Editor’s note on “For Gabrielle Tesfaye, the Tigrayan Future is a Vivid Vision of Peace“:Embed from Getty Images
On November 3, 2020, I imagine a sleepy city waking up to the sound of bullets. I imagine birds taking off while people are caught off guard in their workplaces. I imagine school children terrified by the thunderous sounds of nearby blasts, and I imagine women calling out the names of their children in alarm. I imagine that the city’s peace was held together by a deep breath of fear that had hung in the air for a while now, fear of what was to come.
I also imagine that when the war started, everyone was somewhat prepared, but still in disbelief that their lives would be altered by a war whose outcome they could not predict. I imagine that on November 3rd, 2020, the people of Tigray looked up to the sky and saw no blue, and that when they looked to the earth, they saw tulips, red as honey; flowerbeds stained with the blood of innocent men, children, and women – old and young.
Since the beginning of the war against Tigray, an estimated 385,000-600,000 people have been killed. War rape became “daily,” with girls as young as eight and women as old as 72 being raped, often in front of their families. As a result of the war, a major humanitarian crisis has emerged, with widespread famine. It has also caused enormous economic damage to the region, with the cost of reconstruction alone estimated to be around $20 billion.
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Tigray, a region of about six million people, is still without power and phone lines, and internet and banking services have only been partially restored. Mekelle, its capital city, was only recently connected to the national electricity grid, on December 6, and the Commercial Bank of Ethiopia, the country’s largest bank, announced on December 19 that financial operations had resumed in some towns. Although, the war has not yet fully been concluded, on 2 November 2022, the Ethiopian government and Tigrayan leaders signed a peace accord, with African Union as a mediator, and agreed on “orderly, smooth and coordinated disarmament”. The agreement went into effect the following day, on November 3, the two-year anniversary of the war.
As is our mission, we set out to tell Tigray’s stories through the eyes of a creative who understands the complexities of the war and its impact on her people from a human perspective. We turn to Gabrielle Tesfaye, an interdisciplinary artist with roots in Tigray who works in painting, animation, film, puppetry, and interactive installation.
Gabrielle’s work is inspired by the African diaspora, ancient art traditions, and cultural storytelling from her Jamaican and Tigrayan roots. Her international travel and multicultural roots are reflected in her mixed media approach to art making and cross-cultural content. She uses her art in the animation studio, creating personal and cultural narrative films, in addition to exhibiting her paintings. She founded the Tigray Art Collective, an artist-led initiative that uses art to respond to the Tigray genocide.
Gabrielle has created Tigray-related films that have screened and been exhibited internationally in places such as London, New York, Ethiopia, Kenya, Zanzibar, India, and Sweden as part of her artistic learning and practices. She has won numerous scholarships and awards, including the Milwaukee Film Brico Forward Fund and the Mary Nohl Suitcase Export Fund. She directed The Water Will Carry Us Home, which was an official selection of the Black Star Film Festival. Her work has also been nominated for Best Experimental Film at Reel Sisters of the Diaspora (NYC). Gabrielle Tesfaye is currently a master’s student at VCU Arts in Doha, Qatar.
Gabrielle Tesfaye speaks with Timilehin Bankole, for Drummr Africa
I am Timilehin and I try to just document stories, especially from the perspective of creatives. I was going to talk to you about it because we’re on the same continent but somehow we hear more about news from outside our continent. We hear more about genocides and wars happening outside of our continent. And not the things that would affect people like us. And it’s crazy because this has been going on for two years.
And somehow I had heard of it, but it’s like it hadn’t really sunk in my head like, “Look, there is something really, really bad happening in Ethiopia” and so what I wanted was to get a creative’s perspective. Especially someone who is from Tigray. Someone who has skin in the game, basically. That’s why I reached out to June and he was gracious enough to reach out to you. And you were gracious enough to accept. So, thank you for honouring this.
Oh no, thank you so much for reaching out and caring about shedding light on it. Because you know you’re right, I feel like in Africa, maybe a lot of us don’t know what’s going on in each other’s countries. But we know about what’s going on in the US and so on. So, yeah. I really appreciate it. And my entire community really appreciates this as well.
Yeah. So let’s start with a bit of an intro. I read the bio describing you on a website. And it says you were born to an Ethiopian father and mixed-raced Jamaican mother.
So, what was the experience like for you? Growing up in the diaspora? With two different cultures. What was it like?
It was very interesting because both of my parents were immigrants in America and I don’t think they ever really sat down and said, “How are we going to implement both of our cultures into the upbringing of our children?” It was just very much them doing the best they could to raise me and my sibling in this culture that they did not grow up in. So I feel like a lot of diasporans, especially if both of your parents are from two different countries, we have to discover our culture on our own.
