One of the major established artists of African heritage living in America, the Ethiopian-born artist Wosene has distinguished himself as being the first contemporary artist to use the script forms of his native Amharic language as a core element in his paintings and sculptures. This recognizable signature emerges from the way he elongates, distorts, dissects, and reassembles the characters of the fidäl (syllables) of Amharic, which evolved from the ancient liturgical script of Ge’ez.
Recalling that writing is the basis of civilization and is, in fact, embedded with social existence across space and time, Wosene seeks to engender new forms, histories, and intentions. Uninterested in the inscribing of literal words, Wosene creates abstract images that speak for themselves as a graphic language or visual poetry accessible to universal audiences. Painting from a place between mastery and uncertainty, Wosene’s improvisations underlie his compositions, animating them with rhythmic movements and emboldening his masterful use of color.
Now seventy, Wosene’s recollections of his mischievous childhood in the streets of Arat Kilo, a central district of Addis Ababa, inspire the creation of the work today. Recalling watching black and white Hollywood Westerns in the darkness of the city’s movie houses – their moving images and sound washing over him depicting unknown landscapes and people speaking in languages mysterious to him at the time – Wosene now creates paintings that often elicit or provoke synesthetic experiences of color, sound, feeling in the viewer. Untethered from the original linguistic, cultural, or national moorings of the syllabic characters of Amharic, Wosene recognized that these signs and patterns are ready-made abstractions and welcomes them arising in the creation of his paintings. In turn, Wosene presents us with a challenge to look into the art, feel its effect, and to watch what emerges through unique interactions. In alluding to these letter forms, Wosene unlocks a sense of infinite possibilities hidden within the alphabet.
Wosene Worke KosrofComing to Life, 2020Acrylic on linen canvas
58 x 58 in.
147.3 x 147.3 cm
Wosene Worke KosrofHeart of Dance, 2021Acrylic on linen canvas
48 x 48 in.
121.9 x 121.9 cm
I started learning Amharic script forms and syllabic sounds at the church pre-school in my neighborhood of Arat Kilo (Addis Ababa). Sitting on the mud floor and chanting their sounds, I practiced writting the forms with a stone on the roughhewn slate, with no thought of ever becoming the first artist who would use the script in contemporary fine art. But even as a small boy I was enchanted by the lines, contours, tails, and feet of the letters and quickly became aware of them all around me; street signs, buses, store windows were alive with these forms that, to me, took on a life of their own.
Born 1950 in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, Wosene Worke Kosrof trained at the city’s School of Fine Arts, completing his BFA with distinction in 1972. Emigrating to the U.S. in 1978 and enabled by a Ford Foundation Talent Scholarship, Wosene earned his MFA in 1980 at Howard University in Washington, D.C. Encouraged by his advisor, AfriCOBRA artist Jeff Donaldson, to explore his native Amharic script as an artistic idiom, Wosene was part of an initial wave of artists drawn to Howard that created new political and cultural perceptions of the diasporic nature of African art in contemporary artmaking in America. Since 1995, Wosene (his professional name) lives and works in Berkeley, California.
