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Skunder Boghossian

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Alexander Boghossian
Self portrait created in 1961
Born(1937-07-22)22 July 1937
Died4 May 2003(2003-05-04) (aged 65)[1]
NationalityArmenian, Ethiopian
Known forPainting, Sculpture

Alexander "Skunder" Boghossian (July 22, 1937 – May 4, 2003) was an Ethiopian-Armenian painter and art teacher. He spent much of his life living and working in the United States.[2] He was one of the first, and by far the most acclaimed, contemporary Black artists from the African continent to gain international attention.[3]

Early life[edit]

Boghossian was born on July 22, 1937, in Addis Ababa, the capital city of Ethiopia, a year and a half after the Second Italo-Abyssinian War.[4][2] His mother, Weizero Tsedale Wolde Tekle, was Ethiopian.[2] His father, Kosrof Gorgorios Boghossian, was a colonel in the Kebur Zabagna (Imperial Bodyguard) and of Armenian descent. Boghossian also has a sister, Aster Boghossian, and a half brother, Mulugeta Kassa.[5][6]

Boghossian's father was active in the resistance against the Italian occupation and was imprisoned for seven years when Boghossian was one year old.[2][6] His mother had set up a new life apart her children and although both he and his sister Aster (Esther) visited their mother frequently, they were raised in the home of their uncle Kathig Boghassian.[5] Kathig, who was serving as the Assistant Minister of Agriculture, together with other uncles and aunts brought them up during their father's imprisonment.[5]

He attended a traditional kindergarten where he was taught the Ge'ez script.[2] In primary and secondary school, he was taught by both Ethiopian and foreign tutors and became fluent in Amharic, Armenian, English, and French.[2] He studied art informally at the Teferi Mekonnen School.[7] He also studied under Stanislaw Chojnacki, a historian of Ethiopian art and watercolor painter.[7] French Canadian philosopher and painter, Jacques Goudbet, also influenced Boghossian, allowing him to create paintings without them feeling forced.[6]

As a teenager, an African American neighbor and family friend, Larry Erskine not only gave him his first feedback on his drawings, but introduced him to jazz through Voice of America, and throughout his life jazz was often playing in the background as he worked on paintings. He claimed jazz to be "a very heavy movement of the twentieth century. It is not one person; it is not one thought, it is a combination of geniuses... the constant modulation of concepts... it is the one thing we have, black folks, as artists...".[8][6]

Personal life[edit]

Boghossian met Marily Pryce in Paris, 1964, while she was studying cinematography. They were married in Tuskegee, Alabama, Pryce's hometown, but the marriage later ended in divorce. He had two children, Aida Mariam and Edward Addisu, a sister, and four grandchildren.[1][7][9][6]

Political and cultural views[edit]

While he spent some time in Paris, Boghossian talked often about political and cultural influences, citing Frantz Fanon, Aimé Césaire, Cheikh Anta Diop and well as creative forces in modern art like Paul Klee. Less well-known painters like Gerard Sekoto introduced him to the great Cuban surrealist painter, Wifredo Lam. He also worked closely with a group of West African artists.[8]

The radical politics of Black Power and the Black Arts Movement in the United States can be seen and they seem to have inspired his paintings with coded and overt political themes, such as Black Emblem (1969), The End of the Beginning (1972), and DMZ (1975).[10] His involvement with the Black Arts Movement impacted his work in more ways than just one. His earlier paintings depended on the combination of biomorphic forms and minutely detailed abstract notations, he populated the spaces of his new work with bold, polychomatic, geometric, and "African" motifs.[10]

Style and technique[edit]

Bird Icon (1964)

Taking a look at his heritage, Ethiopia has a long tradition of wall painting in churches and of illustrated manuscripts reaching back to the eighth century. It is from this cultural fountain that once included three-fourths of Ancient Egypt, the builders of the great pyramids and the cradle of civilization, that the artist drew inspiration from.[11] He also mined his early childhood memories, Coptic markings in Biblical art, illuminated church manuscripts, and ancient scrolls to stamp iconic signatures thick and crusty, flat and smooth, on canvas, hardboard, bark cloth, aluminum or paper.[3]

