Despite adversity his art comes from happiness
Photographs by Dan Addison
|Ethiopian Gidey Gezahey, who works at U.Va.’s Recycling Division, paints where his brush leads, pulling images from his imagination.
By Matt Kelly
Gidey Gezahey’s brush softly scratches the canvas as he pulls red paint over ochre, some in gentle feather patterns, others in long bold strokes. He holds the brush in his left hand because his right has been crippled by shrapnel from an artillery shell.
An Ethiopian native once imprisoned in Eritrea for his art and then forced into exile, Gezahey now paints without fear in the spare bedroom of his basement apartment. His current canvas is propped against the wall on a small table, with paints and solvents crowded next to it. If the nearby stack of completed paintings is any indication, he is also prolific.
A slender man with passionate eyes and a musical accent, Gezahey paints from his imagination, following where his brush leads. His work consists of swirls of subdued color, some with realistic faces peaking out, others with shadowy figures against a bright background. He prefers to work abstractly so that each viewer can draw his or her own meaning from the painting.
“If I am worried, there will be a shadow or something” worked into the composition of the paintings, he said. “If I’m not happy, I don’t paint.”
Currently working for Facilities Management’s Recycling Division, Gezahey, 39, has not always found happiness — or painting — to be possible.
Gezahey graduated from art school in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, in 1984. Though certified to teach art, he trained as a government fire fighter to support himself. In the mid-1980s, while working as a firefighter in northern Eritrea, which was trying to secede from Ethiopia, he was injured by an artillery shell and taken into Eritrean custody. With an Ethiopian mother and Eritrean father, Gezahey was not trusted by either side. The Eritreans held him “in exile,” refusing to let him return to Ethiopia. He taught art in Eritrea, but an Eritrean official was offended by one of Gezahey’s paintings. Saying it symbolized union with Ethiopia, the official had him imprisoned.
Held from 1988 to 1992 in a desert prison, he escaped one evening at dusk, hiding in the gathering darkness, as the guards sought him out. He avoided his captors by “the power of God,” he said.
Gezahey traveled on foot to Sudan, the nearest neighboring country, where he had to avoid Eritrean sympathizers.
“You could not talk of problems, because word could get out,” he said. These tensions kept him from painting, because there was “no time or rest of mind.”
He fled Sudan on foot, walking eight days to Egypt, but was soon arrested as an illegal alien. In Egyptian custody, he was abused by Muslim prisoners because he was a Christian. Then he was deported to Sudan.
The Egyptians told him, “If you come back, we will kill you,” he said. “But I had no choice” but to return; Sudan was more dangerous.
From 1993 until 2001, when the United Nations granted Gezahey refugee status, he lived in Cairo as an illegal alien. He supported himself by painting and exhibiting his work in various Christian churches.
Gezahey, who works in acrylics, oils or watercolors, lived in a grey zone in Cairo, selling several large canvases to patrons, getting his work featured in local publications, but fearing that the police would arrest him. He did not paint with sales in mind, but was confident of his work.
“If they like it, they will buy it,” Gezahey said. “An artist must be patient.”
An artist and person “in process,” Gezahey wants to do “something big” with his painting. “I can paint a portrait if I like, but my mind wants me to do something unexpected,” he said.
He immigrated to the United States in 2003 with his wife, an Ethiopian woman he met and married in Cairo. They moved to Texas, where a local church group had sponsored them. Finding Texas too hot, they moved to Virginia in January 2004. He started working at the University that April, collecting recycling from various buildings.
Bruce “Sonny” Beale, Gezahey’s supervisor, praises his work ethic. “I’m glad we have him,” Beale said. “He’s been a tremendous help to the department.”
Gezahey likes his first real job in the United States, but he still wants to be a full-time painter.
“I am past my suffering time,” he said. “And one day God will lead me to a another job through my skills.”
He focuses his time on work and caring for his four-month-old son. He also teaches art at a local Boys and Girls Club and has judged a local art competition. He continues to paint, and had one exhibit at the Charlottesville Festival of Culture last May. He is exploring other venues for his art, too.
“Whatever you pass through, you cannot forget it,” he said, noting his paintings in Egypt were mostly done with black paint.
“But I try to do something different in a peaceful country. Now I try to do peaceful painting.” He is moving from deep blacks to lighter colors such as ochre, red and pink in his works.
While Gezahey misses his homeland, he is enjoying freedom in his adopted country: “I knew some day God would tell me to go to a free land and speak what I feel. Before I could not speak. Now I can.”