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The Asmarino coffee artist

The Asmarino coffee artist

The intoxicating aroma of freshly roasted coffee can be hard to resist. Perhaps it is what gets most people through the day. But have you ever considered using the deliciously warm brew in your cup to create a painting? Well, Tesfalem Atenaw did.  

For Tesfalem, a 35 year old artist from Eritrea, enjoying coffee is more than just a matter of liquid meeting tongue, all his five senses play part, some in entirely surprising ways. He uses coffee as a medium, turning the beverage into expressive and remarkably controlled artworks. They are like watercolors with powerful, lingering finishes.

Tesfalem usually hangs around at ‘The Gallery’, Asmara’s only art gallery. If you are genuinely interested in his works, high chance that you will get invited to his studio. It is tucked back in a blind alleyway, just a few minutes away.

Upon arriving, you are certainly going to be greeted by his cooing toddler, Bruk and his wife Selam. Together they will show you around their one room studio, which also happens to be their home. By day it is a workshop/ living room, and by night it’s a bedroom.

The smell of coffee hangs low in the room, stacks of canvases and brushes are jostled to one of the corners. His artworks are not beautiful nothings, each of them are a true reflection of his troubled and once painful life.

His caffeinated art, tells stories of people, and himself. His subjects are always in the state of trance, sorrow or deep thinking; they evoke empathy by heightening your experience of emotion.

The coffee forms sepia-toned paints, the burnt brownish yellow shades create the effect of aging, the drips and deliberate spills add more character to the work. He uses paint brush to carefully apply layers of coffee on paper. The layers of brewed coffee, when dry, leave behind contrast, texture, and shine, not to mention traces of aroma.

The process of roasting, grinding, brewing, and painting can be extremely enjoyable. He makes it look easy. “But it’s not that simple,” Tesfalem said, “It took a lot of time and practice to achieve the desired effect, shade and tone for drawing.” Working with coffee can be quite challenging. If it is runny, it wrinkles the paper, if it’s too thick, it becomes elastic. It might also flake when it dries or decay when stored.

“Naturally, the longer the coffee grounds steep in the water, the darker the stain. But sometimes coffee won’t allow you to achieve certain shades that are in the darker end of the spectrum. That is why I started incorporating instant coffee crystals (like Nescafé). Instant coffee allows the richly saturated shades to remain the same, even after it dries. It is also easier to adjust the correct value and tone.”

“I am so used to it,” he said, “When I am painting, I often forget that coffee is a beverage, I consider it a medium.” While unique on its own, coffee has helped him develop a palette of colors that he is comfortable with. And for him, it adds to the sentimental quality.

He said that he discovered caffeinated art by some fortunate accident. “You know, sometimes creativity can be sparked by chance. It happened years back, when I lived with my mom. I was painting, she gave me a cup of coffee and it dripped. Trying to salvage the painting, I dipped my brush in the cup to make something out of it. I really liked the result and started experimenting ever since.”

Now, in Eritrea, coffee as an art medium has become a trademark for Tesfalem, but he didn’t completely trade coffee for paint. He also creates powerful pieces using acrylic and oil paste.

Tesfalem takes inspiration from the world inside him, his memories, thoughts and feelings. He mostly expresses them through self-portraits, butterflies, birds, fish, and high contrast imageries. “Painting for me is like a visual journal. You write about the things you care about or things that affect you day to day, that is what I do; only I use paint.”

He confided that he may have spectacular highs when inspiration hits, and very soul-crushing lows when things just don’t work out.

“I love lively colors, for me, colors are a good thing. But if I use them when I feel bad, I feel like I lied. Because sometimes, I don’t feel like a colorful person, I feel dull.”

His self-portraits mostly contain a colorless Tesfalem, in trance or in sorrow, usually submerged under water or beneath distinct horizontal lines that seem to divide his canvases.

For instance, in one of his favorite paintings, the canvas is divided in two by a border, top with warm and bottom with muted backgrounds. Tesfalem is drawn in greys, his face wrapped in frayed fabric and fully submerged under the border. His hand, the only thing that extends above the border, is trying to reach a butterfly, only to be bound by a dark twine. At the same time, a fish is erratically circling him; it almost looks like a dream.

He explains, “The borders are not necessarily geographical or political, they represent boundary, especially of the mind. If my subjects or I are submerged in the border, it means that we are in hiding or suppressed. The fish represents the mind, the thinking, you can’t see it but you know it’s there, submerged inside you. The butterflies represent desire, freedom or hope.”

“When you shake something beyond limit, it’s going to explode,” said Tesfalem, explaining his most popular pieces. It shows Tesfalem’s face in stitches, he used a patterned fabric as a canvas. “I saw the fabric on my sofa, I liked the patterns, and they were busy.”

The painting is a bit more personal, it’s about how he felt growing up without the presence of his father. His parents had to separate because one was Ethiopian and the other Eritrean. “It is about identity, for years, it shook my inner peace.” His experiences influence his art, and that is the sad nature of his work.

“It was not just geographical, in fact it might even be a self-generated terror, but the fact that we separated created a negative feeling throughout my life. So the painting shows current conditions stitching my torn colorless identity, my head. They are not done stitching, but there is hope. Again, the butterflies represent desire, thinking, and hope. The fish represents the active mind.”

“Whether I paint myself or not, my subjects always communicate my feelings, at least for now. That’s because I can’t start expressing others when my mind itself is full of things unsaid.”

There is something particularly moving about wandering through Tesfalem’s home and creations, a feeling that transcends simply viewing his works in a gallery. Given the success of his paintings in Asmara, you can’t help but wonder how an iconic artist like him lives in a small studio.

“Sometimes I hesitate about selling or exhibiting them, because I am terrified of earning a pile of cash by churning out commercial crap. Creativity is often polluted by money.”

“And sometimes, I struggle, with letting go because I don’t feel ready, because I feel so attached to them. I fear of selling it to someone who wouldn’t appreciate like I do, hanging it on his wall because he can afford to. Money won’t compensate me for the loss of my creative integrity.”

But deep down, as a father and a husband, he knows this is dangerous. Money is a fact of life, it’s a tool and it gets things done. So in order to make a reasonable living, Tesfalem finds himself juggling through other jobs alongside his artistic endeavors.

In a world gone mad, Tesfalem’s works offers a window to a different world, with different values and meaningful dimensions. A day with Tesfalem will help you see your life in a more vibrant way; it reminds you that money is not the be-all and end-all.