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Signs, Ciphers and Glyphs



"For me, language and written symbols have magical powers. Traditional healers, or debteras, use red and black writing and drawings of eyes on long parchment scrolls to heal or protect people from demons, sickness or the evil eye. The medicine men write their magical invocations on long parchment scrolls, which in Ethiopia we call ketab, magic scrolls." -- Wosene Worke Kosrof

The idea is hardly new, but Ethiopian-born, Berkeley-based Wosene Worke Kosrof takes the notion of art as a "visual language" to an unusually literal level. In the process, he creates canvases that recall the pictographic paintings of Swiss maestro Paul Klee, or our own Ida Kohlmeyer, filtered through the dark, rich coffee and spices of the Horn of Africa. The final images are the sorts of intriguing, exotic abstractions that one might expect from an artist whose graduation from the School of Fine Arts in Addis Ababa was presided over by Emperor Haile Selassie in 1972. But one of his most catalytic experiences came later, as a graduate student at Howard University, for that was when an influential advisor told him to "go home."

He didn't mean it literally. What he was saying was that he should create from his own experience, and for Wosene, as he is known, that meant Ethiopia and its uniquely rich culture. Unlike the more familiar sub-Saharan regions of Africa, Ethiopian cities can resemble a cross between those of Egypt and medieval Europe, and Wosene's paintings invoke the forms that architecture and calligraphy share in common. House of the Medicine Woman is a melange of jade, rose and black, with S-curves and diamond patterns set off by flashes of ivory and dissociated lunar orbs. True to their shamanic origins, these forms exist in a liminal zone, a shape-shifting space where some things seem to morph into other things. Fragments of signs or glyphs float like music notes, or pirouette into feminine body language, slithering into ambiguity whenever the eye attempts to pin them down.

Blessings of the House is no less intricate, but where Medicine Woman is as vibrant and unbounded as a street circus, House is as contained as its name. Once again, it's all circles, dots, diamonds, triangles and glyphs, but the effect is different; spaces recede even as they reveal themselves, like a house with shadowy nooks and crannies. But in Homecoming the glyphs take over almost completely in what amounts to an orderly if rough-hewn grid, a wall of signs sending distinct if cryptic signals in an alien tongue.

Yet even here, as in the other, more calligraphic works, there is a musicality about these forms, an almost dancing sense of motion, and in fact the artist cites jazz as an influence. But much of this must also go back to his mother, who had him wear magical scrolls as a child to protect him from, as he puts it, "all sorts of negative influences which she thought were all around me, including the 'eye power.'" Wosene's calligraphic paintings suggest eye power of a different, more positive sort.

Sharing the gallery walls are abstract paintings by Antonio Carreno. Like Wosene, Carreno takes his cues from his native land, in this case the Dominican Republic. Mainly, it's the Caribbean that comes through his expansive canvases, the qualities of bright sun, dark nights and vivid tropical colors. Formally, they hark to Spanish surrealism, especially the great Catalonian masters Joan Miro and Antonio Tapies. It is almost as if Miro's coiled spirals and squiggles had relaxed on a beach under the hot Dominican sun. And, like Tapies, Carreno often incorporates sand into his canvases.

Does that mean he's derivative? Not really, at least no more than anyone else. Works such as Mytho Mania and Tapestry Del Amor, compositions of cryptic markings and pulsating swatches of color, reveal a style at once more calligraphic and more luminous than we see in those earthier Europeans, as if the Caribbean's vivid sun and sand had spawned their own elemental language. While pulsating color contrasts give Carreno's works their dynamism and intrigue, a number of densely monochromatic canvases give this exhibition a, well, more densely monochromatic tone this time out. Still, Carreno and Wosene make for an intriguing mix -- an abstract calligraphic encounter where the writing is always on the wall.

This detail of Wosene Worke Kosrof's House of the Medicine Woman shows an elusive piece that gets harder to pin down the closer you look. -
  • This detail of Wosene Worke Kosrof's House of the Medicine Woman shows an elusive piece that gets harder to pin down the closer you look.

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