Desta was born in the town of Harrar, the son of a high-ranking clergyman Aleka Desta Nego and was the youngest of six siblings. His father worked for Ras Makonnen, the governor of Harrar at the time, and was tutor to his son Ras Tafari Makonnen who was later crowned as Emperor Haile Selassie, the last emperor of Ethiopia. Gebre Kristos spent his youth on regular activities like playing soccer and volleyball he also spent a great deal of his time under his father's tutelage copying and illustrating religious manuscripts, while assisting his father as an apprentice. His early influence and introduction to art, was the traditional religious art of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church.
He completed his elementary education in Harrar and attended the Haile Sellassie School, and graduated from General Wingate High School. In college Desta studied agriculture, but left school early to further pursue his interest in art. In 1957 he earned a scholarship to study art in Cologne, West Germany. After his graduation, he held his first exhibition at the Gallery Kuppers, Cologne, it encompassed a year's work and made an extensive six-month tour of Western Europe.
In 1962 Gebre Kristos returned to Ethiopia and introduced his newly adopted style, abstract expressionism. Initially his work was criticized for abandoning more conventional styles, at the time the art scene in Ethiopia was steeped in traditionalism. Despite frequent criticism he continued to create and refine his style, at the time he was also a faculty member of the Fine Arts school at Addis Ababa University, where he taught poetry and art. His art was displayed in many further exhibitions, both in Ethiopia and abroad. He held exhibitions in various countries such as West Germany, Greece, Senegal, Russia, India, Yugoslavia, Brazil and Ghana in an ambassadorial capacity.
Desta was criticized for including European techniques in his artwork, rather than staying with traditional local methods. However, he was also among the artists that enjoyed the patronage of Emperor Haile Selassie, who was trying to advance modernization of Ethiopia by promoting progressive ideas in education, art, and industry. In 1965 he received the Haile Selassie I Prize Trust Award for Fine Arts.
Life in Exile
After the overthrow of emperor Haile Selassie in 1974, Gebre Kristos continued as a faculty member at Addis Abeba University while responding to the demands of the new military government, the Derg, to create propaganda material for political purposes. In 1978 while on an exhibition campaign to Kenya he defected and soon fled to Germany seeking asylum. The German government did not grant his request but in 1980 the United States granted him political asylum and he settled in Lawton, Oklahoma. Life in exile was challenging he only had one solo exhibition in Lawton before he died in 1981 at the age of 50.