Ficre Ghebreyesus, “Gate to the Compound” (c.2002-07), acrylic on canvas, 11 x 14 inches (© The Estate of Ficre Ghebreyesus,  all images courtesy Galerie Lelong & Co., New York)

“Gate to the Compound” (2006) is one of the alluring paintings that welcomes viewers to Ficre Ghebreyesus: Gate to the Blue, currently on view at Galerie Lelong. In the wake of the artist’s sudden death in 2012 — and its profound impact on his wife, poet and writer Elizabeth Alexander, as detailed in her memoir — we may retroactively discern a deep sadness in the work’s luminous blues. Yet, if one bears in mind Robert Farris Thompson’s concept of the aesthetic of the cool in African diasporic visual culture, we may begin to associate these cerulean swirls and brushstrokes with serenity and power.

Ficre Ghebreyesus, “Boat” (c. 2002-07), acrylic on canvas, 14 x 18 inches (© The Estate of Ficre Ghebreyesus)

Ghebreyesus’s paintings nod to a plurality of experiences. Oceanic migration narratives are central — the artist himself fled his home country of Eritrea amid war, and references to the 19th-century Amistad ship captives, who freed themselves from their chains, abound. Emblematic of loss and revolution, such aquatic motifs also represent the quotidian ways in which communities sustain themselves through fishing and other maritime activities.

Ficre Ghebreyesus, “La Amistad” (2002), acrylic on canvas, 11 x 14 inches (© The Estate of Ficre Ghebreyesus)

Patterns which recall textiles — another central element of pan-African world-making — appear in works such as “Horizon with Interred Figures“ (2002) and “Zememesh Berhe’s Magic Garden” (2002). In ““Angel and Musician” (c. 2011), Ghebreyesus includes a representation of a krar,  an East African string instrument, which he himself played. The delicate tranquility of the paintings instills a sense of quietude, though we know from Alexander that Ghebreyesus often painted while listening to singers like Bob Marley and Fela Kuti. These vibrant paintings provide us a glimpse into the intimate worldview of an artist dedicated to representing the abundance of his surroundings.

Ficre Ghebreyesus, “Zememesh Berhe’s Magic Garden” (c. 2002), acrylic on unstretched canvas, 95 x 190 inches (© The Estate of Ficre Ghebreyesus)

Editor’s note (10/8/20, 6:51pm EDT): This article has been updated to correctly indicate the title of a work referred herein. We regret the error.

Ficre Ghebreyesus: Gate to the Blue continues through October 24 at Galerie Lelong (528 West 26th Street, Chelsea, Manhattan).

Alexandra M. Thomas is a PhD student in History of Art, African American Studies, and Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies at Yale University. Her research interests include: global modern and contemporary...