In Memory of Maitre Artiste Afewerk Tekle: His Life Odyssey

Ethiopia's most famous painter Maitre Artiste Afewerk Tekle, who died last week at the age of 80, was laid to rest at the cemetery of the Holy Trinity Cathedral in Addis Ababa on Saturday, April 14th. (Photos: Afewerk Tekle speaking at Stanford University on March 7, 2004 / Tadias Magazine File photographs)

Tadias Magazine
By Tadias Staff

Updated: Saturday, April 14, 2012

New York (TADIAS) – The last time Tadias Magazine interviewed Maitre Artiste Afewerk Tekle was on March 7th, 2004, following his appearance as a Keynote Speaker at Stanford University’s Pioneers Forum organized by the Stanford Ethiopian Student Union. There are few moments as electric as when Afewerk Tekle walked through the crowded auditorium to give an insider’s view of his accomplishments and life adventures. Elegantly clad in the sheer white of the Ethiopian national costume, Maitre Artiste Afewerk let his artistic mind captivate the audience as he took his red-bordered netela to demonstrate the various ways that one can wear the shawl for different public occasions, including as a graduation gown. He received a thunderous applause as he concluded his brief demonstration.

“At the end of the day, my message is quite simple,” he told the diverse audience from the university and the larger Bay Area Ethiopian community. It was the first time since the mid-1960’s that he had formally traveled to the United States to talk about his award-winning artwork.

“I am not a pessimist, I want people to look at my art and find hope,” he said. “I want people to feel good about Ethiopia, about Africa, to feel the delicate rays of the sun. And most of all, I want them to think: Yitchalal! [It's possible!]”

Speaking about his life-long dedication to the fine arts, Maitre Afewerk Tekle instilled in his audience the importance of using art to inspire people, to uplift nations and to create an optimistic view of life. “What we do today must reflect today’s life for tomorrow’s generation and pave the way for the future generation,” he said. “Art is in every fabric of life.”

Afewerk Tekle was born in the town of Ankober in Ethiopia on October 22nd, 1932. Having grown up in an Ethiopia battling fascist Italian forces, Afewerk was acutely aware of the destruction of war and the need to rebuild his native home. Intent on acquiring skills that would allow him to contribute to Ethiopia’s restoration, the young Afewerk settled on pursuing his studies in mining engineering.

His family and friends, however, had already recognized his inner talent in the arts. Around town he was know for his drawings on walls using stones, and for possessing a curious and ever reflective mind. Despite his natural gravitation to the art world, at the age of 15 Afewerk was chosen to be sent abroad to England to commence his engineering studies.

Maitre Afewerk recalled being summoned by Emperor Haile Selassie to receive last-minute advice prior to his departure. “To this day I cannot forget his words,” the Maitre said pensively. “The Emperor began by counseling us to study, study, and study.” he told the audience. “He told us: you must work hard, and when you come back do not tell us what tall buildings you saw in Europe, or what wide streets they have, but make sure you return equipped with the skills and the mindset to rebuild Ethiopia.” Maitre Afewerk later confided that this sermon rang in his head each time he was tempted to seek the easy life, free from the responsibility of rebuilding his nation and uplifting his people.

As one of the earliest batch of African students admitted to exclusive boarding schools in England, Afewerk faced culture shock and the occasional strife caused by “English bullies.” Yet he remained steadfast in pursuing his studies. He especially excelled in courses such as mathematics, chemistry and history, but it was not long before his teachers discovered his art talent.

With the encouragement of his mentor and teachers, Afewerk decided to focus on refining his gift and enrolled at the Central School of Arts & Crafts in London. Upon completion of his studies he was accepted as the first African student at the prestigious Faculty of Fine Arts at Slade (University of London). At Slade, Afewerk focused on painting, sculpture and architecture.

Upon returning to Ethiopia, Maitre Afewerk traveled throughout the country, to every province, staying at each location for a period of up to three months, immersing himself in the study of his surroundings and absorbing Ethiopia’s historical and cultural diversity. He pushed himself to become an Ethiopian artist with world recognition.

Maitre Afewerk Tekle speaking at Stanford University in California on March 7, 2004. (Photo: TADIAS Archive)

“I had to study Ethiopian culture,” the artist said, “because an important ingredient of a world artist is to have in your artwork the flavor of where you were born.” He added, “My art will belong to the world but with African flavor.”

