Lemma Guya

Lemma Guya a Life in the Arts

Lemma Guya Gemeda is noted for his realistic portrayal of Ethiopian figures through portraits. Despite this notoriety, he began his career in an unlikely manner. EBR’s adjunct writer Meseret Mamo visited his gallery, African Arts and Training Museum, in his hometown of Bishouftu and spoke with the illustrious painter to learn about his artistic trajectory.

Ethiopia has a long, rich history of visual art, encompassing both religious and secular traditions. Both of which have been central to documenting the country’s history and culture. Lemma Guya, 82, is among the elite Ethiopian painters that are trying their best to transfer cultural values to subsequent generations, especially in the tradition of portraiture, which is a particularly important medium to capture the country’s history.
Currently, Lemma lives in Bishoftu, his hometown, which is located 47km southeast of Addis Ababa. His compound is a testament to his passion for art, featuring a number of works of differing styles. Some are drawn on goatskin, others on canvas, but a realism painting of different personalities dominates all art works that are displayed.
Lemma was born in 1929 in a village in Ada’a Liben Woreda in East Shoa Zone of the State of Oromia. Born to a peasant family, he was a shepherd in his youth. Though he is known for his drawings initially Lemma’s heart was inclined to flying an airplane. “The first plane in Ethiopia landed by accident in my home town near to my parent’s house while I was a nine month baby; and this story is told in the town as an adventure for many years,” he says.
The second experience that influenced Lemma towards flying airplane was the Italian invasion of Ethiopia in 1935 and the subsequent attack of his hometown. “They came in small airplanes and threw bombs in the areas,” he recalls. “So, when the Ethiopian Air Force was established I joined to fulfil my dream.”
Lemma joined the Air Force in 1943. He says his most memorable experience at the Air Force was when he participated in the first coup d’état attempt in Ethiopia which took place on December 13, 1960 to overthrow Emperor Haile Selassie and the story how he escaped from the sentence of punishment by hanging.
“Late at night, covering my face, I went to the Palace and told the guard that I have an important massage for the Emperor and they let me in. Then when I met his Majesty, I told him I was sorry to participate in the coup d’état attempt and that I took part because someone blackmailed me. So, I asked for his forgiveness,” Lemma remembers. “After a long advice and a warning I was forgiven.”
Lemma was famous in the Emperor’s eyes not because of his job in the Air Force; rather, he was revered for his artistic works. While he was in school and later in the Air Force Academy, he developed his art skills, compelled in part for his national pride and desire to document its culture and history through art. When he graduated and was sent to Asmara, the Air Force’s second base at the time, to teach students of the army, he got an opportunity to meet with two Italians who later taught him about drawing portraits and landscapes.
Lemma, who loves to do portraits, managed to draw the Emperor’s and Princess Tenagnework’s portrait and gave both to them as a present. However, his first drawing in ink was about the Emperor crossing his hometown in a car. It was drawn in 1946 on 50-square centimetre canvas. “This is the first drawing I remember,” says Lemma. “I also made a portrait of all rulers of Ethiopia from Emperor Tewodros II to the late Prime Minister Meles Zenawi.”
Lemma is especially known for his portraits of the nation’s leaders, which is generally regarded as a key aspect in documenting a nation’s history. According to the Annenberg Learner, an on-line resource for arts education, “portraits are complex constructions of identity that serve a range of functions from expressing power and declaring status to making larger statements about society at a given point in history.”
Throughout the years, the different governments have awarded Lemma for his distinguished works. For the portraits of the Emperor and his daughter, he was awarded a 10,000 square metre plot of land. In another plot he received from the Emperor, Lemma built a house that he gave to the government to serve as a public library. “It was the first public library in Debre Zeyit,” he speaks about it proudly. “However, it is now half demolished and no longer provides services.”
Lemma held his first solo exhibition in 1951 while he was in Asmera. He is still working and recently received a Diploma, a gold medal and financial award for making 45 drawings, which show different nations and nationalities of Ethiopia by the current government of Ethiopia
Though Lemma follows a realistic style, he told EBR that he sometimes uses symbolic representations to make a political and social statement. This is especially true of one work entitled ‘Quanta’, which means dried meat. He made it 40 years ago during the Dergue regime. “The ‘quanta’ is the resource and the cats are government and foreign forces. The cats are entitled to catch rats, but while the rats are under the bed, standing on a bed the cats stretches out to reach the quanta,” Lemma explains what this specific drawing means. “I am not a politician; I was but am no longer. However, I never stopped telling officials what I think is right.”
Lemma’s ideas don’t just take form in artistic representation; they also manifest through artistic medium. During the Dergue regime, when painting materials were expensive, Lemma started using goatskin as a canvas. In order to duplicate difficult-to-acquire colours at the time, he started using unshaved goatskins, which were black, white or brown.
While serving a functional purpose, the usage of goatskin allowed him to continue producing art during an economically and politically tumultuous time – a method that’s become his signature. “Tanned skins of cattle traditionally used as a writing material and I began to use it without removing the hair from the skin, which is black, white or brown as a colour input to my works,’ he says. “Eventually, I began to master it and now I heard my African students are naming the skill after my name. They call it Lemmaism.”
It is a recent phenomenon seeing of portraits on unshaved goatskin throughout the country, especially in souvenir shops in Addis Ababa. Yonas Hailu, who teaches art history at Addis Ababa University also noticed the trend and believes the artist has his personal uniqueness that he developed through experience, which influenced many artists. “However, I believe other criteria must be met for a certain method of painting to be called a painting style,” he argues. “Drawing a portrait using unshaved goat skin is the artist’s signature to the art but it is just personal style that can be considered as a signature.”
While goatskin might be his signature, painting isn’t, as many of his family members have taken on the form, continuing Lemma’s legacy. Two of his brothers, Tulu and Assefa as well as all of his children: Netsanet, Selamawit, Tiegist, Dereje and Dawit are painters. With the exception of Tiegist all depend on painting for living. “I never tried to influence any of them,” he told EBR. “It was their decision.”
According to the individual citation prepared by Jimma University, which awarded Lemma an honorary doctorate on July 04, 20 15, the artist’s paintings have been exhibited and sold successfully in the United States, Sweden, United Kingdom, Nigeria, Kenya and Senegal -winning him numerous prizes and awards. He is also the author of a book entitled, “Teaching Yourself Art”.
Still, Lemma believes more should be done to promote art education in Ethiopia, especially painting portraiture. This, he believes, will help document the country’s culture and history – whether it is national leaders, citizens or landscape. EBR


5th Year • January 16 2017 – February 15 2017 • No. 47

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