When considering his art as a whole, he focused on color being used to illuminate, to create superimposed dimensions of form and shape, which in turn enables the viewer to first see the painting as a unit, then as a simultaneous breaking up of images, and finally as a recognition of the identities.[10] He wanted his viewers to look at his paintings and make up their own interpretations, all the while imagining the figures on the canvas being brought to life rather than just being placed on there. Boghossian greatly valued the importance of rhythm in his paintings.[10]

Spirituality and influences[edit]

Boghossian, like other African American artists at this time, balanced multiple cultural, spiritual, and ancestral identities. He incorporated many different religious symbols in both his life and in his work ranging from Christian, to African, to Santerian. He would often start his day sprinkling the house with St. Michael’s holy water, meditate, burn incense, and commune with the “jujus”, asking for forgiveness and blessings. He once refused to work in a studio while creating his piece for the Ethiopian embassy because an assistant began working before he could communicate with the “jujus.” His use of these faiths was not a religious one, but a secular resepecting of his ancestors, who hailed from both Armenia and Ethiopia. Using imagery from däbtära magic scrolls, he utilizes a composition he calls “quflfu,” or the “interlocked.” This is a composition of interlacing and interweaving images and textures. This composition also mirrors Ethiopian craftsmanship like baskets and the cultural dress, the tebab. Boghossian would also directly use these däbtära scrolls, scraping the original image off to leave only a shadow of what was once on it. He would then use these remaining impressions to create more vibrant works, repurposing the scrolls.[12]

Substance abuse combined with his spirituality also was the generator for many of his works. The Metamorphoses, a visualization of Franz Kafka’s, The Metamorphosis, is a perfect example of the combination of the two. Often after a drinking binge, Boghossian would create visceral, gripping works between the battle of good and evil. This is seen in The Metamorphoses with the evil spirit pulling him towards alcohol, and his good spirit urging him to stop. This conflict is a common theme in many of his works.[12]

Education and career[edit]

Boghossian won second prize at the Jubilee Anniversary Celebration of Haile Selassie I in 1954.[13] The next year he was granted a government scholarship which allowed him to travel to London to study at the Saint Martin's School of Art, Central School of Art and Design, and Slade School of Fine Art, and two years later to Paris, where he studied and taught at the Académie de la Grande Chaumière and the Ecole Nationale Supérieure des Beaux Arts. After meeting artists and likeminded individuals like Leopold Sedar Sendhor and Madelaine Rousseux, Boghossian gained enough clout to be invited to participate in the Second Congress of Negro Artists and Writers in Rome. This along with his acclaim gained from his 1964 exhibition at the Galerie Lambert earned him an invitation to become a member of the avant-garde movement, Phase, which he left shortly to work with André Breton.[6] In 1966 he returned home, teaching at Addis Ababa's School of Fine Arts until 1969. In 1970 he emigrated to the United States, first to Atlanta, where he became acquainted with the Black Arts Movement and taught at Atlanta's Center for Black Art, then he moved to Washington D.C., where he taught at Howard University from 1972 until 2001.[10][6]

Boghossian was the first contemporary African artist to have his work purchased by the Musee d’Art Moderne in Paris in 1963. In 1965, the Museum of Modern Art in New York acquired his painting Juju's Wedding (1964).[6]

In 1977, he became the first African to design a First Day Cover for a United Nations stamp.[14] He was commissioned by the World Federation of United Nations Associations.[14] His pen and ink drawing on the theme of "Combat Racism" for the cover and the accompanying stamp were issued on September 19, 1977.[14]

In 2001, Boghossian worked with Kebedech Tekleab on a commission called Nexus for the Wall of Representation at the Embassy of Ethiopia in Washington, D.C.[15] The work is an aluminum relief sculpture (365 x 1585 cm) mounted on the granite wall of the embassy.[15] Nexus includes decorative motifs, patterns and symbols from Ethiopian religious traditions including Christianity, Judaism, Islam and other indigenous spiritual practices incorporating symbolic scrolls and forms representing musical instruments, utilitarian tools, and regional flora and fauna.[15]

Most recently, Boghossian is represented in New York by the Contemporary African Art Gallery.[1]

The umbrella organization for Ethiopia's oldest secular schools is named after him, the Skunder Boghossian College of Performing and Visual Arts.


