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Painting Ethiopia: The Life and Work of Qes Adamu Tesfaw

Painting Ethiopia: The Life and Work of Qes Adamu Tesfaw

March 6, 2005 – September 18, 2005

“Literally glowing testimony to the irrepressible spirituality at the heart of intuitive artmaking.”
LA Weekly, July 28, 2005

“The Holy Trinity depicted in the form of fused Siamese twins holding the sacramental bread is simply an amazing image. The style of rendering is superb, and straight from early Christian illuminations–flat, intense, linear, oddly stylized, and full of life.”
ArtScene, April 2005

Vivid paintings of rural and urban life, striking depictions of Christianity from an Ethiopian perspective, unusually layered images of the political and military exploits of Ethiopian rulers…these are the innovative creations of Qes Adamu Tesfaw. Adamu’s work ranges from the devotional to the popular and thus cannot be neatly categorized. Schooled in the philosophy and aesthetics of a fifteen-hundred-year-old tradition associated with the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, he left the priesthood to turn to painting full-time, finding the freedom to venture beyond religious subject matter and to develop a style all his own. This beautiful traveling exhibition presented thirty-five of the artist’s finest paintings produced over the past forty years.

Exhibition in Depth

One artist’s bold innovations of the 1,500-year-old artistic traditions of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church was on display in ‘Painting Ethiopia: The Life and Work of Qes Adamu Tesfaw.’

Adamu’s paintings range from the liturgical to the popular, and reflect his unique career as an artist working for an urban art market in Africa. Born in 1933, he learned to paint as a boy while studying to enter the priesthood. At the age of 30, four years after being ordained and therefore bestowed with the honorific title “Qes,” he left the clergy and moved to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia’s capital and largest city, where he dedicated himself to painting full-time.

In Addis, Adamu found freedom to venture beyond religious themes and to develop an individual style. His subjects range from vivid images of rural and urban life in Ethiopia to striking depictions of Christianity from an Ethiopian perspective, and the political and military exploits of 19th- and 20th-century Ethiopian rulers. But it is Adamu’s unconventional approach—including unusually layered, truncated and fused images and seldom-considered perspectives—that marks the work of an extraordinary painter who has transcended the confines of his artistic education.

Guest curator Raymond Silverman initially encountered Adamu’s work in 1991, while viewing paintings at the Institute of Ethiopian Studies in Addis, a major repository of Adamu’s work. Struck by the artist’s unique style, Silverman has been instrumental in bringing an awareness of Qes Adamu to the U.S., including Painting Ethiopia, his first solo show and West Coast exhibition.

“I will always remember my first exposure to Adamu’s monumental paintings—their vibrant and unusual color palette, the unexpectedly bold and even quirky compositions, and their intensely personal vision of religious and historical subject matter,” says Marla C. Berns, director of the Fowler Museum. “It is an honor to join Raymond Silverman in bringing them to the world’s attention.”

The exhibition opens with a large mural created in 2004 depicting a typical rural wedding. The first gallery features works of religious expression, and demonstrates Adamu’s unconventional treatment of particular subjects, even within the framework of religious imagery. For his ‘Holy Trinity,’ for example, Adamu has dramatically conveyed the idea of the oneness of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit by blending the three into a single entity.

The second section of the exhibition includes depictions of Ethiopian historical events such as the famous 1896 Battle of Adwa, between Italians and Ethiopians, and the 1965 visit of Queen Elizabeth, who was received by noted Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie. A final section of the exhibition features scenes of everyday life, including games, ceremonies, and market life. Video and photography featuring the artist in his home and studio provide personal and professional background.

Adamu’s work has been exhibited in ‘Adamu, Kidane, Qanna: Three Painters from Ethiopia’ (1998) at the Leighton House Museum in London, ‘Ethiopia: Traditions of Creativity’ (1994) at Michigan State University, and in ‘Saints on Horseback: Art and Legends of Ethiopia’ (1996), an exhibition of work from the collection of his patron Benedetta Riva, shown at a private gallery in Rome. Next year he will be featured in ‘Ethiopia: Icons of the Past, Images of the Present’ at the Harn Museum of Art, University of Florida.

Press Release

Painting Ethiopia: The Life and Work of Qes Adamu Tesfaw

Exhibition Credits

Painting Ethiopia was organized by the UCLA Fowler Museum in collaboration with the Institute of Ethiopian Studies, Addis Ababa University, and was guest curated by Raymond Silverman, professor of Art History and Afroamerican & African Studies at the University of Michigan.

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