THE spirit of ancient Ethiopia is alive in Skunder Boghossian's exhibit, "Weathered Scrolls," at Nyangoma's Gallery through March 19. The 12 works, including eight paintings, three bark cloth embossments and the main piece, a bark cloth and parchment hanging titled "Weathered Scrolls on a Trapiz," transform the inner and outer galleries into an African marketplace of colors and vertical designs.
Traditionally, African art has been based on verticality, especially in sculpture, and the feature of this show: scrolls. "The verticality of composition comes from cultural identity. African Folk art is often in the vertical form. This concept is widely used in African art, particularly by the Dogon of Upper Volta." says Boghossian.
Although all works of art involve a tension between horizontal and vertical forces, Dogon sculpture is distinctive for its emphatic use of clearly defined vertical elements. This visual direction is used to express the Dogon design for human order.
The vertical direction and complete use of the negative space is present in all of his works on exhibit. "These scrolls are a combination of personal calligraphy and pre-Christian symbols," says Boghossian. "They have been a vehicle in design of the ancient cultures of Dahomey and Axum. They are vestiges of Indian scriptures, Middle Eastern letters and Ethiopian scrolls."
Little of Boghossian's earlier European flavors are present in this show, which highlights the artist's development of the ancient art form of the scroll. Boghossian's use of the scroll is shown from its inception, in the multimedia painting "New York City" (1978), and developed through size and color changes in "Blue Village Scrolls" (1981-82), "Green Village Scrolls" (1982), "Harvest Scrolls" (1982) and "Untitled Scrolls of the Cross and Cobalt Crescent" (1982). The final stage in the development is the main piece, "Weathered Scrolls on a Trapiz."
The two bark cloth embossments in the exhibit, "Ancient Talk" and "In Light Meant," reflect the artist's love of natural materials. "I was inspired to use bark cloth because of its fiber and strength. It lives and moves. The embossments don't say anything in particular, but are fashioned after tank tracks, or sneaker tracks. The bark cloth resembles the earth that I saw designs in." says Boghossian.
"Natural materials retain their individual properties, like the parchment and bark cloth. The parchment was used in all ancient cultures, for scrolls and the like, and I like to use it as a material because it lives, and it's natural."
"Weathered Scrolls on Trapiz," a multimedia construction of strips of parchment and bark cloth painted in acrylics, is replete with the abstract symbols ever present in his "scroll" series. "I use familiar images in the scrolls . . . huts, a priest, cameras . . . Everything can be found in those scrolls. They are vocabularies of my expression summed up over 20 years. The symbols collectively interplay with each other to form the total image."
Boghossian created "Weathered Scrolls on a Trapiz" near a bay window in his studio, using the sunlight to bring out the naturally transparent quality of the parchment. So naturally, the exhibit at Nyangoma's Gallery places it by a window for light, so the acrylics on the parchment give the effect of a stained-glass window.
"I like to create movement," says Boghossian. "The negative space creates an image, and what you see through the parchment creates another image on its own. But parchment is hard to find. Mine are 12 years old, and I liked the qualities so much I just kept them around until I found something to do with them. Now you can't find parchment anywhere.
Only one of the paintings on exhibit, besides "New York City," departs from the scroll format. "BC Platter" (1979) has some of the same symbols found in the scrolls, but in a circular form. "BC Platter means 'Before Christ' Platter, and it, especially, draws on the ancient Egyptian cartouche form. Circular and symbolic." says Boghossian.
Although Boghossian has held shows in Paris, New York, Canada, Rome and London, and is the first Ethiopian aritst to have his work purchased by the Museum of Modern Art in New York, "Weathered Scrolls" is his first solo show in Washington.
Trained in Paris at Ecole des Beaux Arts and La Grande Chaumiere, Skunder Boghossian's art falls into the school of Abstract Symbolism, but the use of scrolls as a form of communication is far from abstract. Although some of the scrolls appear to be retelling ancient Ethiopian tales, Boghossian says, "I don't attempt to deal with the traditional stories. Rather, the scrolls tell my own stories through modern symbols. When I was young in Ethiopia, I used to wear a scroll around my neck. I never knew what it said. You were never supposed to know what it said. And the same goes for my scrolls. You'll never know what they say to me, but they are ancient times reflected."