The renowned Ethiopian artist Afewerk Tekle, who died at the age of 80 in April 10, 2012, had exhibited his art throughout Ethiopia and in numerous foreign countries. The artist, who was one of the first Ethiopian students to study in Britain after the Second World War, had received numerous awards, inluding the Haile Selassie I Prize for Fine Arts in 1964. His one-man exhibition at the Municipality Hall in Addis Ababa in 1954 was described as the first significant art exhibition of post-war Ethiopia. The artist also garnered extensive media coverage and one of the early articles written about him was a six-page report which appeared in the African American magazine, Ebony, in Juin 1965. “Ethiopian artist extols his land,” the headline told readers. Here is the repint of the whole article.
ETHIOPIAN ARTIST EXTOLS HIS LAND
Government support pays off IN A NATION of coffee house metaphysics, the notion of a state-commissioned artist rings, somehow, of the regimentative. At no time in their history have American painters and sculptors sought organized official patronage.
It is thus being left to Ethiopia— and a vastly talented artist named Afewerk Tekle— to remind the world that great art can indeed flourish in the Establishment.
Afewerk, as he is professionally known, approaches art with the simple dedication of a patriot. His fond landscapes flagrantly rhapsodize his native land. His equestrian statues grace public squares. His busts of state officials and lavish murals of Ethiopian history adorn such “status quo” places as Ethiopia’s national library, parliament building, St. George’s Cathedral in Addis Ababa and the capital’s spanking new Africa Hall. His best known painting, a Meskel Flower has been called a loving allegory of Ethiopian womanhood.
Lest he be dismissed as a mere government artisan, however, the 32-year-old African enjoys a formidable reputation on the world stage. Museums and private collections across Europe house his work. Several international art magazines have featured it. He has taken part in group exhibitions in England, France, Italy, Yugoslavia, Czechoslovakia, Ghana and Hong Kong and staged well-received one-man shows in the U. S. and Russia.
An all-around craftsman (oils, monochromes, gouaches, pencil drawings, sculptures, murals and even postage stamps), Afewerk differs from Western artists in still another respect— he refuses to be “typedHis work runs the gamut from late Gothic ( the murals ) to impressionism (certain of the landscapes) to the sheer abstract. Emphasis on “schools,” in fact, has always irritated Afewerk, who considers it a serious flaw of the West.
“Frankly, I see no difference between abstract and realistic,” he argues. “Many artists are ‘modern’ simply for the sake of being so, because the climate says they must be. If a subject that inspires me can be treated realistically, I treat it that way. Often its impact is emotional, requiring use of figures, lines and colors that best express that personal vision. As such, it may appear ‘abstract.’ Observers of Manet, for example, wrongly assume that he evolved, in the course of his painting, from representationalist to abstractionist. I am certain the artist did not make the distinction.”
A serious symptom of this tendency, he believes, is the development, in the last two or three years, of pop art. “Some theoreticians— taken with the novelty— will inject worlds of meaning into the most trite work,” he declares. “Actually, some of these newer forms are really exciting— but they are rarely given a chance to develop. Very soon the fad changes, and the artists are doing something quite different.”
Afewerk, who began drawing as a child in wartime Ethiopia, credits his own development to Tintoretto, El Greco and the 16th century German master, Matthias Griinewald. Moderns whom he admires include Orozco, Georges Braque and the early Picasso.
Relaxed and urbane, he is frankly astonished at some modern artists need for alienation. “We non-Westerners, in particular, must not be estranged from our society. We cannot afford that luxury. However universal we may like to be, we must not forget our heritage, for it is only through this that we can contribute anything new to the world of art.”
MANY OF HIS COUNTRYMEN CALL WORK TOO ‘WESTERNIZED‘.
LIKE any artist— estranged or otherwise— Afewerk experiences occasional friction with his society. A feudal nation until recent years, Ethiopia still abounds in provincial attitudes and other vestments of its past. He is often criticized, for example, for what churchmen consider a too heavy emphasis on secular themes. Traditionalists, in turn, claim his work is far too “Westernized.” His Maskal Flower, hailed in Europe as a minor classic, is often attacked in Ethiopia as laden with foreign influence.
Afewerk is proud of his nation and its Coptic Church but insists his work be judged by universal artistic standards. (To his frequently noted indebtedness to El Greco, in particular, he raises an interesting point- similarity in temperament and physical types between Ethiopians and Spaniards. There are the same large eyes with a touch of sadness and fine, sensitive fingers; the same religious devotion.
But Afewerk, whose work is pervasively Ethiopian in its subject matter, is fiercely chauvinistic. A world traveler who speaks five languages (English, French, Italian and Spanish, in addition to his native Amharic), he recalls his childhood years of hardship during the Italian occupation of Ethiopia in World War II. “This is my home,” he says. “I have suffered here and I am happy here.”