‘Ark of the Covenant’ reflects artist’s Ethiopian, Native Indigenous heritage

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Artist Yohannes Yamassee sits in front of one of his works in the exhibit "Ark of the Covenant," currently on display at Malibu's Jac Forbes Contemporary gallery. Contributed photo.

Jac Forbes Contemporary in Malibu showcases artist Yohannes Yamassee’s solo exhibit 

By Barbara Burke 

Special to The Malibu Times

Yohannes Yamassee’s “Ark of the Covenant” is currently on exhibit at Jac Forbes Contemporary gallery in Malibu. The artist’s newest solo exhibition examines the meaning of biblical and spiritual history inherent in ancient hieroglyphics, sanscrits and nature in East African culture.

In the exhibit, the artist harkens back to his Ethiopian and Native Indigenous heritage, the traditions and history of which were ingrained in him by his grandmothers as he grew up on Chicago’s south side.

“AEthiopia is the original term for Africa.” Yamassee explained. “’Ark of the Covenant’ expresses my African-Ethiopian heritage, and my Exodus pieces, Women of Exodus I and II, Eve and Lucy, focus on the huge benefit contributed by black women in our culture, their resilience, and their harsh mistreatment dating back to 1619 — those works are depicted on planks of plywood to represent the planks of wood the women were tied to on the slave ships. Standing next to these works makes us question all that happened.”

The two works depict the African female form — proud, strong, victorious, nestled on aged wood — and also include elements of gold acrylic and charcoal.

Yamassee’s use of gold throughout his works serves in part as a vehicle for addressing the Arab conquest of Egypt and the pillaging of Egypt’s enormous wealth. The Ark of the Covenant holds great significance for many religions today. It was made with gold and is a representation of God’s love for his followers and its two stone plates hold the Ten Commandments.

Cobalt blue, intensely stunning and mesmerizing, is also pervasively present throughout Yamassee’s works, as are hieroglyphic texts, which comment on the meaning of his visual works. 

“The blue of the oceans and the sky are essential elements of my works and, of course, in our world.” Yamassee said. “As a child, hieroglyphs were all throughout our home, on frames and many other things and their presence made me question their place within my style.” 

Hieroglyphs were used in ancient Egypt for record-keeping as well as for monumental displays to deities and royalty – they recorded the history of the societal injustices and important historical events and their presence in the artist’s works provide a depth of intellectual interpretation and instruction for those who carefully peruse Yamassee’s works.

Actor-Producer Julie Carmen aptly describes Yamassee’s works as, “a soulful excavation of his Native American and Ethiopian roots that explores a transcendent spirituality encompassing both ancient traditions.”

A striking work by the artist is entitled “King Affirmation,” a piece featuring aged wood, oil and gold leaf. There, two hands of creation — one black, one white — contribute to the creation of an orbit depicting a world, which is interestingly presented as a checkered pattern, another common element throughout Yamassee’s creations.

Yohannes Yamassee ARTWORK
This work, one of two called “Women of Exodus,” is part of the exhibit “Ark of the Covenant,” currently on display at Malibu’s Jac Forbes Contemporary gallery.

“Checkered patterns were historically present all throughout Africa and as far as Spain and Portugal,” Yamassee explained. “They had connections to buildings and evolved into the beginnings of modern coats of arms and all of this was directly connected to spiritual emblems.”

When asked what his surname means, the artist responded, “Gentle warrior chief,” and noted that one side of his family descends from the native indigenous cultures that once resided from Georgia to South Carolina. 

Perhaps unwittingly, Yamassee succeeds in the “Art of the Covenant” exhibit in admonishing attendees to evaluate the history of Egypt critically and, in doing so he is a gentle warrior with his art.

Yamassee obtained his Bachelor’s degree in art and technology from Illinois State University in 2016, and is a graduate of UCLA film school’s Master of Fine Arts program in set and product design. In 2021, he was named to Forbes “30 under 30,” a highly selective incubator that highlights the world’s top 30 innovative creatives under 30 for their work. Yamassee was recognized by Forbes for his multi-dimensionality in the art world and his animation work with Yohannes Studios. 

Since 2007, Malibu’s Jac Forbes Contemporary gallery, the sole Black-woman-owned gallery in Malibu, has provided locals with the opportunity to learn from meaningful art exhibits that are inclusive of cross-cultural voices, including those of female artists and those from the African diaspora. 

Yohannes Yamassee portrait
Artist Yohannes Yamassee reads a Nelson Mandela biography in front of one of his works in the exhibit “Ark of the Covenant,” currently on display at Malibu’s Jac Forbes Contemporary gallery.

To View the Exhibit:

Jac Forbes Contemporary Malibu

23410 Civic Center Way

T: (310) 317-9895