Logging into Facebook, one can find a humorously crafted satire illustrated by Alemayehu “Alex” Tefera, an Ethiopian artist living in the United Kingdom, shining light on the political and social happenings in Ethiopia.
His sketches, in a mere glance, are simple comic sketches formed by critical observations and a sense of humor. Working mostly with an ink and a pencil, he has managed to use satires to mock local politicians, poke fun at dictators from polarized ethnic politics to social blemishes, and historical events to geopolitical threats.
"Cartoon Art for me is not a profession; my artworks are my world where I communicate with my inner thoughts and spirit,” said Alex in an email interview.
Apart from provoking thoughts and ideas, Alemayehu said he wants his illustrations to initiate and shape conversations.
"Cartoons that capture a true emotional experience are more powerful. It doesn’t always mean I sketch every moment that happens in Ethiopian politics," he said adding, "I grab my pencil only for the events that touch me."
The whole sketching process is a product of the brain, says Alemayehu arguing, “all the characters in his drawings are not copied from another artwork like a photograph or portraits.” For him, in addition to the idea and concept, the characters, the angle, atmosphere, and composition play an important role to make one artwork more powerful.
"Most of my best works are harvested not from those lengthy over-focused studio times, but from that brief moment of joy, which compels me to speak my mind,” Alemayehu told The Reporter Magazine.
Over the last two years, swift changes have taken place in Ethiopian politics. Thousands of political prisoners were released; exiled politicians and journalists returned, and once banned media outlets were licensed to operate. However, the reform process was also marred by ethnic-based conflicts, which have become frequent, further complicating the process.
Aged 43, Alemayehu’s artwork mainly focuses on politics. However, some people on his platform are not happy with his portrayal. He said he has received death threats and harassed online because of his artworks.
"I draw my cartoons not to offend people or to make one happy. My artworks are my worlds where I communicate with my inner thoughts," he said adding "However, for societies like us cartoon art might be labeled as an insult or abuse."
For Alex, the generation lacks the mental capacity to critically think and deal with diverse thoughts, which he thinks are the foundations to societal development.
Living abroad, Alemayehu said he often found it difficult to follow current affairs in the country’s politics.
"As a political cartoonist, every sentiment inspired from the day to day interaction of the society, are the most essential components which I use not only to frame the concept of the story, but also to give flavor to the drawings.”
It can be said that any artwork needs freedom and liberty. What the professionals should worry about is the truth and beauty of the artwork, they need not think about any positive or negative interpretations of the piece.
Alemayehu, born in Addis Ababa, grew-up copying images from fashion magazines his mom brought home. He said that his inclination to drawing began at a young age. “Pen and paper never left my hands.”
He earned his first degree from Addis Ababa University Art School in 1988 and then went to London where he studied for his Master’s degree and lived for over two decades.
Currently living in London, he has had the chance to showcase his artworks in many exhibitions abroad, and at a France embassy in Addis Ababa, with other African illustrators. His story so far has featured on a number of TV shows, newspapers, and magazines.
Having 15 years of experience, Alemayehu wanted to further equip himself with the knowledge in the field, and said that over the last 10 years he had conducted researches and has been reading biographies of famous illustrators in the world. His cartoons, Alemayehu said, were shaped by the works of many African illustrators as well as famous cartoonists around the globe.
"I have drawing skills. However, it is not enough to engage in cartoon sketches, because it is far from drawing. It demands a political, social, and historical consciousness."
Sharing over 1000 artworks on social media over the past years, Alemayehu believes that his works are best known and accepted by Ethiopian netiznes than the physical world and wants his audience to interpret his works in a wider perspective.
Mentioning the recent political climate in Ethiopia, he said the national dialogue and reconciliation process are indispensable; and we need to unite and stand together to narrow our differences. Apart from our conservative culture, the recent emotionally driven societal behavior does not allow you to hold different ideas.
Five years ago, Alemayehu planned to create animation stories to teach Ethiopian children through native folktales and myths popular in the country. He managed to publish Abshaniya comic book, and is currently is working on a 2D animation projects.
Cartoon art in Europe and the United States is on another level with professionals having the freedom to express their dissent or critiques. He said there are no limits on how cartoon characters are sketched. In Ethiopia cartoon and satires are in their infancy. We need to work hard to contribute to the growth of cartoon Art in Ethiopia.
"We Ethiopians have a diverse and rich history, but we fail to shape the next generation through our own stories, proverbs, and oral literature," he said adding, "Comics and cartoons are a powerful way to teach kids morals and history."
Ethiopian professionals from all areas need to collaborate and invest to create a better Ethiopia.
Contributed by Solomon Yimer