Where is the Country for Young Men?

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“Young people should not be bound to geographical boundaries whatsoever, but follow their own dreams and visions.” Tesfaye Urgessa, 2019

As enormous and diverse as our world is, young people deprived of socio-economic opportunities across continents, share similar aspirations along with a natural desire for greener pastures. “No Country for Young Men”, the title of Tesfaye Urgessa’s exhibition, “delves into the immigration crisis in Africa and acts as a speaker for millions of muted individuals” according to Addis Fine Art’s information packet, announcing the exhibition opening on December 30th at the principle contemporary gallery. Full disclosure: I am a super fan and FB follower of the prolific Ethiopian contemporary artist and my husband, Prince Merid Tafesse and I had the pleasure of hosting him and his artist wife Nina at our home recently. Cool creative couple. But back to “No Country for Young Men” also the title of a hip-hop song dropped in 2009 by famous African American rapper, actor and producer, Ice Cube, who raps in response to social injustice in the USA, for all who will give ear, “No country for young men…your world is just an illusion No country for young men…It’s like ball a’ confusion…be where the piranhas be, swim upstream eat north economy…take what you want from these lying…cheaters…that’s how we act when you don’t wanna feed us.”. Powerful!
In 2009 Tesfaye had just migrated to Germany, fresh from his birth city Addis. Only the fast rising painter and the Most High know the totality of his experience but thankfully “No Country for Young Men” will give us a glimpse into the mind and heart of Tesfaye. For the record, psychologist Sigmund Freud would have a field day with the show’s 20 oversize artworks that read as deeply twisted, literally. Yet the highly trained intellectual artist beautifully balances his figure’s emotive desperation and disillusion with temperaments of defiance and determination. He gives grace and space to the figures’ almost monochromatic world abound with color, giving a sense of hope, articulated in Tesfaye’s tight, fresh and sinuous brush strokes. The voice of men displaced in a country not their own is represented. But isn’t movement a human right? Hasn’t the ability to move across borders helped build empires over the centuries? Why then should a young man be afraid or limited to move?
These questions and a plethora of statements are graphically presented by Tesfaye’s conversations on canvas. The artist advocates, “Young people should not be bound to geographical boundaries whatsoever, but follow their own dreams and visions.” His artist portfolio further expresses, “Story-telling and a kind of artistic activism is where Urgessa found a style of his own. The mute reciprocity between the observer and the observed shuffles the power dynamics and the notion of agency and race. The portrayed exceed the frame with their gaze, interrogating the viewer.” So while Ice Cube made us dance with defiance, Tesafaye’s exhibition takes us out of our comfort zone with provocative visual movements. This is a show not to be missed and I can frankly say it may just be the best show in Addis for 2019. Yup!
While kith and kin are happy to have the native son home for the holidays, the opening of his first exhibition after ten years will be undoubtedly, move the art scene to another level. Tesfaye, an Alle School of Fine Art and Design in Addis Ababa grad and lecturer, also holds an MA from Staalichen der Bildenden Künste in Stuttgart under Prof. Cordula Güdermann, where he graduated with distinction. He was a recipient of the DAAD scholarship (2009-2011), the Camillo-Michele-Gloria-Preis, GasVersorgung Süddeutschland (GSV), Germany (2010), and the Prize of the state academy of Stuttgart, Germany (2014). Some of his most important group shows comprise ch halte dich festhalten, Groupexhibition (with Nina Raber Urgessa and Zoe liya Urgessa,) Schacher – Raum für Kunst, Germany (2019); Von denen die auszogen, State Galerie Villa Streccius, Germany (2019); Fremdkörper, Tesfaye Urgessa and Tillmann Damray, Schacher– Raum für Kunst, Germany (2016) and Ethiopia Today, Kunststation Kleinsassen,
Germany (2016).
Tesfaye knows himself , “Having studied under modern master Tadesse Mesfin, at the Alle School of Fine Art and Design, Urgessa connected with Ethiopian iconography. This will be, in years to come, one of the binding elements of his artistic production. In his own words, this is like ‘always having an Ethiopian accent, no matter what language I’m speaking’. He further said in a brief telephone interview with me, “…we only see the negative side of immigration…the flip side is to encourage young people…the world is theirs to explore”. “No Country For Young Men” in song or imagery, speak the indomitable spirit, twisted in the reality of day to day life immigrants face and we are thankful for Tesfaye’s sensitivity and connection to this pervasive problem that many of us turn a blind eye. Catch it December 30th at Addis Fine Art Gallery.

Dr. Desta Meghoo is a Jamaican born
Creative Consultant, Curator and cultural promoter based in Ethiopia since 2005. She also serves as Liaison to the AU for the Ghana based, Diaspora African Forum.