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How Ethiopian-Jamaican Gabrielle Tesfaye is using art for revolution

Gabrielle Tesfaye exists at an intersection. She pulls liberally from her background as a child to parents from both Jamaica and Ethiopia. These histories she combines with her formal education at various universities and techniques absorbed through a life well traveled, exploring parts of Asia. A noted polymath, she dabbles in media ranging from painting to puppetry. Her work is always striking; she uses bold colors and exaggerated lines to create paintings that can efficiently use simple colors and shades to depict Blackness, femininity, and Tigrayan reality. In her work, puppets with exaggerated features conjure in the mind something divine and more than human. Her commitment to Tigrayan art manifests in her work as co-founder of the Tigray Art Collective, which showcases artists of Tigrayan descent from all over the world.

Ms. Tesfaye was kind enough to spare some time out of her hectic schedule to peel back the curtain to talk about her African-Caribbean roots, creating from her heart, celebrating Ethiopian culture and highlighting Ethiopian hardships.

Tell us about your Caribbean and African roots, and how they have fueled your work as an artist? 

Gabrielle: My mother is from Jamaica and my father is from Tigray, Ethiopia. Growing up as a first-generation American in the midwest of the US, I didn’t have many places to go to find a reflection of my cultural heritage. I began to study the art of my parent’s countries on my own. It became a tunnel to connecting with my roots through their art and bridging it into my own work.

Has your multicultural heritage ever presented any challenges or opportunities for you along your journey?

Gabrielle: I’ve, at times, felt I wasn’t enough for either side. I feel multicultural children, as they exist today, are still a bit new to today’s world. This could be for reasons relating to migration, displacement, and war. ‘Third culture kids’ – children who may have parents from the same place, but were born and raised in cultures different from their origins – also have trouble with identity and belonging. It’s an internal and external struggle.

What have been some of your personal favorite highlights of your career so far?

Gabrielle: Attending film festivals and speaking on stages that shine a light on my people, who have been systematically kept out of global conversations within art, film, and storytelling, have been proud moments for me.  

Where, or from what, do you pull inspiration for your work?

Gabrielle: Inspiration really comes from everywhere – music, museums, poetry, and writing. I don’t purposely go anywhere for inspiration, it doesn’t usually work that way for me… It’s more of a natural occurrence beyond my control, like a bird visiting my window. 

How do you want to impact your audience in general, and women specifically, through your work? 

Gabrielle: I want to continue paving the path that was paved before I existed. A path where women express themselves unfiltered, assertive, and affirmed in their purpose, and create their own place in the world. Each generation creates another stepping stone.  

There are so many talented creative women who dream of building thriving careers through their artistry. What do you think you’ve done that has allowed you to achieve success, and what advice would you give others?

Gabrielle: I’ve found that vulnerability has been my strength, because it attracted people that really feel me, to my work. I don’t have a secret recipe for getting seen or grabbing opportunities, nor do I have a mentor guiding my every step to supporting myself as an artist in this world. Keeping my authentic voice, and creating from that space has allowed me to create work that has found its way into the hearts of many people. 

What causes are close to your heart, and how have you sought to effect change in these areas?

Gabrielle: The ongoing war in Tigray, Ethiopia is the cause I have fought for the most in the past two years. My family is there, and has tragically lived through a genocidal war that has taken the lives of 600,000 people and counting. It hasn’t gotten as much media coverage as Ukraine has, for instance. My work lately has been to amplify awareness and raise money for the civilians in Tigray whose voices have been silenced in the international community. 

If you have any in the pipeline, what new projects can we look out for from you in the near future?

Gabrielle: I’m currently working on my graduate thesis, which explores the preservation of Tigray’s cultural heritage during a time of war through reinvented cultural objects and digital archives. I look forward to sharing more within a few months!

Follow www.gabrielletesfaye.com

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