Ethiopia’s Merid Tafesse exhibits new paintings at the King Center

Fahamu Pecou is joined by this Ethiopian artist for a short exhibition at the King Center’s Freedom Hall


Going into my interview with contemporary artist Merid Tafesse, I had a pretty good idea of how the conversation was going to go. I imagined unlocking some tragic reason for his ten year stint working only with charcoal, gleaning celebrity goss on Rita Marley, wife of Bob and Tafesse’s long time patron, and spilling secrets about Tafesse’s mother’s relation to the royalty who at one-time ruled Ethiopia. As it turns out, I am not the supreme orchestrator of things, and had the good fortune of discussing instead with Tafesse the transformative effect that art is having on the homeless youth in Ethiopia, why seeing a monk in the airport is so funny, and how, before being taken to Pal’s Lounge on Auburn Ave. last week, he did not know karaoke existed.

Tafesse says that he “grew up in a communist region, so everything was closed. When you go to school you have to study communist socialism, so that is like a box. That was the reason for the arts, so I could express myself.” At home Tafesse first learned how to paint by copying his mother, who would herself copy great works of art. She had talent, and according to Tafesse, could have also been an artist if she pushed herself.

By the time Tafesse went to college, students were no longer required to complete their theses on a subject relating to the state or communist revolution. There would even be spaces for him to exhibit upon graduation, as opposed to the many art students who, under the communist regime, “vanished” because there was virtually no place that supported the arts. In more recent years, that has changed, but according to Tafesse the new challenge lies in whether or not to succumb to what has become a lucrative trend of meeting the demand for “traditional African art.” Desta Meghoo, a social worker who collaborates with Tafesse on a program designed to assist homeless youths in Ethiopia, defines this tradition as “long-neck women, churches, and market scenes,” none of which are of interest to Tafesse.