The Most Hon. Maitre Artiste World Laureate
Alpha Son of Thunder
Painter of Mother Ethiopia
Maitre artiste Afewerk Tekle swears by the name of the Lord of Ethiopia. Homage to Ethiopia is his manifesto in his private as well as his public artistic works. In every work that he created we see his accountability to do honor to the country and its people. He almost single-handedly reincarnated and demonstrated the greatness and pride of Ethiopia and Ethiopians in his masterpieces and in his artistic persona.
As he celebrates his 70th birthday, there is so much to say and so many things to remember and contemplate about the epic life and works of this great master. (1) Anything short of a national observance and an extensive account of his life and art, as well as scholarly documented works by the nation’s institutions and thinkers, would not do justice to Afewerk’s achievements. As an individual who appreciates his contributions and his enduring accomplishments, and in honor of his 70th birthday I have chosen to write about one of his masterpieces, Mother Ethiopia .
I first saw a magazine picture of Mother Ethiopia and the model while I was in high school. Years later when I saw the original work, despite some of the conflicting comments I heard about the ideals the work embodied, I was overwhelmed by its artistic clarity, purity and monumental character as well as the symbolic value emanating from it. I was astonished at the effective simplicity in this masterpiece--a technique the ancients developed over a long period of our creative history. Ever since, I have wondered about this masterpiece, and the more I see it, the more I am captivated and curious and the more I admire it for its artistic qualities and its unprecedented visionary excellence.
Why was Afewerk inspired to pick this grand subject at this particular time in his life and at a crucial period in the country’s history? Why did he paint a universal theme of mother and child from a live model in a particular way and shape it with the intention of it representing the nation as Mother Ethiopia ? Did the countless icons and mural paintings of Our Lady with her beloved Son in our churches and monasteries inspire him? Can some of his early art works such as Mother and Child or Aida, which some identify as Mother Ethiopia, and others play as model, or did the model herself play some role? Or was it the folklore and the amateur paintings of Ethiopia, the historical and legendary writings and thoughts about Ethiopia that inspired him to do this painting? Did his upbringing, his family background, friends and acquaintance and education play a part in this? All of these as well as other art-historical and psychological reasons may have contributed to the creation of The Painting. However, in this short article, I have chosen to write my understanding of Mother Ethiopia based only on the post-war social and political situations of the country and the role the arts, and particularly painting, hold in our society.
“Yes, that was ’60. A woeful year, my friend. A venomous maggot began to infest the robust and succulent fruit of our Empire, and everything took such a morbid and irreparable course that instead of juice, alas, the fruit oozed blood. Let the flags fly at half-mast and our heads droop sorrowfully. Let us lay our hands upon our hearts. Today we know that it was already the beginning of the end and that what came next was irreversibly fated.”
( Kapuscinski, The Emperor)
The post-war Imperial government of Ethiopia had already assumed the tasks assumed for centuries by the materially impoverished, spiritually incomparable Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church that laid the foundation for modern Ethiopian culture. Teaching, registering births and deaths and performing marriages were progressively taken over by the state. Progressive and traditionalist as they were called each had an agenda to organize, modernize and create a national sentiment. As the nation attempted to reconcile national history and tradition with the challenge of modern civilization, it had not only to shape the present but also to create a comprehensible past. The didacticism of Ethiopian culture was intensified in all forms of the arts. Whether in literature, drama, music or the plastic arts, the leaders, the heroes, the land and certainly the faith of the nation were depicted in many forms. For the first time in the country’s history, an unprecedented number of secular paintings depicting numerous ancestral rituals, representations of pomp and pageantry, and flawless depictions of dynastic history were produced. There was no recognition and depiction, with a few exceptions, of the dark reality awaiting the nation. The many familiar folk paintings and works of both amateur and professional artists, some beautifully, others crudely painted, tried to reincarnate several thousand years of legend and history of Ethiopia. This was time when conventional images of the land and other popular beliefs such as Ethiopia the pious, Ethiopia the magnificent kingdom, Ethiopia, bastion of African independence, the spiritual motherland of blacks, etc., was widespread among the learned. In the visual arts, the main concern in this period of transition became bringing back and keeping intact the age-old Ethiopian culture and traditions and evoke strong national feelings. As the establishment took the artists seriously, the artists too, took their role seriously. The people also took the artists seriously and came to rely more and more on the artists to see its images. In 1940s, the returning students of the French Academy, with its leading figure Agegnehu Engeda and his students, were engaged in this important task. Artistic theory and style too had developed there and then by the artists involved. The court style painting that started at the beginning of the century and the academic style of the Western-educated artists locked in symbiotic union produced the style of the period.
