Genaye Eshetu
May 6, 2019 · 13 min read

The Life of a Truly Extraordinary African Artist

Lost, confused in a foreign British airport of England is a 15 year old boy, with no money in his pocket. Hoping people from the Ethiopian Embassy will soon show up, he waited fervently to no avail. He just landed off his first flight, his first travel overseas be it on land, water or air. He waited on and on at the airport where only white and foreign faces walked past without even noticing him.

“Do you need help young boy?” finally someone approached him. “I am waiting for someone from the Ethiopian Embassy to pick me up”, he responded. The man told him that embassies are closed on a holiday and asked if the boy knew anyone in England that he could call and hook him up with. The boy remembered a British woman who visited his secondary school once while he was still in Ethiopia. The man looks up her name from the telephone book, calls the woman and asks if she would be willing to host a young boy from Ethiopia. Soon afterwards, that British woman -Sylvia Pankhurst, a very prominent British political and rights activist and long-time friend of Ethiopia during Ethiopia's occupation by Fascist Italy, sends her son, a boy of his age, to go pick him up Who in the airport at the moment would anticipate these two teenagers would grow up to be two extremely prominent figures in modern Ethiopian history. The Most Honorable World Laureate Maître Artiste Afewerk Tekle and Dr. RichardPankhurst author or co-author of twenty-two books on Ethiopia and editor or compiler of an additional seventeen. Pankhurst still recalls the time he was sent by his mother, Sylvia Punkrust, to the airport to receive a young Ethiopian boy, who was to become one of his best friends for more than sixty years.

Afework was born on 22 October 1932 in Ankober, Northern Shoa, Ethiopia, to his mother Feleketch Yamatawork and his father Tekle Mamo. He grew up to be a young boy with extraordinary talents during the time Ethiopia was under the Italian occupation. When Afework turned 15, he was elected by the Government of Ethiopia to travel and study mining engineering in England. Young Afewerk was infamous for sketching on his exercise books during lectures. While that made him lose his favor among the teachers, it also helped get his talent perceived those around him. Seeing his inclination to art, Sylvia Punkrust, who also loved and did art herself, wrote a letter to the Ministry of Education in Ethiopia recommending Afewerk to join Central school of Arts in England.

Afewerk often recalls how Emperor Haile Selassie I addressed him and other students leaving their country to study abroad: “You must work hard, and when you come back, do not tell us what tall buildings you saw in Europe, nor what wide streets they have, but make sure you return equipped with the skills and the mindset to rebuild Ethiopia,” Ayalneh Mulatu, Afewerk’s friend for more than fifty years says. Afework soon joined the Central School of Arts and Crafts, thanks to the acceptance of Sylvia Pankhurst's recommendation. Upon completion of his studies there, he was accepted as the first African student at the prestigious Faculty of Fine Arts of the University of London, known worldwide as ‘Slade’. Afewerk focused on painting, sculpture and architecture. While studying in England he also made several artistic pilgrimages to the continent of Europe.

“Meskel Flower”

After completion of his study at Slade, Afework returned to Ethiopia and traveled throughout every region getting inspiration for his paintings. He stayed at each location for about three months, studying his surroundings and absorbing Ethiopia.s historical and cultural diversity. Afework also made a special study of the Ethiopian illustrated manuscripts in Rome, London and Paris, thereby gaining a deeper knowledge of his own artistic heritage. “I had to study Ethiopian culture because an important ingredient of a world artist is to have in your artwork the flavor of where you were born. My art will belong to the world but with African flavor,”Afework said during his interview with Tadias Addis, a notable radio show on the most popular Sheger FM102.1 held on March 7, 2004.

His travel was soon followed by his first one-man exhibition at the Municipality Hall at the age of 22, which was the first significant art exhibition of post-war Ethiopia, according to the painter’s website. The exhibition was a success and helped him sponsor an extensive study tour in Italy, France, Spain, Portugal and Greece where he further perfected his painting skill and learned how to design and construct stained glass windows.

According to Richard, Afework.s tour helped his fluency in French, Spanish and Italian languages apart from English and his mother tongue Amharic. After two years of tour, Afework returned to Ethiopia and opened his studio in the National Library of Ethiopia. During this time, the king had assigned Afework in a ministerial post, Afewerk quickly decided to resign the ministerial post upon completion of his studies, to devote his full attention to painting, recalls Rita. He renounces even the king’s advice which required Afewerk, “to hold his brush in one hand and authority in the other,” says Ayalneh. Almost everyone in close contact with Afework, wouldn’t pass without admiring his disciplined lifestyle and time concept. Afework has always been punctual and values time most. Richard and Rita recall one incident when they were a few minutes late on an appointment they had with Afework. Afework ordered his house guard to send them back. Afework always snicks out of high official banquets and any kinds of invitations if the program is delayed even for few minutes. His favorite excuse to get out is “let me get my pipe from my car,” but he would go out and drive home, says Richard. Wubishet Workalemahu, a long time friend of the artist and a notable figure himself regarded as the person who introduced modern advertising to Ethiopia, recalls a banquet at the national palace, where Afework drove back home angry with the delay of the program, “we came as invited guests not to lurk around,” he remembers Afewerk as saying.

