of African contemporary art in New York in 1972, and more recently, at Howard University last year.
Dr. Varghese V. Keerikatte, who runs the gallery, is an Indian-born American who, on a shoestring, founded the International Program of Human Resource Development Inc. (IPHRD), of which the gallery is a part. It is run from a windowless office in the rather humble gallery space and manages to keep going with profits from the World of Crafts Gallery upstairs at the same address - a fine shop with high-quality, wooden camel bells, textiles and clothing from all over the world.
"IPHRD is devoted to helping people by finding them work, especially artists and craftsmen," says Keerikatte.
Though Keerikatte's IPHRD Inc. invited the artists, there was no money to pay their way, and they financed themselves with sales both in Kenya and in Washington. Elan hopes to raise funds for a framing workshop which would keep these artists and others employed so they can continue to work. Meanwhile, both are doing menial jobs.
"I have great confidence that I could teach here as I did in Addis," says Armide. "I'd like to have a chance to show my skill in woodcutting."
Meanwhile, both artists will continue to be shown regularly at Elan until some downtown gallery sweeps them back into the mainstream.
Probably the largest group of artists newly arrived in Washington are the Latin Americans, some of whom are already estiblished with downtown dealers, and others of whom have been shown over the years at the Pan American Union.
Some years back, the PAU Gallery director Jose Gomez-Sicre launched the career of the now famed Mexican artist, Jose Luis Cuevas. It is fitting that the PAU's new Museum of Modern Art of Latin America should now be showing "A Backward Glance at Cuevas," through July 30.
Through drawings and prints1944 to the present, this show (in this far too little-known museum right behind PAU) gives an intimate look at the demons and fears heros and passions of this intriguing and prodigious artist. The labels give further insight, as few bother to do these days; and for those who want to learn more, there is an excellent catalogue and a free film on Tuesdays and Thursdays through July. The English version is shown at noon, the Spanish version at 12:30. Special requests are welcomed.
Also new in town this year is the Washington World Gallery at 3056 M St. in Georgetown, three floors of good space devoted to artists known and unknown from all over Latin America, usually in several simultaneous shows. Cuevas' most recent work can be found her (though it is not currently on view), along with a show of work by Latin American artists living in the United States, a Brazilian expressionist named Frazao, and Gloria Uribe, a painter from Colombia, all through August 5. Quality tends to be mixed, but for those who don't mind walking up and down stairs, the gallery is worth a visit, and guests are warmly welcomed.
The studio-gallery of American Indian sculptress Retha Gambaro, called Via Gambaro, 416-11th St. S.E. is on of the city's most charming spots for looking at art, currently "American Indian Art," which doesn't really fit into this group, but lestit go unnoticed, it is included here.
The gallery features local artists on occasion, but the current show includes work by seven staff artists who teach at the Santa Fe Institute of American Indian Art, a Bureau of Indian Affairs-funded school dedicated to the preservation, growth and development of the art of the American Indian. The school serves secondary and post-secondary students representing 80 different tribe.
This show includes paintings, sculpture and ceramics which use traditional art only as a source of inspiration. It will continue through July.