This movement was followed in the 1950s by the towering figure of British-educated artist Afewerk, who anticipated the change and the development, and projected them into the future. When Afewerk returned in 1953 after a long sojourn in Europe, Agegnehu had been dead for six years. Although the aesthetic sensibilities of the two were different, as Agegnehu served the establishment with no contest, burdened by Agegnehu’s reputation Afewerk too served the establishment. He completed his major civic commissions: the decoration of St. George’s Cathedral and The Crowning of Atse Haile Selassie, The Giving of the Constitution by Atse Haile Selassiein the parliament building and the stained glass windows for the Military Academy in Harrar, etc., before the end of 1950. His stained glass window in the newly built African Hall, The Struggle and Aspiration of the African People , and his nomination as the president of the first Ethiopian Artists’ club also helped assure his success. To this was added his most successful retrospective exhibition in Addis Ababa in 1961 as well as his solo exhibitions in several cities worldwide. And as S. Chojnacki stated “Even in 1954, when he staged his first one-man show in Addis Ababa, the number of his works, their quality and their variety marked an epoch in the history of modern Ethiopian art….Afewerk has tried most of the existing media of expression, simple drawing, monochrome, gouache, oils, watercolor, stained glass and mosaic, sculpture, metal-work and others, and in all he has produced works of quality. ” R. Pankhurst, who is a good friend of Afewerk has also written that “The years from 1959 marked an intensification as well as a diversification of this remarkable artist’s creative talent. His reputation grew not only within the country but also internationally as his mastery over so many media was established. His drawing, paintings, murals, mosaics, stained-glass windows and sculpture, his designs for stamps, playing cards, posters, flags and national ceremonial dresses, all went to build up his position as Ethiopia’s foremost artist…. Afewerk has mastered not only numerous media but has also shown the ability to select the style most appropriate to his theme. He has not made a dogma of realism, symbolism, or abstract art, or of any other “ism” for that matter, but has used all of these approaches with imagination.”
In 1964, the Haile Sellassie I Prize for Fine Arts citation described Afewerk as a “versatile and disciplined artist” and awarded its first prize “for his outstanding drawing in being among the first to introduce contemporary techniques to Ethiopian subject matter and content.” The admiration that came from all corners for his creative talent gave him the recognition as one of the leading international artists. However, art, which was in the process of abrupt change in the country, profited Afewerk, not so much in externalizing and glorifying him as an innovator or avant-garde artist. As he said on several occasions, he did not have the luxury to continually involve himself in experimenting and worrying about styles. Instead, as earlier on, he used art to glorify, venerate, and commemorate Ethiopia.
In 1960, when for the first time in the nations’ modern history, the wishes, determination, and the strength of the imperial power was questioned and shaken by the brightest and youngest sons of the nation, the cultural fabric that had kept the nation intact for several centuries began to erode. The artist and his destiny, the problem of his inhibition in the collective psyche came increasingly to the forefront. Intellectuals and politicians as well as students argued about politics and the creation of a constitution, but the country was sick, sick in its fiber and sick at heart. It was too late to hope for the center to hold. Afewerk, who helped reincarnate through his art the founding mythology of Ethiopia--its history, heroes, religion and legendary and historical figures who had never been depicted --had a loftier image of his country than the image held by the governing elite. For this highly acclaimed artist, who had proven to be modern in his pictorial aesthetics and judgment, Ethiopia would never be the same. In 1963, fresh from his triumphs, he began on his own, with no commission or orders, his next major undertaking and created an icon of his beloved country, personified as a mourning Mother-Mother Ethiopia. He devoted to it his most sublime and artistic consciousness, his most symbolic and visionary perspective. But as he is not a politically involved artist of social protest or a satirist per se, it is not the earth mother he wants to show to symbolize Ethiopia. And it is not the industrial Ethiopia he wants us to see because it never was. It is the Ethiopia of the 20th century he and his contemporaries created.
