Tadesse Mesfin (b. 1953) is a giant of the Ethiopian art scene. He holds a unique position as both a figurehead of the Ethiopian modernist movement, and as a long- time educator through his role as a professor at the influential Alle School of Fine Art and Design in Addis Ababa. Among the generations of painters he has taught are Addis Gezehagn, Ermias Kifleyesus, Merikokeb Berhanu and Tesfaye Urgessa.
Mesfin’s latest work is a continuation of his ongoing ‘The Pillars of Life’ series, an ode to the women who work as small-holder vendors in markets across Ethiopia. These traders can typically be found standing or crouched down with their agricultural produce scattered in front of them, hoping to entice the eye of potential customers. As a visual paean to them, Mesfin pays homage to their occupations and personae by placing them front and centre, celebrating their importance within the social and cultural framework of Ethiopian life.
Each painting from this latest series has a particular atmosphere of elegance and dignity. The figures stand proud, framed by a crowded backdrop that alludes to the frenetic marketplace environment in which they exist. Awash with sunny hues, the canvases appear to emit a palpable midday heat. There seems to be no hierarchy amongst these women, who stand in unison with an air of camaraderie. In a nod to this apparent rapport, Tadesse gives his paintings titles such as My Sister’s Keeper and Harmony ; within this figural cohesiveness however, there is a distinct individuality to each character.
Mesfin has stated that his previous fascination with the West-African tradition of mask-making prompted him to create his own “Ethiopian masks” from the expressions found in the faces of the women occupying his canvases. Their pointed chins and captivating stares are a nod to West-African masks; however, the distinctly Ethiopian features give them their own unique appearance. Often there is a protagonist in the painting who is the focal point, slightly off-centre in accordance with the golden section rules of proportion, counter-balancing the figures in the background. Tadesse’s Addis Ababa studio is adorned with a number of mirrors, carefully placed, to aid him in his search for the perfect composition.
Mesfin’s artistic career spans more than five decades. His painterly style has been greatly influenced by numerous changes in his environment, from a seven- year stint in the USSR, where he studied architecture and sculpture in St. Petersburg, to projects in rural southern Ethiopia, and artist residency programmes in the United States as a result of winning the 1998 prestigious Mid-American Arts Alliance (MAAA) fellowship.
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