The Sardine Fisherman’s Funeral by Ficre Ghebreyesus is a masterful narrative piece in acrylic paint spanning a 15 ft by 8 ft of unstretched canvas with the grandeur and presence of an Italian fresco. This expanse of a most vibrant royal blue, the artist identifies as distinctly African, occupies a composition that is highly saturated and dense both in its open palette and a diasporic representation of diverse subjects including the collection of hooded figures in the lower region as well as the Eritrean angels descending from above, all highly individualized. All adorned with uniquely colored and feathered wings, the three angels in the upper left corner are said to be inspired by his three older sisters, whose sculpturally intricate hairdos are instead depicted as turbans while they look on from above. Upon first glance the central subject, a large colorful fish, implies an underwater scene through which it swims. With further context to the work, it is discovered that the fish is not an organic living creature, but a Ghanaian casket whose lifeless metal would contain the corpse of a fisherman to whom it would have fallen prey.
This fish casket leads a funeral procession of women shrouded in pastel colored drapery, a reference to the African tradition of collective mourning and communal migration. The motion of this mass is in organized ritual rather than chaos, yet uneasy in the downward gaze of the only woman depicted in a frontal view as well as the figure in profile who is crushed under the weight of the casket. Two troubling outlined faces occupy both lower corners of the painting, phantoms often said to have haunted the artist. Though participants in the collective mourning, they are neither present nor absent, possibly even culpable of the death over which they mourn. The parasols at both the right and left of the composition imply that there are significant religious or political figures among the group of mourners.
This mass of mourners unearths questions of the impact of voluntary and forced migration on culture and identity. Displacement for some is a means of survival and future livelihood while for others is abduction from the only home they’ve ever known. This is especially pertinent as it applies to the severed histories of the African diaspora, the more recent refugee crises that sent families and children to unknown fates at sea, and the forced deportations and separations of thousands of undocumented families. These are people who find themselves with identities defined by a lack of place. The child born at sea is blessed and cursed by an identity fruited in shame and the pursuit of opportunity. Bound by no geographic or cultural borders, they will create the new world