To place Mother Ethiopia in historical perspective is to place the politics of Ethiopia in historical perspective--in the heart of the coup d’etat of 1960. Afewerk looked into the chaos and suffering and confusion of his time and responded by creating a great work of art that was able to find its theme in and even give meaning to the harsh and compelling realities of twentieth century Ethiopia. During this time of calamity and despair he indeed became disillusioned with Ethiopia and more than anything else of what lay ahead for her offspring. At the beginning of the 1960s, he gradually withdrew into himself, turning aside from his official artistic activities to retreat into a kind of mental seclusion. He invented a very private artistic world, language, and individual mythology in which he employed the motifs of the woman, the child, the costumes, the cross, the mountains, the forest and the rivers of his country as actors. From the time he finished Meskele Flowerin 1959, many of Afewerk’s pictures depicted women, some of which portrayed the symbolic Ethiopia, full of peace and color. In 1963, the ambitious artist wisely and consciously turns into his political sensibilities and moral passion and love of his country and created Mother Ethiopia , a highly introspective representation of all of his works and an embodiment of the modern Ethiopia. Afewerk represented in this Painting of the danger coming to destroy the most realistic portrayal of modern Ethiopia that he had participated passionately to create. He did not give way to a romantic transfiguration of Ethiopia, and nowhere gave the promise of a paradise. The visual record of the Painting was not based on the past; it was, rather, based on the inevitable nightmarish scenarios his elite contemporaries imagined of Ethiopia. In this Painting, side by side with the magnificent, affectionate and loving Mother he also foresees and recognizes the terrible situation that is awaiting her offspring.
Afewerk’s passage from the grandiose, heroic conception of the nation to the unpretentious but more responsible and reflexive attitudes toward the condition of the nation was also a drastic change from his earlier works. However, as Afewerk does not pretend to speak for the unfortunate, and even for the fortunate for that matter, Mother Ethiopia doesn’t speak the language of the radicals and the militants or even the language of the enlightened members of the ruling class. It lets nothing disturb our contemplation of the ultimate mystery of life, the love between mother and child--nation and citizens.
Afewerk used a mother and child, one of the most persistent universal themes, to personify Ethiopia as both healer and compassionate mother. Seated in the posture of majestic ease and stately pose, the mother holds her child in her caring arms in a manner suggesting a protector. Her dress is proportionally big for her face and the child’s head suggesting the symbolic representation. The monumental physical presence of the mother enhances her intended significance as a national symbol. The mother holds her child, like our Lady Mary holds her son Jesus Christ who was crucified for the good of humanity, and just like the work of Ethiopian painters of the 15th and 16th centuries, Afewerk had the child on her right arm. The comparison may be overtly pretentious, but in light of what has happened and is happening to this generation of Ethiopians, it will not be a wrong association or interpretation. In any case, the painting is a clear reference to the traditional image of Virgin and Child. It represents a kind of pictorial truce between the sacred and the secular, between traditional and modern, between the old-fashioned and folklore. In order to achieve this, Afewerk uses those forms most familiar to our eyes and which is in our history. When we look closely at the mother, she has by some ingenious ways encompassed the embodiment of modern Ethiopia. The model of the painting brings the picture to reveal the truth of the modern and traditional, which is still a national agenda, with her traditionalAfe washo Kemise and Gabbie or Netelaand her modern hairstyle.
