As remembered by Richard and Rita Pankhurst
One of Ethiopia’s most well loved and patriotic artists was slated to be a mining engineer until Richard’s mother, Sylvia Pankhurst, recognizing his artistic talent petitioned to have his career track changed. Afewerq Tekle went on to study in London where he partly financed his own education by winning prizes for his talent. While a student, he also worked to spread Ethiopian Pride.
Afewerq Tekle was Ethiopia’s most celebrated artist. Born in the old Šawan capital, Ankobar, on 22 October 1932, he was the son of Ato Tekle Mammo, a minor court functionary, and Woizero Felekech Yematawork. As a small child, Afewerq was seriously wounded during the Italian invasion. After the Liberation, he was enrolled in Addis Ababa’s Patriots’s School, together with the children of other Ethiopian Patriots. He was subsequently selected as one of the first students to be admitted to the newly established, élite Haile Selassie I Secondary School at Kotebe. There he studied with sons of the nobility and other youngsters destined to play important roles in post-war Ethiopian government.
In 1944 Richard’s mother, the British Suffragette, Sylvia Pankhurst, visited this school. She had been editing New Times and Ethiopia News – a publication in support of Ethiopia since 1936, and was on her first trip to the country. One of the school’s teachers showed her Afewerq’s exercise-books. They included several interesting sketches, which showed signs of considerable artistic promise. She took a particular interest in these, having studied art herself but, much to her regret had given it up to dedicate herself to political campaigning. In the summer of 1947, Afewerq, then age fifteen, was selected for further education in Britain – one of a number of chosen Ethiopian students to be sent abroad. On arrival at the airport in London there was no one to meet them, as it was a public holiday and the Ethiopian Legation had not been informed of their arrival. An airline official asked them, if by any chance, they knew anyone in England. Afewerq thought for a minute and remembered that an Englishwoman had been shown his sketches when she visited the school some years earlier. He also remembered her name. The official looked in the London telephone directory and found her phone number, called her and explained the situation. Sylvia Pankhurst said she would find someone to collect and accommodate the stranded young Ethiopians. She then asked Richard to look for them at the airport, and bring them home – which he did. Thus began a friendship which was to last a lifetime.
After this dramatic start in England, Afewerq was admitted to Leighton Park Secondary School, the Quaker boarding establishment in Reading. There his nick-name was “After Work”. On joining the school, Afewerq, who had been brought up to venerate teachers in the Ethiopian manner, was appalled to see one of his fellow students aim a paper pellet at the master, who had turned his back to the class to write on the blackboard. Afewerq, unfamiliar with the English students’ code against “sneaks”, raised his hand and, in anger at this lack of respect for a teacher, pointed to the culprit, saying: “He did it, Sir. I saw him.”
The Ethiopian Government had intended him to be a mining engineer, but Sylvia Pankhurst, recognizing his artistic talent, and his desire to become an artist, wrote to Addis Ababa in support of a change of education and future career. This was granted, and he was duly enrolled at the Central School of Arts and Crafts in London. He went on to become the first African student to be accepted by the prestigious Slade School of Fine Arts in the British capital.
While an art student, Afewerq partially financed himself by winning prizes at ballroom dancing competitions. He at all times adopted a supremely patriotic stance. Once, in London, Richard went with him, as usual, to the canteen at India House in the Strand. The waiter, seeing the young African customer, thought fit to warn him that Indian food was spicy. Afewerq felt that, as an Ethiopian, he was being patronized. He accordingly spread even more chili powder on his food until it was entirely red in color. He later admitted that the meal was “a little on the hot side” – but explained that the waiter needed educating about Ethiopia.
Before returning to Ethiopia Afewerq and his some-time flat-mate, Habt-ab Bayru, brother of the Eritrean Unionist leader Tedla Bayru, accompanied Berhanu Tessema, of the Ethiopian Embassy in London, on an extensive European tour. They admired European art – Paris, Madrid and Rome – and, at the British Library, looked at the Ethiopian manuscripts looted from Maqdela. Afewerq became a great admirer of Spanish culture and art. Some art critics observed that he was greatly influenced by the Spanish painter El Greco, an observation Afewerq did not appreciate. His was keen on bull-fighting, a passion from which we had difficulty in weaning him from.
On his return to Addis Ababa in 1954 Afewerq was attached to the National Library of Ethiopia where he was allocated space for a studio. He began to refer to himself as “Afewerq, Son of Thunder” – and this designation later appeared as a shield, both in Amharic and English, on a wall of his house and on one of the doors of his car. In the same year he held his first one-man exhibition, opened by the Emperor at the Addis Ababa Municipality. It did much to raise the prestige – and pricing – of modern Ethiopian art. This was a cause he always championed vigorously, thereby raising the status and income of many an Ethiopian artist.
Following this, he and another more experienced traditional Ethiopian artist Ema’elaf Herouy were assigned to decorate St George’s Cathedral, which had been damaged in February 1937 during the fascist repression following the attempt on the life of the Italian viceroy Graziani. After learning about them in France Afewerq designed and executed mosaics for the upper part of one of the inner walls of the Cathedral. As he was applying the mosaics, standing, precariously, high up on a platform, he fell to the ground, escaping injury. He ascribed his almost miraculous escape to the intervention of the saint himself. Among the paintings for the cathedral was a large-scale representation of the Queen of Sheba arriving with gifts at the court of King Solomon.
In 1958, he was commissioned to decorate Africa Hall, the then new United Nations Economic Commission for Africa building, for which he produced his most famous work: the triptych of three stained glass windows which, over 150cm2, depicting the sorrow of the colonial past, the struggle of the present, and the hope for the future of independent Africa. He was much irritated when the ECA authorities cut a door in one of his windows to connect with a newly erected building, which interfered with the morning sun, illuminating his masterpiece from behind.