A lot of times our parents don’t have time to, like, intentionally pass down culture to us. Especially when it’s nowhere around us because we’re not growing up in their homes. I wasn’t around any of their family members. It was just them, by themselves alone. So a lot of it had to do from trying to research my own culture. Learn about Jamaica on my own. Learn about Ethiopia on my own. And kind of, like, develop my own connection to both of my cultures outside of my parents.
And also I did that a lot through my art. So, I looked at the art of the Caribbean, I looked at ancient Ethiopian art and yeah, that was also a way for me to connect to my culture and also express who I am as a Jamaican-Ethiopian diasporic child.
Oh, yeah. It’s not something that I imagined was easy for your parents.
You said it shows in your art. I watched My Love, Ethiopia. And I noticed there was a bit of a fixation on the fall of Haile Selassie and the rise of the Derg. And I’m curious, was that an experience that your father lived?
Yeah. That was when my father was displaced. That’s when he went to the US as a refugee, as did a lot of people, a lot of Ethiopians. It was kind of like the creation of the huge diaspora that you see today. So many people had to flee. So many people were killed. And it was like a huge change for so many reasons in Ethiopia, you know, before the monarchy no longer existed.
So that was a film that I went to Ethiopia to create and to get inspiration from. To tell the story not just like a historical, regular documentary would. But, you know, like the undercurrent of an ocean that a newspaper article won’t tell you, that a book won’t tell you. Like the details of what it means to go through a forced migration.
And, you know, I can only imagine the feelings of the people who were displaced in that time. Decades later, more and more wars. More and more displacements.
Do you ever wonder what they feel, like the generation before yours? How do they feel about what’s happening? Whether it’s like déjà vu for them or whether it’s something that they’ve sort of grown a thick skin towards, having spent so many years in a foreign culture?
I think it’s interesting because the diaspora is very large and very well-connected in growth. You’ll find “Little Ethiopia” in DC or in Chicago. So we have access to our elders and we’re able to hear from them, ask them questions, you know, the ones we have left. And from what they have shared with us, I mean, having to see our parents go through this again is just heartbreaking. I can’t imagine.
And I’m experiencing the war in Tigray from a distance. But I can’t imagine the war happening thirty years ago, my father being there and experiencing this unbearable pain and suffering and worry all over again. I can’t even imagine. I don’t think they have a tough skin to it, I just think it’s like you have no choice but to find another way to deal with it all over again. I don’t think it becomes easier for them at all. It’s unbearably painful.
Yeah, it makes for difficult reading and I don’t even have anyone that’s directly affected. I just want to ask, it may sound like a funny question but how has this war, this genocide, this crisis in Tigray, how has it altered your sense of identity to Ethiopia?
That’s a huge question. Before the war, it was normal. We were proud Ethiopians. People from Tigray, people from Amhara, we were proud Ethiopians. Ethiopia was the country that I repped. It was the flag that I repped. I knew that my family was from Mekelle, Tigray. But like, it was within Ethiopia. So I was a proud Ethiopian. Ethiopia, the country that has so much amazing history and this and that.
And then when the war started, it was really confusing to see the first reactions of Ethiopians. And actually, I didn’t know the identities of most of my friends. Ethnicity wasn’t something we ever talked about. I didn’t know which of my friends were Tigrayan or Amhara. I knew of some of them, like where their families lived.
And also, a lot of my friends lived in Addis Ababa. So, it’s like you know about ethnicity but it never comes up. We’re all just living. When it happened, I noticed a lot of my Ethiopian friends didn’t seem to really care. They weren’t affected by it. And I’m like, how are they not caring? And then as things progressed, a lot of divides started, and a lot of fighting started between Tigrayan Ethiopians and Ethiopians of other ethnicities. And I think this was the divide that really changed our identity because I felt so betrayed and confused and extremely frustrated.
And as the genocide continued and all the propaganda that was being said and all the hurtful things that were being said by Ethiopian media like ‘Tigrayans need to be extinguished from Ethiopia’ and this and that. I never ever in my life saw this coming but I think it showed all of us, we, Tigray…
We see the future of Tigray being a reality if Tigray is separated from Ethiopia. Just like how Eritrea was part of Ethiopia, and now they have their own country. Yeah, I a hundred percent identify as a Tigrayan, not an Ethiopian. But it took some time for me to get here for sure.
Yeah. I can understand that. When you say ‘divides’, just for further clarification, when you say ‘divides’, are you speaking generally or are you speaking within the diasporan community?
It’s both. It’s both. Because like, the diaspora and Ethiopians within Ethiopia are very… I mean of course there are differences, you know we live in different countries all over the world, but the mentality is very connected. So, a lot of Ethiopians in Ethiopia and in the diaspora both celebrated the war. Not everyone. Some people celebrated the war.
