A new exhibit at Artspace pays tribute to the colorful work of Ficre Ghebreyesus ART ’02, the late artist and New Haven restaurateur.
“Ficre Ghebreyesus: Polychromasia,” a collection of 28 of Ghebreyesus’ later paintings, opened at Artspace New Haven on Saturday. Well-known in New Haven as the co-owner of Caffé Adulis, a celebrated local restaurant featuring innovative Eritrean cuisine, Ghebreyesus lived in the Elm City for nearly 30 years before his sudden death in spring of 2012. Although he had long resided in an Erector Square studio in Fair Haven, Ghebreyesus rarely presented his work publicly, preferring to focus his attention on the creation of art itself, Artspace gallery associate Caleb Hendrickson DIV ’13 said. Key Jo Lee GRD ’15 organized the current exhibition, which represents just a small sampling of Ghebreyesus’ prolific body of work — estimated to number around 800 pieces — and an introduction to his varied, eclectic style.
“He had unusual exposure to an incredibly wide range of influences, and he had the artistic temperament to take it all in,” said Ghebreyesus’ wife Elizabeth Alexander ’84, 2009 inaugural poet and chair of Yale’s African American Studies Department.
Lee, one of Alexander’s graduate students, undertook the task of cataloguing Ghebreyesus’ extensive collection of work last September. Working with Connecticut-based photographer Christopher Gardner, she has documented 715 of the paintings from his studio and storage unit, though she pointed out that this figure does not include works that are in private collections or owned by Ghebreyesus’ family.
Prior to his move to the United States, Ghebreyesus had left his birth country of Eritrea and sought refuge in Sudan, Italy and Germany. He spoke eight languages, Alexander said, adding that she would characterize him as a “world artist” rather than an African-American artist.
“Sometimes when the work is of an artist who is not necessarily from the U.S., the work can get trapped in a particular geography,” Lee said. “What I love about [Ghebreyesus] is that he didn’t sign or date a lot of things — he wasn’t interested in having his work be nailed down to a particular time frame or history.”
Alexander met Ghebreyesus in 1996, when the Yale School of Drama was staging her play “Diva Studies.” Ghebreyesus and his brother, Gideon, hosted a party at Caffé Adulis in celebration of the show’s opening night. Alexander was still living in Chicago at the time, and she joked that once she and Ghebreyesus met properly, she “didn’t really go back.” Over the course of their marriage, she said the two also shared a strong artistic relationship, as her husband was always the first person with whom she shared her poems.
“We were both always talking about how to make space for one another’s work,” Alexander said. “Our faith in each other’s art was absolute.”
On April 19, Alexander will host a poetry reading at the Artspace gallery featuring writers including Hettie Jones and Pulitzer Prize-winner Yusef Komunyakaa, who were friends of Ghebreyesus and admired his work. Lee said text is a constant theme in many of Ghebreyesus’ paintings, as he often made references to poets who informed the gestures and markings, themselves reminiscent of words, that figured in his art.
Artspace Executive Director Helen Kauder noted that many New Haven residents will be attracted to the exhibit because of their fondness for Caffé Adulis, which she said was a favorite among city locals. The restaurant featured Eritrean cuisine mixed with culinary influences from around the world, counting among its regulars New York Times food critic R.W. Apple Jr. and history of art professor Robert Farris “Master T” Thompson.
Hanna Calcagni, of Cheshire, Conn., said she went to the exhibit as a show of support for the late restaurant owner and was impressed by the vibrance of his collection.
“The paintings are like a kaleidoscope,” Calcagni said, remarking that just like the food at Caffé Adulis, they hearkened back to Ghebreyesus’ diverse roots.
The exhibit will run through April 24.
Correction: April 2
A previous version of this article misspelled the name of Hanna Calcagni.