Visual artist Mahader Tesfai takes center stage in the Town
September 17, 2015
by The People’s Minister of Information JR
Eritrean born and Oakland raised visual artist Mahader Tesfai has been
making a considerable amount of noise around the Town lately, first
with his 80 piece installation at the Omi Gallery in downtown Oakland,
then by becoming the artistic director of the Matatu Festival of
Stories, which is happening next week and features the likes of spoken
word artist Saul Williams, world class Hip Hop chef Bryant Terry and
Los Angeles musician Shafiq Husayn.
Mahader, who I’ve known for many years, sat down wit’ me exclusively
to talk about Black African art in the Tech Era coming out of Oakland.
Check him out in his own words.
M.O.I. JR: Can you tell us when you noticed that you liked visual art?
When did you start to become an artist?
Mahader: I noticed that I appreciated visual arts at a young age. The
Bay Area has a rich arts history and I enjoyed reading about the lives
of Black painters and poets as a kid.
At the age of 22, I completed my undergraduate studies at UC Santa
Barbara in Black Studies and moved back to Oakland. It was then that I
started to make paintings and illustrations and self-identify as an
M.O.I. JR: What event in your life offered you the opportunity to
become a visual artist?
Mahader: Becoming a visual artist was an opportunity created by a
combination of factors. In 2002, I was a recent college graduate
working my first jobs as an organizer for Just Cause Oakland and press
operator at a lithography shop. I was living in West Oakland and even
though I was working a lot I found myself with considerable free time
that I wanted to do something with.
With a little bit of money from my first paycheck, I purchased a bunch
of oils and acrylics and started painting on found objects I collected
from the streets in my neighborhood. I fell in love with the process
of art making immediately and I have been doing it ever since.
M.O.I. JR: How would you describe your compositions in the “Inscribing
Meaning” show that you have currently at Impact Hub Oakland?
“Souljah Boy” – Art: Mahader Tesfai
Mahader: This is a show composed of some of my art work over the past
five years. The Impact Hub and Omi Gallery are amazing spaces and I’m
excited to have a show there with roughly 80 paintings, illustrations
and sculptural pieces. I titled the show “Inscribing Meaning” to bring
attention to the communicative powers of graphic systems in African
M.O.I. JR: Can you talk a little bit about your contribution to the
upcoming Matatu Film Festival?
Mahader: The Matatu Film Festival is an amazing multifaceted arts
project happening Sept. 22-26 in Oakland. I joined the project
initially to create imagery for the festival poster, but after a
thoughtful conversation with Matatu Film Festival organizer Michael
Orange, we agreed that it could be a more dynamic collaboration if I
came on board as the artistic director for the film festival.
So, I was commissioned to create a body of art work exclusively for
the Matatu Film Festival that is being showcased at Miss Ollie’s
Restaurant, Flight Deck and prominently on www.matatufestival.org. The
paintings in this series all share detailed line work of overlapping
African faces in gold ink contrasted on black illustration board.
M.O.I. JR: How does having parents from Africa affect your work in Oakland?
Mahader: My family, with the exception of my youngest sibling, were
born in Eritrea. Being an African growing up in San Francisco and
Oakland is a major aspect of my identity.
My art is informed and inspired by the diversity of the Black diaspora
in the Bay Area. Oakland has always played a critical role in
developing my cultural and political framework. As a youth, I was
exposed to amazing artists like Malonga Casquelourd, Casper Banjo,
Amiri Baraka etc.
M.O.I. JR: As a man of this generation, how do you see the
intersection between traditional African art and graphic design? How
is this a metaphor for the society that we live in?
“White” – Art: Mahader Tesfai
Mahader: Traditionalist and modernist African art in books or museums
is where I originally derived the majority of my visual language
growing up. Currently, I am consistently being inspired by artists
working in different fields such as architecture, music and
Graphic design as a skill set is something that I appreciated learning
at a young age. The ability to compose, color correct, digitally
archive, manipulate and create new art with computers are good skills
to have. I don’t necessarily think traditional African art and graphic
design have to intersect but I am always excited to see African
artists who are able to leverage and apply technology in their work.
M.O.I. JR: What will you be talking about at your artist talk on Sept.
17 at Impact Hub Oakland?
Mahader: I will speak a little about myself, my artistic influences,
the current trajectory of my art work and future projects. The artist
talk will be in a question and answer format, so I am looking forward
to how the audience will dictate the direction of the conversation.
M.O.I. JR: Are your figures in your drawings depictions of Africans?
Mahader: Yes, the figures in my paintings and illustrations are
depictions of Africans. My art work ranges from figurative to abstract
but the African is always present.
M.O.I. JR: Do you see what you are drawing beforehand in your mind, or
does your pencil or pen guide the way in your creative process?
Mahader: Sometimes I have an idea of exactly what it is I want to
create, and I work to match those particular colors and textures in a
painting. Other times, the process is a kind of controlled freestyle –
where I am painting with no preconceived notion of a final image,
M.O.I. JR: Do you listen to music while you create? What do you listen to? Why?
Mahader: I listen to music all the time. I love music and I’m lucky to
have friends who are great musicians and DJs. I spend a lot of time in
my painting studio, so the music switches from jazz to hip hop
depending on my mood. Music that is inspired is great at sustaining a
mood or tone, and when I’m working on a body of work those kind of
things are critical.
M.O.I. JR: How could people stay in touch with you?
Mahader: People can stay in touch with me by following my art work on
various social media platforms such as Instagram, Tumblr, Facebook and
If you want to collaborate on a project, purchase or commission art
work and do a studio visit, people can email me at
The People’s Minister of Information JR Valrey is associate editor of
the Bay View, author of “Block Reportin’” and “Unfinished Business:
Block Reportin’ 2” and filmmaker of “Operation Small Axe” and “Block
Reportin’ 101,” available, along with many more interviews, at
www.blockreportradio.com. He can be reached
Received on Fri Sep 18 2015 - 22:42:33 EDT