When the war first started, they had a big assembly in Addis Ababa. You know, people are waving their flags and this and that. And then, things just progressed where you have diaspora Ethiopians and Ethiopians back home posting a lot of hateful and disgusting things about people in Tigray. A lot of memes, you know how the Internet is. A lot of memes making fun of people suffering. Making fun of starving children. Taking pictures of bombed neighbourhoods and laughing. Just a lot of disgusting things.
So, yeah it’s both. Within Ethiopia and the diaspora.
Yeah. I think a lot of other countries in Africa have a bit of a similar history. At least I can speak for Nigeria in the sixties and the seventies. We had a civil war, and the break away tribes, the Igbos, the Federal government blockaded them. There was a huge famine and humanitarian agencies weren’t allowed to help. And the Federal government was really really bullish, talking about starvation as a legitimate means of war.
And so I can understand that sense of betrayal where you’re looking at another person and you’re like, I’m not looking at you as an Amharan, I’m looking at you as an Ethiopian because we are in the same foreign culture. But having ‘this’ creates that divide that wasn’t there before.
I think what I want to ask now is, I noticed you also co-founded this collective, the Tigrayan Art Collective. Is this a collective for Tigrayan artists just to express themselves? Or do you feel some sort of responsibility to preserve your culture, to preserve your history?
It’s definitely both. We started the collective so that all the Tigrayan artists that we were seeing put their art in different auctions to raise money. We wanted a place for the Tigrayan artists to know each other, to be connected and to work together. So, it’s also a space we created together, a community that we created to express ourselves and also to do different events, have exhibitions in various places internationally.
And all the art that we sell, proceeds are donated to different organisations that are helping Tigrayan refugees in Sudan. And it’s not just only Tigrayan artists, we’re welcome to any artist, no matter where they are, to help our initiative if they’d like to.
And also we really want to collaborate with other art collectives that are doing the same things in their countries. Whether it be India or Kurdistan or Sudan or wherever else. So, yeah. That’s what we do.
You know recently the Ethiopian government and the TPLF had a meeting and the news reported is that there seems to be an end to the conflict. That the government will begin to allow humanitarian access to Tigray.
I’m just wondering, what do you think is the way forward? Both as a collective, a Tigrayan collective and as an individual. Because you said now you identify as a Tigrayan rather than an Ethiopian.
Now, looking at the news, it doesn’t seem like the core issues have been addressed. So, I’m thinking maybe the undercurrents are still there. There is still that resentment. I’m just wondering, what do you think is the way forward?
Honestly, Tigray needs to be separated from Ethiopia completely. And that’s what the people of Tigray, a lot of us, want. I can’t speak for everyone, of course. We all have a mind of our own.
But collectively, of all the people that I know who are my friends, I’ve yet to meet a Tigrayan who wants to stay to be part of Ethiopia. And a lot of Tigrayans within Tigray have also said, you know, the interviews they’ve done with Tigrayans within the refugee camps in Sudan, have said, including the children, that they want to be in our own country and have a bright future and to always be protected. For something like this to never happen to them. So, yeah.
I hope that the Tigrayan government will do what’s in the best interests of the people and the people only. And my allegiance to Tigray will always be to the future of Tigray, which is always the people. Not to any government. No matter what that government is. Only to what the people want. We just want peace. We’ve always wanted that. We want to speak to our family members and we wish the family members that were killed were still alive. We’ll never be able to get them back.
We’re tired of this. We just want peace.
And we’ve said no to war since the Ethiopian soldiers started marching to Tigray. We’ve been saying no to war since day one while Ethiopia was celebrating it.
Yeah. We really Just want peace. We really just want peace. The peace treaty has already been vandalised. There’s a bombing that happened today.
Yeah. It’s just like a game to them, and I don’t understand. Ethiopia has just become this lawless, broken country that doesn’t take anything seriously. Yeah. All the news is being released now. It’s all over Twitter and Instagram.
This bombing happened in Southern Tigray, very close to the capital. So we’re waiting for a statement from Ethiopia and the government in Tigray to see what is going on.
Let’s talk about your short film. You released a trailer for it. For Tigray. Is that another one of your attempts at documenting the past history or what is happening now?
Yeah. I made that film a year ago, around this time. And it shows life before the war, everything happy and nice and peaceful. And then the war started and all the pain and suffering of the people. And then I end the film with a vision of our future for Tigray being free of war, us going back home and rebuilding Tigray. With health centres, universities, the museums and all of that.
And I made that film when I was in a really, really dark place. I was just not doing good. And even when I watch that film today, I am reminded of how depressed I was. I was really, really in a bad place. And making that film was the only thing keeping me going. Literally, it was like I had to create something to wake up to, to look forward to doing. Because at that point, I was just like, if I don’t see my family again, what is the point in living? What is the point? And that was something I was feeling, that was something a lot of my friends were feeling. Our community just was so depressed.
