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Any Ethiopian artist whose family name is Selassie may be almost certain to have notions of grandeur and entitlement, but Yisehak Fikre Selassie is not one of them.
Yisehak’s childhood resembles a movie script: He is the great-grandson of Emperor Haile Selassie, who was killed in a Marxist coup along with Yisehak’s parents in a 1974 bloodbath. While Ethiopia writhed in turmoil and terror, missionaries plotted a successful escape route to Europe for all 10 of the emperor’s great-grandchildren. Yisehak was only 11 years old, and his rescue was covered in the international press, including “Good Morning America” and Time Magazine.
Mourning the loss of their Emperor, thousands of Jamaican-Africans swelled the Rastafarian religion, appointing Haile Selassie their Messiah and expecting a New Jerusalem and future Golden Age of peace in Ethiopia.
It’s a hard act to follow, but Yisehak’s strong Christian faith has kept him from joining the ancestor worship. He thanks his grandmother the Princess Wolete-Israel Seyum for that and for the love of art, which she seeded in her family.
Curiously, Emperor Selassie himself openly worshiped Christ in the Coptic Church and in exile, pleading with his devotees, “I am a man like you, not a god!”
Recovering from dangers and trauma of Ethiopia, Yisehak is grateful to live in the U.S., where he is free to worship, express himself and follow his conscience. Acknowledging that his escape was truly miraculous, he’s learned to rely on God and to see this entire earth as a transitional home. But aren’t all Christians really expatriates at heart?
Yisehak’s work reflects equal parts loyalty for Ethiopia and love for the church. He describes his art as being very biblical in theme, with a Middle Eastern feel to it. Not conventionally representational, he’s hard to peg. While attending the Rhode Island School of Design and in his travels, he encountered many styles and periods of art, which are often reflected in his work as it progresses. Yisehak also studied with Italian masters after he finished school.
Surrealism, pop art, geometric abstraction, Renaissance and other styles are evident in a review of his work over a few decades. He may use a Cubist background with a hard edged and modern, realist foreground such as in “Sky light” – and somehow it all works. Many of Yisehak’s pieces are unique in their look, and it’s highly unlikely you’ll see something similar in your next art show.
Others are simple, with Coptic-style outlines such as in his “Be Live.” Here an illuminated and haloed Jesus almost stares down the viewer in a rigidly orthodox yet confrontational manner. His face is identical to the shroud and the religious icons that stretch from Siberia to Africa.
In “Betel” a Renaissance woman who looks lifted from Botticelli gets a makeover with primary colors, screen effects and a few Rosenquist-style lines and obscurations. Almost pop-art, it’s more subtle and coyly attractive.
Generally Yisehak works in acrylic, pastels and oils and occasionally with papier-mâché, bronze or other sculpting materials. Evoking ancient Coptic religious paintings is his “Engidaw,” with the bowed figure of a saint in a setting of extremely simplified African design on wood. Old Ethiopian Bibles were often bound with wood covers and colorfully illustrated.
Yisehak describes his work as conveying “beyond reality” into the spiritual, the realm of faith.
He quotes from Hebrews: “Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen … by hearing, and hearing by the Word of God.”
This is the source of his inspiration, guiding principle and creative force, the “Spirit of God” alive within him.
It’s interesting that Yisehaks’ praise is targeted toward his grandmother Princess Wolete-Israel, rather than the revered Haile Selassie. He claims his inspiration comes from her not only in art but as a spiritual example. After she was widowed and alone, the princess spent her life serving the poor and sick as well as making art she donated to churches. He remembers her as living “the life God would have us live.”
Princess Wolete-Israel influences Yisehak even now as he shares his process of art making. Starting with sketches or compositions he stops and asks God, “What is this, Lord?” waiting for answer or an idea before he finishes the work.
His painting “Shield of Faith” had to be the offspring of one of those sessions with God.
I loved this painting for many reasons. Its evocative shield is rimmed with Bible verses and characters as well as mysterious, shadowy figures, tiling and an atlas. The composition is excellent, with dramatic contrast in some areas and others delicately, subtlety marked. Yisehak skillfully merges everything from what appears to be a medieval castle, an op-art 3-D labyrinth and soft-edged drawings. Once again he seems to make it all work, but I’m not certain how. (Don’t miss the Ichthys ringing the warrior’s right eye).
Events in Ethiopia still concern Yisehak, even as he raises a family in northern California. He participates in the Ethiopian Arts Forum and has curated and organized several events with expatriate musicians and artists as well as participated in international shows in Paris and Ethiopia. Volunteering at his daughter’s school fulfills an obligation he feels to give back to the community that opened their arms to him years ago.
Yisehak’s philosophy for art-making is simple: “waiting on God and seeking his direction.”
Being this forthright and open in his faith brings some rejection, as it does in all professions. He speaks of viewers who “walk away” once they realize the subject and message in his paintings. But someone who lived with bodies and grenade launchers in the streets isn’t distraught over a little criticism. Yisehak hopes his work creates a desire in viewers to meet the God who motivates and protects him, Jesus Christ, AKA Lion of Judah.
Currently Yisehak Selassie is represented by the prestigious White Stone Gallery, Philadelphia, Pa., which specializes in high quality Christian themed art or works by Christian artists: YisehakFineArts.com (thanks to Tegan Bronza @ Prism Magazine).