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Alem Hailu G/Kristos



Two decades back, while I was walking by the National Museum of Ethiopia I noticed people queuing up to attend an art exhibition. I followed suit.


While I was appreciating the displayed paintings, I became mesmerized when I stumbled upon a realist painting about plow-carrying family members coming back home from the farmyard, which was a bit distant from their home. There were shepherds and heavily laden pack animals.


A boy was holding a newborn lamb in his arms. Surprisingly, the painter did not forget even the shade of the sewn part of the boy’s short trousers.


For one that grew up in a big city like me, this painting afforded a window of the rural life. It was Lemma Guya’s painting. Stunned, I registered the painter’s name on my memories template, bearing prominent personalities.


Without dropping the minutest details, Lemma’s paintings also show instances borrowed from his surroundings— landscapes, greenery, scenery, harvesting seasons and the like.


It was when I was approached to edit the autobiography of the famed painter Lemma Guya I stood a chance of further appreciating this gifted artist whose likes pop on the visual-art firmament once in a blue moon.


His long walk that spans from a Shepard to world-famous artist is exemplary in many ways. He adopted painting from his potter mother.


The technique he used to wisely worm his way into the heart of Emperor Haile Selassie I to get the enriching opportunity of further education conveys how the wise could stride safely in the journey of life, full of twists and turns. It was this way that Lemma joined the Ethiopian Air Force.


With an inquisitive mind and probing eye, apart from adopting painting techniques fast from less friendly foreign teachers, this self-educated painter was talented enough to come up with his unique style of painting on a goat skin in such a way the fur of the goat skin makes a color blending with the pictures he captures on it. This pioneering style has won the adjective Lemmism after his name Lemma.


Bringing Lemmism into play, he has made almost innumerable portraits of freedom icons and prominent personalities across the continent and through the ages. His works include the portrait of Nelson Mandela. OAU is also graced with his goat-skin portraits of the 31 founding fathers of Africa.


As he had outgrown the traditional influence of male parochialism, he has not forgotten the gender mix as he drew the portrait of former chairperson of the African Union Commission (AUC) Nkosazana Dlanini Zuma to signify the struggle African women waged to break the double-fold oppression they were subjected to for long. It is taking her as the epitome of this fight; he christened her portrait the African Mona Lisa.


On holidays, when people kill sheep and goats to mark the occasion, to collect goat skins he had to go door to door in the neighborhood in time lest the skins get bad for his painting. The self-acquired technique to prepare and preserve the goat skin is quite amazing.


The old maxium runs “Behind every successful man there is a strong woman!” One of the portraits is that of his wife Aster Bekele. She tended him for over half a century and inspired him in his pursuit all the way up to the pinnacle of success. Playing the role of a mother as well as a father in their home, she was tolerant of his full immersion in his career even on holidays.


What makes his painting style unique is the feeling beholders experience as if they got a chance to see the prominence of the persons mounted on the goat skins.


Lemma Guya is of the opinion that all those who contributed to their country in different spheres of endeavors must be duly recognized. Mindful of this fact, he has not forgotten to include in his autobiography Aselefech Ashine Ethiopian actress and vocalist who contributed a lot to the development of Ethiopian art but whose contribution has been kept in the dark.


Many agree that nothing gratifies one than sharing one’s talent with others. Relevant to this, he has opened an African gallery and painting school in his home town Bishoftu (Debre Zeit) to share the home-grown talent of his to successors across the continent. Many African students had taken trainers’ training coming to Ethiopia. They give testimony on how the book honed their skills. At this juncture, it is appropriate to acknowledge that it is not for himself alone that he won a name but also for Ethiopia and ultimately Africa.


It is heartening to note that among his successful children, there are painters that bask under the global limelight. One may wonder if painting is at all hereditary. Many could say “Yes!” when they further learn that Lemma has brothers who paint and teach painting.


If one wants to get the past, present and future of Africa in one place, one must drop in at Lema Guya’s gallery found in Bishoftu (Debre Zeyit). To those who pay homage to the gallery, it is Nelson Mandela’s statue that greets them by the gate, which abuts a school by Lemma’s family to reach many with the opportunity of education.


