Alexander Skunder Boghossian

Article Bio Projects
emigration, spirituality
Visual Arts (graphic, painting)
Africa, Eastern, America, North
Ethiopia, United States of America
created on:
June 29, 2003
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Night flight of dread and delight

Born in 1937 Skunder Boghossian was one of Ethiopia´s most outstanding artists. After studying in London and Paris, he spent only three years in Ethiopia, in teaching at the Fine Arts School of Addis Abeba, but influenced art there over the last three decades and was followed by several Ethiopian students to Howard University in Washington D.C., where he taught after 1974. His pictures are mainly mystical and religious, made with a variety of techniques and materials, like mixed media, oils, reliefs, brush and ink, and are notable for their rich ornamentation, expressiveness and hallucinatory effect. Influenced by symbolism and surrealism, they have absorbed European and African elements into a new style. Skunder Boghassian died in Washington in 2003.
The picture ´Night Flight of Dread and Delight´ (1964) shows two demons or dream-figures merging partly into the background. The rear figure has no hands or feet but a rather human bottom, owlish eyes and beak, two horns or bushes of hair from the ears, extended members and a flat body against a richly ornamented background; and the other figure has a cat´s face and a body long, round and bent like an insect´s with spinning wings. Both are flying at night over a translucent plain with many dots and ornaments under a sky strewn with stars and two orbs like eyes. The picture is mainly grey, brown and silver with hints of turquoise and coral and seems to bear the influence of European symbolism. The rich ornamentation recalls works by the French symbolist Odilon Redon and even by the Austrian Gustav Klimt and was painted while Skunder Boghassian was living in Paris. There he saw works by Paul Klee, Wilfredo Lam and Roberto Matta, who added their influence to his Coptic repertoire.

´Jacob’s Ladder´ in a mixed technique on paper recalls Jacob in the Old Testament in Bethel, where ´he dreamed of a ladder reaching from the earth to the sky, with God´s angels flitting up and down,´ as it is written in the first book of Moses. In this dream God appears, promising Jacob land, numerous offspring and his protection, but Skunder Boghassian´s shows the ladder with neither Jacob nor angels but only two scrolls/toras attached. The scene is mainly greyish and, owing to Skunder Boghassian´s way of organising space through innumerable points and ornaments, looks supernatural and cosmic. Though little more than a ladder is shown, the atmosphere is miraculous.

Besides painting and drawing, Skunder Boghassian also made sculpture. The aluminium relief ´Nexus´ (2001) was made together with the Ethiopian artist Kebedech Tekleab for the Ethiopian Embassy in Washington D.C., where it was mounted on a granite wall round the compound. The relief consists of two lengthy rhombs, consisting in turn of several geometrical units arranged symmetrically to the left and right of a circular object. On it there are decorative motifs, typical musical instruments and flora and fauna, and various patterns and symbols from Christian, Jewish, Islamic and other spiritual traditions found in Ethiopia. In effect the work is a compendium of Ethiopian nature and nurture and blends traditional and modern aesthetic canons.

(Translated by Phil Stanway)
Author: Petra Stegmann


Alexander Skunder Boghassian was born in 1937 as the son of an Ethiopian mother and an Armenian father in Addis Abeba then went with a grant from the Ethiopian government to London in 1955, where he studied at St. Martin´s School of Art, the Central School of Art and Design, and the Slade School of Fine Art. In 1957 he moved to Paris, where he studied and taught at the École national supérieure des Beaux-Arts and the Académie de la grande Chaumière till 1966, when he went back to Ethiopia and taught for three years at the Fine Arts School in Addis Abeba. He then became extraordinary professor for painting at Howard University in Washington D.C., to which he was followed by some of his Ethiopian students, but from 2000 on, he again devoted himself wholly to painting.

In 1984 he was handed the Certificate of Appreciation of the United Nations´ Special Committee against Apartheid by the mayor of the District of Columbia, Marion Barry.

Skunder Boghassian is one of Africa´s best-known modern artists, and his works continue to be shown at many international exhibitions. He was the first Ethiopian artist to have his works bought by the Musée d´Art moderne de la Ville de Paris and the Museum of Modern Art in New York, and a set of his works was bought by the Smithsonian Institution in 1992.

Skunder Boghassian died on the 4th of May 2003 at the age of 65 in Washington D.C.


This artist took part in the following project(s) organized/funded by the partner institutions.

The Short Century

Independence and Liberation Movements in Africa

(18 May 01 - 29 July 01)