The model, Atsede Asfaw, a young, modern, and charming woman from Addis, is a personification of the state and endowed with serene beauty. The Painting Mother Ethiopia does not look too real in order to be entirely accepted for her intended purpose. Despite the fact that she is devoid of any celestial, metaphorical or mythical figuration and is personified and modeled from life and dressed as a modern day Ethiopian mother, the artist’s intention as a symbolic representation of the nation is meticulously achieved. Compared to his other paintings, including the famous Meskele Flower, Mother Ethiopia is not the seductress, and most definitely not a member of the upper class. With her well-placed, golden brown face and reasonably designed embroidery of the national dress, she floated free of certain expected social constraints. She is the Protector of the child she holds delicately and upon whose face her gaze rests with thoughtfulness and affection and sorrow. She is not gazing at her child with pride, but with wonder and with simple, basic love. If there is no happiness in her demeanor, surely there is much love expressed. The motherly figure reveals her as an allegorical embodiment of good. The love of a mother for her child is not so much in question, but the future and the moral fiber of her offspring are. The sleeping child she holds is depicted in profile and appears to be annoyed and irritated. There is no indication in the boy of what ethnic group he belongs to. In fact his hairstyle and his profile indicate he might well be the sleeping child of any ordinary Ethiopian mother. He is like anybody’s child who is taken care of by the mother--the Nation.
The exceptionally deep motherly charm of this Painting did not come only from the facial expression of the mother. It comes from the composition and the color harmony combined to create an atmosphere of lyricism and melancholy. It comes from the attitudes, the composition, the coloring in which blue predominates—white being the color of her traditional dress. This harmonizing of coloring of white and blue seems to envelop and perhaps protect the mother using the colors as symbols of spirituality and hope. The deep blue to light blue background of the entire composition illuminate the graceful image of the mother. The richness of the heavenly blue fluid lines on the white Afe washo Kemise and Gabbie is repeated in the background, taking us to the realm of spirituality. The shapes of the Afe washo Kemise and the Gabbie enveloping her are a gesture of nature’s protection sufficient to protect her from aggressors and trespassers. Despite the painful and brutal conditions, calm and peaceful energy emanates. Quiet is the mother as is the child. This is how Kojo Fosu describes Mother Ethiopia: “As the symbolic mother of the state, she is endowed with serene beauty. The composition of this stately mother is as enduring as the Ethiopian hillscape which provided the inspiration for its modelling. The head of the bulging figure assumes the shape of a mountain peak. Both the soft rhythmic folds and creases in the drapery covering the figure highlighted by the magnificent contrasting shadows of blue and white tints create the impression of canals. The colorful embroidered shama bordering the drapery suggests the flow of a meandering waterfall, achieving its greatest effect at the base of the seated figure where the embroidered shama falls into gentle folds and finally settles into a sensitive design pattern of the symbolic coptic cross.” It seemed however that this stately mother is dressed with the national dress and the embroidery in this manner as customarily practiced for the period of mourning.
Nowhere else had Afewerk used more freely and with more psychological originality the modern symbolic principle of color and interpretation of forms. And nowhere, perhaps, had his color organization acquired such a degree of expressive contrasts of cool, isolated blue and white tones, and at the same time, the impressive nearness of light and shadow. It is as if Afewerk is witnessing, sharing and is testifying to a vision. That is how he wanted to tell and chronicle the reality and situation of the mourning Mother Ethiopia as her child is sound asleep on her spread out body and in her caring hands. At the same time, he let us wonder about the fate of the sleeping child.
“The last year! Yes, but who then could have foreseen that 1974 would be our last year? Well, yes, one did feel a sort of vagueness, a melancholy chaotic ineptness, a certain negativity, something heavy in the air, nervousness and tension, flabbiness, now dawning, now growing dark, but how did we go so quickly straight into the abyss? That’s it? No more? You can look, but no more Palace. You seek, but you do not find. You ask, but no one can answer. And it began …well, that’s the point. It began so many times, and yet it never ended”
( Kapuscinski, The Emperor)
Peasant rebellions, opposition, plots and conspiracies, attempted coup d’etat, separatist movements, untold famine, unstoppable unrest of students shake the old nation as never before. Millions died of the unspeakable and endless starvation. Atse Haile Selassie, the most widely traveled leader in the world, traveled more and more as the years went by with no plan to visit his own sick Empire. For Afewerk, the Ethiopia he painted on the Giving of the Constitution…in 1957, the Ethiopia kneeling down and praying to God, dressed in the colors of her flag, the Ethiopia he tried to reincarnate, and recreate unwaveringly was in a big, big trouble. For some of Afewerk‘s literary and closest official friends, who tirelessly worked for the modern Ethiopia they created, it seemed the coming change or tragedy that was to befall the nation was visible. The regime however, saw no need for reform. Either none of the members of the ruling elite anticipated what was in store for the nation’s children, or they were indifferent. Only few of his contemporary artists and authors were committed to tell the inevitable dreadful story as it is. This is particularly true of Gebre Kristos Desta’s Gologotha, Skunder Boghossian’s The Nourishers, and Abe Gobegna’s novel Alleweledem..
