I work in painting, filmmaking, animation, and interactive installation. While my practice is greatly influenced by my personal journey, I have experienced a range of educational experiences, from the US, Thailand, and I am currently pursuing my MFA in Qatar. I grew up outside of Ethiopia, so visiting the country and getting a sense of the current film community there was inspiring.
My work is greatly inspired by the two cultures I come from. My mother is from Jamaica, and my father is from Ethiopia. I am inspired to tell the stories of the histories of both ancestries. I do so mainly through my films, combining folklore with real histories through animation.
This process includes meditation, ongoing research, and traveling to truly immerse myself in the world of the story I am creating. Within my painting and drawing work, I express more personal stories. I’ve used film to collectively heal, while I use painting to personally express.
Filmmaking in Ethiopia
I don’t see it as lacking but instead a place with limitless potential. This is because places like New York are full of so many artists wanting to make it to the top, in an environment of already established systems of success, making a lot of things inaccessible to most artists.
Whereas, Addis Ababa, for example, has an early developing film/art community so there is so much potential there to build and innovate. I hope I can be a part of building it with our community in the future.
Yene Fikir Ethiopia
Yene Fikir Ethiopia is set during the time of the Derg. It follows the journey of a young girl seeing her world change before her eyes, and navigating her way through this chaotic world. She is divinely guided on her journey, and in the process evolves from the power she learns that lives within her. It screened in Addis Ababa, January 2020 at Alliance Ethio Francaise. After its international festival run, it will eventually be released online. My previous film, The Water Will Carry Us Home is set during the time of the transatlantic slave trade when enslaved Africans were thrown off ships in the Atlantic ocean. I combine this true history with West African folklore, bringing the presence of mermaid deities in the story who save the souls of the dying and transform them into mermaids that live on in the waters.
My films are not meant to be of Black people being victimized like we usually see on screen, but instead films that reclaim our history and forgotten collective power. Ultimately, they are also meant to open the doors of healing within us.
Stop Motion Animation
I love stop motion animation because it is most enjoyable to me as a painter, and is in a sense a dying art in a digital age. I often unveil my animations in film in a storybook-like manner. My art style is something that has been evolving through my entire life and still is. I chose to be an artist when I was a child and have been naturally developing my unique mark since then. Since I was a child I was always looking at art from Ancient African and Asian history, and that also came out in my style. I’d say by high school, people could look at a piece of mine without a name and say yeah, that’s Tesfaye’s.
My challenges in Ethiopia range from not being accepted, judged, and misunderstood. Many Ethiopian people are very conservative, perhaps it is interwoven with our stronghold on our religion. I once painted a mural in Addis Ababa and it was quickly painted over because it was ” Buda, Illuminati, and not of our culture or religion”. People have also told me I am “not Ethiopian at all” because of the unique way I choose to dress. I’ve had to overcome my resentments around this and try to express it in the best way I can. It is something to be handled with wisdom and not emotions. Here we see a complex relationship between being an artist and the Ethiopian identity. After the mural was painted over I spent a few hours in deep sadness and contemplation of who I was as an Ethiopian making art here. I wondered if I was accepted by my family. I listened to the difficult experiences of other artists in the community.
What I am learning right now is it is not necessarily our job to look at this world and try to find our place in it and get offended that there isn’t one. It is our job as artists, creatives, and designers to create a place for ourselves in society. The way we create it can also trigger new behaviors towards art and artists in Ethiopia.
Words of Encouragement
Don’t limit yourself. Strive to find deeper meanings and reflections of your soul within your work. Research the topics, time periods, forms that excite you and see what dots you connect. Don’t allow doom and gloom surroundings to define who you are, what you are made of, and where you are going. Recharge your power when you need to.
COVID-19 and Creatives
I am the type of person where the world could be collapsing and I will still see a faint light at the end of the tunnel. This did not ruin us and we are only at the beginning of our creative greatness. This will pass and only make us stronger. I am excited to see when the pandemic passes, what beauty and power the creative spirit will explode into saying.
Spirited Away by Hayao Miyazaki. I’m an animator, so of course! However, this has been my favorite film since I was a child. It’s out there in the world, symbolism and metaphorical storytelling is so beautiful. Miyazaki is one of the greatest animators of our time.
Facebook: @Gabrielle Frewayni Tesfaye