mahader tesfai

western history equals white mythology

interview with artist mahader tesfai:

[i] what does this photo mean?

[mt] this photo is meant to challenge the status of history

[i] is it a western myth?

[mt] yes, precisely. that is the question.

[i] what informed this photo?

[mt] dialogues and readings of angela davis, edward said, matthew shenoda, g.c. spivak, arundhati roy, homi bhabha

[i] what is the role of third world narratives?

[mt] to decolonize history

[i] who is the photographer?

[mt] my friend duwayno robertson

“ My name is Mahader Tesfai. I am an African from Eritrea. I grew up in the Bay Area and reside in Oakland, California.

My father named me Mahader. At the time of my birth he was away fighting as a soldier in the Eritrean resistance while my mother raised my brother and I. Not knowing if he would return alive, he named me Mahader which in the language of Tigrinya means a book of record detailing the important facts of ones life. It also means the village of ones residence, in the language of Tigre. My father named me Mahader in hopes that he would return to the village of his birth and if not that his first-born child would be a living document of his life.

I am an artist. I create paintings and illustrations utilizing found objects, color, line work, repetition, surrealism, and symbolism to affirm the nuanced beauty and complexity of African identities and communities, whether in diaspora or in their homelands.

My sources of inspiration as an artist are constantly shifting but are rooted in the African traditionalist and modernist art forms. I love the history, functionality, abstraction, and aesthetic quality of African sculpture. Other inspirations I draw from include the geometry of Ibrahim El Salahi, line work of Elizabeth Catlett, composition of Romare Bearden, the prolificity of Jean- Michel Basquiat, the political motivation of the Black Arts Movement, and the Afro-Futurism expressed in the music of artist like Drexciya and Mick Jenkins.

Currently, my inspiration is derived from the activist work of young Black radicals in the United States and the relationships I’ve developed over the years with artists through collaborative art projects such as the Home Away From Home Project and currently with the Matatu Film Festival.

As a child of Eritrea, born in a refugee camp in Kassala, Sudan, my story is that of diaspora and a relationship to internal and external displacement. Although I have been in the United States most of my life my relationship to the refugee experience is still lived.

My story is not that of Eritrean youth fleeing now, who are risking and evading extended military conscription, death at the hands of desert heat, human trafficking [for the purposes of forced labor, sexual exploitation, organ harvesting, etc.], capsizing boats in the Mediterranean, and countless other dangers in route to [and even after arriving to] Europe or the United States.

But we are connected as a people through bloodlines, phone calls, financial support, emotional support, our shared histories of mass exodus, our vulnerabilities to systems of oppression, our resistance, our mobility, our understanding that Anti-Blackness is a global system, and our exclamation that Black Lives Matter everywhere in the world.

My current work incorporates overlapping faces, text, and symbols with a strong emphasis on lines. These pieces are playing with the idea of individual and shared identity and language. In one piece multiple characters might be sharing eyes, nose, lips, etc. My use of overlapping faces and sometimes bodies, for me, means a variety of things: I’m expressing the multiplicity of identities that exist in one person, the interconnectedness [spiritual, familial, etc.] between people, and the intersection of these realities.

The images in my art work, vary in terms of whom they represent. Certain paintings are representations of specific peoples and moments in history; while other pieces represent people in diaspora and are referencing communities throughout the world and throughout time that are descended from Africa.

Identity and perception are very salient/powerful parts of my life. As a Black man in the United States I am often times viewed and subsequently targeted as a threat with multiple negative tropes attached to me. My art is a rejection of these one-dimensional views of Blackness that are so prevalent in the world. My art is a meditation and celebration of Blackness. We are beautifully nuanced, colorful, multi-dimensional, overlapping, interconnected, and our history is rooted in love and struggle.”


Bay Area Painting Right Now: Mahader Tesfai’s Overlapping Faces

Written by: Brandon Brown/KQED
Photo by: Graham Holoch/KQED

One of the things I’ve learned from writing this series is that it’s always better to see a painter’s work in their studio. Yes, the gallery and the museum have their little auras and theatricality, but the studio is the architectural organization of how paintings come to be.

I met Mahader Tesfai at the studio he shares with two other artists in uptown Oakland. Stevie Wonder’s Songs in the Key of Life spun on the turntable as we talked and looked at his works: I don’t want to bore you with it / Oh but I love you, I love you, I love you.

In Tesfai’s space, his works are to be seen, touched, held, moved and rearranged. His practice adapts to the medium and the surface: glow-in-the-dark paint on white canvas shoes, 3D glasses and a Stevie Wonder soundtrack.

Mahader Tesfai was born in Eritrea and raised in the Bay Area. He earned a B.A. in Black Studies from UC Santa Barbara. Eritrea, Oakland, Santa Barbara; these are the places he’s from, and each resonates in his paintings. The stylization with which he renders his faces hearkens back to East African figurative works. Oakland is everywhere, from the surrealist couture of his painted t-shirts to the tradition of radical politics his paintings thematize. Finally, his studies in Santa Barbara, a place demographically far different from Oakland, permeate the theoretical underpinnings of these paintings.

Tesfai only started painting after college, where his studies in Black theory and history influenced his developing interest in visual art. He centers Black bodies and lives in his paintings. With a nuanced understanding of how those bodies and lives have appeared in a racist Western painting tradition, his work stages a formal refusal to participate in and reiterate that bad legacy.

Just as these places, the places from which Tesfai hails and regards in his work, offer wildly different social ecologies, imagery and sensory information, the styles he accommodates in his work are also extremely varied. Thematically, however, they are made coherent by the centrality of Black faces.

Tesfai recently told an interviewer, “The figures in my paintings and illustrations are depictions of Africans. My art work ranges from figurative to abstract but the African is always present.”

The “range” he describes is unmissable. Some works use sparse brush strokes to evoke the figures of overlapping faces. Others rely on intricate thin lines to give the feeling of a gathering crowd, that crowd clustering into shapes that signify letters and words.

Looking at Untitled, a painting on top of a large paper poster found at the Marcus Garvey Bookstore, we passed around 3D glasses. Seen through the red and blue plastic lenses, the lines have a kinetic quality that makes the pastel tones pop off the poster’s shrink wrap. This viewing experience underscores the importance of standing in front of Tesfai’s work, of looking into the faces that look back.

His paintings are richly textured. In fact, many of them are more properly classified as collage with painted elements. They also change in their significations depending on your proximity to the surface. Looking at Untitled up close, for instance, Tesfai’s pastel colors and slender lines repeat almost identical faces. Stepping back, however, one sees how the faces themselves spell out a text, a message.

Faces glean information from stimuli, and are also of course objects read by others for meaning. In Tesfai’s work, the faces are literally transformed into words, into a message. The message is about life, the key of life in the Wonderian sense. The overlapping of the faces is a crucial relation in Tesfai’s paintings. He suggested to me their relationship to iconographic religious painting in an African style.