At the time of the nation’s history when all thinking was fully expressed in terms of Semenna Werk, or Westa Wayra of literary metaphor subtle and complex, Mother Ethiopia tells us the stories sincerely and directly, without tricks or historical complexities. She reveals the inevitable and inescapable situation of the nation. And at the time provocative literary works were taken out of circulation, banned or burned, the mourning Mother Ethiopia exposed her visionary, deeply felt sorrow for her child--symbol of her citizens--in the Alpha Studio of the artist and beyond. Mother Ethiopia had foreseen and predicted the genocidal famines, the exoduses, the uprising, the mass executions, and the corruption that would paralyze and debilitate her offspring and had announced her prophetic message worldwide. During the time of the imperial tour around the world, even before the news of the catastrophic famine, even before the massacre of the innocents, even before the brothers were at war, a decade before a certain Jonathan Dimbleby had shown a film for the world entitled Ethiopia: The Unknown Famine, Mother Ethiopia ’s bereavement and the nightmarish siesta of her child was exposed in several international exhibitions, from Addis Ababa to Tokyo and from New York City to Moscow to Washington, DC.
If some of Afewerk detractors, well-informed but confused contemporaries, disdain his Mother Ethiopia it is not so much about any artistic concerns. Some were more insulted that he did not mystify their dream and fantasy about Ethiopia and the Ethiopians’ fate, and others were skeptical because he did not make Ethiopia a “fighting mother”. They were unable to perceive and understand his concern and prediction, unable to see the painful truth, the truth and the certainty that awaited modern Ethiopia. And If some of the historians with their knowledge of and exposure to Western art history thought that Afewerk was depicting the fading past, it is because they see his work in the light of the Western social history of art. In reality Afewerk was depicting and modernizing the image of Ethiopia and the passion and aspiration and the myth his contemporaries have about modern Ethiopia. As Mesaye Kebed indicated, “Afework does not want to accomplish anything other than the enhancement and glorification of tradition by use of modern means….Little wonder they fail to see in Afework’s painting a protest against the fate in store for Ethiopia, while this interpretation is as plausible as, or more plausible than, the version of nostalgia or conservatism….In reality, it is a glorification destined to revive commitment and the will to renaissance.”
In any case, in 1974 the inevitable did happen, and when it happened, Afewerk showed a dramatic shift. During the revolution when Derg and the left intelligentsia promised a utopian society and called upon the people to rise up, Afewerk hoped the mourning of Ethiopia and the horrendous pain of her citizens was going to be over. As a very optimistic artist he knows that his mission is by far more important, greater and of more significant historic proportion than any mundane, trivial wishes. Even after he witnessed his closest friends and associates ruthlessly murdered, taken prisoner, and forced to flee their motherland, he had thought it his utmost responsibility to contribute to peace, reconciliation and the betterment of his country and to empower his compatriots with his sage message. When he was ordered to contribute to the call of the motherland, he got involved in his own way to describe the “Utopian society” Derg and the left intelligentsia promised. Once again, Ethiopia became the model for his remarkable and ambitious painting, The Victory of Ethiopia through Work, Productivity and Struggle, the epic painting of the revolution. This narrative and didactic propaganda painting, exhaustive in its description and narration is a triptych, the logic of picture writing in which ancient Christian Ethiopian painters, manuscript illuminators have recorded the Bible history. He himself had turned to the triptych as early as 1959. The Victory of Ethiopia… is organized into six parts. On the center panel, entitled Through Our United Efforts We Shall Protect the Unity and Territorial Integrity of Ethiopia we see the new Ethiopia rise up from above the colorfully dressed citizens representing all nationalities in a radiant and theatrical way. Large flags of red, green and the Ethiopian flag flank her. Behind her are chains of roaring mountains and lush forests shining with the golden color of the rising sun. Here the abundance of the land and the harmony that existed among all of the ethnic groups is effortlessly achieved. It seemed also an attempt on his part to compromise with his detractors who had seen ten years earlier his Mother Ethiopia as representative of one ethnic group or the dominant culture. In reality, despite his concern, Mother Ethiopia remains the most sublime of his creations and most highly revered of all his paintings. (2) In Mother Ethiopia he reflected his highly introspective work where his utmost love and greatest concern for his country is clearly visible.
