Mulugeta Tafesse submitted an essay on art movements in East Africa for the April edition of Africanah.org, but he is also an artist.
He has an exhibition right now. In Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.
The following text on his work I wrote a couple of years ago.
New paintings from Mulugeta Tafesse
STYLE THAT SPEAKS
An Ethiopian in Belgium. Mulugeta Tafesse (1960) has lived in Antwerp for years. His frame of reference is European, centered on Belgium. He loves the work of artists like Paul Delvaux and René Magritte. On the Flemish Primitives he once expressed his amazement at “how they can create such a huge world on a small panel”. He admires them for it. He still exhibits in Ethiopia once in a while, but his work does not reflect his homeland.
Since going to live on Tenerife, Tafesse has begun to paint figuratively again. There is a certain irony in his explanation for this. “It’s because of all the naked bodies of the sunbathers.” His subjects are not restricted to people. Locations or situations often prompt him to paint. A good example of this is his recent ‘Kievits Plaats’ (2011-2012). The depiction of a street behind the station in Antwerp. This work is characteristic for several reasons. Tafesse always chooses everyday subjects. His day-to-day life suffices as source of inspiration. ‘In Mirror Ball’ (2011-2012) he paints a mirror ball like those used in dancehalls all over the world. The space around it lacks identity. His painting style raises this ordinariness to a personal and extraordinary level. With free, expressionist brush strokes he gives the reality an evocative air. He does not imitate. Static locations are thus given a certain animation as if the human presence has not yet been effaced. In this way he gives human figures their essential vulnerability. When several figures appear in a painting, this lively style ensures that they are animated or appear to be in contact with each other. A few years ago he still seemed to be searching for a narrative content. A cyclist clearing a path through a cloud of mist along a narrow street or a man apparently fleeing from an area with threateningly tall buildings. This need for narrative finds much less expression in his new works. He reduces his subjects to their essence and mostly allows his style to speak for itself.
For many painters, color makes a significant contribution. For Tafesse, the colors, where used at all, are pale and subdued. Grayish, bluish, yellowish, brownish, greenish, reddish or orangish. His colors are a suggestion of color rather than a ‘real’ color. This intentional vagueness lays a pleasing aura of mystery over his works.
The Belgian Luc Tuymans is said to be one of Mulugeta Tafesse’s admirers. True or not, I can imagine Tuymans feeling a certain affinity. Not only because of the restrained subject matter – someone once described this as “the beauty of nothingness” – but also because of the restrained colors. He, however, also restrains his brush strokes, and in this aspect he differs from the freer style of his Ethiopian fellow artist.
In the eyes of many art lovers, an artist from Africa should be recognizable as an artist from Africa.
Mulugeta Tafesse does not conform to this notion. Why should he allow himself to be directed by this conceptualization fueled by preconceptions? He left his native country a long time ago. Via Eastern Europe he finally ended up in Belgium. His artistic development has taken place within the context of the history of European art. The museums he visited were European museums. The artists he came to admire played a role within the Western canon (he also often mentions Rembrandt’s light for instance). It is then also logical to him that his work lacks an African frame of reference. In his written works Tafesse demonstrates his familiarity with his country’s art history and with recent developments. He certainly does not repudiate his origins.
A remarkable artist.
Amsterdam, November 2012.