In his homeland, Skunder Boghossian was celebrated.
In fact, the Ethiopian artist was one of the most celebrated painters throughout the Horn of Africa, a winner of the Haile Selassie I Prize, the highest honor for fine arts in Ethiopia. He and his wife were the toast of the town, invited several times each month to gala affairs for ambassadors and visiting foreign dignitaries.
"We were on the list of protocol," says Boghossian. "During the week we were sampling foods from other African countries, France, America and Trinidad. Socially we were burned out."
But all that changed when Boghossian moved to the United States in 1969, the beginning of a long struggle to regain artistic recognition.
Seated amid the clutter of works in progress that fill his living room, Boghossian reflects on the obstacles faced by Ethiopian artists who came to the Washington area in the late '60s and early '70s as the Selassie government was declining.
While most of them have both a degree from Ethiopia's Addis Ababa School of Fine Arts and international exposure, their credentials have opened the doors not to national museums and exhibits, but to sparsely attended gallery and restaurant displays, he says.
"Certain artists receive more recognition but others have been neglected because of their lack of contacts," he says. "They are going through some difficult times here and abroad, which is also due to lack of funds for grants and scholarships. It has crippled the creativity of emerging talents."
Boghossian, 49, now teaches art at Howard University while he continues to try to recapture his glory days by producing such works as "Climatic Effects," a stylized, two-dimensional interpretation of ancient Ethiopian scrolls in hanging position. He uses goatskin on canvas as his painting surface.
His work has been shown in New York at the Merton Simpson Gallery; in Ibadan, Nigeria; and at the Muse'e d'Art in Paris. He was one of two Ethiopian artists in an exhibition of contemporary African art at California State University at Dominguez earlier this year, and some of his work is now traveling America -- in a show called "American Experience" -- and Europe -- in "Art Against Apartheid," a collection that participants hope will be the foundation for one of the first black museums in South Africa if the government in Pretoria changes.
Achameleh Debela, who teaches art at the University of Maryland's Eastern Shore campus, introduced contemporary Ethiopian art to the United States with an exhibition at Morgan State University in 1973. Next year, the Smithsonian's Center for African, Near Eastern and Asian Cultures opens on the Mall, and Debela hopes both traditional and contemporary Ethiopian art will find a permanent place there.
"Museums and galleries aren't as opened for Ethiopian and contemporary African art," said Debela. "We are hoping that with the building of the new $75 million facility, both forms contemporary and traditional art can be shown. Our tradition is brought into the 20th century through our art expression."
Ethiopia is the oldest Christian empire in Africa, rich in pictorial art history. Its rock-hewn monolithic churches, considered wonders of the world, are adorned in colorful ornaments, icons and illuminated religious manuscripts, such as hand-printed Geez (now the language of the church) on goatskin.
Ethiopian art mirrors the country's rich history. Most finished works reflect religious, political and daily strife in Ethiopia. Bold, almost blinding, colors strike the canvas, causing the subjects to leap from the earth-toned background of the paintings.
"We do accept new ideas," says Boghossian. "But it takes us a long time to digest it and understand why Ethiopian art needs to be changed."
Boghossian says the word "new" is an inherently American concept, adding "we are not afraid of fiery ideas, but they have to be assimilated in an Ethiopian manner."