- Being a painter was not just a dream for Tesfalem Atenaw. It was a dream that had to be realized no matter what. Grabbing a charcoal and drawing on walls instead of driving an imaginary car just like other kids, was the first instinct that told him that he was born to paint. He followed his heart and started to chase his dream to become a respected artist and help his family financially.
- Today, I give you one of the inspirational people I have had on this page, Tesfalem. He has worked hard from the bottom to the top earning him respect besides several awards in the art business.
- -How did you get to be an artist?
I never had an artist in my family nor did I have any in my environment that I would say has inspired me to become an artist. I just came naturally. I used to pick up charcoal and draw on the walls of the building we used to live in when I was a kid. My mother used to get in to a lot of fights because of that. But these habits didn’t just die out; I continued to grow into. I recall drawing in the middle of a class; my teacher used to wait for me until I fished the drawings and take them away. I think he liked them.
I was so much eager to get into the art school. But I was scared that they might not find my art work sufficient for me to join the course. So I gave them a drawing a friend of mine did which got me to the art school. Nonetheless once I was there, I was so patient and worked as hard as I could to get good grades. I also enjoyed the drawing of the anatomy pictures assignments we were given in junior school. So much so that I was drawing others’ assignments and putting my signature at the bottom. Those students remembered me even after we finished school. By the time I was in high school, I was the winner of the central region art competition, which was my first award. After that I took fine art courses in the evening hours at the NUEYS. Besides taking my academic and art courses, I started to work with artist Ghide Gbremicael. Working with him provided a base to strengthen my art skills. I have also had the privilege of working with artist Ermias Oqbe, also one of the artist who has shown me ways of modern painting.
- -Did you have the support?
I had a humble beginning. I was raised by a single mother and she did everything in her power for our survival. We got our daily income through my mother baking traditional bread which is used for siwa. It honestly was hard for me to ask for brushes and different painting instruments because I knew how the money came. My mother had to bear the heat to get that money and I wasn’t sure that I was ever going to repay her. But yes, I had the unconditional support of my family. Fortunately, I managed to sell almost all my paintings and that has gained me trust and my family’s moral. The only thing I was having trouble with was that I was keeping up my family all night since we had only one room. But I found a solution for that as well. I used to clean the bathroom and stay up all night painting without bothering my family.
- -Works and awards you have presented and earned…
In 2006, I had prepared an exhibition with a group of artists which was one of the moments that I can say was a step forward. With the income I had gained from the exhibition I then presented solo which made me one of the first young Eritrean artists to do it solo. I have had over 15 exhibitions ever since which included my ink and coffee paintings. I was preparing for my second exhibition when I discovered that I could use the coffee for my paintings. I was in a process of finishing one ink painting and my mom offered me coffee. While sipping the coffee, I dropped some on my painting. I was shocked; however, since I had a hobby of not giving up fast I brushed over the entire cup on my paper. Fortunately, I liked the effect and I ended up presenting two coffee painting on my exhibition and, surprisingly, people liked them. I did the majority coffee paintings in my next show.
Also, it is funny how I came to paint ink paintings. There is a story to it. One day I only had a twenty Nakfa bill on me. That day a colleague of mine asked me to get him an ink for drawing. What I didn’t understand was that he was going for a different one but I got him a pen ink. He told me that it’s not what he ordered and I had to buy him with the only twenty Nakfa I had. But I didn’t want to waste the ink and I tried some work with it and that is how I got to ink painting.
I have also been part of numerous art competitions held by the American Embassy, the European Union, the Red Cross and ICRC, and etc in which I came out to be the winner of the contests.
- -You are also famous for interior designs
You know colors matters. Scientifically there are specific colors for when to sleep, when to eat and so on. Colors are so important and people need to understand that when attempting to decorate their houses or restaurants. That is what I tell the owners, to try to think about what the people want or what will be good for their business. I have worked on many interior designs, which include church paintings as well.
I am also a graphic designer for the Zaer Textile Company. They came up with an idea to put the historical buildings of Asmara on t-shirts and other drawings on shopping bags. I believe that this is an important way of advertising our name and historical buildings.
- -Why do you paint…?
I am not private. I am more of an emotional person. I paint what is going on with me, what is happening to me and I want to express that with people. Through my painting I want to tell the world what I think and I relate through them. But this is when I am painting for myself. I don’t do that when I am painting for other people. I totally shift my mind from my feelings and just paint what the people want me to.
- -Do you focus on one type of painting?
No, I don’t. I just go with my instincts and feelings. For instance, these past three days I have been painting on a bed sheet which had various patterns on it. I felt like those patterns met my needs and I have painted on them which are very famous on my Facebook page. I draw when I want to be quiet, because it takes time and the time allows me to be silent. I use coffee and an ink to paint when I want to be free and speedy. I use those types of techniques to control my feelings.
- -The art classes you give to the disabled kids?
I know where I came from and where I am today. And I want to share my skills and create a career environment with people, especially with the disabled kids. Those kids may have been born or had the unfortunate luck of being handicapped, but they can, too, have a life full of skills and career. And we need to provide that. The Down Syndrome association had presented me to teach the kids. I was happy to do it but I had to make them like me first before teaching them. That is the only way they can sit down and learn. So for about a month I played and talked to them making sure that they accept me. It was a pleasure to have known them and taught them. Art is important to them because it is their means of communication as some of them are unable to utter words out of their mouth. Also, currently I am teaching hearing impaired students. Those kids should grow up believing that they can become anything they want to. And I would like to stress that many opportunities like this should be made available.
- -Any last words…
Yes. A painter should only paint for the sake of the feelings that float inside themselves. The dream will stop eventually either to be famous or rich. But when you paint for the crazy feeling you have, you will be famous and rich with time and still be a painter because your dream was never to be either.