In 1958, Ethiopian multi-disciplinary artist Afewerk Tekle created arguably his greatest work: a stained-glass triptych entitled 'The Total Liberation of Africa', commissioned to be installed in the newly established Africa Hall, the headquarters of the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa, in Addis Ababa. This article tells the remarkable tale behind this powerful artwork- largely in the artist’s own words- with excerpts transcribed from his speech:‘The State of Art In Ethiopia’, given at the Library of Congress, Washington D.C., America, on the 27th July, 2009.
Born in Ankober, Ethiopia, Afewerk Tekle’s childhood was spent under the Italian occupation during the Second World War. As a young man he initially intended to study engineering, however his artistic talents did not go unnoticed, and he won a scholarship which enabled him to study abroad in England at the Slade School of Art, going on to travel and study around the world for nine years, including extensively through Europe to France, Germany, Italy, Spain and Portugal. He recalls: ‘So I benefitted by all these experiences, feeling so ambitious to go back to my country, begin a school of thought, a school of creativity. [I was] lucky enough to have been born from Ethiopia, which is next to Egypt- almost five thousand years of existence and contributing to the world with our heritage. To suddenly appear in that scene…and say to yourself: ‘with all the advantage of learning, all the advantage of the great professors that I have had…that now, what am I going to contribute? Am I going to become just a typical local artist copying what the Europeans-at that time- tourists- required, a copy of old works, or am I going to create something based on my own tradition- African tradition- and also on world art heritage tradition?’. These were the big questions which confronted me when I reached my homeland’. Many of his fellow international students and teachers did not understand why he wished to return to Ethiopia, and they encouraged him to remain abroad- questioning him: ‘What are you going to do in Africa? It is such a dark continent. They have no time for art. Their life is very difficult. Ordinary existence is very difficult. Why don’t you stay in Paris? Why don’t you stay in London? Why don’t you go to New York? Where you will be able to create peacefully, tranquilly, instead of thinking of your everyday life. Who is going to appreciate your art?...A young man as talented as you are, having had the benefit of knowledge and education…why don’t you benefit? Afterall, Picasso in the revolution time, he came to France and called it home. Mark Chagall from Russia- he called it home. Diego Riviera of Mexico- called it home. So. You can stay in Paris. Enjoy the life. Enjoy all the benefits of civilisation as a cultured man. As an artist. And yet tomorrow if you create something great, you will always give to your continent and to your country a name. People will refer to you: ‘Afewerk Tekle from Ethiopia. From Africa’…With what must have felt like the whole world at his feet, the young artist was faced with a difficult decision. However, he was ultimately unwavering in his desire to return to his homeland: ‘I had to decide because Ethiopia and Ethiopians, it was not like today. They never wanted to travel into any other land. They never wanted to conquer other places. But their integrity and their pride- if anybody ever dared touch it- they will not be sleeping with their spears and shields- whilst somebody else took their country and their possessions and their history. They fought for it. This only happened once in the history of Ethiopia: (with) fascist Italy. Who dared- wanted to colonise Ethiopia, change the history. It was at that time, unknown to many, a sense of heroism was created, patriotism was created. And thanks to these people, Ethiopia was never conquered. The Italians ruled only the cities, not the countryside. Our patriots resisted to the point of their death- or liberty. So I felt I had a drop of that blood’.
He returned to Ethiopia, determined to contribute to his country, describing it as ‘a wonderful time because we had an Emperor who had a certain sense of clairvoyance and appreciated beautiful things’. And upon his return, Emperor Haile Selassie opened the young artist’s first exhibition on home soil. However, the concept of ‘art’ was met with a very different mindset in Ethiopia to that of Europe. It was tradition in Ethiopia ‘that you never sold a picture. You gave to someone [and they] gave you money…or land. It was considered a kind of shamefulness to say: ‘you pay me for my painting, for my sculpture…’ Those who serve our church-the Coptic church…they created [art] for our church. They created for God. That was their form of payment. They also never signed their paintings because that was also considered a personal glorification. So. I was coming into this place. At that time in Ethiopia, unless you were appointed, or you were a Prince…you were practically nothing’. And if you were an ‘artist’? Well – that was a foreign concept. The young Tekle was acutely aware of how privileged he had been to benefit from many great teachers- both in his homeland and abroad- and he was determined to ‘restore the dignity of the artist’. He decided to devote his time not only to creating art, but also to pro-actively campaigning in the name of his subject, and to teach others his craft. But it was difficult: ‘Unless you were appointed to a position, you never got money. You never got recognition as an honourable person. So I said: ‘I have to exhibit. Not in my own capital city, not in the provenances, but I have to exhibit in Africa, in Europe, in America, all over the world…if I am to build my name. Then leaders can listen to me- including our great Emperor. But I was lucky: I was so young, he was so old. At the same time when I was putting [sic] certain struggles, he would say: ‘what is it that makes this little boy tick?’.
