Early in his artistic life, Yared Nigussu was deeply influenced by the life and works of Italian painter, Amedeo Modigliani, who wrote, “when I know your soul, I will paint your eyes.” Today, almost 100 years after Modigliani’s death, the young, 33-year-old Nigussu garners much of his inspiration from faces. Currently working on a series of immigrant portraits, Nigussu states that, “eyes can hide a lot of stories and that is an infinite source of inspiration for me.”
Inspired by the beauty of human shapes and colours and focused on the human gaze, Nigussu is a keen observer and fascinated by the stories behind the faces. His most symbolic portrait is that of an old friend, a former child soldier that Nigussu created after the friend’s tearful confession. The painting depicts the deep sadness and desperate look of a child whose childhood had been stolen.
Painting is Nigussu’s natural language. Intuitive and powerful, his brush strokes communicate a symbolic vocabulary that visually translates a depth of emotion. Known for his painterly large-scale portraits and urban landscapes, Nigussu’s work has a palpable energy that is optimistic and thoughtful, much like Nigussu himself.
Fusing undisguised brushstrokes with mixed media, rendered in a bright, opulent palette, Nigussu’s paintings are provocative and convey a narrative much deeper than the mere appearance of the subject. Paint drippings and densely laden dashes of vivid colour, juxtaposed with contrasting imagery and hues, create a deeply sensorial experience for the viewer. Captivated by the layers in his portraits, one can almost hear the soft breath of the subject.
Graduating in 2005, from the Addis Ababa University of Fine Arts and Design, Nigussu earned a degree in Art and Education, with a major in painting. Awarded a scholarship to France where he taught art and studied French, Nigussu’s career was established when he began exhibiting his work in France and Austria. After moving to Canada, Nigussu was inspired by the energy, light and urban perspective in his new home of Vancouver and has won Canada’s National Art Battle live competition for three years in a row in Toronto and Vancouver in 2012, 2013 and 2014. Collected internationally, Nigussu’s work is currently showing at couch* Gallery in Victoria, BC. Modern Home Victoria was honoured to sit down with the accomplished painter to discuss African art, his latest series, the greatest portrait he ever painted and the unexpected support from an early math teacher in Ethiopia.
How did growing up in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, the political capital of Africa, inform your art? My art teachers at the University were trained in Western Europe – some of the instructors were from Germany, some from Russia. Most of them had been trained in a contemporary European style, so this was the style we were taught. You don’t really see an African style in my art but, of course, I still reflect my country and my surroundings in my art. It is unfortunate, but most of us are not exposed to African art, it is not prominent enough and that is a problem. After my time spent in Europe, my art is more influenced by the renaissance period of art history.
Tell us about the art scene in Ethiopia. Art is always related to the economy. For most Ethiopians, art is oral and not really visual. Ethiopians are artistic with words, they are incredible abstract thinkers. There was no attention to visual fine art when I was growing up. When you are running for your life, art is not a part of the equation. Growing up in Ethiopia, life was more about having something on your table than something on your wall. But now the economy is improving so more people have time to think about aesthetics. I think some Ethiopians are starting to be able to look beyond mere function, beyond meeting basic needs, to think about the abstract disciplines: art, philosophy and theology.
Has living in Vancouver changed the way you paint? Yes, my cityscapes are my personal perception of the city. I see beauty in the detail of the light, the reflections, shadows, and the bridges. I especially love all the movement of the city and I am always looking for beauty in the grey of the rainy days. The city is much bigger than me so I had a hard time putting my influence on the city. I think that people start to look like their community; I think their personalities and behavior begin to reflect their surroundings. So, I had a different personality coming to Canada from Ethiopia by way of Europe. It took some time, but I can feel Vancouver now. For me, the city has its own portrait. For example, when I went to Italy and visited Venice, I realized that Venice is unique and has its own portrait. I see the city as a portrait of people; it has a colour of its own.
Your cityscapes are quite different from your portraits. Tell us how your urban perspective paintings evolved. It’s all about the contribution of the city; I paint the feeling of Vancouver. The essence of my urban landscapes is to portray a feeling and paint the movement. My paintings reflect how I, personally, feel Vancouver. The emotion comes through in the brush strokes. My portraits have a different energy from the cityscapes; I even use different brush strokes to portray each subject. To depict time or motion, I change my gestures or movements.
What is the greatest story you have ever painted? The greatest story is coming (laughs). Well, I did one portrait in France, in 2008, that completely changed my direction in art. I was learning French in school and there were many immigrants there. One of my friends had a sad personality with very sad eyes. I discovered he had been a child soldier in war and had lost his childhood. In an homage to him, I painted his portrait which is now a part of my private collection. I felt his story so deeply, somehow I felt like I had to paint him to show my compassion.
Currently, I am working on a series of immigrants. Not only the political aspect of immigrants but the entire concept of immigration itself. The concept is based on the profound notion that international immigrants have sacrificed their lives to reach their destination; they have taken the hard way. I have friends who have taken an extremely difficult path to reach Europe; some have even experienced human trafficking. I am considering all these concepts in my pieces.
There is also an audio component to the project because I know a lot of these people. Some are immigrant poor and some are from wealthy families that immigrated a few generations before them. I believe immigration shouldn’t always be seen from a political perspective or as something illegal. It is a basic human will to live somewhere, to survive; it should be a choice. The subject is about immigrants chasing their destination, searching for the American dream.
Who is your biggest influence? Who has inspired you? I have always loved the work of the Italian painter, Amedeo Modigliani. His work is majestic for me and really opened my eyes to the possibilities in art. It wasn’t only his work that intrigued me but also his life inspired me. The way he thought, in every way, both positive and negative really spoke to me. Later on in my career, I discovered many contemporary artists that inspired me. I really like the art of Jenny Saville, a British portrait painter.
Surprisingly, my Grade 7 math teacher had a strong influence on me. I was not very good in math and was always drawing in class instead. Obviously, this made him angry. I was always the one sitting outside the classroom or receiving corporal punishment for not doing my work. He finally asked me what it is I like to do. I said, “I want to be an artist.” One day he assigned everyone math homework and for me he asked that I bring a piece of art to class for everyone to judge. I brought a still life and he was blown away. From this moment on he seemed to have a new impression of me. He immediately said, “you are going to be an artist. Yared, I see you as an artist.” Every day he asked me if I was still painting, still doing art. He would always tell me that I was going go to University to study art. He was very supportive and stopped pushing me so hard in math.
My mom passed away when I was nine-years-old. My sister, who was running the household at that time, asked a neighbour to paint a portrait of my mom from an old photo. He said yes, but he was too busy and never delivered on the painting. When I was about 17-years-old my sister approached me to do a portrait of my mother. She had never supported my art before so I wanted to do a really good job. She was my caregiver and I respected her a lot. I was a little scared of her and in order to please her I was very careful with the drawing. The portrait of my mom is the greatest portrait I have ever done. I had taken some drawing lessons by that time so it is a beautiful portrait done in charcoal. Sadly, my sister passed away so she never got to see my achievement as an artist. Those two moments really stand out for me, my math teacher’s support and my sister acknowledging my artistic skill enough to ask me to do a portrait of our mother.