When BuomKuoth Thot, '16, came to the U.S. in 2006 from Ethiopia, he didn't speak English.
"When my teacher noticed I wasn't having fun in school, she introduced me to art," he said. "When I realized that I didn't need to speak to draw, I started drawing every day."
Thirteen years later, the entrepreneur, fine arts alumnus, and former Buffalo State student-athlete would travel back home to shake the hand of Sahle-Work Zewde, the first woman elected president in Ethiopia, and give her the portrait he painted in 2018.
"I stopped painting for almost two years," Thot said, noting that something about a photograph of Zewde looking up to the sky gave him the inspiration to start painting again. The 11-by-14 inch oil on canvas took a month to complete, Thot said.
"Having a woman as a president showed me that Ethiopia is changing and getting better," he said. "So many people admired her and treated the painting like it was the Mona Lisa. I believe that's why it went viral."
Initially posted on his Facebook page in late October, the painting gained over 3,000 shares.
"I asked my followers to share the painting on their Facebook pages—After that, my phone was blowing up," he said. "That went on for three weeks."
Many people inquired about buying the piece.
"One guy from Ethiopia called and asked to buy it to give to the president," he said. Thot realized he would rather give it to President Zewde himself, but asked the man to help him get in contact with her office.
A week later, Thot received a message from Aster Zaoude, President Zewde's sister, offering assistance for an introduction. Thot said he was completely blown away.
Thot's roots go back to Gambella, Ethiopia. Many in the city, including Thot's family. are considered minorities in Ethiopia due to migration from South Sudan during past civil wars.
Even with the discrimination and belief that people from Gambella are not Ethiopian, Kuoth proudly states, "I am Ethiopian."
To help the people in his town, Thot founded a factory to quickly grind foods which are staples of the Ethiopian diet. The process would otherwise take days to do by hand.
Thot travels to Ethiopia every year. The timing of the painting's completion and Zaoude's contact all happened to fall into place with his trip. It seemed like fate, he said.
Shortly after arriving in Ethiopia, Thot contacted Zaoude. After a week of not hearing back from the president's office, he tried contacting Zaoude again, and in that exact moment, he received the call. Thot would meet Zewde the following day.
"It was like a movie," he said. "I felt like my mind was imagining things because I didn't see myself in that position. There were beautiful buildings, architecture, and guards everywhere."
Upon meeting Zewde, Thot explained the meaning behind the painting.
"When I meet her, I told her the painting came from the entire nation of Ethiopia as a gift, not just from me as an artist," he said.
Thot and President Zewde spoke for over 30 minutes, he said, noting that "she was very humble and personable."
They spoke about the painting, business, and her plans of leadership in Ethiopia.
"She talked about how she wanted to make things more equal for everyone," he said. "I saw in that moment that she was a good role model, not just to me, but to everybody, especially the younger generation coming up."
As they spoke about business, Zewde made a request. She told Thot she wanted more of the diaspora to invest in the country.
Thot took this time to make a personal request, as well.
"My request for her as a leader was to recognize my hometown of Gambella," he said. "Some people don't know where Gambella is or even consider it to be Ethiopian. So I wanted my city to be equal to the rest of the cities in Ethiopia."
Today, Thot is regarded as a celebrity in his hometown—the man who let the name of Gambella ring nationwide.
"Whenever people talked about the painting, they mention the city," he said. "The kid from Gambella, Ethiopia. She inspired me, and now I draw every day. I'm going to fight for my art."