Before leaving Ethiopia to attend their scholarship abroad, each selected student had been brought before Emperor Haile Selassie. The then sixteen-year-old Tekle never forgot the advice he was given, and took his words to heart: ‘You are now going to a country where you are going to have at your disposal all kinds of learning. Study. Study. You must study. And when you come back, don’t tell us what tall buildings you saw. Don’t tell us what wide streets you saw. Come back and help us in the subjects that you have studied, when we are trying to rebuild this country’. And so Tekle would think to himself: ‘I could stay in Paris, I could stay in London, I could go to America. But those words. They rang like the bells of a big church in my ears. Am I- at the age of twenty eight- going to desert my country because she’s so poor? Because she is not recognising the value of art? Everything was economical. Everything was to make money…I said: ‘I have learnt from my great fathers that even if the circumstances are absolutely impossible, you either die, or you live in peace by struggling for this worthy cause’. And so he found himself welcoming the Emperor and dignitaries to his exhibition at Municipality Hall, Addis Ababa, in 1954. And on the day, the Minister of Education said took Tekle aside and informed him that he had to give a painting to the Emperor, and also give a speech which had already been written for him. When the passionate young artist read the speech, his heart sank: ‘It meant nothing. It was as soft as the softest [speech] you can imagine. I was ready for the battle…So I said ‘OK’ to the minister of culture and I put the speech in my one pocket, but I had my own speech in the other!’. And so Tekle gave his own speech, announcing loudly to the audience: ‘Your Imperial Majesty, Highnesses…today is a big day for me. Because I am going to begin the education that art has got to be bought. That the artist has got to live with what he has earnt from his paintings, form his works. Therefore, amongst all you dignitaries, I am not going to offer you any of my work. You have to BUY!’. A big risk. But Tekle described the emperor’s reaction as ‘gentle’, and as they moved around the exhibition viewing the paintings, the emperor was graceful enough to say: ‘I want this one’. He had selected a portrait of a priest giving a blessing, and Tekle thought to himself: ‘success number 1!’. The emperor selected a second work: a painting of a peasant woman carrying wood on her back. Tekle was thrilled. And then all the dignitaries followed suit, selecting paintings to buy. The emperor paid in cash, as did his son. And everyone took their paintings. Tekle recalls awaiting payment from the others: ‘They would invite me to their house, I would have lunch…and then when it was time to leave, I was expecting a cheque. But no cheque!...you can imagine- put yourself in my position! So I would leave gracefully- these were the big shots of my country’.
Eventually the time came for Tekle to leave once again to continue his studies abroad. Before he travelled, he was called to meet with the emperor. ‘Who paid you?’ he asked. Tekle replied: ‘Well your majesty you did…and your son’. The emperor picked up the phone and said: ‘Either the money, or the paintings, should be delivered to him’. Tekle recalls: ‘You wouldn’t believe it. But on that day, before 6 o’clock- the remaining seven paintings were delivered to my hotel. That was a big lesson for me. To make my decision whether to live in Paris or London- or to take the risk- make as many exhibitions abroad. If I exhibit 50 works and I sell 10: life is very cheap in Ethiopia. I can live luxuriously and work there peacefully…which I did’.
And so he travelled and exhibited internationally for one year- returning to his home country and settling back into Ethiopian life. The Organisation of African Unity (OAU) and the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa (ECA) were going to be established. An Italian architect who had designed the ECA building had employed an Italian artist from Perugia to design the monumental stain glass window which would adorn the building. He was to be paid ‘big money’ for the project. Seeing such an important opportunity go to a little-known Italian artist, Tekle approached the emperor and threw his hat in the ring- he should be the chosen artist! The emperor contacted the architect and asked: ‘the window is going to be in Ethiopia- why not an Ethiopian artist?’, to which the architect replied: ‘There is no artist capable enough to do a stained-glass window…it is a European art- nothing to do with Africa’. But Tekle notes that the Italian had forgotten that, in fact, stained-glass windows began in Egypt in the Pharaonic times! He assured the emperor that he was capable of completing such a task- Tekle had already studied the medium. So the Emperor agreed to open a competition- the best design would win. The Italian architect protested, arguing that that the building- including the window- needed to be completed in six months. The Emperor questioned Tekle again: ‘Are you sure you can do this in six months?’, to which he replied: ‘I will your majesty!...I always remembered what you told us. I am not against Italy today: I have learnt and studied there. I have many [Italian] friends. But I must teach this architect that an Ethiopian can do it’.
