Mezgebu Tesema, a contemporary painter, is known for his real life reflections mainly from rural livelihood. Though many regard him as a realist painter, he prefers not to be regarded as a practitioner in a category. Mezgebu is known for his 10square meter painting – Nigise ‘ንግሥ’ – a highly festive event of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church.
A number of professionals in the field appriciate that Mezgebu’s look for details is vividly demonstrated in his fascinating work of art. His pictures release aroma of the New Year and fragrance of the breaking new days. EBR’s Hiwot Salelew sat with the silent painter to discuss his perspectives and highlight the career trajectory of a distinguished Ethiopian painter.
The saying ‘a man is the making of his environs,’ applies to some degree for Mezgebu Tesema, a contemporary painter capturing the imagination of many with his breathtaking and awe-inspiring large canvas paintings. Born in 1960 in Enewari, a small town in north Shewa, vested in the central highlands of Ethiopia, his consciousness and imagination was shaped by the sheer size and beauty of the town’s topography.
Mezgebu belongs to the group of well known artists in Ethiopia, such as Behailu Bezabih and Bekele Mekonnen, who have studied disciplines like him during the Dergue era. His work is greatly associated with Ethiopian highlands and his contribution in depicting them is enormous.
Of course, his inclination towards realism painting might be induced by the diversion observed in the Ethiopian art in the late 1970s after the Dergue consolidated its power, which led to a new form of painting style that reflects the new socialist Ethiopia. As a result, the previous painting trend, which is modified by the change of ideology, started to flourish to produce an Ethiopian version of socialist realism art and stayed for almost two decades. Before the coming of Dergue, most painters follow abstract art similar to that used by western artists.
One of the few artists known with this trend is Mezgebu, whose subject matter came from rural Ethiopia, which can reflect the country’s reality, nature and beauty. In fact, Mezgebu is largely regarded as a revered realist or naturalistic painter in contemporary Ethiopian painting, largely due to the all so real and life-like paintings he makes. But he does not entirely agree with this categorization. “Every painter has his or her own contribution where reality is expressed in his or her own context and perspective.” He argues that contextualization of a given artist’s work is crucial in placing them under a certain tradition or school of thought. “The times I’m living in, the settings I find myself and my thoughts, fantasies and orientations do not necessarily fit in with my work which may appear life like and what many may perceive as the reality.”
Mezgebu, who is also an accomplished professor at Ethiopia’s forefront art school, the Ale School of Fine Arts and design, is of the view that given our widely varying worldviews, “what’s real for me may not be real for others, and therefore, I cannot authoritatively say I’m a realistic or naturalistic artist.”
For an artist to be acknowledged in a country such as Ethiopia, where there is limited, few resources and endorsements, the work of art ought to be unique, original or familiar. Mezgebu had high ambition in bringing Ethiopian art to new height and eminence starting from an early age. He always dreamt of becoming a painter and imitates real life stories including his own in his paintings.
Just like his predecessors such as the late Maitre Artist Afework Tekle who is known for his contribution in introducing contemporary techniques for the Ethiopian art, the late Gebre Kirstos Desta, the pioneer of non figurative art and the late Skunder Boghossian who tried to give the ancient Ethiopian linear graphics new look, Mezgebu as some described him as ‘super-realist who gives attention to detail’ is credited for preserving and developing the realism art movement in painting that has been disappearing after the fall of Dergue.
Of course, many agree that most of Mezgebu’s paintings exhibit a close attention to detail, which indicate his concern for symbolic realism that grow with him starting from his childhood. Mezgebu is as humble as it gets when talking about his contribution. He jokes “it may not even exist or may not be recognized in our day and age.” On a more serious note, though, he argues he is simply continuing to practice the art in a long line of rich tradition of painting. “I cannot claim to be ushering in a new brand of painting. I’m just re-conceptualizing and expanding on existing works.” Growing up in the highlands where the beauty of jaw-dropping mountains, the green lush, amazing skies adorned with the sun and the moon, and being part of a rich and authentic tradition intertwined with orthodox religious practices, Mezgebu’s childhood consciousness was imprinted with these ideals and his imagination as an artist wonders to that magnificent state of being.
Mezgebu had a high approbation to his surroundings which raised the interest of imitating it through work of art. While he was learning in Enewari Elementary School, he used to paint beautiful pictures and graphs for courses he took in Geography, Science and Math. When students had difficulties to draw educational pictures, they used to ask for his assistance. He was also regularly requested to decorate the school for celebrations of Parents’ Day. Invited parents, teachers and guests used to appraise his artistic skill and craft.
His desire to be a painter grew stronger all the way through high school. His talent and ambition was noticed by his friends and teachers at Hailemariam Mamo Comprehensive School in Debrebrehan, the biggest town in North Shewa, who encouraged him to further his dream. The support he received was also strengthened by his parents specially his father, who had fostered a sense of wonder and confidence to explore the world in the young painter’s heart, soul and mind.
