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Elizabeth Alexander and Ficre Ghebreyesus

Elizabeth Alexander and Ficre Ghebreyesus. Courtesy of Elizabeth Alexander.

The Art Angle Podcast: The Tragic Love Story of the Poet and the Painting Chef

Acclaimed poet Elizabeth Alexander joins the podcast to share her extraordinary life with the late painter Ficre Ghebreyesus.


Through October 24, Galerie Lelong in New York is presenting “Gate to the Blue,” a striking show of paintings by the late artist Ficre Ghebreyesus that opens a portal to his hugely complex, visually stunning, and tragically short life. At age 16, Ghebreyesus fled his native Eritrea during the nation’s turbulent war for independence and traveled extensively through Europe before settling in the United States. There, he worked as a chef while quietly creating extraordinary artworks that he rarely exhibited and refused to sell.

Ghebreyesus and his brothers eventually founded the celebrated New Haven restaurant Caffe Adulis, where he met the distinguished poet, playwright, and essayist Elizabeth Alexander in 1996. Within weeks, the two decided to marry, embarking on an incredible shared life of creativity, culture, and family. But the dream ended too soon. In 2012, Ghebreyesus died of sudden heart failure just days after his 50th birthday. His tragic passing forced Alexander to reinvent herself in a crucible of grief while caring for their two young sons—a challenge she movingly chronicled in her Pulitzer Prize-nominated 2015 memoir, The Light of the World.

After this crossroads, Alexander and her children moved to New York City, where she pivoted her career from academia to cultural philanthropy with a special focus on social justice. She went on to be named the director of creativity and free expression at the $13.7 billion Ford Foundation in 2016, and since 2018 has served as president of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. Remarkably, Alexander has also done all of this while stewarding Ghebreyesus’s artistic estate: roughly 700 paintings and countless other works that are finally being shared with the world at large so that his memory and insights can live on.

On this week’s episode of the Art Angle, Elizabeth Alexander joins Andrew Goldstein to discuss her late husband’s art, the creative synergy of their life together, and how it has informed her mission to use philanthropy to bring about a more just world.

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