Abdurrahman Muhammad Sheriff, renowned Ethiopian artist and longtime director of the Alle Felegeselam Art Academy, passed away recently. He dedicated over 50 years to teaching art in Addis Ababa.
A lifelong friend of Sheriff’s, Ahmed Zakaria (Prof.), recalls that the artist developed an interest in drawing from a young age in his childhood home in Addis Ababa’s Merkato neighborhood. As a naturally talented child, Sheriff enjoyed copying everyday objects like trees, houses and roads onto pieces of paper. Had I spoken to Sheriff in his later teenage years, he may have said that his artistic talents emerged naturally, as they do for many gifted young people the world over.
As a talented child, he would draw various visual structures such as trees, houses, and roads, and even copied photographs onto pieces of paper. If the author had the chance to inquire about his late teenage years, artist Abdurrahman could have said, “I showcased my artistic ability like any talented youth around the world, which led me into a lifelong artistic journey.”
In fact, as Johannes Brahms once stated, “Straight-away the ideas flow in upon me, directly from God, and not only do I see distinct themes in my mind’s eye, but they are clothed in the right forms, harmonies, and orchestration.”
Indeed, precocious children like Abdurrahman Sheriff can draw realistic structures, just as some individuals are naturally gifted with a good singing voice. Jennifer Drake, an associate professor of psychology at Brooklyn College in New York City, studies these children, often referred to as “precocious realists,” who develop certain abilities earlier than usual. Drake explains, “These children have a natural motivation to create and draw. They are not driven by external rewards, but rather by their genuine passion for art.” Some even claim that “certain children are able to create stunningly realistic drawings at a young age without ever having taken formal drawing lessons.”
Reflecting on the relationship between science and art in his Nobel lecture in 1976, Saul Bellow stated, “…Only art penetrates what pride, passion, intelligence, and habit erect on all sides—the superficialities of this world. There is another reality, the genuine one, which we lose sight of. This other reality consistently sends us hints that we can only receive through art. Proust refers to these hints as our ‘true impressions.’ Without art, these true impressions and persistent intuitions will remain hidden from us, and we will be left with nothing but a ‘terminology for practical ends’ that we mistakenly label as life.”
According to Zakaria, the locals began to notice Abdurrahman Sheriff’s talent as his copies were remarkably good. Later on, he even started drawing portraits of people without using any guiding lines. However, his father prohibited him from pursuing painting, claiming that it was considered haram (forbidden by Islamic law) in Islam.
There are indeed different views on drawing and its permissibility. Some scholars argue that the Sunnah forbids drawing animate beings. They believe it is not allowed to create any depiction of living beings because of the Prophet’s statement, as mentioned in the sahih hadith.
On the other hand, other scholars argue that drawing inanimate objects is not sinful. They believe it is permissible to draw things such as mountains, trees, planes, cars, and similar objects. According to these scholars, there is nothing wrong with drawing these things.
Despite these differences, Zekeria explains that young Abdurrahman was saddened by his father’s prohibition on drawing. However, a person named Tuha Sheriff, who was known for his progressive mindset and was a trader, advised Abdurrahman’s father that it was inappropriate to prevent a child from pursuing his interests. He encouraged him to support his son’s inclinations and shared his own experiences from other countries. Following this advice, Abdurrahman continued his formal education while also pursuing his passion for painting.
During that time, there were no art schools in Ethiopia. Therefore, after completing his high school program, he enrolled in a commercial school. After finishing his studies, he was supposed to continue his education in Sudan. However, upon arrival, he discovered that the registration period had already ended, preventing him from pursuing further studies. Instead of waiting for the next registration, he decided to join an accessible art school, as it was an easier option.
A year later, he returned to Ethiopia and immediately applied to join an art school. Due to his exceptional artistic talent, the school allowed him to both learn and teach, making him a student-teacher.
In an article published in “Abrak Bete Siel Magazine,” Geremew Feysa (Dr.) and Ainalem Emiru explain that after completing his high school education at the Commercial School, Abdurrahman was sent to Khartoum along with three other young individuals to study chartered accounting, as per the cultural agreement between the governments of Ethiopia and Sudan.
However, during his time in Khartoum, he decided to pursue free education at an art school instead of studying chartered accounting. At that institution, he became a student of Ibrahim Al-Salawi, a renowned Sudanese painter and a supporter of African modernism.
