By Seleshi Tessema
Renowned Ethiopian painter Lemma Guya has just put the finishing touches on his goat skin-mounted portraits of the 53 African leaders who founded the Organization of African Unity (OAU) in 1963.
"I am an African and my Africanness is uniquely rooted in my Ethiopianness," the 87-year-old Guya told The Anadolu Agency from his mansion-turned-gallery in Bishoftu, located some 40km south of Addis Ababa.
"Throughout my career I have shuttled between these two mutually complementary identities," he added. "In my paintings I have tried to depict and narrate our acceptable and unacceptable traditions and lives."
Maybe that's why visitors to his mansion, which sits on 10,000 square meters of land, will find a yellowish bronze bust of a smiling Nelson Mandela, the late South African leader, as soon as they step into the place.
"Mandela is the most perfect embodiment of Africa's rise," Guya asserted. "He radiates dauntless moral courage, a peaceful transition of state power, equality, justice, inclusiveness and democracy."
Guya traces Mandela's story to Ethiopia, where the liberation icon received his first military training and his first handgun.
"This is why he stands here as a philosophical inspiration of my works and our lives," he said.
The veteran painter, who looks much younger than his age, established his "African Art Museum" in 1983 inside his gallery.
"I wanted to make it an African visual art center of excellence," he said. "But its fundamental objective was to initiate dialogue about African art with the aim of achieving Africa's rebirth."
"The then Organization of African Unity joined the vision and it was inaugurated by its then secretary-general, Ahmed Salim Ahmed," Guya said.
Yet the pan-African body's promises to financially support the center and turn it into a hub for African painters never materialized.
"I was disheartened by the backpedaling on promises. After years of waiting, I decided to go my way," he said.
But despite the passage of years, Guya never forgot his artistic engagement with Africa.
"I have presented a project that aims to produce the portraits of the founding fathers of the African body on goat or gazelle skin," he said.
The idea – along with some sample portraits – was well received by African Union (AU) Commission Chairperson Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma in 2013.
In a hand-written note, she promised to stand foursquare behind the artist and his project.
"We are grateful for all the works of art you have produced in authentic African style for the history of Africa, the OAU and AU in a unique way," Dlamini-Zuma wrote. "Our support is guaranteed."
Guya has already completed the portraits to be displayed at the AU's Addis Ababa headquarters.
A father of five, Guya said he was born to a "physically impoverished but spiritually rich" family of peasants in Bishoftu town.
Today, his three daughters – Tigist, Netsanet and Selamawit – are all trained painters in New York.
"One of my sons, Dawit, is a graduate of painting from Nigerian Arts College," he added.
His brother, Tulu Guya, is also a painter and teaches art at the Addis Ababa School of Fine Arts. His son, too, is a painter.
The family's many painters all have their work displayed at Guya's three-room gallery.
"This is a family united by love of the beautiful; they're used to exhibiting their work together," Alazar Samuel, a veteran actor at the Addis Ababa City Hall and longtime friend of the family, told AA.
Most of Guya's work depicts realistic scenes from nature, portraying the lives of farmers with definite social meanings.
There are also portraits of Ethiopian and African leaders and notable personalities, including legendary Ethiopian athletes such as Haile Gebrselassie and Derartu Tulu.
One of his masterpieces depicts a hungry black cat jumping at dried meat hung from a rope while a well-fed white cat laps up spilled milk on a bed. Underneath, a hungry rat can be seen chewing on corn.
The image symbolizes African political greed, marginalization, misuse of resources, and worsening economic disparities, according to Guya.
"This painting was misread by the lieutenants of the Mengistu Haile Mariam regime [by which] I was thrown into jail, though briefly," he recalled.
Guya's work has also served to inspire the next generation of Ethiopian artists, who flock to his mansion on a daily basis to see and discuss his painting techniques.
"He is an Afrocentric painter. He introduced a unique style of painting on parchment without removing the fur," Seyoum Ayalew, chairman of the Ethiopian Painters and Writers Association – and a well-known painter himself – told AA.
According to Ayalew, fur is often integrated into the tone, color and rhythm of Guya's paintings.
"He has influenced the Ethiopian and African artistic tradition," the artist asserted.