With great hope and full energy, he came to Addis Ababa to join an art school. But, it was not as easy as he thought given the fact that art was not very well recognized even in the big city. After a long wait on a list and passing the series of hard tests, Mezgebu finally joined Ale School of Fine Arts and Design. It was there that his academic career began. As soon as he finished his degree, he started a career as a graduate assistant in the Painting Department and served in that capacity for a year.
Mezgebu’s career was on full swing and progress receiving a Masters Degree Scholarship from Russia in 1981 at the Ilva Efimovitch Repin Leningrad Institute of Painting, Sculpture and Architecture. Having completed his study in Russia, Mezgebu returned home with a desire to serve his country with the academic knowledge he got from the institute and helped him to deepen his artistic craft. Mezgebu became head of the Painting Department, where he served for seven consecutive years from 1996-2003. He is still a professor in the school.
Among the main attractions of Mezgebu’s work of art are the sense of deep, multi-dimensional depictions and life-like paintings. One of his most celebrated work titled Nigse, is 10 square meter in size. It took Mezgebu three years to paint, excluding the time it took him to contemplate the thought and visualize the painting in his mind. Nigse expresses a major celebration of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, in which a big crowd of clergies and followers of the faith, dressed in colourful cultural attires, accompany the replica of the Arch of the Covenant chanting and singing cheerful songs.
Mezgebu has demonstrated several exhibitions to show case his amazing works of art. However, the one held in 2013 was special and attracted thousands of people. It was not long before the fans requested the exhibition to be showcased for the second time.
Mezgebu’s other quality is his patience during painting. While working on a painting titled Adbar, he sustained a waist injury when he tried to prevent a stack of wood from falling. His eagerness to see the painting completed meant he had to walk on a stick and at times sit on a table to paint, despite his physician advised him to take a break.
Apart from showcasing his work solo at institutions such as the National Museum and Alliance Ethio-Francaise Cultural Institute, he was able to capture the imagination of international audiences in which he presented some of his fine arts with a group of 30 painters in Russia, Germany, China and the United States. Mezgebu’s several pieces of art have garnered him international acclaims. However two of his works, the untitled, The Sleeping Angles, stands tall in that.
Though he cannot remember the exact price of his first sold painting, Mezgebu said it only cost a few hundred Birr. Over the years, the contemporary painter’s obsessive attention to detail has earned him an acclaim rivaled by few and a reputation that puts a price tag of hundreds of thousands of birr on his current works.
This prominent painter has contributed quiet a lot for the development of contemporary art in Ethiopia. His ambition of reflecting real images led him to lean on painting rural areas that represent the livelihood, identity and culture of the majority of the people in Ethiopia. He is able to signify his identity, belief and philosophy through his artworks.
Mezgebu is an artist with the power to inspire. He continues to do a tremendous job as a professor where he has shaped and guided students such as Petros Meaza and Fistum Tefera, who became famous painters in America. Painters like Mheret Kebede and Yosef Birhanu were honor students who received Medallion from the School. Samson Meresa is another successful student of Mezgebu. He is a studio artist currently running an art gallery in Addis Ababa.
Mezgebu has taught these students who are exhibiting their work in several schools and institutions. He has faith on the young and emerging artists and expresses his confidence that they will expand and develop Ethiopian contemporary art further.
As Mezgebu has now become a role model for many painters, he too has been influenced by many. While incessant to improve his art and craft on his own, painters like Tadesse Mesfin, Andre Cesar Vermare and Hans Holbein remain to be his role models.
Through consequent devotion and hard work, Mezgebu has reached an artistic acclaim and academic height which very few have attained in Ethiopia. However, as many close to him say, he is still energetic and full of inspiration. Makeda Bizuneh, a young professor at Ale School of Fine Arts and Design, Department of Painting, was taught by Mezgebu in the same school. She says he is one of the few exceptional painters as he significantly emboldened contemporary art in Ethiopia. She admires his techniques and perceptions towards the naturalistic reflection of his work. Even as a professor, he was one of her best since she admired his teaching methodology and communication technique. He is close to his students and colleges.
His friends also characterize him as a friendly person. One of his closest friends Getahun Assefa met Mezgebu when they were studying in Russia. They came back to Ethiopia and started working in the School later. Getahun has been serving at the School for 16 years and replaced Mezgebu as head of the Department. Getahun describes Mezgebu’s work as deep and unique. “He is exceptional because his work reveals his identity. He is a painter with integrity, discipline and devotion.” He underscored.
Mezgbeu’s personal life is as flourishing as his career. He fondly remembers his mother’s late night tales where the whole family sat around a fire to attentively listen to one of her many soul-grabbing stories. Though he has not made any painting directly depicting a setting in any of his mother’s stories, but says “she shaped my imagination.”
He met his wife, Hewan Gebreigziabher, when he was studying at Ale. The couple has three children and Mezgebu claims family makes a man whole and deeply enriches his inspiration as an artist. EBR
5th Year • September 2017 • No. 54