Tesfaye Urgessa is the artist behind the first-ever Ethiopian Pavilion at the Venice Art Biennale

Meet Tesfaye Urgessa, the Ethiopian Pavilion’s debut artist, ahead of the Venice Art Biennale 2024

Ethiopian Pavilion artist Tesfaye Urgessa pictured in his studio with large-scale painting
Tesfaye Urgessa pictured in his studio
(Image credit: Courtesy of Tesfaye Urgessa and Saatchi Yates)

As the selected artist for the first-ever Ethiopian Pavilion at a Venice Art Biennale, Tesfaye Urgessa’s commission comes with more than the average amount of pressure. Urgessa, however, is taking it in his stride, appreciating the timing of the project, which coincides with a personal and professional full circle. After beginning his career in Ethiopia, studying under painter Tadesse Mesfin, he enrolled in the Staatlichen Akademie in Stuttgart, a move that saw him hone a style that juxtaposes Western and African references. He has since returned to his hometown, Addis Ababa.

‘It was when I went to Germany that I decided to become an artist,’ says Urgessa. ‘I was influenced by the situation and what was happening around me, but also by the art and the artists. I felt free to take [from this].’

Ethiopian Pavilion artist Tesfaye Urgessa on ritual, race and identity

Abstract portrait of two people by Tesfaye Urgessa

Lineage Frost 2, 2023, by Tesfaye Urgessa

(Image credit: Courtesy of Tesfaye Urgessa and Saatchi Yates)

It marked the beginning of his distinctive aesthetic, marrying Ethiopian symbols and motifs with vivid outlines inspired by German neo-expressionism, in work which imbues the domestic routines of the quotidian with a spirituality. ‘My influence is the day-to-day life, there is always that aspect,’ he adds. ‘You see a kind of ritual, but you’re not exactly sure what kind. It’s one of the core parts of my painting right now, to give that majesty, [with subjects] sitting very straight.’ 

Urgessa borrows from traditional figurative paintings to consider identity politics and race, although, he says, ‘I don’t have any patience to give it some kind of direction. I wouldn’t say, this painting is going to be about race, but it’s just that those things affect me, especially when I was in Germany. I would have conversations about this stuff with my friends, it happened to them, it happens to me. And that takes some part in the painting process, because I collect images in my head throughout the day. Those images that affected me the most tend to come out on the surface of my painting. The race and identity question isn’t something to deny. It just naturally comes out.’ 

A version of this article appears in the May 2024 issue of Wallpaper*, available in print from 11 April, on the Wallpaper* app on Apple iOS, and to subscribers of Apple News +. Subscribe to Wallpaper* today.


The Venice Art Biennale 2024 will be open to the public from 20 April to 24 November

Hannah Silver is the Art, Culture, Watches & Jewellery Editor of Wallpaper*. Since joining in 2019, she has overseen offbeat design trends and in-depth profiles, and written extensively across the worlds of culture and luxury. She enjoys meeting artists and designers, viewing exhibitions and conducting interviews on her frequent travels.