Boghossian died on May 4, 2003, at Howard University Hospital in Washington, DC. He was 65.[1]


Notable works[edit]

  • Night Flight of Dread and Delight 1964[17]
  • Axum 1967[18]
  • The End of the Beginning 1973[18]
  • African Images 1980[18]
  • Time Cycle III 1981[18]
  • The Metamorphoses 1982[18]
  • Jacob’s Ladder 1984[18]
  • Nexus 2001[18]



[10] [20] [11] [3] [9]

  1. ^ a b c d e Cotter, Holland (2003-05-18). "Skunder Boghossian, 65, Artist Who Bridged Africa and West". The New York Times. Archived from the original on 27 November 2010. Retrieved 16 October 2010.
  2. ^ a b c d e f Legesse, Selamawit (2005). "Skunderism (The Third Annual Blen Art Show)". Blen. Retrieved 16 October 2010.
  3. ^ a b c Boghossian, Alexander Skunder (10 March 2010). "Alexander Skunder Boghossian". Black Renaissance/Renaissance Noire. 10 (1): 126+.
  4. ^ Adejumobi, Saheed A. (2006). The History of Ethiopia. Greenwood Press. p. 167. ISBN 978-0-313-32273-0.
  5. ^ a b c Debela, Achamyeleh (April 2004). "A Jewel of a Painter of the 21st Century (1937-2003)". Prepared for Arts Council of the African Studies Association Conference: 13th Triennial Symposium on African Art, 04/04. Blen. Retrieved 17 October 2010.
  6. ^ a b c d e f g h i j Jegede, Dele (2009). Encyclopedia of African American Artists. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press. pp. 30–34. ISBN 978-0-313-33761-1.
  7. ^ a b c Giorgis, Elizabeth W. "Skunder Boghossian: Artist of the Universal and the Specific". Debre Hayq Ethiopian Art Gallery. Retrieved 17 October 2010.
  8. ^ a b Cobb, Charles (5 May 2003). "Ethiopia: Pioneer Artist Skunder Boghossian Dies in Washington, DC". all Africa.
  9. ^ a b c d e Barnes, Bart. "Ethiopian Artist Alexander 'Skunder' Boghossian". The Washington Post. WP Company. Retrieved 22 October 2019.
  10. ^ a b c d e f Rowell, Charles Henry (2017). "Alexander "Skunder" Boghossian". Callaloo. 40 (5): 7–9. doi:10.1353/cal.2017.0148. S2CID 198678260. ProQuest 2273753093.
  11. ^ a b Tritobia, Benjamin H. (1972). "Skunder Boghossian: A Different Magnificence". African Arts. 5 (4): 22–25. doi:10.2307/3334587. JSTOR 3334587.
  12. ^ a b c d Giorgis, Elsabet (December 2004). "Modernist Spirits: The Images of Skunder Boghossian". Journal of Ethiopian Studies. 37 (2): 139–151, 153–160. JSTOR 41966162 – via JSTOR.
  13. ^ "Alexander "Skunder" Boghossian. Ethiopian Passages: Dialogues in the Diaspora". National Museum of African Art. Retrieved 16 October 2010.
  14. ^ a b c "Alexander "Skunder" Boghossian". National Museum of African Art. Archived from the original on 27 December 2015. Retrieved 27 December 2015.
  15. ^ a b c "Nexus". National Museum of African Art. 2003. Retrieved 16 October 2010.
  16. ^ a b c d e f "Skunder Boghossian". Debre Hayq Ethiopian Art Gallery. Retrieved 16 October 2010.
  17. ^ "Skunder Boghossian, Night Flight of Dread and Delight – Smarthistory". smarthistory.org. Retrieved 2022-12-09.
  18. ^ a b c d e f g "Alexander Boghossian - 10 artworks - painting". www.wikiart.org. Retrieved 2022-12-09.
  19. ^ a b "Skunder Boghossian". Contemporary African Art Gallery. Retrieved 16 October 2010.
  20. ^ Sturgis, Ingrid (2003). "Ethiopian Passages: Contemporary Art From the Diaspora". Black Issues Book Review. 5 (5). ProQuest 217754771.