Above all, Maitre Afewerk worked diligently in the hopes of using his artwork as a social medium with which to highlight the history, struggles and beauty of his native home. Although he was educated abroad, he fought against what he called “the futile imitation of other artists’ works, Western or otherwise.”

With the message of rebuilding Ethiopia still ringing in his ears, Maitre Afewerk quickly decided to relinquish the ministerial post assigned to him upon completion of his university studies, and opted instead to devote his full attention to painting and exhibiting his artwork both at home and abroad.

At age 22, Afewerk Tekle held his first significant one-man exhibition at the Municipality Hall in Addis Ababa in 1954. He followed up his success by conducting an extensive study tour of art in Italy, France, Spain, Portugal and Greece, paying particular attention to collections of Ethiopian illustrated manuscripts as well as acquiring skills in stained-glass artwork.

Returning home he was commissioned to create religious art for St. George’s Cathedral. He also worked on some of the first sculptures depicting Ethiopian national heroes. His designs and inspirations were soon printed on stamps and national costumes. Most notably, he conceptualized and designed the elaborate stainedglass window artwork in Africa Hall at the headquarters of the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa.

With the income and savings he acquired by selling his artwork Afewerk designed his own 22-room house, studio and gallery, which he nicknamed ‘Villa Alpha.’

By 1964 Maitre Afewerk had held his second successful exhibition, thereafter followed by his first show abroad in Russia, the United States and Senegal. Touring African nations at a time when parts of the continent was still under the yoke of colonialism, Afewerk Tekle used his paintings to spotlight the struggle, naming his artwork with titles such as Backbones of the African Continent, Africa’s Heritage, and African Unity. The theme of African independence and the interrelationship of African cultures are indelibly etched in Maitre Afewerk’s creations.

“Your brush can be quite stronger than the machine gun,” he said “I wanted to show how you can write Africa through your artwork, what it means to have liberty, to have your fellow humans completely equal.”

Many art critics have tried, time and time again, to label and categorize his work as having either European or African influence, and sometimes even both. He told us, however, that “you should be free and liberated in your thoughts and style. Your art should speak to you in your hidden language.”

Maitre Afewerk noted that 10% of his work is considered religious art while at least 50% echoes Ethiopian influence. But there is room for him to explore and develop his own style that speaks to his inner muse.

Today, Maitre Afewerk’s art is known and celebrated throughout the world, and indeed he has achieved his dream of becoming an Ethiopian artist with world recognition. He has uplifted Ethiopia, and at the same time his art has been infused into the daily life of his community and fellow citizens.

Around the time that Afewerk Tekle came to speak at Stanford, his art projects around Addis were hard to miss — depicting heroes such as world champion athlete Haile Gebresellasie. At the bottom corner of the artworks there was an Amharic phrase that said it all: Yitchalal!.

Click here to learn more about Afewerk Tekle.

Funeral Ceremony held for Maitre Artiste World Laureate Afewerk Tekle (News Dire)
Ethiopia mourns death of Maitre Artiste world laureate – Afewerk Tekle (The Africa Report)
BREAKING NEWS: Maitre Artiste Afewerk Tekle dies at 80 (Capital Ethiopia)

52 Responses to “In Memory of Maitre Artiste Afewerk Tekle: His Life Odyssey”

  1. 1 Thomas Apr 11th, 2012 at 2:09 pm

    Hiwot well lived! To live in the hearts we leave behind is not to die. Afewerk Tekle is part of Ethiopian history forever!

  2. 2 Mek Apr 11th, 2012 at 2:34 pm

    What an extraordinary life he lived! Thank you Tadias for a well-documented story that gives us an insight to his life. It shows against all odds, he succeeded in reaching the highest level in the art world that can be mimicked by VERY few Africans. I must say from his life, we learn to overcome adversities so we CAN contribute for the advancement of our culture/heritage/people at some capacity to bridge the gap between the world and Africa. It is certainly a great loss for Ethiopia and he surely be missed.

  3. 3 hymanot Apr 11th, 2012 at 3:21 pm

    he is the art of legend , this word for Africa “Your brush can be quite stronger than the machine gun,”

  4. 4 Fellow Ethiopian Artist Apr 11th, 2012 at 3:45 pm

    A great Ethiopian hero has departed the earth, a man with the hallmarks of a genius! Afewerk Tekle was often misunderstood but remained philosophical about life until the end. Me deepest respect for him. He is the father figure, who gave me the wish to paint. May his soul rest in peace!

