matatu film festival

“ 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.”