A lot of people had taken their lives in the diaspora because they got news of their parents being taken from them and they’d never get to see them again. It’s just so painful. So art is something that a lot of creatives in our community are able to not only get to themselves, but also share their visions of the future. Share their pain that we feel very isolated in. When we don’t have anyone around us, when we really need someone. And also, amplify awareness.
That film has been accepted into multiple film festivals internationally. And it’s a way for audiences who probably haven’t even heard of Tigray to learn that there is an active act of genocide happening that they probably had no idea about. So that film for me does much. It helped to amplify the awareness about Tigray and basically saved my life during the darkest time of my life. And it touched so many people and gave healing to my people.
I can see how something like that, how art like that can be so draining and healing at the same time. It’s taken so much out of you. But as the days go on and you revisit it, you can feel yourself being revived again. I think I have just one or two more questions.
I want you to draw a parallel between what is happening in Tigray and what’s happening in Ukraine. The way different bodies are responding to what is happening in Ukraine, which is terrible, and what’s been happening in Tigray for over two years now. Especially African countries.
Do you feel like it’s just your community? The Tigrayan diaspora, the Tigrayans in Tigray right now. Do you feel like it’s just all of you against the world? Or do you feel a bit of connection to other communities that may have the same experiences?
Because I have so many friends who are all over the world, I definitely feel like we’re not in it all alone. We do have people who are not Tigrayan who care about what’s happening, who stand with us, protesting with us and advocating with us. So I try to remember that and to not feel isolated. Isolation is a terrible feeling especially when you’re going through this.
With Ukraine, that happened and we saw how the world mobilised for all of Ukraine, it felt like… it was conflicting feelings. It felt like, you know, I understand what they’re going through because my family is going through that. So, of course we have empathy and connection with these people who are victims of war in their country.
But also you see how everyone is helping them and no one is helping you. It’s like a slap in the face. It’s like all these huge corporations all over the world do have the ability to do something to help people. Why didn’t they help us? Why aren’t they helping us? And these countries do have space to take in refugees but they just didn’t have space for us. They didn’t even care to help us.
I feel like a lot of people in the world, of course, know about Ukraine. A lot of people in the world know about Palestine. I live in Qatar. Qatar took in refugees from Afghanistan. A lot of people know about all these issues but when it comes to things in Africa, I feel like Africans are very isolated from all of these.
No one is taking in Tigrayan refugees. And it’s not to have a competition with who is going through more or anything like that. But it’s just like, living in Qatar and volunteering here to help the refugees coming in from Afghanistan, wishing that my family was on a plane going to a country where they’d stay. It’s just hard. It’s really, really hard.
I can only try to understand what you must be going through. You and other Tigrayans. It’s not something I would wish on anyone. And I can only hope for better days, better times to come. I just have one more question.
You said something about your short film For Tigray, how you have visions. In the film, there are visions of the future.
How do you think they drive you? Not just you but your community. How has it united you all in common purpose?
Hm. Yeah, it’s really kept us going. We know that when we go back home, we’re going to have a lot of work to do. We know that the war will eventually end, we know that we will eventually have our feet back on Tigray.
We’re all just kind of getting ready for that moment and thinking about, ‘When I get back home, what am I going to start? What am I going to help with? What am I going to build? What am I going to rebuild?’
That’s something that keeps us going, being in that attitude, planning for when we get back home. So yeah. It’s something that is giving you hope. It’s giving you a vision of the future to strive towards and work towards every minute of every day.
So, Tigrinya for the future. That’s the language from now on.
We just want to say thank you once again for accepting our invitation. Peace and prosperity to the people of Tigray always.
Thank you so, so much. Thank you.
Writer’s concluding note:
What profound thing can be said? This interview was recorded in November while the Africa Union and observers celebrated the conclusion of a ceasefire agreement between Ethiopia and the Tigray People’s Liberation Front. That very day, Mekele was attacked according to Tigrayan sources.
Eritrea was absent during the negotiation proceedings and, according to a Bloomberg news report, has been responsible for the deaths of hundreds of Tigrayan civilians since the signing of the ceasefire.
Humanitarian aid is finally being delivered to the people but it is not nearly enough. The tensions that led to ethnic cleansings like the Axum Massacre are still strongly felt. It is not unlikely that another conflict will arise in the future and cause even more destruction.
What can we do? Spread the word. Ask your governments what they are doing. Donate. Listen to Tigray and help tell its stories. They need this continent’s help. We can’t afford to abandon them now.
For more information about the conflict and how you can help spread awareness, you can check out Gabrielle’s website for more information on Tigray.
Side note: All Art works depicted in this article are created by Gabrielle Tesfaye.