Ethiopia’s leading artist, the Most Honorable Maitre Artiste World Laureate Afewerk Tekle died on Tuesday this week at the age of 80. A Week in the Horn expresses its deep condolences to his family and his admirers all over the world.
Born in the old city of Ankober in Shoa Province in 1932, Afewerk was originally sent to the UK to study as an engineer, but his artistic talents were quickly recognized and he was persuaded to enrol in the Central School of Arts and Crafts in London. He subsequently became the first African student to enter the Slade School of Art where he studied painting, sculpture and architecture. Returning to Ethiopia, Afewerk decided to travel around the country to get more experience of Ethiopia and its cultures. This was reflected in his first one-man show in Addis Ababa, and was followed by study tours in Italy, France, Spain, Portugal and Greece where he learnt to design and construct stained glass windows as well as extend his interests into murals, mosaics, and sculpture as well as drawing and painting. These experiences also infused his designs for stamps, playing cards, posters, flags and national ceremonial dresses.
It all went to build up his position as Ethiopia’s foremost artist. He produced murals and mosaics for St. George’s Cathedral in Addis Ababa and designed a number of stamps. A monumental statue of Ras Mekonnen was completed for the city of Harar and he designed the stained glass windows in Africa Hall. The three windows which cover an area of 150 square meters represent the sorrow of Africa’s past, the struggle of the present, and the hope for Africa’s future. Other important works included an Altar cross (1959) for the Royal Chapel in the Tower of London in the UK, the Last Judgment (1970) mural in Adigrat Cathedral, Tigray, the victory of Ethiopia (1979) at the Hero Centre in Debre Zeit and the Chalice and the Cross in the Life of the African People (1997). In 1977, his painting Unity Triptych won the gold medal in the Algiers International Festival. In 1961 Afewerk held a major retrospective in Addis Ababa, which led to his painting Maskal Flower (1961) being shown at international exhibitions in Russia, the United States and in Senegal. It was at this time he became committed to the anti-colonial struggle, and this was reflected in such paintings as Backbones of African Civilization and African Unity. He held exhibitions in many countries including the US, Senegal, Turkey, Zaire, the United Arab Republic, Bulgaria, Germany, Kenya, the USSR, France and Algeria. In 1997 he exhibited at the Biennale of Aquitaine in France, winning first prize in the international competition. Afewerk also designed his own house, studio and gallery, known as Villa “Alpha”, architecturally inspired by Ethiopia’s cultural heritage.
Afewerk was a man of the African renaissance, who knew the “true meaning of compassion, of duty, of style, and of beauty,” and he has left a “tapestry of art” in his paintings of Ethiopia and of Africa and his stained glass windows which have done so much to inspire generations of younger artists in Ethiopia and in Africa. Speaking a few years ago at Stamford University he summed up his work and by extension his life: “I am not a pessimist. I want people to look at my art and find hope. I want people to feel good about Ethiopia, about Africa, to feel the delicate rays of the sun. And most of all I want them to think: Yitchalal – it is possible.” He will be greatly missed.