  5. 5 Mulugeta Apr 11th, 2012 at 4:05 pm

    Afwerk Tekle dipped his brush in his own soul, and created paintings that reflected his own nature, and his pride in his home country into his pictures! RIP!

  6. 6 Leo Apr 11th, 2012 at 4:23 pm

    Afework once told me that the Ancient Egyptians believed that upon death they would be asked two questions and their answers would determine whether they could continue their journey in the afterlife. The first question was, “Did you bring joy?” The second was, “Did you find joy?”

    Looking back, the answer in Afewerk’s case is a resounding YES!

    I miss you my friend!

  7. 7 Esseye Medhin Apr 11th, 2012 at 6:04 pm

    Maitre artiste Afewerk Tekle swore by the name of the Lord of Ethiopia. Homage to Ethiopia was 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.

  8. 8 Z.Bonger Apr 11th, 2012 at 6:28 pm

    His death is a great loss not only to Ethiopia, but also to the rest of Africa. May his soul rest in peace.

  9. 9 Heran Million Apr 11th, 2012 at 7:06 pm

    Handsome, smart, proud, true gentleman in the Victorian sense of the term.

  10. 10 Teshome T.Michael Apr 11th, 2012 at 7:10 pm

    The world Lost a big man who contributed a lot through his art. Afewerk Tekle I would like to pass my symphaty and deep condolences. We miss him.

  11. 11 Ayele Bekerie Apr 11th, 2012 at 9:03 pm

    Ethiopia’s Nationity, Africanity and Globality;
    Ethiopians’ Dignity, Humanity and Positivity;
    Ethiopia’s Natural and Human Beauty;
    Ethiopians’ Sense of History;
    Ethiopia’s Tradition-Centered Modernity;
    Ethiopians’ Sense of Liberty, Individuality and Creativity; and
    Ethiopia’s Inspirational Spirituality

    Are Narrated Through the Art of Afewerk Tekle.
    Afewerk Tekle is Immortal.

  12. 12 H.Aged Apr 11th, 2012 at 9:08 pm

    A great loss, but his name and the wonders of his work stays forever with us. RIP!!!

  13. 13 Mulatu Apr 11th, 2012 at 9:33 pm

    Afewerk Tekle brought so many gifts to our life. We will never forget him!

  14. 14 Queen Sheba Apr 11th, 2012 at 10:07 pm

    I love you Afewerk Tekle!!!

  15. 15 Elias K/mariam Apr 11th, 2012 at 10:54 pm

    The respected Laureate Afework was one of the best artist in Africa .The gong of his death has brought sadness for the whole nation. “Mother” is one of my favorite paintings.

  16. 16 Mariam Apr 11th, 2012 at 11:30 pm

    Farewell Afework Tekle!

    In an age where everybody wants to sing, dance, paint and emulate only popular culture, he stands out as one who brought out his own identity as an Ethiopian to a global audience. It is beautiful, and there will be no other Afewework. Hope that all will look to him to see the inexhaustible creativity one can display when one really owns one’s identity.

  17. 17 Nuredin Apr 12th, 2012 at 12:18 am

    O what a loss. We now miss one ethiopian flag around the world.

  18. 18 mel tewahade Apr 12th, 2012 at 12:30 am

    I have the utmost respect for his art and humanity. In 1976 Ethiopia he was one of the few figures in Ethiopian history that still had love for His Majesty and expressed openly without fear. May the coming generation respect your legacy. You will live on forever.

  19. 19 Fanta Apr 12th, 2012 at 12:52 am

    We lost a champion! May God rest his soul in eternal peace.

  20. 20 Dr. Endale Apr 12th, 2012 at 2:07 am

    What a great loss to our country and to the world of art. It is unfortunate that all humans are equally mortal!!!

  21. 21 Tesfaye Terefe Deneke Apr 12th, 2012 at 2:08 am

    Ethiopia has lost one of its dearest child. He was the greatest artist of our time.

  22. 22 Yodit Apr 12th, 2012 at 2:15 am

    God bless Afewerk Tekle!

