Lemma Guya, The Goatskin Painting Master Dies at 92

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The renowned Ethiopian painter Lemma Guya has passed away today, October 26, 2020, at the age of 92.

Lemma, who was an expert in painting portraits on goatskin, has lived through a career of 65 years, drawing over 10,000 paintings.

The former Ethiopian Royal Force taught himself to paint in his leisure time and emerged as one of Ethiopia’s important painters with his own unique style.

His paintings have been exhibited and sold successfully in various countries such as America, Sweden, the United Kingdom, Nigeria, Kenya, and Senegal, winning numerous prizes and awards.

Lemma, who is also the author of a book entitled “Teaching yourself Art”, displayed most of his work in his mansion-turned-gallery in Bishoftu, located some 40km south of Addis Ababa.

Guya’s work has also inspired the next generation of Ethiopian artists, who flock to his mansion daily to see and discuss his painting techniques.

Most of Guya’s work depicts realistic scenes from nature, portraying farmers’ lives 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 lap 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 told Anadolu Agency,a state-run news agency headquartered in Turkey six years ago.

Also, back in 2014, Lemma’s work depicting the first airplane that the Ethiopian Air Force used was sold for slightly over 200,000 birr in a bid at a fundraising dinner held at Sheraton Addis to support the Ethiopian Air Force Veteran Association (AFVA).

Lemma was going strong even at old age and had finished his goat skin-mounted portraits of the 53 African leaders who founded the Organization of African Unity (OAU) in 1963.

Lemma was born from his father, Guya Gemeda, and his mother Mare Gobena in 1921 in Ada’a Liben woreda, Bishoftu.

He is survived by three daughters and two sons who all have followed in his footsteps. 

His three daughters – Tigist, Netsanet, and Selamawit – are all trained painters in New York, while one of his sons, Dawit, is a graduate of painting from Nigerian Arts College.

His brother, Tulu Guya, is also a painter and teaches art at the Addis Ababa School of Fine Arts.

The family’s many painters all have their work displayed at Guya’s gallery.