His new Ethiopia as Sebhat G. Egziabher wrote is “young, beautiful, dynamic” and, “ The expression on her young face shows a sense of joy and satisfaction in the product of her citizens.” Unfortunately, this propaganda mural, painted by command is far from Afewerk’s personal contemplation and introspective work, with one exception. The child on the symbolic map of Ethiopia is the exception. This is the same child we noticed asleep in a nightmarish dream in the loving arms of Mother Ethiopia . This symbolic child who eventually grow up and found a different Ethiopia, different from what it used to be during the time he was born is fated to forfeit his culture, tradition and identity apparently for the betterment of his country. In 1978, we see him with his alter ego, presenting a bouquet of flowers and fruit for the new Ethiopia apparently wearing an ethnic dress and ethnic hairstyle. By 2002, this child could be the patriot, the deserter, the nationalist, the lunatic, the seer, anyone that Mother Ethiopia shelters and nourishes. The kind of Ethiopia he is going to create in the 21st century is anybody’s guess.
As his statements throughout his career indicated, and he repeated it to me on several occasions, it seemed Maitre Artiste Afewerk never played any one partisan role throughout his entire artistic life and negotiated nothing at the expense of his country. To those who reproached him on the class matters and historical, religious and political subject matter he created by commission, he would say “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar's.” For those who accuse him of working for the rich oblivious to the poor and associate him with the dominant ideology and the ruling class he would say, “I am not an arbiter between the oppressors and the oppressed classes, and I was not born rich myself, I make myself who I am by working hard.” And for those who say that the Emperor created him, he would say it is the other way round – that he recreated the emperor the world and the Ethiopians created. In his proud, devotional and resolute attitude toward his country, he would say, “I have never been weary of serving my country. There is nothing to stop me, neither politics, gossip, what have you. In fact each and every obstacle drives me even more strongly and affirms my commitment to my country.” Afewerk, who has as his primary goal to value and worship Ethiopia all through his works, still promises us, even now at 70, that the best of his work for his country is yet to come. How blessed is this Ethiopia?
1. Visit Maitre Artiste Afewerk website at www.afewerktekle.org
2. Several years back, in one of the Buna Bet in my neighborhood, I saw a reproduction of Mother Ethiopia in a dimly lighted corner. The picture was in a glass and gold-painted frame. Below the picture on the side table there were two bronze crosses both placed diagonally. Below the table, on the floor there were all sorts of paraphernalia. I did not pay serious attention to the things around and below the picture until the lady of the house told me that the stuffs around the picture were there to venerate Seile Ethiopia, our motherland. If only she would listen to the prayers we offer day and night for peace and prosperity.
I know in the church, Melka Seil – Hymn of Icons, teaches that we should say grace, give honor, bow, kneel down and beseech mercy through the consecrated icons of the Lord, Our Lady, Angels, Saints and Martyrs. A prayer for the country is also a common ritual. But reverence and veneration for the Painting Mother Ethiopia was not in my mind. If Mother Ethiopiais elevated to sacred image status among the population and becomes an icon, what will we say of Maitre Artiste Afewerk?
If any charlatan, driven by the frenzy of the contemporary art market contemplates the price of Mother Ethiopia , he should know the reaction of the public and the very wish of the Maitre: Mother Ethiopia is priceless, for it has been elevated to a national icon, and a sacred image.
Esseye Medhin, 2002