Specially for UNSETTLED, Mulugeta Tafesse (b. 1960, Ethiopia) has created a new series of captivating paintings, called “The medicine man”, in homage to his mother, who passed away at the age of 91 in 2014. Investigating his personal history, the artist revisited treasured memories and transposed these moments onto canvas. Painting an intimate subject, these portraits pay tribute to the single mother who worked hard to support Tafesse in his dreams and ambitions to become an artist. Inspired by Milan Kundera’s novel Immortality, he continues to communicate with his mother with every brushstroke. By means of her portraits she stays in close connection with her son. Painting her portrait for the first time since she died was an intense experience. Every work forms part of a process of mourning, missing, and healing.
Tafesse shows his mother in her apartment in Addis Ababa where she spent the last years of her life. Vulnerable and practically immobile, her sequestered existence created a lasting and strong impression on the artist. In this new series of portraits, his mother’s isolation and psychological state are expressed through her posture and position within the interior. The reflective wooden floor increases the dramatic atmosphere and mirrors her fragile state. With these series Tafesse wishes to return the sacrifices she made for him; at the same time paying tribute to mothers in general. With this universal theme, the artist defies the typical categorizations, rejecting being framed as an African artist, as his work is the product of a synergy of cultures and idioms.
“Many people who see my work immediately try to make a connection with my roots, my Ethiopian origins. That sometimes bothers me. The last time I was in Amsterdam I went to the Rijksmuseum. There I studied Rembrandt, Van Eyck and other old masters; they are much more my frame of reference.”
The name of the series ‘The medicine man” refers to the secondary character in these paintings; the artist himself. He paints himself in the act of taking care of his mother. While he lived abroad as an internationally acclaimed artist, Tafesse hired caretakers who brought his mother medication and gave her the care he himself was not able to provide, only visiting her once every 1 or 2 years. Through his paintings Tafesse wants to recreate the memories of his beloved mother, but also to reshape the lost time with her, to express the wish he could have been nearby her in a time of need. By painting himself as the medicine man, he reconstructs the past into a desired state. Simultaneously, this motif skillfully plays with the colonial narrative of the black servant, copying the imagery of similar sculptures that used to welcome visitors at restaurants and other establishments. Tafesse has painted the apartment from his memories, including his mother’s furniture and decorations, thereby inscribing these works in a longstanding classical tradition of interior portraits.
Having stayed in Europe for a long time, Tafesse is inspired and motivated by the constant exposure to Western painters. He incorporates traces of Western cultural history in his own African roots. The experience of seeing virtuoso works from contemporary artists such as Gerhard Richter and Luc Tuymans pushed him to new heights. Classically trained, old masters such as Vermeer and Van Eyck instructed him about perspective and the geometric division of a space, resulting in an unsettled contemporary take on vanishing points. Whistler’s and Rembrandt’s portrait of their respective mothers preceded him in his subject choice. The expressionism of artists such as Monet and Caillebotte, impelled him to his own subjective take on the world, without compromise and in full freedom of self-expression. Starting from a strong inner self, the artist sees himself as “a realist with an expressionist heart”. Tafesse’s canvases are deliberate in their use of space and ephemeral light. His palette, whether he is working in oil, tempera or acrylic is typically muted and soft, drawing the viewer closer to an intimate dialogue with the works. In his portraits, the imagining of the figurative and realistic becomes a suggesting, creating unsettling yet beautiful evocations of lost moments.
Tafesse Mulugeta graduated at the Fine Arts School of Addis Ababa in 1980, where he shortly taught painting before obtaining his Master of Arts at the Higher Institute of Fine Arts in Sofia, Bulgaria, in 1989. He continued his postgraduate studies in painting, between 1992 and 1995, at the Higher Institute for Fine Arts (HISK) in Antwerp. Since then, he has been living in Belgium, with frequent stays in Addis Ababa. In 2012 he received his PhD cum laude from the University of La Laguna in Tenerife. He has written and lectured extensively on modern and contemporary Ethiopian and Eastern African art. Tafesse’s paintings have been exhibited in Belgium, Mexico, USA, The Netherlands, Spain, Germany, France, Senegal, Tanzania, Switzerland, and Lithuania. In 2014, he was a R.A.T. artist in residence in Mexico City, and in 2020 artist in residence at the Frans Masereel Center, Kasterlee Belgium. He will have a solo museum show at the Modern Art Museum Gebre Kristos Desta in Addis Ababa later this year.