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Contemporary artist Tesfaye Urgessa will represent Ethiopia at the 60th International Art Exhibition – La Biennale di Venezia in 2024, marking the country’s inaugural participation. Award-winning author and broadcaster Lemn Sissay OBE FRSL has been appointed as the curator for this historical moment.

Portrait of Tesfaye Urgessa. Courtesy of Tesfaye Urgessa and Saatchi Yates. Photographer: Kameron Cooper

Born in 1983 in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, Urgessa’s artistic journey began at the Ale School of Art and Design at Addis Ababa University under the guidance of modern master Tadesse Mesfin. He later continued his studies at the Staatlichen Akademie der Bildenden Künste Stuttgart where he encountered the heritage of German Neo-Expressionism and the London School of Painters, which he would incorporate in his imagery. His distinctive artistic language connects Ethiopian iconography with a profound fascination for traditional figurative painting, exploring themes of race and identity politics within domestic settings.

The exhibition Prejudice and Belonging for the first Ethiopia Pavilion encompassed the experience of the thirteen years spent in Germany studying and painting. “People tend to think I am painting victims in my canvases but it’s completely different. The figures hold all kinds of emotions, fragility as well as confidence. It is the figure presented without any judgement. It is saying this is who I am, this is what I am,” Tesfaye Urgessa.

Underscored by his personal experience of migration, Urgessa’s artistic practice became a powerful means of expressing the complexities inherent in displacement and cultural identity. Addressing racialised European surveillance culture in a solo presentation during Miami Art Week 2022 at the Rubell Museum, Urgessa brought a nuanced perspective to the immigrant experience. Further notable exhibitions include Urgessa’s presentation of new works at Saatchi Yates Gallery in London, Mayfair in 2021. Further presentations include ‘Oltre/Beyond’ at The Uffizi Gallerie in Florence in 2018, and ‘Von Denen Die Auszogen’ at Städtische Galerie Villa Streccius in Landau, Germany, in 2019. In 2022, Urgessa returned to his home of Addis Ababa where he continues to work.

On accepting the Ministry of Tourism’s commission, Tesfaye Urgessa said: “I am immensely grateful and honoured to be the first artist to show at the Ethiopia Pavilion at the Venice Biennale, one of the most renowned and influential art events in the world. This is a historic achievement for Ethiopia, as it is the first time that it has its own Pavilion at the Biennale. This would not have been possible without the support and trust of Saatchi Yates Gallery London, the Ministry of Tourism in Ethiopia, the Embassy of Ethiopia in Rome, and their hardworking teams. I sincerely thank them all for making this dream come true. This is not only a personal milestone, but also a proud moment for Ethiopian art and culture. I am honoured to represent my country and to showcase my work to the global audience. I hope that my exhibition at the Palazzo Bolani will inspire and empower other Ethiopian artists to pursue their creative aspirations and to share their stories with the world. I believe that this is the start of a new era for Ethiopian art, and I am excited to be part of it.”

Lemn Sissay OBE FRSL, the first Chancellor of Ethiopian Heritage in the United Kingdom and Chancellor at the University of Manchester until July 2022, brings a wealth of experience to the curatorial role. His notable achievements include initiating The Equity and Merit scholarship between the University of Manchester and Ethiopia, becoming a Fellow of The Royal Society of Literature, and receiving Honorary Fellowships from Mansfield College Oxford and Jesus College Cambridge.

Named MBE in 2014 and OBE in 2021, Lemn is a multifaceted artist – poet, playwright, memoirist, performer, and broadcaster. His autobiography ‘My Name is Why’ was a Sunday Times Best Seller in 2019, followed by the poetry book ‘Let The Light Pour In’ in 2023. Lemn’s influence extends globally, from holding Honorary Bencher at The Inner Temple to being offered Freedom of The City of London in August 2022.

Lemn Sissay said: “It is a great day for Ethiopia and Venice that this is the first Ethiopia Pavilion at La Biennale di Venezia 2024. Art is deeply rooted in Ethiopian culture from the coffee ceremony to the ancient Christian iconography. Contemporary Ethiopian art is rising in prominence and stature throughout the world. It is evident in music, in literature, in photography and in art. Tesfaye Urgessa is the artist on the crest of this wave. Come to Palazzo Bollani, take a closer look and enrich your world.” The Ethiopia Pavilion is commissioned by the Ministry of Tourism of the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia. The commissioner of the pavilion is Demitu Hambisa Bonsa, Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of Ethiopian Embassy and Permanent Representative to FAO, WFPandIFADinItaly, Rome.

The 60th Venice Biennale will open to the public from the 20th of April until the 24th of November 2024.

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