Up Close and Personal: Three young African painters revolutionising portraiture

Helen Jennings, Limna, September 27, 2021

[...] The impressive rise of the contemporary African art market in recent years has brought much-needed vitality to the industry. We’ve seen a groundswell of Africa-focused galleries such as Galerie Cécile Fakhoury (Paris, Abidjan, Dakar) and Mariane Ibrahim Gallery (Chicago, Paris), art fairs including 1-54 (London, NYC, Paris, Marrakech) and ART X Lagos and the establishment of institutions such as Zeitz MOCAA in Cape Town and Nubuke Foundation in Accra.


These spaces are all flourishing in step with the new generation of artists whose fresh and evocative works are attracting a growing collector base across the continent and beyond. This energy has also been reflected at most international art fairs and major museums where these talents are ever-more present. Limna data shows that there has been a steady rise in exhibitions by African artists over the past decade as well as a renewed spike in the wake of the 2020 Black Lives Matter uprisings. Although the Covid-19 pandemic has impacted emerging art markets, this burgeoning sector has proved resilient thanks to its relatively affordable price points, engaged audience and agile pivot to digital shows and sales.


The Armory Show in NYC is evidence of global interest in this thrilling scene. Following its 2016 spotlight on art from an African perspective, the fair has continued its commitment to young galleries and artists with its Presents section. At the recently concluded 2021 edition, a number of leading African art galleries were selected included Rele Gallery (Lagos, LA), Gallery 1957 (Accra, London), Tafeta (London, Lagos), Jack Bell (London) and Addis Fine Art (Addis Ababa, London). Here we highlight three of the fast-rising portrait painters on show who provide a snapshot of the diverse voices now receiving serious attention.


“I feel complete when I paint. It is all very automatic to me. I don’t consider painting as work, rather it’s a mandatory activity like eating. Painting has become an extension of myself,” says Tizta Berhanu of her tender and heartfelt practice.

This Addis Ababa-born artist studied under Ethiopia’s renowned modernist painter Tadesse Mesfin at the Alle School of Fine Arts and Design where she refined her expressionistic style, using bold brush strokes and intense, tonal colours to explore the meditative nature of our emotions.


Her oil paintings are filled with elusive figures who hold each other close, heads on laps, arms around shoulders, flowing into each other across the canvas to create a mood that is at once dream-like and visceral. Whether articulating love or loss, togetherness or loneliness, ardour or resentment, these sentiments are deeply felt. “My works are a direct reflection of my emotions and who I am as an artist. As I grow as a person, as a mother, my work grows too,” she adds.


The artist’s star is rising fast with Addis Fine Art. She enjoyed her first solo with the gallery last year and participated in Art Dubai’s 2020 residency programme. This year she showed at 2020 residency programmeCFHILL in Stockholm and was featured in Art Basel OVR 2021. Berhanu sees her presence at international art fairs as proof of the bonds we all share.


“In Ethiopia we have a culture of closeness, hugs and coexistence. My artwork is based on what I have known since my childhood and my reality, so it’s amazing to see people from other cultures resonating with these themes. I like reminding people that we are all human and share an emotional life.”[...]

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