Also, visiting the gallery is as good as viewing his autobiography From Herding to Lemism on one’s shelf. Visitors will see firsthand African leaders, who staunchly fought to liberate their people from colonialism.


The autobiography also showcases the role Lemma Guya played to broker peace between Italian capitalists and Eritreans advising the latter about better ways to reconcile. The book also touches upon the then ardent feeling of Eritreans to their motherland Ethiopia.


The book also chronicles the role he and his friends played in defending the rights of people of Oromo. It also recalls old friends. One of them happens to be Girma W/Geiorgis that climbed Ethiopia’s administrative ladder up to a president. In the book the president gives testimonies about Lemma Guya.


Moreover, From Herding to Lemmism shows how his African friends stood by Lemma’s side in a rainy season as the saying goes a friend in need is a friend indeed. When he was forced to leave his country for political reasons friends from these countries had served him high havens.


The book also bears words of appreciation to African leaders and African friends that extended financial support so that the gallery sees the light of day. In addition, it shows how he was under a suspicious eye during the emperor’s regime dabbed proponent of communism.


The book shows lifestyle such as how wisdom saves one’s skin when one is locked in a difficult situation. Say, how to mollify an angry monarch on whom one has attempted a coup de ta.


It also touches the life he spent in prison during the Derg regime related to a painting that was charged with a political issue. Among his works the one entitled Kwanta (dried meat) stands out. It lampoons African leaders that focused on amassing personal fortunes than taking Africa to higher level of success.


The book dilates on his contribution to the eradication of illiteracy from Ethiopia. It typifies the role he played to lay the springboard for the development of visual art. He birthed the first visual art teaching books in collaboration with Ministry of Education being patted on the back by the Emperor.


Many artists that climbed the ladder of success count themselves lucky for getting Lemma’s text book on visual art at a decisive moment in their life—during their formative years. Perusing this gem of a book, readers could get such facts from the horse’s mouth.


It also bears advice to the current generation of Ethiopia on how Ethiopians could live amicably ensuring the furtherance of peaceful coexistence.


The book sheds light on the reform wafting across the present day Ethiopia and the role Dr.Abiy Ahmed and his team played toward the birth of a genuine democracy, as well as affording a peek into the political situations in the country during the past two regimes and the incumbent.


The autobiography shows how Lemma actively participated in supplying food aid for those people hard hit by the 1974 drought which Yonatan Dembelbl exposed to the world and shows Lemma’s point of view about the National flag and the draft law on museum and sculpture art.


In the book one will get Lemma’s view of how art could be harnessed toward development. It also depicts how he narrowly evaded a handshake with the angel of death during the September 11 attack. Efforts are made to make the book palatable through super page layout. Conspicuous is also the work done to foreground the language.


Lemma Guya, who is accorded an honorary doctorate degree from Jimma University, is still alive and kicking. Though drawing close to 90, still, he enjoys keeping himself busy painting.


The book bears different articles and news national and international media wrote about his works and life. All literary painted him in bright hues.


We should count ourselves lucky to have the visual-art giant Lemma Guya amidst us. Also we should feel fortunate to be able to buy the book which promises incredible returns.


The book, which merits keeping by one’s bedside, starts with the scenery and greenery of his home town near Bishoftu (Debre Zeit). The front cover depicts Lemma attired in a traditional garment meant to those whose life has turned out a hit, while the back cover how the artist thinks deep before he picks his brush.


The price of the book that has 284 pages is 30 dollar and the Printing house is Mega Plc. Over 150 Ambassador residing in Ethiopia attended the inauguration ceremony held at Skylight Hotel, 29 March 2019.





Alem Hailu G/Kristos

A published poet, novelist, editor, translator of masterpieces, literary critic, playwright and journalist from Ethiopia. M.A holder in literature, Addis Ababa University.

Looking for a traditional publisher of a collection of poems. My novel: ‘Hope from the debris of hopelessness’.

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