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For over twenty-five years, Ethiopian-born artist Wosene Worke Kosrof has explored the aesthetic potential of language, using the written symbols of his native Amharic as the major compositional element In his work.

In his paintings, the calligraphic forms of Amharic are broken apart, abstracted, and reconfigured to create a new visual language that draws upon the artist's Ethiopian heritage while incorporating his experience as an expatriate living in the United States.

Wosene Worke Kosrof

Born in Ethiopia in 1950, Wosene Worke Kosrof is a contemporary artist of international acclaim. Known best for his inventive use of the Amharic script - one of the oldest in Africa - Wosene is a master translator of the human experience. His richly colored and textured paintings allow is to "see" the sounds, fragrances, rhythms, and spaces that inspire him. Through his work, Wosene takes us beyond the canvas into a personal exploration of - in his words - the "drama of human life."

Academically trained as a fine artist at the School of Fine Arts in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia (BFA) and at Howard University in Washington, DC (MFA), Wosene was among the first African contemporary artists to gain critical attention on the international art scene. However, having lived outside Ethiopia since the late 1970s, the artist draws from all the places he has called home and, as such, resists fixed and facile labels that characterize him or his art as essentially "African." It is indeed this ability to elude category, the familiar and the foreign, traditional and modernity, that has made Wosene's work compelling to such diverse international audiences.

The density and pliability of written symbols - particularly of his native Amharic - has fascinated Wosene for more than 30 years. In his hands, words become images, as he elongates, distorts, disassembles, and inverts the language symbols, composing them in color across the canvas. Discovering this tension between the visual and literal dimensions of script was a kind of epiphany for the artist and revealed to him that these language symbols are a rich repository for aesthetic and sensual expression.

A primary influence in Wosene's paintings is music: jazz - the rhythms, compositions, counterpoints, and improvisations of such artists as John Coltrane, Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, Ella Fitzgerald, or Dizzy Gillespie; and the traditional and experimental music of many older generation and contemporary Ethiopian musicians. Music underlies his paintings, animating the language symbols and emboldening his inventive use of color.

Wosene's works are included in the permanent collections of numerous museums, including the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art (DC); The Newark Museum (NJ); Neuberger Museum (NY); Indianapolis Museum of Art (IN); Birmingham Museum of Art (AL); Fowler Museum (CA); Samuel P. Harn Museum (FL); National Museum, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia; and the City Museum of Addis Ababa. His paintings are exhibited in the US and international galleries; and his works are included in many international private, public, and corporate collections.

Wosene lives in Berkeley, CA and works in his Oakland, CA studio.

Museum Collections -

Smithsonian National Museum of African Art, Washington, DC
The Newark Museum, Newark, NJ
Neuberger Museum of Art, Purchase, NY
Birmingham Museum of Art, Birmingham, AL
Indianapolis Museum of Art, Indianapolis, IN
Fowler Museum, UCLA, Los Angeles, CA
Samuel P. Harn Museum, University of Florida at Gainesville
Völkerkunde Museum, Zürich, Switzerland
National Museum, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia
City of Addis Ababa Museum, Ethiopia

Public/Corporate (Selected) -

United Nations, New York, NY
Rockefeller Collection, New York, NY
World Bank, Washington, DC
Library of Congress, Washington, DC
Bank of Hanover, Hanover, NH
University of CA Medical Center, Davis, CA
Summit Hospital, Oakland, CA
Chikamori Hospital, Kochi, Japan
Howard University, Washington, DC
Florida State University, Tallahassee, FL
University of Maryland Eastern Shore, MD
  * and many international private collections

"The symbols bring my culture to me and at the same time I recreate my culture
with the symbols, producing a unique and international visual language."

Artist's Statement:

The title of my current series, WordPlay, describes the focus of my work as a painter. For more than thirty years, I've used Amharic script as the core element in my paintings. As the first Ethiopian-born American artist to use this script - one of the few ancient written systems in Africa - I'm fascinated by the visual forms of language and what they can express in contemporary art.

Applying the symbols in my paintings, I relieve words of conventional meanings and, instead, explore their aesthetic, sensual, and visual content. Disassembled and recombined, elongated, distorted, or inverted, the language characters reveal not only innovative compositional elements, but also give new perspectives on our connection to language, on how we communicate and make meaning.

We seldom "read" script as a language and are taught, rather, to identify and respond to letters as words. Working with individual letters on canvas, I get to see them as both familiar and strange: familiar - because I know literal meanings they carry when combined; yet, strange, because I "see" how the letters standing alone or in non-word combinations present unaccustomed meanings. Filled with colors or in black and white, these symbols arouse new feelings, conjure up memories, create musical sounds, and at times even seem to emit fragrances and flavors. These new 'WordPlays' force me to question my habits of seeing and to become more "visually fluent."

Working in unconventional ways with language also affects my painting process. Since I don't pre-sketch paintings and rather have only a vague outline in my mind of what a composition will become, with each painting I have to step back from the habits of mind of how I know and see the language. I "dialogue" with the symbols as they emerge, working them up with colors and layering them with wet and dried acrylic paint. The canvas becomes an "enlivened space" with texture and depth, and the language symbols often surprise me with their unexpected transformations. My painting process is an intense interplay of intention and accident, curiosity and discovery.

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