  23. 23 Desta Abera Apr 12th, 2012 at 2:37 am

    Afewerk Tekle was a great hero of the past & still remains the hero for future Ethiopia.

  24. 24 Adugnaw Alamneh Apr 12th, 2012 at 3:09 am

    We lost a great man. He was a symbol of Ethiopia. May God rest his soul in eternal peace.

  25. 25 Alemayehu Tamru Apr 12th, 2012 at 3:13 am

    Great grief to the whole world ,We missed our honor father and figure of art.who struggled to change the image of the lives of all Africans Specially Ethiopian’s.We never forget him.We have to follow his success to contribute to our world.

  26. 26 kassahun Bekele Apr 12th, 2012 at 3:17 am

    Art, specially painting, is something what I want understand and enjoy. I bought the VCD of Painting collections of The Most Honorable Maitre Artiste Afewerk Tekle. I was surprised. How far human mind can go? Even beyond death? LESERA SEW MOT YELEBETIM!!!!!!!!!

  27. 27 Tafesse Apr 12th, 2012 at 3:22 am

    I feel really very sad because of his death. He was not the property of this country i.e. Ethiopia rather he was a property of humankind. Let’s God keeps the soul of his beside him.

  28. 28 Alemseged Yilma Apr 12th, 2012 at 3:27 am

    Bad news for the world, especially to our cuntry Ethiopia.

  29. 29 Nefertiti Apr 12th, 2012 at 3:52 am

    Rest In Peace Our Great Legend

  30. 30 ep Apr 12th, 2012 at 4:05 am

    world lost the visionary Steve jobs, Ethiopia Lost her visionary, deepest sadness.

  31. 31 seid mohammed hussein Apr 12th, 2012 at 4:06 am

    We just lost a hero. A man who has helped boost the nations moral so many times in our history. An icon through whom other African see us. A talent who has inspired so many Aficans to success. A courageous man who walked his life all the way to the top without his natural losses hindering his progress. Afewerk we always love you. May God bless your soul. In the heavens I am sure you will continue to paint. You will reman in our memory for ever. Thankyou for all what you have done for us. Goodbye Afeti, Goodbye

  32. 32 MZ Apr 12th, 2012 at 4:15 am

    We always wait until a person passes to prise him. When he was alive so many stupid things were said about him mostly out of jealousy. God bless him…he still loved his country after all that. Rest in peace brother!

  33. 33 Emawayish Apr 12th, 2012 at 4:29 am

    He was a great man, he is still in my mind .

  34. 34 Solomon Apr 12th, 2012 at 5:10 am

    Why the best ones live shorter in Ethiopia ?????????????? Why we keep on losing our geniuses while the thugs keep on living and tormenting our lovely nation ????????? Rest in peace Afework. We owe you a lot for the generations to come. !!!!!!!!!!!!

  35. 35 MELAKU Apr 12th, 2012 at 5:57 am

    we lost a big gun.

  36. 36 Selam mechachal Apr 12th, 2012 at 7:17 am

    ውድ የኢትዮጲያ ልጅ!!! You will remain in the minds and hearts of we the people for ever.
    May your soul rest in peace!!!

  37. 37 Sebhat Tessema Apr 12th, 2012 at 7:58 am


  38. 38 Mesele Araya Apr 12th, 2012 at 4:01 pm

    He did his best to our nation. He made us part of the world. Really, it is an ever-present contribution for us and the next generation. May he rest in peace!

  39. 39 MHM Apr 12th, 2012 at 9:56 pm

    Ato Afework was a classmate of my mom in the UK, and also drew the “new flower” painting using my cousin as his model. I was very happy to see him at Stanford after many years, and was glad he survived the Derg years…May he rest in piece…

  40. 40 kuku Apr 13th, 2012 at 2:31 am

    Though I fully agree that he was one of the greatest Ethiopian artists, I have to say he was pompous and has no equal in projecting his inflated sense of self-importance.

  41. 41 Fessaha Mekbib Apr 13th, 2012 at 6:07 am

    What a great loss? We should not however lose sight of the fact that he is one of the luckiest of men who reached the grand old age of 80. We should take that as a plus. All is now left for us to wish his soul to rest in peace. He has done us proud.

  42. 42 Sirak Moges Apr 13th, 2012 at 7:54 pm

    He was the father of my land Ethiopia. We miss him.