Afewerk always works with the background music of works of Beethoven, Mozart and also he listened to opera. He always used to say, that he loves Ethiopian music, which he refers to as sad music, according to Richard. Afework was a very tidy man who was always concerned not only about the drawings he does but the durability of his canvas, the condition of his table and the tidiness of his brushes which he washes every now and then.

According to Ayalneh, Afework gave up most of his hobbies not to cause harm to his hand that does wonders with the brush, apart from that he had also been a great piano player Afewerk raised the status of artists in Ethiopia during the time when there wasn’t a sense of what artists are, Richard says. He adds, “even during the time when artists are made to do church drawings for free, Afework advocated for artists to get what they deserve.”

At the young age of 27, Afewerk.s reputation grew globally as his mastery of the art of painting echoed via various international media. His drawings, paintings, murals, mosaics, stained-glass windows and sculptures, his designs for stamps, playing cards, posters, flags and national ceremonial costumes, all went to build up his position as Ethiopia.s foremost artist. He then set out on a tour to different African countries that led him to take an enduring interest in the subject of black liberation and independence, which served as inspiration for his widely famous works including Backbones of African Civilization, African Movement, African Atmosphere, African Unity, and Africa’s Heritage that depicts African nations under the yoke of colonialism and struggle for independence. “Your brush can be quite stronger than the machine gun, I wanted to show how you can write Africa through your artwork, what it means to have liberty, to have your fellow humans completely equal,” he said during an interview with Tadias magazine held on March 7, 2004. These paintings are now a collection of the National Museum of Ethiopia.

In 1961, Afework had an exhibition in Addis Ababa followed by his first show abroad in Russia, United States, and other countries. Three years later, Afework became the first winner of the Haile Sellassie I Prize for Fine Arts. The citation described him as a versatile and disciplined artist. And the prize was awarded for his outstanding drawings, paintings, landscapes, and portraits which eloquently express his particular world environment, and for his contribution in being among the first to introduce contemporary techniques to Ethiopian subject matter and content.

According to his close friend and famous writer Ayalneh, Afework values Haile Sellassie I Prize more than the number of awards he earned because he received it from the king he adored. One can argue, Afework is not just a pioneer in Ethiopian drawing, but also in Ethiopian fashion. Afework often clothed the characters of his drawings with his unique culturally designed clothes.He also used to design his own clothes when Ethiopian cultural clothes were not designed in any different way than the usual. “He is always meticulously dressed,” Richard remembers.

Afewerk showed up to the award ceremony of Haile Sellassie I with his own culturally designed clothing, instead of the formal cloth ordered by the King. As Afewerk walked into the palace, shocked by his attire, ministers rushed and locked him into one of the rooms in the palace to hide him from the wrath of the King. However, it was too late to neither send him back home to change and come back nor to give the award to someone else since the only other candidate, the late writer, and poet Kebede Michael missed the ceremony. Afewerk was once walking into the place where he met a minister. Many ministers used to despise and envy his close association with the King, and his frequent appearance in the palace, according to Ayalneh. The minister said to Afework, “why do you look up to the sky when you should rather be looking down to the ground,” to sarcastically remind Afewerk of his lowly background. “I look up because I have finished looking down,” Afework responded. There was also an unwritten consensus among the ministers not to buy any of Afewerk’s artworks. The King who learned of the ministers the conspiracy had to pass an order for ministers to buy one drawing each when he also bought three for himself. Afewerk, who believed that they should not be forced to buy his works, offered to give it to them as gifts. However, the King passed the order and the ministers went home with one drawing each. Days and weeks passed before the ministers paid for the drawings they bought. The King, again, had to intervene and telephone each minister to either pay for the art works they took home or return the drawings, and they did the latter.

Glass art work at United nations Conference center.

International exhibitions followed his Haile Sellasssie I award at the Festival of Negro Arts in 1965 at Dakar, Senegal, and then to Zaire, Kenya, Algeria, Turkey, United Arab Republic, Bulgaria and Munich. One of the paintings exhibited is the well-known “Meskal Flower” which made its debut on this occasion.

According to Ayallneh, Afework originally starts the drawing of Maskal Flower in his dining room, putting the flower in a vase, however he cast the flower in a vase away to draw it as it blossoms on Semien Mountains of Ethiopia. Almost all works of Afework have either Ethiopian or African vigor. His pictures are indigenous to the highlands, valleys and breathe of Africa.

“I am not a pessimist, I want people to look at my art and find hope,” Afework said. “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’s possible!]. he said on his appearance as a keynote speaker at Stanford University.s Pioneers Forum, United States, on March 7th, 2004.

