Gebre Kristos Desta, the painter-poet, was born in 1932 in the Eastern province of Harar, Ethiopia, to father Aleka Desta, a clergyman, and mother W/o Atsede Mariam Wondimagegnehu. Gebre Kristos completed his elementary education in his native town of Harar, and attended the Haile Sellassie 1st School and General Wingate High School. He later joined the Science Department at Haile Sellassie 1st University, presently Addis Ababa University. Gebre Kristos did not pursue a career in his field of study, scientific agriculture, but instead studied art and painted in his spare time. Initially, Gebre Kristos was a self-taught artist, but in his sophomore year, his predilection for art won out, and Gebre Kristos abandoned his studies in hope of becoming a full-time artist.
In between his departure from the University and his trip abroad to study art, Gebre Kristos worked for several agencies, including the Soil Analysis Chemical Laboratory of the Imperial Ethiopian Government, the Highway Authority and as an engineer at the Alidade and Map Charting section in the Geological Department of the State Bank of Ethiopia. Gebre Kristos, renowned as an instructor, held his first teaching position during this time, at the Sebestie Negasie Elementary School, as an English, Geography, and General Science Teacher. He was also appointed to illustrate children’s books as a U.S. Government sponsored program then known as the Point of Four Education. Soon after this first professional job as an artist, Gebre Kristos left for Germany to study art in depth.
From 1957 to 1961, Gebre Kristos studied at the Werschule fur Bildende Kunste und Gestaltung, an art school in Cologne, West Germany. It was here that he was introduced to abstract art, which would later become his specialty. Gebre Kristos excelled at his studies, majoring in painting and graphic art, and graduated at the top of his class. After graduation from the Cologne Art Academy, he held his first one-man exhibition at the Gallery Kuppeers, Cologne. The show encompassed a year of work, and made an extensive six month tour of Western Europe.
In 1962, Gebre Kristos returned back to his homeland Ethiopia to introduce his newly adopted style, abstract expressionism. Confronted with the task of introducing modern art into a culture still steeped in traditionalism, Gebre Kristos faced censure and criticism for abandoning more conventional Ethiopian styles. He held a one-man show at the School of Fine Arts in 1963, where he was also a member of the faculty, and his work was received with mixed reactions. Despite frequent sharp criticism, Gebre Kristos continued to teach and create art at the School of Fine Art in Addis Ababa. In 1965, he won the Haile Sellassie 1st prize Trust Award in Fine Arts, and gained official recognition for his innovative and unique style. The poetry of Gebre Kristos is as equally brilliant and original as his visual work. As one of Ethiopia’s first contemporary poets, his written pieces present a different approach from that of the customary fare, and break from tradition by introducing new rhythms.
Gebre Kristos served in an ambassadorial capacity, heading cultural delegates and traveling with touring Ethiopian art exhibitions in Europe. In 1967, he was invited to exhibit his works and to visit important museums, artistic, and historic sites in the USSR. The same year he visited and exhibited his works in Czechoslovakia by invitation of that government. The Federal Republic of West Germany invited Gebre Kristos to present his pieces in 1970, as well as visit and endorse important places of art interest. Also in 1970, on the occasion of expanding higher education in Ethiopia, Gebre Kristos was invited by the National University Alumni Association to exhibit his works at the Kennedy Memorial Library in Addis Ababa. The following year, the Ministry of Education and Fine Arts awarded Gebre Kristos “Best Teacher of the Year” in recognition with his superb efforts as an instructor at the University of Addis Ababa. A similar honor was bestowed upon him by the office of Addis Ababa schools in 1972.