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TESFAYE URGESSA IS REDEFINING CONTEMPORARY PORTRAITURE AT SAATCHI YATES

In the world of contemporary art, where limits are constantly pushed and art is increasingly seen as social commentary or an act of activism there is no room for sugar-coating: in his exhibition at Saatchi Yates, Urgessa emerges as an artist boldly forging an uncharted path, into the ugliness of humanity. writes Albertina Campbell.

Installation shots courtesy of Saatchi Yates


Ethiopia occupies a distinctive position in African history, being one of the few nations to successfully resist European colonialism, notably avoiding subjugation by Italian rule. Despite the current intra-political upheavals stemming from the post-Tigray War (2020 - 2022), which left many East Africans displaced, the Eritrea-Ethiopia peace consensus remains shaky while both are on the mend to reverse the precipitate national decline caused by the conflict, understanding the necessity of restoring stability for their mutual benefit.


Photography courtesy of RedEye

In even better news, hailing from the Horn of Africa, Ethiopian artist Tesfaye Urgessa (b.1983) is having a great year. Having garnered attention as one of Artsy’s Vanguard Artists for 2023-2024, he has continued to make waves by representing Ethiopia at the country’s inaugural national pavilion, Prejudice and Belonging, currently on display at the 60th La Biennale di Venezia. My introduction to his work came through Addis Fine Art, a prominent Addis Ababa-based gallery that has been pivotal in elevating the profile of Ethiopian artists internationally since opening its London space in 2022. To coincide with Prejudice and Belonging, his recently concluded solo exhibition at Saatchi Yates in London showcased 14 additional large-scale figurative oil paintings created in Addis Ababa, Nürtingen and Padua. 


The works survey the artist's entire career on a visceral level, addressing a myriad of social, racial, and political issues he has encountered first-hand. Works are neatly positioned on all walls of the gallery, mirroring their presentation at the Venice show. This display method creates a sense of continuity and unity at first glance, the paintings appear similar, but this intentional uniformity becomes a signature element. Each recurring motif subtly alludes to the underlying niggling notion of social issues that permeates Urgessa's oeuvre, revealing a sinister labyrinth of themes upon closer inspection.


The necessity of direct engagement with such pressing societal matters prompts viewers to consider how art can both unite and divide us, offering a nuanced reflection on the complexities of current affairs. Urgessa addresses these contemporary concerns through the evocative, visual language of portraiture and figuration. "When it comes to social, racial, and political matters, there’s often no alternative but to address them directly,” says the artist in his interview with ArtReview. 


From left to right: Tesfaye Urgessa, Seeking the Beyond 2, 2024, Seeking the Beyond 1, 2024


His profound respect for traditional figurative painting was further solidified during an epiphany he had at a train station in Germany, the moment he committed to becoming a painter. The fervent painterly figures in his Seeking the Beyond series (2022-2024) can be characterised as a compositional amalgamation of synchronised brown bodies with elongated limbs evoking heightened tensions within domestic settings. 


Shadows pulsate in shades of dark green and reddish-brown hues in the background, which underscore the vibrant blend of Coptic-German Expressionist elements that converge to create a distinctive and compelling language. Using the human form as a vessel offers a profound exploration of the human psyche in the face of violence. His canvases are plagued with iconography akin to the influences seen in the works of Wilfredo Lam and Philip Guston which he deftly navigates, his consistent ability to utilise every inch of the canvas surface, even in areas without any figures, bring to bring forward the intricate narratives embedded in his work.



In the world of contemporary art, where limits are constantly pushed and art is increasingly seen as social commentary or an act of activism there is no room for sugar-coating, tickling of ears or sweeping issues under the rug. Audiences will ponder the intricacies of the interconnected human experience in a world beset by division and uncertainty. In this exhibition, Urgessa emerges as an artist boldly forging an uncharted path, into the ugliness of humanity.

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