Here is one connection between Seattle and former Libyan dictator Muammar el-Qaddafi: Yadesa Bojia. In 2009, the Ethiopian-born graphic designer was watching Larry King Live when Qaddafi appeared on screen. He was in New York City for a conference at the United Nations, and had just made headlines for delivering a 100-minute speech to the General Assembly in which he demanded, among other things, that the West pay Africa $7.7 trillion for all the misery and economic devastation caused by colonialism. His allotted time was 15 minutes. Larry King was now interviewing him, and Bojia noticed something he could not believe—behind Qaddafi was a flag representing African unity, designed by him.
Two years before, Bojia had entered a competition to design a new flag for the organization African Union, which was established in 2001 in Addis Ababa and aimed to foster greater solidarity among African countries. Bojia had forgotten about the whole business, thought he had lost and that the judges had neglected to inform him of their decision.
But there was his flag on Larry King Live. And it looked so impressive, with its white sun radiating behind a green African continent that's circled by little yellow stars. This was an Africa for the new millennium—an Africa that was not only united but boldly optimistic. Things might have been bad in the past, but the continent's future was now filled with promise (many of the fastest-growing economies in the world are in Africa). The older flag was, to be honest, ugly and uninspiring. The Africa on it was small and overwhelmed by a bland arrangement of colors. Africa wasn't going anywhere soon with that flag.
Though Qaddafi was crazy, everything he said was not, particularly when it came to the matter of African unification. He was one of the few Arab leaders who promoted the union not only of nations but also of the continent's many races. And this was precisely what the new flag behind him represented: one heart, one love, one Africa. (Qaddafi was the president of the African Union at the time.)
After recognizing his work on TV, Bojia wasted no time calling the headquarters in Africa, and the organization did not waste much time making amends. He was awarded the $10,000 prize, and he and his family were flown to Addis Ababa to celebrate his important contribution to black history.
"That flag is now everywhere in Africa. Remember the World Cup in South Africa in 2010? That was the first flag that entered the stadium in the opening ceremony," Bojia says to me at Queen Sheba Ethiopian Restaurant (916 E John St) on Capitol Hill. We are sitting on the porch, and he is cooling down from what seems to have been a vigorous game of ping-pong in the restaurant's back parking lot. Bojia adds with a chuckle: "The flag is in a lot of music videos and on T-shirts. It is very fashionable."
We are at Queen Sheba not just because it serves some of the best Ethiopian dishes in town—I ordered Sheba's spicy chicken tender, which is a chicken breast chopped up with greens, and kei wot, which is beef in a spicy red sauce and comes with a big bone that's immensely pleasurable to suck (both $12.95)—but also because he designed a couple of its features: the lettering on the rusted iron sign above its entrance, and also the menu, which has a shiny image of a traditional Ethiopian woven fabric.
Bojia, who was born in Ambo, Ethiopia (though most of his childhood was spent in the country's capital, Addis Ababa), and has lived in the United States since 1995, has provided his services as a designer and events coordinator to a new class of ambitious Ethiopian restaurateurs, who since the mid-aughts have abandoned the usual decor of tourist posters and traditional knickknacks in favor of interiors that are distinctly cosmopolitan. There was Abay Ethiopian Restaurant, which opened in 2013 and closed the following year (according to a reliable source, the neighborhood—the northern corner of Capitol Hill—was not friendly to the business, which attracted black people). And there is Agelgil Ethiopian Restaurant (2800 E Cherry St), which opened recently and hired Bojia not only to design the menu but also to provide three richly colored paintings ("Rich like the colors of the food," he says) in the two-dimensional traditional style.
To get a good idea of Bojia's aesthetic and mood, one has to recall the restaurant that, in my opinion, marked the beginning of a new spirit in restaurant decor, Habesha Ethiopian Restaurant (which opened in 2006 and closed six years later). Owned by Abey Assefa, the current owner of Queen Sheba, Habesha introduced a new direction in furniture, art, lighting, and signage, which Bojia designed. And what all of these elements had in common, and also what defines Bojia's work, was a kind of modernism that was continuous with the past, with the old traditions.
In Western architecture, modernism was about breaking with the past. Rich Roman moldings, dramatic Greek columns, and ornate Renaissance ceilings were replaced by hard lines, exposed structural elements, unadorned windows, and so on. This was not the modernism of Habesha's owner and designer. For them, a change in location (an American city instead of an African one) and technologies or materials did not mean a change in the themes or motifs of old. The past entered the new by way of menus designed with computers. Bojia's work is on this tip. For example, the Queen Sheba sign he worked on with other artists is original (there is no rusted iron tradition in Ethiopia), but it represents something traditional (a wedding-size cooking pot).
Finally, this branch of modernism is cosmopolitan in the sense that it's tasteful and professional. There is no half-stepping with the new school of restaurateurs.
Though Bojia's work as a whole includes paintings and photography and a combination of both, such as the pieces he contributed to the recent Black Lives Matter exhibit at the Columbia City Gallery, he is first and foremost a graphic designer—that is his background, his training, and the way he makes a living. He is also a reggae musician and can play piano in the Ethiopian style.
Recently, Bojia saw his flag behind another world-historical figure, Barack Obama. The American president was at the headquarters of the African Union in Addis Ababa, giving a speech to dignitaries and civil servants about the importance of respecting term limits in Africa. He said, jokingly, that he would like to be US president for a third term, and even thought he could win the race in 2016, but he couldn't do it because the American constitution permits only two terms and he is not above the law. The quip was, of course, aimed at African leaders, who have a reputation for not letting go of power after their time is long done and gone. Indeed, Qaddafi left power only when he lost his life to the Arab Spring.
As Obama spoke (or lectured—depending on how you felt about his criticism), two American flags and two African Union flags stood directly behind him. It was as if Bojia had secretly snuck behind the most powerful leader in the world and watched with silent delight as a whole hall of eyes fixed on the POTUS's trim figure.
"Yet," Bojia says to me after reflecting on that unreal-feeling moment, "I have such mixed feelings about Obama's trip. It is really interesting to see an African-descent US president make his speech in the African Union near my flag, and I also liked his direct message to Africa's leaders about democracy and rule of law. [But] he was not in a solid foundation to speak about it in the eyes of many because he praised the Ethiopian government as 'democratic.' You know, his national security adviser, Susan Rice, called the country 'democratic' during a White House press conference and could not hold herself back. She burst out laughing at the idea."
Obama might not be crazy, but not everything he says is sane. Africa is a complicated continent.