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One of Lemma Guya's paintings, "Quanta," features dried beef, four cats, spilt milk and a rat. Stripped of its context, it seems bizarre, almost meaningless; a day in the life of a chaotic group of household animals. Look a little less closer and Lemma’s painting from the mid-1970s carries a political message.

It shows dried beef - aka quanta- hung close to a ceiling. Beneath it are two cats reaching from a bed to eat the beef, one of them scratching the wall in its effort to do so. There are two more cats to the left, and dried beef is lying by their side, not to mention the spilt milk. The latter two seem completely uninterested as if they have already had their fill. Perhaps the most curious scene in the painting is the rat munching on an ear of corn under the bed.

The picture tells the story of Africa, by a man who loved to point out that he was proud of his African heritage but had no qualms about criticising the disarray on the continent. The cats, it is believed, are political leaders; half of them still vying to get their share of the dried beef, the other half already satiated. Meanwhile, the house is in complete shambles.

“Despite the popular interpretation of the painting, it is meant to be opened-ended as well,” says Selam, his daughter, a painter in her own right. “He wanted people to make their own assumptions about it.”

But that was just one of the thousands of paintings that Lemma drew. He was exceptionally prolific, drawing until his final days when he passed away at 92 last week. He was laid to rest on October 29, 2020.



The set of subjects he chose were diverse. Many of his drawings deal with landscapes as well as painted farmers working the land.

Arguably, he is better recognised for his portraits of public figures, from athletes such as Abebe Bikila to the founding leaders of the Organisation of the African Union (OAU).

Many of these are goatskin portraits. While paintings have been drawn with the use of such a medium in pre-modernist times, it became his signature style and played a significant part in bringing this form of painting well into the contemporary scene. Particular to his style of goatskin painting was leaving some of the hair unshaven and integrating it into the drawing. The effect gave a smooth ebbing flow that is pleasing to the eye.

For individuals in the art world, his impact is more felt in his contributions to the art scene in Ethiopia, especially while it was in its infancy. One of these was a book on the techniques of drawing, which is held in high regard among contemporary painters.


“That is how I learned to draw,” said Agegnehu Adane, director of Ale School of Fine Arts & Design. “It was a contribution to Ethiopia’s art that has but rarely been replicated.”




Lemma never received the Western higher education that some of the prominent painters had and was in fact an air force man, reaching to the rank of shambel, the Ethiopian military title corresponding to captain. A lot of his education on painting was self-taught, and the book attempts to serve a similar purpose to beginners. It contains techniques for beginners on how to draw faces and features. It helped people such as Agegnehu to produce three-dimensional pictures on a two-dimensional plane. Virtually, many contemporary painters were his students.

Lemma wrote four books, including "From Herding to Lemmism," an autobiography that details his style of painting, which has come to be called Lemmism by some. A fifth book is to be published posthumously by his children.

Another contribution that is well-regarded is an art gallery in Bishoftu that hosts paintings by African artists and serves as a studio. It is a space that could serve as an institutional foundation for the art scene, according to Agegnehu, where his collected works can be exhibited for the general public.

“This is a legacy of his that deserves to get further recognition,” adds the art school director.

Lemma was not just a painter. He was politically conscious and carried out humanitarian work, including opening a library in his hometown, Bishoftu, where he was laid to rest. A long-time reader, he loved telling stories as well, gathering children that would visit his art gallery to impart in them historical knowledge.


He was strict with his own children when it came to work and learning. But he was also a man that was born to a modest family in a small town and had to force his way into a passion he held. He knew the value of stubbornly pushing through with a gut feeling.

“He let us make our own choices,” says Selam.

Lemma is survived by five children, all of whom paint, as do their own children.



PUBLISHED ON Oct 31,2020 [ VOL 21 , NO 1070]


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