Over the ensuing several decades, Wosene has exhibited his work in the U.S., Europe, Asia, and Africa. Solo museum exhibitions of his work have included the Keith Haring Museum of Japan, Yamanashi, Japan (2017); Fleming Museum, U. of Vermont, Burlington, (2011); National Museum of Ethiopia, Addis Ababa (2010); Mexican Heritage Museum, San Jose, CA (2006); The Newark Museum, Newark, NJ (2004); Neuberger Museum of Art, Purchase, NY (2003); Folkens Museum Etnografiska, Stockholm, Sweden (2000); Howard University Gallery of Art, Washington, DC (1987); among others. His work has been featured in other museum exhibitions: the Kennedy Museum of Art, Ohio U., Athens, OH (2016); Hood Museum, Dartmouth College, Hanover, NH (2015); Sharjah Art Museum Calligraphy Biennial, Sharjah, UAE (2014); Cantor Museum, Stanford U., Palo Alto, CA (2013); Philadelphia Museum of Art, Philadelphia, PA (2011); Fowler Museum, UCLA, Los Angeles, CA (2009 & 2006); Smithsonian National Museum of African Art, Washington, DC (2007 & 2003); Austin Museum of Art, Austin, TX (2005); and the Whitechapel Gallery, London, England (1995), among others. Gallery exhibitions have included Skoto Gallery, New York, NY; Hoshigaoka Gallery, Kochi, Japan; Majlis Gallery, Dubai, UAE; Gallery of African Art, London, England; Stella Jones Gallery, New Orleans, LA; Loft Galeria, Puerto Vallarta, MX; Sullivan Goss Gallery, Santa Barbara, CA; Parish Gallery, Washington, DC; Bomani Gallery, San Francisco, CA; Paul Mahder Gallery, Healdsburg, CA; Lori Austin Gallery, Sebastopol, CA; and Spirits in Stone Galleries, CA, among others.
His works are held in the public collections of the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art, Washington, DC; National Museum of Ethiopia, Addis Ababa; The Newark Museum, Newark, NJ; Neuberger Museum of Art, Purchase, NY; Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Richmond, VA; Indianapolis Museum of Art, Indianapolis, IN; North Carolina Museum of Art, Raleigh/Durham, NC; Fowler Museum at UCLA, Los Angeles, CA; Völkerkunde Museum, Zürich, Switzerland; Howard University, Washington, DC; Krannert Art Museum, Champaign/Urbana, IL; United Nations, New York, NY; Library of Congress, Washington, DC; Rockefeller Collection, New York, NY; U.S. Embassy, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, and other institutional, corporate, and private collections internationally.
Recent publications include art catalogues WordPlay: The World of Wosene’s Art (Nakamura Keith Haring Collection, Yamanashi, Japan (2017), and WordPlay: The Life of Script in Paintings and Sculptures by Wosene Worke Kosrof (National Museum of Ethiopia, Addis Ababa, 2010), among others. Discussion of his work has been featured in new publications, including Pepe Karmel’s text, Abstract Art: A Global History, (2020); Richard B. Woodward, et al, The Arts of Africa: Studying and Conserving the Collection – Virginia Museum of Fine Arts (2020); and the soon to be released Phaidon publication, African Artists (2021).
Wosene Worke KosrofFishing for Words X, 2018Acrylic on linen canvas
52 x 48 in.
132.1 x 121.9 cm
Wosene Worke Kosrof: WordScapesA New Documentary by Eric Minh Swenson Filmed in the Artist's Berkeley Studio
I create a visible, interactive surface – like visual icons that are accessible to everyone. My paintings invite viewers to dialogue with them, to take them into their memory.
Wosene Worke KosrofIn the Reef, 2021Acrylic on linen canvas
24 x 40 in.
61.0 x 101.6 cm
Plan Your Visit TodayExhibition Reception With The Artist On Thursday, October 28, 2021 | 3 to 5 PM
WordScapes is installed at the Thomas Lavin Showroom at the Pacific Design Center and curated by Edward Cella; the exhibition is available for viewing Monday through Friday from 9 AM to 5 PM. Appropriate social distancing measures are required for the unvaccinated. To schedule your personal tour with Edward Cella, please email email@example.com or telephone 323 525 0053. Please visit the Contact page for more information.
Join us for the gallery's first back-in-person event with Wosene Worke Kosrof, design tastemaker and collector Thomas Lavin, and gallerist Edward Cella for an informal overview of the Wosene's newest paintings on Thursday, October 28, 2021, from 3 to 5 PM. The talk begins at 3:15 PM with a reception with the Artist to follow. Attendance is limited and please register for the event:
We're pleased to share Word Power published in the June 2020 print edition of Art & Antiques Magazine.
The elements of mystery in Kosrof's letter paintings, it has been observed, is akin to that of Dadaist poetry, in which the layout of the words on the page is as important as their meaning, if not more so..."