Ethiopian Artist Tesfaye Urgessa Hits Miami With London’s Saatchi Yates


Tesfaye Urgessa x Saatchi Yates
22 November – 20 December 2022
Miami Design District

London’s Saatchi Yates presents a powerful solo exhibition of new paintings by celebrated Ethiopian artist Tesfaye Urgessa, opening on 22 November at at the gallery’s temporary space in the heart of Miami’s Design District.

Loose backgrounds, smooth brushstrokes, soft muted hues, thick textured applications and defined schematic features create an intense contrast that propels Urgessa’s human figures to the fore. At first glance, they appear intertwined – one cannot discern the number of bodies represented in his paintings.

Tesfaye Urgessa 'The Heart Wants What The Heart Wants'
Tesfaye Urgessa x Saatchi Yates,
‘The Heart Wants What The Heart Wants’,
Oil On Canvas, 169.9cm x 149.9 cm-.

Profoundly influencing Urgessa’s practice is also the chiaroscuro technique – a pattern in his work used to deliberately conceal parts of his subjects’ bodies that renders his paintings highly enigmatic. Urgessa notes: “Why can’t we hide some body parts in the shadows? Why do we need to reveal everything and every detail? We know an individual has two hands, why paint two hands?”

Tesfaye Urgessa, Untitled 2022
Untitled, 2022
Tesfaye Urgessa x Saatchi Yates, Miami

The use of the ‘reversal gaze’ draws attention to the culture of mass surveillance – a nod to French philosopher Michel Foucault and his thoughts on how scrutiny, of even the most private aspects of our lives, results in subjects self-regulating their own behaviour. Urgessa’s intent is multifold: to shine a light on the omnipresence of surveillance both in our private and public lives, forcing individuals to conform to society’s norms and simultaneously comment on how people of colour are more subject to disproportionate inspection. 

Tesfaye Urgessa 'Singing Redemption Song'
Tesfaye Urgessa x Saatchi Yates, ‘Singing Redemption Song’,
Oil On Canvas, 200cmx180cm

In his new work, the artist speaks about his own experience and frustrations – often being questioned by European authorities due to the colour of his skin. His art expresses the human need to be acknowledged for who one is, while still preserving agency and privacy. This deeply echoes Martinique writer Édouard Glissant’s Poetics of Relation which calls for a ‘Right to Opacity’, the theory of concealment but not invisibility – ‘the desire to be seen but not looked through’.

On view from 22 November to 20 December, Urgessa’s show will be housed at Saatchi Yates’ temporary gallery space next to the Institute of Contemporary art and De La Cruz Collection. The show will coincide with the artists’ presentation at the Rubell Museum, Miami opening on November 28th 2022.

©2022 Tesfaye Urgessa, Saatchi Yates