Tesfaye Tessema

(b. 1952) Ethiopia/USA
The Story

Now a resident of Harlem in New York City, Tesfaye Tessema was born in Addis Ababa (Ethiopia) and received a diploma in 1971 from the Addis Ababa School of Fine Arts, was mechanical artist for Ethiopian Airlines in Addis Ababa in 1972, and, leaving shortly thereafter for the USA and receiving a Master of Fine Arts degree from Howard University in Washington, DC., after which, in 1982, he was employed as an exhibition assistant by Warren Robbins, a former U. S. Foreign Service officer, who had opened the (then) private Museum of African Art in his townhouse on Capitol Hill (a former residence of Frederick Douglas) in 1964, and which transitioned in (by Public Law 95-414) in 1979, formerly named the National Museum of African Art in 1981.

Prior to the National Museum of African Art’s formal opening to the public on the National Mall in 1987, Tessema was associated with Bob Blackbird’s Print Workshop in New York City in 1985, becoming a free-lance studio artist in New York City in 1992.

Considered a master painter as well as a master print maker and muralist, his art has been collected and exhibited at the Guggenheim Museum in New York, the Library of Congress, the Smithsonian Institution, the Schomberg and the United Nations in New York City, and in France, Germany, England, and Japan.

Visual and aural associations of African American culture reverberate in his paintings, such as the “Comb Series”. The confluence of rhythmic designs and colors in an improvisational style are a reflection his love of jazz music.

As an African artist who has lived and practiced in the West for four decades, he is acutely aware of disorientations caused by migration and postcolonial experiences, and he is conscious of the possibilities inherent in these physical and spiritual journeys. At the core of Tesfaye’s recent work is an open-ended improvisational sensibility. The Afro-comb, a symbol of Black cultural identity is endlessly reworked and re-interpreted as a metaphor for an affirmation of “Self.”

“Ethiopia has a 4,000 year old history of visual art, Tesfaye says, “and I was lucky enough to see it organically. I know it’s going to disappear and I really feel it’s my business to keep that work alive.” Tesfaye grew up being taken to a church every day, exposing him to his deeply ingrained belief in a higher power, and “when I am alone,” he says, “that abstract higher power calms me down. When I close my eyes and think about love, I see colors and those colors are from somewhere I picked up when I was younger. You can’t create anything if nothing has registered earlier inside. What you don’t know doesn’t come out, what you haven’t taken in won’t come out. An artist needs to be like a river, to be innocent and to be sensitive to everything.”