For Gabrielle Tesfaye, Art Is A Beautiful and Terrible Thing


Gabrielle Tesfaye doesn’t do muted tones. Just the briefest consultation of the website of the New York–based painter, puppeteer, filmmaker, and animator results in color-saturated video tours through the rooms of her work space, where projects peek out from behind each door: the watercolor faces of women, reflecting the traditions of her bicultural Jamaican and Ethiopian heritage in brightly hued dresses and glittering jewels, accented by metallic pigments. On the foreheads of several are third eyes, seeking out a higher purpose; at their feet quite literally lay whole worlds, comprised of cityscapes and earth. Some sport dazzling smiles, others avoid the gaze of the viewer entirely.

Such is the importance of equilibrium for Tesfaye: “My philosophy is that there is beauty and pain in everything,” she says. “My art always intends to explore that, and to prove it in some way. I draw, in particular, on themes from the African diaspora and in many senses it’s been both a beautiful and terrible thing. Beautiful in that I’m able to learn about the traditions of the cultures that shaped me, and strange because I am doing so largely through works created by people who eliminated those traditions to begin with. Trying to learn about your history in the country that has oppressed it for so long is like looking for hidden treasure.”


At the moment, Tesfaye is working on a video project that she files under “afrofuturism,” a cultural phenomenon that reimagines a future of art, science, technology, and history through a distinctly black perspective. The best examples, according to Tesfaye, successfully launch black histories into the beyond without gaps or evidence that ancient traditions had ever been tampered with. Black Panther—which imagines a highly technologically advanced African nation that was never colonized—is one example of this kind of story. “I think that’s why everyone is so excited about it. . . . We never thought they’d make a movie like this.”

Though Tesfaye can’t talk much about her upcoming video project, she can promise there’s more of her painted art, identity discussion, and political questioning in works to come. “I think people are unafraid and fearless right now,” she says. “They’re ready to say whatever and paint whatever.” (Read More)