The Italian architect was told that if what he said was true, then they had nothing to fear- as the Italian artist’s work would easily win. And so it was finally agreed that every country in Africa would be permitted to submit an entry, but it they only had 30 days to do so! And so the tenacious young artist set to work, meticulously planning every square meter of the window. Tekle completed his design in just 12 days. The subject title given for the window was: ‘Africa Then, Africa Then and Now, Africa’s Future’ (or: ‘Africa’s Past, Present & Future’). For ‘Africa Then’, the Italian artist had depicted a pygmy with a big book in hands which read ‘Education’, for ‘Africa Then and Now’ he depicted a tall Tutsi tribesman with a small sword in his hand which read ‘Defence’, and for the central window ‘Future’ he showed all the different types of African people, with an emerging sphinx dominating the whole design. Tekle disagreed with this interpretation: the notion that the only thing to remember ‘was the sphinx, that every other nation in Africa was merely a colony’. Tekle’s interpretation of theme was as follows: for ‘Africa Then’- he depicted slavery, with the devil dancing over enslaved Africans. For the second window: ‘Africa Then and Now’- he depicted a map of the continent filled with people, some of them already freed- looking outwards. Others remain in the shadows, a large, red bird flying above, symbolising colonialism. An African man armed with a sword is chasing the bird away. And finally, for the middle frame: a crowd of people- each figure representing a different freed African country, each in their national dress, and an Ethiopian family prominently in the centre: a man, his pregnant wife and their small child, the parents holding ‘the torch of the rising sun’ above their heads- representing a new dawn, a new day. In the background, standing amongst the African nations, there is a knight dressed in armour with the United Nations flag on his chest, representing the belief that all free African countries have the right to become part of the UN.
The day of the competition arrived, and 14 of the 17 judges voted for Tekle’s masterpiece. He was declared victorious. However, his celebrations were short lived: some of the Ethiopian ministers were dubious of this ‘arrogant’ and rule-breaking young artist, and they complained to the emperor: Tekle had not been respectful to his elders. He should depict the emperor in the central window, not the common Ethiopian family. It should be a portrait of the Ethiopian royal family. The young Tekle was distraught. He instinctively understood that his creation would only exist for as long as the emperor is King. But the day he is removed from power, and revolutions begin, the stained-glass window would be destroyed. When called upon to make the changes, Tekle feigned ignorance: ‘Oh my god! How could I omit to include the emperor?!’. He said he would happily change it. However, knowing that the window had to be created in numerous small parts, and that no one would see the finished work until it had been pieced together, he remained steadfast: he did not change his original design. And once again his remarkable instinct proved right: whilst nearing the completion of the work, there was indeed a coup in Ethiopia, and the emperor was temporarily removed from power. The international press was a flutter: with the date of installation fast approaching, what was Tekle going to do? He replied: ‘I am only a juvenile delinquent in politics. I know nothing about politics. I will continue my work’. And when it came time to install the window, Tekle demanded: ‘I want the whole place closed and policemen to be there! Because this Italian might destroy it because his work was not there! [sic]’. And so the window was installed. And three days before the official opening, the artist gave a private view to the emperor and his ministers. Tekle enthusiastically explained each panel- his hands still covered in cuts from the work. And as he spoke, the emperor quietly absorbed each of his words. Tekle recalled: ‘He listened so quietly…I explained to him as the light moves from morning to evening, it is like the symphonic music of Beethoven’s Symphony No.9…this stained glass was talking’. After he finished his explanation, the emperor said: ‘May God bless your hand…this is priceless’.
However, the work was priceless in more ways than one: Tekle had not yet been paid! Only the raw materials had been paid for- he had been told he would be paid upon completion. Perhaps in his refusal to depict the Emperor, Tekle had forfeited his earnings, as even after two whole years, he still had not been paid. The stained-glass window had, however, garnered him international recognition, and Tekle was soon approached by a dignitary from Ghana who wanted to commission him for a similar work. When the Emperor heard of this he questioned Tekle: ‘Why are you wanting to work for another nation?!’. To which he replied: ‘I have not been paid for the work that I have done. I have to go to a country where I will be paid!’. So a committee was set-up to come to a decision on the matter. The committee said that as Tekle had had the rare privilege of being government educated, that it was expected of him to give a free contribution to the nation. Tekle argued: ‘But you were going to pay the Italian!!!’. The committee warned him: ‘Well, you had better keep quiet, or you can make your exit to Paris or London…’. Tekle maintained a balanced view on this frustrating moment in his life: ‘If you have toiled so hard. With the stained glass cutting your fingers. And then when it was opened successfully with all the leaders of Africa at that time…but I can’t complain to anyone. Because the work began to become very famous. Within those couple of years, everybody talked about the Africa Hall Stained-Glass Window…My name was built by this. [And after that] I did six more important stained-glass windows’.
Reflecting on his long and successful international career, Tekle remained filled with optimism: ‘In Ethiopia today, we have many artists…. And thank God: they work freely. Nobody is oppressing them. And that makes me so happy. And when our second millennium came..there was a great opportunity of winning a lot of works…but I said no I will not compete. I will give the opportunity to the other, younger painters who unfortunately- or fortunately- didn’t have to go through the horrifying experiences, the anxieties I have had. Let them create freely…And so the future of art is not so much of a different struggle that I have gone through. People now travel very easily, they can exhibit in Europe, they can live in Europe. And so I would say I am optimistic for the future of Ethiopian art and as leader’s become enlightened, for also other African countries’. And in his closing remarks, Tekle welcomes questions from his captive audience, but amusingly notes: ‘But please: keep out of politics. Because I am going back [to Ethiopia] and I am not really useful on that subject! Thank you’.