Surely Afewerk worked his way up to success from a poor and difficult background to set a model for Ethiopian artists, says Ayalneh. He recalls that Afework always detests begging at individual or national level. Afework used to often cites as a good example King Minilik.s reaction to the hunger that struck the country in the late 1880s and beginning of 1890s. Minilik, though he was the emperor of a great nation, went out to a mountain with a pickaxe, plowing the land to lead by example. He said to the people on the occasion, “my people, come, join me, let’s work in our own hands and get rid of this hunger that strikes our country.”

Afework conceptualized and designed internationally famous stained-glass window of gigantic scale (150sq.m.) at the entrance of Africa Hall, United Nations Economic Commission for Africa. The artwork embodies Africa.s sorrowful past, present struggle, and its high aspirations for the future. He also produced over ten designs for an African Unity emblem and flag. Afework conceived many sculptural designs of the heroic people of Ethiopia and other African countries including famous sculptures he made of the first Prime Minister and then president of Ghana, Kwame Nkrumah, Senegal.s president, Léopold Sédar Senghor to mention a few. Afewerk also used to enjoy drawing Ghanian women whom he believed are beautiful.

Afework’s painting Unity Triptych won the gold medal in the Algiers International Festival, in 1977. In the early 1980s Afewerk exhibited a second major exhibition in Moscow and Bonn. The same year he got award for the Order of “Hero of Peace of Friendship” from U.S.S.R. Afewerk.s Self-Portrait can be seen in Florence, Italy which is actually the first painting by an African artist to enter the permanent collection of the Uffizi Gallery since 1981. He later won American Academy Membership Award, Cambridge Lifetime Achievement Award and membership in 1992. In 1997 he exhibited at the Biennale of Aquitaine France, winning first prize in the international competition. He was also nominated the Laureate of the Biennale which gave him membership of the French International Academy of Arts. He also won an International Peace Prize Award in 2004. According to Wubishet Werkalemaw, a long time friend and perhaps known as father of Ethiopian advertisement industry, Afewerk won around 100 awards throughout the world. Wubishet also says that Afewerk’s name was one of the 200 famous persons’ names Neil Armstrong carried to the moon.

Afework also designed his 22 room house, studio and gallery, which he named Villa Alpha. He was architecturally inspired by his own cultural heritage, especially by ancient Aksum, the mediaeval castles of Gondar and walls of Harrar. “If I have a house in two countries, my heart will also be parted in the two places,” was Afework.s response when advised to build a house either in United States or Europe.

According to Wubishet, Afework always swears on the Lord of Ethiopia. The lord of Ethiopia indeed gave him aptitude to live in peace within three different regimes of Ethiopia. During the time of the Derg regime, after the killings of the 60 higher officials and the subsequent red terrorAfework was advised by the European embassies of France and Italy and UK in Addis Ababa, to provide him shelter in their country till things gets better. However, Afework responded, this is my country that I was born and lived my life in and earned all the prestige. Now my country is in turmoil and in big pain, I have to share the pains of my country with the rest of the people of Ethiopia and have no heart to opt to escape it and come back when it things gets better.

In his later days, Afework was married to an Ethiopian woman named Kelemwa in a religious ceremony at St. Giorgis church. However after a year and few months, Kelemwa, without Afework.s consent sold his house in Hawassa and their marriage ended there. Afework once told a friend Leo, that the Ancient Egyptians believed that upon death they would be asked two questions and their answers would determine whether they could continue their journey in the afterlife. The first question was, “Did you bring joy?” The second was, “Did you find joy?” Looking back, the answer in Afewerk’s case is a resounding YES! He brought joy not only to those around him but also to the people of the world through his work.

Afework always speaks of leaving his artworks to the Ethiopian people. Afework withdraws from selling some of his artworks worth up to 13 million USD saying, “this is definitely for Ethiopian people,” according to Ayalneh. For a person who fails to make a formal will, it is quite unexpected to keep promise letters of all the people who bought his drawings. These letters have promises of the buyers to return the drawings back to their homelands, Ethiopia, in the next generation.

Afework was a great orator, and an active member of Toastmasters where he earned recognition. Ayalneh was with Afework during his last words, “Please keep my name, in my life I did not do anything bad for my country or offend anyone I know of. I rather did my best to let this country’s and Africa’s name called out for good throughout the world. I guided my life in my own way, I regret that not. I believe it is the end.” It was indeed the end. Ethiopia lost a great man at the age of 80, on April 17, 2012.

Self Portrait

The Most Honorable World Laureate Maitre Artist Afework Tekle was laid to rest at the cemetery of the Holy Trinity Cathedral, Addis Ababa. Thousands of people, friends, senior government officials, diplomats and hundred thousand of fans accompanied his body to the cemetery. President Girma Woldegiorigs, Prime Minister Meles Zenawi and speaker of the House of People. Representatives, ministers, the African Union, and different embassies sent their condolences through their representatives to put wreaths at his grave.

After the funeral I went back to his home; there was no one, no family member, relative or friends sitting to mourn him as is the Ethiopian culture, only his works were there which he left for Ethiopia, I wept bitterly, said his longtime friend and best man, Wubishet Workalemahu.

Originally published on Echo Africa Issue 1, 2012

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