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Leo Sarkisian, at age 92, exudes the energy and enthusiasm of a man a fraction of his age. Born in Lawrence, Massachusetts, Sarkisian studied at Vesper George Art School in Boston. He was awarded scholarships for advanced study with famed New England painter Aldro Hibbard and watercolorist Robert K. Stephens. He served as a topographical artist in North Africa, Italy, France and Germany, during World War II. After the war, Sarkisian spent a number of years in New York City as a commercial illustrator and advertising artist for books and magazines. At the same time, he did extensive research work in Asian, Middle Eastern and African music.
In 1950, Temp Records International in Hollywood, California where he trained as a sound engineer and was made music director recruited Sarkisian. After recording and collecting music in Afghanistan, Pakistan, India and Bangladesh, he was sent to Africa in 1958, spending a year in Ghana and 31/2 years in Guinea, but not before helping to edit the music for the Humphrey Bogart film, “The Africa Queen,” and editing the first recording of “Sweet Georgia Brown” that would become the signature theme for the Harlem Globetrotters.
In 1963, Edward R. Murrow, then director of the United States Information Agency (USIA) visited Conakry, Guinea and recruited Sarkisian for the Voice of America (VOA). Named music director of Africa’s program center in Liberia, Sarkisian travelled and recorded music throughout Africa and launched “Music Time in Africa,” VOA’s longest running English program (47 years), first from Liberia, then from Washington, D.C. As his legend grew, Sarkisian became something of a celebrity in Africa, with crowds greeting him at airports and presidents offering police escorts.
During all his travels, often with his wife, Mary, Sarkisian never left his artistic roots. He kept a sketchpad nearby and drew portraits of kings, presidents, and musicians with their musical instrument and locals as he roamed from village to village and country to country recording traditional music. These sketches and drawings would eventually make up the “Faces of Africa” exhibit that has been shown in the U.S. and abroad, sponsored by the U.S. State Department.
The majorities of Sarkisian’s sketches are done in colored chalks on a wide variety of materials and reflect a profound sensitivity for facial expressions. Some are proud, independent, others shy and reflective. His drawings have been described by critics as being bathed in tender charm, and having aesthetics and seductive powers that overwhelm.
“The feelings expressed in Sarkisian’s portraits show the artist as a true friend of Africa”…”In all of Sarkisian’s works, he has frozen a moment of truth for the viewer.” Seventy-seven of these drawings are the subject of this collection.
(This text is excerpted from the Voice of America tribute to Leo Sarkisian.)
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