According to Geremew and Ainalem, after Abdurrahman returned from Khartoum in 1952, he enrolled in the Addis Ababa Art School. There, he became both a student and a teacher. During his time at the school, there was news that Emperor Haile Selassie I would be visiting. The director of the school, Alle Felegeselam, instructed Abdurrahman to draw a portrait of the Emperor within a short period of time. Abdurrahman managed to create an impressive charcoal portrait of the Emperor, which was highly appreciated when the Emperor saw it. As a result, Abdurrahman received a scholarship to study at the Kessel and Berlin art academies in Germany, specializing in modern art and graphics from 1957 to 1962.
Abdurrahman studied at the Statleeliche Hochschule Fuer Bilndende Kuente in Berlin, one of the world’s most renowned art schools, known for its teaching of painting, sculpture, architecture, and other arts. The school was established in 1809 under the inspiration of John Frederick Stadl. Abdurrahman obtained his Master’s Degree in Fine Arts in 1960. After completing his studies, he returned to Addis Ababa and held art exhibitions in various European countries, including Belgium, the former Czechoslovakia, Germany, the former Soviet Union, Nigeria, and the United States.
According to the Professor, apart from his role as a director, Abdurrahman presented research papers at symposiums held in different countries, and his papers were published in research journals. He received a DAAD Grant (Deutscher Akademischer Austauschdienst e.V.) in 1989 and received training in screen printing at Universtaet der Kuenste in Berlin, Germany.
Additionally, Efendi Muteqi, a well-known historian, mentioned on his Facebook page in August 2023 that Abdurrahman served as a lecturer at Addis Ababa Art School, later known as “Ale Art School,” for over 50 years. He was one of Ethiopia’s oldest artists, alongside renowned artists such as Afework Tekle, Ale Kelesalam, Worku Mamo, Tadesse Mesfen, Iskander Boghosian, and Gebre Christos Dessta.
Muteqi states that Abdurrahman was known for capturing the culture, history, business, social life, and natural resources of the ancient city of Harar and its surrounding areas in his paintings.
According to Ahmed, Abdurrahman can be described in three dimensions of human behavior or personality.
First, he is depicted as practical and high-minded, focusing on his personal works and avoiding interference in others’ affairs. He pays attention to even the smallest details and embraces changes, adapting himself to new circumstances. Second, he is characterized by openness to his surroundings, making things agreeable and adjusting himself to the environment. This openness has contributed to his friendly nature and ability to connect with people.
Third, he is described as dependable, efficient, and goal-oriented. He takes purposeful action to achieve his objectives and communicates effectively with others, influencing those he interacts with. His agreeableness has facilitated smooth collaboration with others, contributing to his success in life.
When Abdurrahman became the director of the painting school, he joined other renowned artists such as Alle Felegasalam and Gebre Christos Desta. These artists had their own doctrines and philosophical perspectives. Additionally, foreign teachers with different ideologies were also present at the school. Managing these ideological differences among the instructors was not an easy task as their perspectives could easily spread among the students and administration staff. Leading the school as a director required significant effort and work to create a harmonious environment.
Ahmed further explains that Abdurrahman’s upbringing, his religious education in childhood, and the influence of Harari culture (Sufi culture) shaped his focus on his own work and his reluctance to interfere in the lives of others.
Eshetu Tiruneh, one of Abdurrahman’s best students and now a renowned artist, expressed deep respect and admiration for him as both a painter and a teacher on his Facebook page.
It is evident from the quotes by John Dewey and Julia B. Cameron that creative individuals have the ability to express and reveal the individuality of others through their artistic work. They help others understand and appreciate individuality in all its forms. By engaging with art, individuals themselves become artists in their own activities, tapping into their own creative potential and discovering the wellsprings of creative expression. The inner well or artistic reservoir needs to be nurtured and replenished to ensure continued creativity and artistic growth.
Abdurrahman Muhammad Sheriff possessed a rich inner well of creativity. He infused his paintings with the philosophy he followed, reflecting his deep understanding of the world’s problems. While he may not have extensively engaged in social issues or spent much time in casual conversations like his peers, his focus on his artistic endeavors was driven by his burdened perspective on global issues. Having spent a considerable amount of time abroad, he might not have fulfilled the expectations of his relatives.
However, Abdurrahman‘s greatest achievement was embarking on the Hajj pilgrimage and passing away during this sacred journey. For a Muslim, this is a significant honor, and the author prays for him to be granted the highest station in Paradise.
Contributed by Teshome Berhanu Kemal