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Alphabet by Jasper Johns
Alphabet by Jasper Johns
Dam by Robert Rauschenberg
Dam by Robert Rauschenberg

Written language not only is used to communicate among us and share ideas, but it is also used as an artistic expression in itself. Each letter carries a cultural an esthetic meaning.
In western modern art there are many artists that have used letters and words in their work. That’s the case of  Jasper Johns or Robert Rauschenberg

In African art, the use of graphic symbols has been happening for thousand of years. One of the exponents of the modern African art is the well know Ethiopian artist  Wosene Worke Kosrof.

Blessings of the Earth by Wosene Worke Kosrof
In his paintings there is an extended use of the Amharic characters.
Wosene was born in Ethiopia in 1950 where he studied Fine Arts and by the late 70’s he moved abroad. He is now living in the US.
He has been using the Amharic symbols in his paintings for more that 30 years and he is also influenced by jazz music that you can feel is the background rhythm in his work.
He works with the characters, twisting, deforming and making them dance and the colors seem to jump out of the picture.
I find his work simply fascinating, and invite you to discover the Amharic alphabet hidden in the pictures. Here just a few examples:

Finding Lucy 1 by Wosene Worke Kosrof
The homecoming by Wosene Worke Kosrof
Speaking of the Nile III by Wosene Worke Kosrof
The house of words by Wosene Worke Kosrof

“Kosrof speaks of his recent works as investigations into a new alphabet, one which cleverly employs a vocabulary of signs and symbols to link past with present, and Africa with the diaspora in which he works and lives. Drawing upon traditional Ethiopian graphic systems, liturgical symbols, architectural forms, and pan-African motifs, Kosrof produces richly colored and detailed canvases. Deep reds and golds allude to Byzantine and Coptic histories while experiences of the diaspora are felt through affiliates with the syncopations of jazz.” 
(from the Smithsonian Institute’s National Museum of African Art website)

Here are some links if you want to explore and read a little more about the artist or maybe you can catch his latest exhibition and see the work up close. I think his latest one was at the Fowler Museum in L.A. California this past June 2009, but I’m sure there are going to be more coming soon:

Wosene Worke Kosrof website
Spirits in stone - Art Gallery
Inscribing Meaning
Words: from spoken to seen (.pfd)
My Ethiopia, bibliography
Ethiopian passages
Skoto Gallery


My Ethiopia
My Ethiopia: Recent  Paintings by Wosene Worke Kosrof

Ethiopian Passages
Ethiopian Passages: Contemporary Art from the Diaspora by Elizabeth Harney