Art in the Diaspora

ANA Spotlight: Tesfaye Urgessa

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Tesfaye Urgessa was born inn 1983 in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia and is based in Germany. He holds a BA with distinction from the Alle School of Fine Arts and Design in Addis Ababa (2006) and he graduated with merits at Staalichen Akademie der Bildenken Künste Stuttgart under Prof. Cordula Güdermann (2014).

His work connects Ethiopian iconography and a deep fascination with traditional figurative painting to create a unique and striking language. His classical figurations with their writhing bodies create distorted psychological tension hidden in domestic settings. Urgessa’s subject matter recalls intertwined representations of race and the politics of identity.

No Country for Young Men 2021 Oil on canvas 180 x 180 cm Image courtesy of Artsy

Urgessa’s work includes a series of 20 portraits called No Country For Young Men named after one of the portraits in the series where the artists squeezes queues of refugees into the space of a 180 cm-by-180 cm canvas. Each of the portraits in the series confront the viewer with the reality of existing as a so-called “other”. Millions of young men and women, forced to emigrate to unknown lands, can find in Urgessa’s work as sympathetic to their own stories, and defying the established power dynamics. The powerful distorted figures are fighting for a place in a world shaken by conflict and crisis. The series is deeply influenced by Ethiopian traditional iconography as well as German Neo-expressionism from the 1980s.

VUPS IX 2019 Oil on canvas 180 x 180 cm Image courtesy of Addis Fine Art

Urgessa’s work has deep roots in his childhood and his memories as a young man in Ethiopia. For him, this is like always having an Ethiopian accent, no matter what language he’s speaking. Urgessa uses social activism and story-telling as a catalyst for making his work come alive. His work motivates the relationship between observer and the observed to the extent that there exists a mute reciprocity between the two. This is in terms of the shifts of the power dynamics and the notion of agency and race. Objects and naked bodies exist together in what seems a chaotic confined space of the canvases where Urgessa uses hushed and mature colours. Each composition is unplanned; derived instead from the depths of Urgessa’s subconscious, where disjointed images of emigration transcend to the outside world and onto the canvas. Brushstrokes become muscles, tendons, flesh, and chromatic masses.

Among his most celebrated shows are Oltre/Beyond at Le Gallerie Degli Uffizi in 2018 which hosts his work in its permanent collection as well asVon denen die auszogen (Of those who moved out??) at State Galerie Villa Streccius, in Landau Germanu (2019).


Lelethu Sobekwa was born in Gqeberha, South Africa. She holds a BA Honours in English and an MA in Creative Writing with distinction from Rhodes University. Lelethu currently writes for Art News Africa.

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