Articles in this series:
Series: Dr Pankhurst
Maitre Artist Afewerk Tekle
He is among a handful of Ethiopians who have made it to international celebrity status this century. He is one of the definitive figures of contemporary Ethiopian art, a giant recognized in Ethiopia, on the African continent and in fact the world over. His career spans five decades and three political regimes, and he continues to work today in Villa Alpha, his home and studio. He has elevated the social status of the artist in Ethiopian society. He has produced a tremendous body of work amongst which is the magnificent stained glass mural greeting visitors at the UNECA’s Africa Hall. He is the Honorable Laureate Maitre Artiste Afewerk Tekle.
He was born in the North Shoa town of Ankober in October, 1932. At school he demonstrated a gift for mathematics and drawing and in 1947 was sent to England to study mining engineering. His artistic interests and talent, however, led him to drop engineering and pursue studies in art. HMAL Afewerk Tekle studied at the Central School of Arts and Crafts in London before joining the prestigious Slade, Faculty of Fine Arts at the University of London.
In 1954 he returned to Ethiopia and put on a one-man show which was the first major art exhibition in post World War II Ethiopia. The exhibition was a tremendous happening for Addis Ababa society, and in the highly conservative public atmosphere of the time it was also the source of much controversy. The show was the first exhibition of abstract paintings by an Ethiopian artist in Ethiopia, and among the pieces displayed was the Crucifixion, currently on display at the ASNI Gallery (on loan from the National Museum). The unorthodox representation of Christ’s crucifixion, far removed from the traditional Ethiopian style of ecclesiastical painting, brought plenty of protest from the leaders of the Orthodox Church. The press was also quite critical and at times hostile to the young artist. At first he sold no paintings. Eventually the emperor Haile Selassie I purchased two paintings. Interestingly the emperor urged upstanding members of the society to support the artist and purchase paintings. Seven additional paintings were subsequently picked up by various individuals, but they never paid for them. The matter eventually came to the attention of the emperor who insisted that either payment be made or the paintings returned. All seven paintings were returned to the artist.
Since that first exhibition in Addis Ababa the lore and repertory of the artist bloomed, not only in Ethiopia but through out the world. HMAL Afewerk Tekle’s works have been exhibited all over Ethiopia including Eritrea, and in Nigeria, Egypt, Congo (Zaire) Kenya, Ghana, Senegal and Algeria; in England, Ireland, Italy France, Spain, Russia (USSR), Germany, Czechoslovakia, Bulgaria, Greece, Yugoslavia; Canada, USA, Mexico, Brazil, Argentina, India and Japan. His works are to be found in all these countries and more, including Australia, Venezuela, and the Sudan.
I asked HMAL Afewerk Tekle what he thinks his most significant contribution to Ethiopia has been. He responded, “I would like to answer that as sincerely and honestly as I can. And really I am not trying to be smart by saying this. I think my contribution to Ethiopia is really not what I have done already, but what I think I will do from today on. … My contribution is going to be that one painting, which at the moment for me has been a big wall which somehow has been a blurred picture which is coming to focus, but the distance between me and that work has always been cloudy, because life is very difficult – your attention is disrupted by contemporary events… That painting will be a topic of conversation today (when it comes out) and in that distant tomorrow it will represent me and the Ethiopian people, my contemporaries, hopefully like the obelisk of Axum, the Lalibela churches, and so on. That is why I say I haven’t contributed anything – I have been taking in a lot, and have not given back much.”
In preparation for my interview with HMAL Afewerk Tekle I asked several contemporary Ethiopian artists of a much younger generation their views of HMAL Afewerk Tekle. All of them recalled feeling tremendous admiration for him while studying to become artists. “I was determined to be the next Afewerk,” one recalled. Upon his return from studying art in the Soviet Union another artist is recorded as declaring that he would be the next Afewerk Tekle. Through the numerous exhibitions held during the 1950’s and 1960’s, the controversy and public debate generated by the artists work, Afewerk Tekle became and continues to be a household name. The artist was quite adept at accumulating awards, both locally and internationally. Today he has over 82 major awards and distinctions.
Perusing through his short biography written by Dr. Richard Pankhurst, one of the most striking features is the number of world leaders that the artist has met and been congratulated by. They are, among others, Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip, the King and Queen of Spain, the Queen of Belgium, The Shah and Queen of Persia (Iran), President Kwame Nkrumah, President Jomo Kenyatta, President Kenneth Kaunda, Prime Minister Indira Ghandi, Pope John Paul II, etc. etc. No other Ethiopian artist has achieved such official recognition, and I doubt that there are many contemporary artists internationally who have achieved such status either.
HMAL Afewerk Tekle has made several contributions of his works to be auctioned for various charitable causes. In 1975 he traveled to Kenya where one of his paintings generated 15,000 USD, donated toward the famine relief effort underway. In the mid 1980’s he again donated several works for fundraising events in North America. Regarding the culture of ‘professional begging’ that has become so prevalent in Ethiopia as a result of these national tragedies, HMAL Afewerk Tekle expressed great distress regarding the fate of the proud Ethiopian spirit. He expressed his hopes that the day will dawn soon when the country will be free of the yokes of poverty and once again regain her true status as a proud and dignified nation.
HMAL Afewerk Tekle intends to open Villa Alpha to the public by July 1999. The entire house, including studio with unfinished works and works in progress, and where he continues to draw and paint, the various salons overflowing with some of the internationally renowned masterpieces including Meskel Flower, Mother Ethiopia, and Sun of Senegal; the living quarters of the artist including bedrooms and guest-rooms, will be open to the public. The July opening will depend on the current war situation. With the current state of affairs between Ethiopia and Eritrea “it is not a time of celebration” he stated. When the time does come, it will indeed by quite an event when the average Addis Ababan will be able to peruse the home and studio of HMAL Afewerk Tekle. Ultimately it is the artist’s wish to leave Villa Alpha and the numerous works of art in it to Ethiopia and the next generation of Ethiopian artists. He stated:
“In every work that I have tried to create they will find attempts to do honor to this country, as her creative son and I would like to leave this house (Villa Alpha) with an endowment so that at least six or seven young artists who are beginning to be known can study — as a kind of a scholarship, they can live and work in this place for six months to a year, when they finish their studies… When I was young I wanted to see a painters house, where he worked, where he lived. Unfortunately at the age of sixteen I went to see a priest painting in a church, in one of the churches, and when I asked where he was living. He was living, as was the tradition because he was dedicated to the church, in a grave house. And this always rang a bell in my mind as a young art academic student when I visited the homes and the places where the great artists in Europe, Raphael, Leonardo or contemporary artists like Picasso and all these, I always wished I could live something like that. So that will be hopefully my legacy, as a realistic thing, with an endowment, so that the Ethiopian, the African will live, see and be even more creative.”
There is so much to say about HMAL Afewerk Tekle. This page is far too limited to do his story justice. His work and life-experience form an interesting reflection of the Ethiopian experience in the second half of the twentieth century – both her triumphs and tragedies. I hope to have the opportunity to present a much more detailed story at some point soon. In the mean time I would like to thank the artist for the opportunity to interview him.