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The Qes Who Paints

"Painting is not just an occupation- it is my life." - Qes Adamu Tesfaw

In 1991, art historian Raymond Silverman was conducting field work in Ethiopia, studying the social values associated with creativity in the northern part of the country and the contemporary visual culture of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. During a visit to the Institute of Ethiopian Studies in Addis Ababa, Silverman discovered large and vibrant paintings by artist Qes Adamu Tesfaw and was immediately impressed. The paintings ranged from the liturgical to the popular, and their psychological and aesthetic qualities were captivating.
    Born around 1930, Qes Adamu learned to paint as a boy while studying to enter the priesthood. At the age of 30, four years after being ordained and earning the title Qes (priest), he left the clergy and moved to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia’s capital and largest city, where he found artistic freedom and decided to dedicate himself to painting.
    Silverman and a colleague, Neal Sobania, a professor of African history, first met Adamu in his home/studio in Addis Ababa in 1993. A unique relationship developed, and in 2002, Silverman, who wished to expose Adamu’s work to the West, contacted the Fowler Museum at UCLA and showed the directors images of the artist’s works. The response was ardently positive, and the planning of a U.S. exhibit began. The Fowler Museum invited Silverman to curate the 2005 exhibit, which was entitled, “Painting Ethiopia—The Life and Works of Qes Adamu Tesfaw.”
    Adamu’s individual style developed while he was living in Addis Ababa, and he has been painting Ethiopia through vivid stories of rural and urban life, Christianity and the political and military exploits of the 19th and 20th centuries. “A truly creative spirit, he possesses a passion bordering on obsession for ‘making things,’” noted Silverman in the exhibition catalogue essay.
    Adamu’s style is intricate and resists conventional categorizations. Visibly, his oeuvre is exciting and original, setting him apart from other artists. His artistic energy and expression are derived from a long liturgical tradition associated with the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, but at the same time, the spirited compositions impart multifaceted elements of contemporary African creativeness. In Contemporary African Art, art historian Sidney L. Kasfir notes “contemporary art in Africa has built through a process of bricolage upon the already existing structures and scenarios on which the older, precolonial and colonial genres of African art were made. It is in this structural sense, and in the habits and attitudes towards making art, rather than any adherence to a particular style, medium, technique, or thematic range, that it is recognizably African” (from Marla C. Berns’ forward to the exhibition catalogue).
    Around 2000, Adamu painted a transcendent rendition of the Trinity. Painted on cloth in vibrant colors of striking yellow, red and blue, along with subtleties of black lines and opaque white, Adamu’s “Trinity” suggests deep religious conviction and artistic spirituality. Traditionally, in Ethiopia, paintings of the Trinity portray three identical figures, each holding a sphere, but Adamu chose a different approach. In order to embody the concept of wholeness, he joined the three figures of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit to create a masterful image of a single entity. There is a fused image of three identical, white-bearded men, grasping a single white orb with one of their left hands and making blessing signs with the fingers of their other hands. Adamu commented that the orb symbolized the world, and the Trinity holding it had the power to create and destroy it.
    Uncharacteristic to Ethiopian art, Adamu’s paintings often show more than one aspect of a narrative in a single work. In “Trinity,” the artist sectioned off the painting’s four corners, where he depicted a man (Matthew), an eagle (John), an ox (Luke) and a lion (Mark).
    Prior to the U.S. exhibit, Raymond Silverman had commissioned Adamu to create a cityscape, and Adamu painted the piece without figures of people or animals. “The City of Addis Ababa” depicts a bird’s eye view of a dynamic urban dwelling, with a mix of old and new, showing principal landmarks, churches, mosques, statues and vehicles. Viewers can see that Adamu is capable of rendering any subject, and his cityscape, devoid of the drama of religion and war, effectively shows a marvelously sprawling composition.
    “Painting Ethiopia” is showing at Loyola University Museum of Art until November 4. Thirty-five of Adamu’s paintings are on display, and a film documenting a conversation with the artist is screened throughout the exhibition. o

Published: October 14, 2007
Issue: November 2007