FIKRU: His Life and Career

Fikru Gebremariam – commonly known as Fikru – was born in the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa, in 1973. His parents both worked at Addis Ababa University; neither was artistic, but both actively nurtured the potential they recognized in their young son.

Early Studies

At twelve years of age, acting on the encouragement of his parents, Fikru enrolled at the Addis Ababa School of Fine Art – widely regarded as the best art school in Ethiopia. For the next four years, this school was to act as a proving ground for Fikru’s emerging talents, as he immersed himself in a comprehensive program of study.

Fikru would initially master drawing and painting, with an emphasis on figurative studies and depictions of heroes. It was during this time that the thirteen-year-old Fikru won the first of countless awards for his art, at the International Children’s Painting Exhibition in Beijing.

The respected Ethiopian painter Tadesse Mesfin was a significant influence during these formative years. Indeed, Mesfin’s influence is palpable in the first phase of Fikru’s mature work, reflected in the predominance of female characters, and in the tendency to abstract their figures from a tangible setting.

Broadening Horizons

The path of Fikru’s early-adult life was defined by two character traits – his burning ambition, and his willingness to take risks. Both would come to bear as he traveled across continents in pursuit of artistic development.

Fikru was awarded a scholarship at Howard University, Washington DC, and completed one-and-a-half semesters of study, before electing to drop out. Fikru still recalls the overwhelming shock at his decision, as friends and tutors suspected he was making a life-changing mistake. But, speaking about his motivations, Fikru is clear that the academic emphasis on the rules of art was a bind on his innate creativity.

Turing his back on academia, Fikru trod a path first beaten by the great artists of the past, and moved to Paris. There, surrounded by the hallowed works of Picasso and Van Gogh, Fikru studied in his own way. With his own works now selling through Parisian galleries, Fikru was able to paint for a living, spending such spare money as he had traveling across Europe and viewing world-famous artworks.

On the influences that he took from this latter-day Grand Tour, Fikru is circumspect. He doesn’t recognize direct influences in his work, but he does attribute his growing confidence to the close affinity he felt with the artists he revered.

“The more I saw and understood about the lifestyle they lived in Paris, (I saw that) it’s exactly how I lived, and it’s not a miracle.”

Reading these words, it’s clear that a veil was lifting, as the great names of the past became human in Fikru’s eyes.

International Acclaim

With confidence and maturity came international acclaim. Initially, Western attention was focused on Fikru’s roots, and his figurative representations of Ethiopian women were perceived as the major draw behind his work. But it was a crude characterization, ill-fitting for an artist who had lived on three continents and sought inspiration from such diverse sources.

Today, far from being pigeonholed as a painter of regional interest, Fikru is held among the leading international abstract expressionists. His work hangs in galleries and private collections throughout the world, and his life, art, and philanthropy have been documented by the international media.

Since 2012, Fikru has spent most of his time in Addis Ababa, returning to Paris and visiting other corners of the world for exhibitions. Within his native Ethiopia, Fikru is lionized as the leading painter of his generation. His work has been the focus of dedicated exhibitions within the National Museum of Ethiopia. Meanwhile, his Addis Ababa home – which doubles as a personal museum – has become a cultural hub, visited by connoisseurs of fine art and foreign dignitaries alike.

As he moves into middle age, Fikru appears to be at the height of his powers. That statement needs qualifying, however, for it’s not yet clear what the future may hold.

FIKRU: In His Own Words

“I work hard to create a life where I never have to work for anyone. No boss, no rules; no time frame. Instead, I can be flexible and use my own time for creativity, so that I am available to pursue knowledge, inspired action, and opportunities.”

“When I was a very young artist, l used to appreciate skills like copying from nature and different artistic techniques that I understood at that point; now, I place more value in ideas, subconscious fantasy, and emotional feelings.”

“I strongly believe that the greatest place in this world is in my mind.”