Nigatu Tsehay

Nigatu Tsehay


Nigatu Tsehay by Andrew Lamprecht

There is something exquisitely, almost painfully, expressed in the very painterliness of Nigatu Tsehay’s work that quite simply takes one’s breath away. No photograph, indeed no other medium of art (and Tsehay does work in other media, for example animation) could, in my view, possibly convey the complex and dense emotional energy that one finds in his paintings. Each appears to be a tightly wound spring that at any time could unwind and release its embedded force. Looking at them, one is immediately struck by the tautness of their composition; the psychological tension each one wields and the patent ability of the artist to convey a great deal in his brushstrokes whilst still leaving us with profound questions once we drag ourselves away from the canvas, still reeling from the residual (and metaphorical) punch in the solar plexus that each one delivers.

It is easy to seek out comparisons with other artists (Frank Auerbach and Francis Bacon leap to mind) but Tsehay’s style of expression is uniquely his own and emanates from his life experiences having grown up in Ethiopia, studying at the remarkable School of Fine Art and Design at Addis Ababa University and subsequently living and working in Germany. That School’s rigorous training in technical skill and the ability to represent the human form shines through, but there is also something of the solemnly playful, incisive introspection and social commentary that one finds in the German Expressionists, for example, that seems to be at play here. One grasps for clues to the source of his style but it is clear that it is one that has emerged from his own experience, wisdom and daily existence as a twenty-first century African living in Europe.

Although his figures seem somehow immobilised, static and inactive, they are clearly imbued with considerable pent-up energy and vigour. His characters are very much alive (and sometimes he juxtaposes them with fragments of lifeless dummies just to make the point more clear). This energy also conveys a deep empathy with the people he represents; we are under no illusions that these are human beings for which the artist cares deeply. The passion (and compassion) displayed by Tsehay is, it sometimes seems, at odds with the way that humanity has become commodified, hyped-up and repackaged for easy consumption by the information society of today’s world. Here we have a savvy and thoughtful observer of the fractures that occur between the human and the way that is re-packaged and broadcast over endless streams, channels and platforms in our hyper-globalised and digitized society.

The ‘Fragile Reality’ series speaks of the vulnerability that we all experience in the wake of our ‘me-me-me’ existence in a Western-centred global culture in which what is projected on our screens and pasted on our adverting billboards is taken at greater value than what we experience face-to-face with other human beings. These works confront our perceived notions of ‘truth’ and how that is mediated and twisted. Tsehay eloquently observes that ‘what we perceive as facts [are the] end result of fragile factors.’ The layering and constant repetition of untruths eventually comes to stand in for truth and ‘knowledge’ itself. The ‘fake news’ phenomenon of the last few years has, it seems to me, been presciently embodies in the work of this artist for years. These works act as a sort of counterbalance to, as much as they do a commentary upon, the forces at work in spinning the web of what we think we know in our globalised and information-overloaded ‘fragile reality’.

Whilst this series deals with our relationship to the outside word and the way that it is projected upon us; the ‘Selfie Series’ focuses on the way that we personally are represented to the world through the abundance and ubiquity of social media and the accelerated pace (and indeed life of its own) that information – specifically that about oneself – can now take. For me these works are more playful and even humorous in their tone, and perhaps evoke the artist’s own overcoming of his initial suspicion of the ‘selfie culture’ in which everyone becomes curator of their own personal brand. These paintings seem to speak of the mutability that social media can offer. As Tsehay notes: ‘Beyond its negative side, the “selfie” can be positive; in some cases “selfie” culture can be seen as loving oneself.’

Nevertheless there is, I feel, also a warning being offered here: the figures in this series appear to be truncated, amputated and deformed. I believe the artist is making it known that there is potential for much slippage and noise coming into play between what we push out on our social media platforms and the manner in which it is received (and perceived).

The ‘Indifinite Feature’ works seem to hover, conceptually, between the two other series so far discussed. The name itself contains an ‘in-between’ word: an amalgam of that which cannot be defined with that which is indefinite. Here the subjects of the works are shown in relation to mannequins (again with truncated limbs), inanimate objects and, in one particularly magisterial piece, a crouching dog. In each case it seems that we, the viewer, have stumbled into a moment of tense interpersonal engagement; almost like opening the door to a room only to find a couple arguing or making love. One somehow feels like one is intruding on something that is highly charged and about which one is not in full possession of all the facts. The narrative richness implied by these ‘snapshots’ echoes their ability to invoke contemplation and the way they somehow get stuck in one’s subconscious, long after turning away from them and getting on with life’s daily grind. For me, that is good painting: the ability for a frozen image to stay with us, begging us to return to it and to solve its puzzle. Like all good painting, that puzzle will never be solved.


Nigatu Tsehay was born and raised in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. He was taught drawing and sketching by the artist Tesfaye Nigatu, who was a private art teacher at the Medesh Art Center in Addis Ababa. He received a BFA from the Ale school of Fine Arts and Design at Addis Ababa University in 2005. He taught Art as an Assistant lecturer in the same University until 2008. He received a scholarship from DAAD and later from KAAD for further study in Germany. In 2009, he received a recognition award from Camillo-Michele-Gloria-Preis, GVS-Förderung Junge Künstler. Nigatu completed a Diploma In Fine Art at the State Academy of Art and Design in Stuttgart in 2014.

Nigatu`s artworks have been displayed in various group and one-man shows. His work is part of private and corporate collections in Ethiopia, South Africa and Europe.