  43. 43 fetlework Dressie Apr 14th, 2012 at 12:01 am

    We lost a great Ethiopian Artist. He Loved his Country. He Loved People.
    I Will never forget him and his Work. My he rest in Peace.

  44. 44 Yordanos Wube Ekune Apr 14th, 2012 at 12:24 am

    We should mourn b/c of we lost one of the best of our Ethiopian icons and the only symbol of Ethiopia on planet earth today. This our father /He/ The most honourable, World laureate, fine artist /Maitre/ disciplined. Afework Tekela. May your soul rest in peace!!!.

  45. 45 Nebyou Woubshet Apr 14th, 2012 at 2:24 am

    I had a chance to meet him at his studio Villa Alfa 9 years ago. I had tea with “ysende kita” with him I remember the respect which he gave me regardless of my age and background. I was young at the time. One thing I was amazed and still remains in my mind is what he told me about the time of the Revolution, At the time of the revolution after the killings of the 60n higher officials and the subsequent red terror and other bloody issues of the time, he was told and advised by the European embassies of Addis UK, France and Italy to provide him shelter in their country till things gets better. But his answer was different, He told them this is my country that I born and have lived my life and earned all the prestigious. Now my country is in turmoil and in big pain as any individual Ethiopian. I have to share the pains of my country with the rest of the people of Ethiopia and have no heart to opt to escape it and come back when it things gets better.
    No I will face every hardship just like every individual citizen of Ethiopia. That is what told them. It is hard to say good bye our world-class elites one by one without Bridging the wisdom to the coming generation. My deepest sympathy and deep condolences.

  46. 46 Yordanos Wube Ekune Apr 15th, 2012 at 12:28 pm

    We should sorrow b/c of we are losing one of the best of our Ethiopian icon and the only sign of Ethiopia through this planet earth. This our father /He/ The most honourable, World laoreate, Mural fine arts dicsciplined studio Artist Afework Tekela. May your soul rest in peace !!!.

  47. 47 seif-michael asefa Apr 16th, 2012 at 10:59 am

    he was a hero and he will always remain a hero he has finished his mission to the next generation. i hope we all accept his inharitace with respect for the great men who change the world with his paintings and his wise veiw the only thing i can say is that he was a legened and no can snatch his rank. people like him are formed once in a centuery. but i hope i will do my best to be a quarter of him. as i start from his words (yichalal)it’s an ethiopian im so proud of the hero we use to have. to me his not dead. 10q for the hard, smooth, life you thautht.

  48. 48 Maramawit Apr 16th, 2012 at 1:05 pm

    “Great men are true men, the men in whom nature has succeeded. They are not extraordinary – they are in the true order. It is the other species of men who are not what they ought to be.” – Henri Frederic Amiel

    Afewerk Tekle was a great man, HE was our man!

    REST IN PEACE YOU Ethiopian angel!!

  49. 49 Yemisirach Tekle Apr 16th, 2012 at 1:36 pm

    splendor, grand, and positive outlook and even the way he carried himself in public was all part of Afewerk Tekle’s art. For those who don’t get it, it is irritating and pompous. But there could be no doubt that when it came to his profession, which obviously was exceptional, Ethiopia was his Love!

    Farewell dear Afewerk!

  50. 50 Dr. Girma Mekonnen Apr 16th, 2012 at 2:02 pm

    What moved me the most is the way Ethiopians have bid goodbye to their loved son with the highest respect and love he most certainly deserved and the best the nation can deliver. I think he would be happy and satisfied at the end!

    I have never met him, but I have many postcards that goes back many decades.

    I take my hats off to Maitre Artiste World Laureate Afewerk Tekle! Long live in the Heavens!

  51. 51 Selam Apr 16th, 2012 at 5:42 pm

    What is moving is that I heard he left his art and his studio for ethiopia. To be used as a museum for the future generation. It shows his pride and his love for his country and people.


  52. 52 Ermiyes Apr 17th, 2012 at 2:53 pm

    Ethiopia lost one of her beloved son, Maitre Artist World Laureate Afework Tekele! My heart is heavy and deeply sadden to hear this lose. Laureate Afework, indeed, we Ethiopians will miss you very much, you have left monument of grand scale in our heart – thus you remain in us forever!

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