Tafesse says that he “grew up in a communist region, so everything was closed. When you go to school you have to study communist socialism, so that is like a box. That was the reason for the arts, so I could express myself.” At home Tafesse first learned how to paint by copying his mother, who would herself copy great works of art. She had talent, and according to Tafesse, could have also been an artist if she pushed herself.
By the time Tafesse went to college, students were no longer required to complete their theses on a subject relating to the state or communist revolution. There would even be spaces for him to exhibit upon graduation, as opposed to the many art students who, under the communist regime, “vanished” because there was virtually no place that supported the arts. In more recent years, that has changed, but according to Tafesse the new challenge lies in whether or not to succumb to what has become a lucrative trend of meeting the demand for “traditional African art.” Desta Meghoo, a social worker who collaborates with Tafesse on a program designed to assist homeless youths in Ethiopia, defines this tradition as “long-neck women, churches, and market scenes,” none of which are of interest to Tafesse.
Going through Tafesse’s portfolio, I ask after noting the third clown piece, “Why the use of clowns?” Instead of an explanation, Tafesse tells me about creating a clown called “The Hypocrite,” during his time in South Africa.
When Tafesse was in South Africa, “there were attacks there on any foreigner, anybody working in South Africa was attacked, because the people think [the foreigners] have come to take their job. So there was xenophobia. But there was a person, a bald guy, following me in South Africa who was trying to intimidate me. He said, ‘I see the way you walk- you are not from South Africa.’ I said, ‘I am Ethiopian,’ and passed him by. He said, ‘Hey, Ethiopia!’ And despite the fact that there were many people around and he looked educated, like he had just come out of a firm or something like that, he was talking so stupid. So I am inspired by him, and make a guy with a suit- a clown who looks like he’s crying, but he’s laughing inside.”
Even if he has never been to a certain place before, Tafesse has a knack for capturing its particular atmosphere. Since his arrival to Atlanta on October 19th, he has completed ten paintings, all about Atlanta. His sensitivity to social issues coupled with his eye for detail is evident in the piece, “I Got Everything,” about the Occupy Movement, depicting a man “chilling out” in a refrigerator, and if you look very closely, a helicopter looming eerily at his feet in a splash of blood red.
Tafesse insists, “I am open wherever I go, I don’t go with plan. I just open myself and see. I won’t even sketch [a subject]; I just perceive it. Usually after I work on something, I will see themes.” Tafesse uses his recent paintings in Atlanta as an example. Though it is difficult to understand how some commonality in each of his exhibits continue to be a unconscious coincidence, Tafesse maintains that the predominent oranges and reds in his paintings are due to his instinctual observation of the Fall leaves turning color.
“The colors of the trees and leaves and the change- they were just around. But when I see my paintings I see those colors. Even if I did not try, it would be there,” Tafesse states. That’s what happens to me. I don’t really try to do this and this and this. That would be putting myself in a box, and I don’t really want that to happen to me.”
Along with “I Got Everything,” included in this Friday’s King Center exhibit will also be other Atlanta affairs, that of travel and nightlife, which Tafesse depicted after seeing a monk at the airport, and having his first karaoke experience at Pal’s. “At first I thought they were acting like they’re singing. I thought they were moving their mouths. And [Desta] told me they are actually singing the vocals, so that was my inspiration.”
Tafesse can hardly contain his delight over the traveling monk. “Back home,” he says, “they have caves, they are very much like Buddhist monks, but they don’t travel out of their monastery at all. So to find someone in Kennedy airport!” Tafesse laughs in disbelief, examining the painting of his newly discovered outdoor monk.
Tafesse’s ability to represent the soul of a place, and different aspects of life attracted the attention of Rockafella co-founder Damon Dash, who invited Tafesse to his gallery, DD172, in New York. Tafesse was commissioned to create a work in honor of 11/04/08, a film Dash was screening about the global reaction to Barack Obama’s 2008 victory in the U.S. Presidential election. At DD172, visitors would watch Tafesse work while loud music played in the background. Usually, however, Tafesse chooses to work at night when there are fewer people. “It’s my favorite time to work. That’s the quietest moment.”
Tafesse’s first trip to America was in 2010, and though he admits that he loved the energy of New York, when I ask him about his favorite place in America, he quickly answers, “Albuquerque. I love that place. It has the culture, the touch of Mexico. And the architecture.” Tafesse laughs at my apparent surprise, saying, “Everyone does the same thing. When I tell people those places, they go, Albuquerque? All these places and Albuquerque?”
It is clear that Tafesse is in his element when he is defying the expectations of most. “When you’re an artist and want to do what you really want to do and don’t think about anyone else or what they might like, you have to choose to be honest to yourself or honest to money. But that’s the challenge you have to pass through, and I did really pass through it.”
Merid Tafesse and Fahamu Pecou will be displaying works at The King Center's Freedom Hall Nov. 5-6, with a reception at 6:30 p.m. on Nov. 4. Free. 449 Auburn Ave. (404) 526-8900. thekingcenter.org
@ Dave (361969)
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