The Artsy Vanguard 2021: Tariku Shiferaw
Abstract painter Tariku Shiferaw believes one of his earliest breakthroughs happened on one of his first days of high school. His freshman homeroom teacher, Mr. Elliot, told the class, “Do not let the system tell you what to think,” then disconnected the classroom’s public announcement system. Shiferaw recalls that his teacher was a “hippie muralist who played Afrobeat music” and whose distinct repudiation of systemic control left an indelible impact. At the time, Shiferaw was often teased by his elder siblings for not knowing the latest announcements or updates to the school schedule. Shiferaw smiles to himself as he recounts these early moments, recognizing now the influence they had on his individual approach to art.
Born in Ethiopia and based in New York, Shiferaw is becoming increasingly known for his distinctive approach to abstraction. In 2020, Galerie Lelong & Co. began representing Shiferaw, and earlier this year, he opened his first solo show with the gallery, “It’s a love thang, it’s a joy thang.” Shiferaw is also represented by Addis Fine Art, and in the past two years, his work has been featured in group exhibitions at over a dozen museums and galleries, including the California African American Museum, the Smithsonian Institution, the Whitney Museum, Zuckerman Museum of Art, False Flag, CFHILL, Piero Atchugarry Gallery, and LatchKey Gallery. As an artist whose star is steadily rising, what sets Shiferaw apart is the reverence and aesthetic value for Black vision and joy that remain central to his practice.
Shiferaw did not outwardly identify as an artist from a young age. The art students at his high school were mostly goth kids, and their approach to self-expression did not resonate with him. Instead, he played the saxophone and ran track and field, all the while growing enamored with Salvador Dalí and René Magritte. “I secretly made art in high school,” Shiferaw said. In collages, the artist would often render himself, dressed in running gear, in otherworldly scenarios, like clouds of thought. After attending the California Summer School for the Arts—where he dabbled in drawing, ceramics, sculpture, and illustration—he could no longer hide his artistic aspirations. Shiferaw soon developed a steady drawing practice, filling passport-sized Moleskine notebooks with geometric shapes that recall the markmaking at the core of his current work.
Shiferaw went on to earn his BFA at the University of Southern California, then finished his MFA at Parsons School of Design in 2015. Shiferaw recounted that while at Parsons he started exploring the potential of the X. He considers the X “a way of crossing out or deleting something—the desire and the unwanted simultaneously,” he said. For Shiferaw, the act of mark-making goes beyond symbolism or creating meaning—it’s a way to engage with and express intention.
Currently, Shiferaw’s studio is located at Silver Art Projects, a large, open-plan arts space located at 4 World Trade Center in New York. The nonprofit offers the space for a year at a time to a rotating cohort of multidisciplinary artists, which also currently includes Tourmaline, Alanna Fields, and Ernesto Renda. The space suits Shiferaw, who has an inviting spirit, a grounded inner life, and a sense for community dialogue and connection. He is both personable and reserved, and maintains the admirable curiosity he picked up in high school.
Flanked on the east by the 9/11 memorial, we begin our conversation before the deep blue-black of his series “One of These Black Boys.” Each of the works receives its name from an element of the African diaspora primarily rooted in musical references, such as R&B, jazz, blues, and more. In one remarkable painting, The Nearness of You (Ella Fitzgerald) (2021), the composition recedes from luminous, sweeping blue into a complex and energetic black, with an ochre sheen blushing forth to deliver a complex color story. Cast over the black are Shiferaw’s signature bars.
Prismatic in tone, the bars allow for reflections on diasporic codes found within African American wayfinding traditions of rhythm and blues, and the further interplay of jazz and hip hop culture. In particular, Shiferaw’s focus on the color blue and the central placement of the bars visualizes conflict, alluding to the simultaneous condition of W.E.B. Du Bois’s double consciousness. The artist’s wise use of repetition is an aesthetic technique that is located throughout the lineage of Black abstractionists, such as the spooling orbs found in the paintings of Kenneth V. Young.
Shiferaw’s use of blue is a meticulous task. He takes an inquiry-based approach, utilizing paintbrushes, squeegees, and palette knives to work and rework his pitch perfect shade. From there, Shiferaw will often make scribbles to display an underlying blue, “where you see the darker markings, which invites another presence,” he said.
His signature bars also appear in a subtle brown gradient in Do It (Chloe X Halle) (all works 2021), where the background is a quieter blue tone. Trap Queen (Fetty Wap) and Caribbean Queen (Billy Ocean) also incorporates this gradient of brown skin tones, but on unstretched canvases that appear draped in a gesture of repose, recalling Sam Gilliam’s “Drape” series. One might also imagine these works as beach linens given their placement within the site-specific installation Jerusalem (Master KG), which includes palm trees and shipping pallets—objects that are emblematic to Shiferaw’s upbringing in L.A. The pallets work as a protective element within works such as Waiting in Vain (Bob Marley); meanwhile, in Jerusalem, the structures exist alone as rich black, floating entities, suggesting conflict or escape. Shiferaw described using the pallet as a means of markmaking. “Just as you encounter the work, you see yourself,” he said.
In late 2020, Shiferaw tried his hand as curator. He co-curated “Abstraction in the Black Diaspora” at False Flag with artist and writer Ayanna Dozier. The exhibition included work by three dynamic abstract multimedia artists—Adebunmi Gbadebo, Alteronce Gumby, and Ashanté Kindle—in addition to selections from Shiferaw’s oeuvre.
“The Abstract Expressionist era was [allowed] to continue [and] only represent white artists while leaving everyone else out,” Shiferaw said, nodding to his and Dozier’s intention to present the show as a refusal of the white, Eurocentric history of abstraction.
Shiferaw’s new series “Mata Semay” (Amharic for “night skies”) was recently featured at Frieze London. One of these luminous paintings, Adinkrahine (2021), is a further interrogation into the artist’s use of black and blue, yet now incorporating a more circular, mediative mark with a central opening. “The object itself becomes a mark,” Shiferaw said. This body of work is ongoing, similar to the persistent explorations in his sketchbooks, and necessarily so. The work depicts a boundless expanse of sky, imagining and inviting the ongoing contributions of Black artists and visualizing a canonical shift for Black artists in the present day.
The Artsy Vanguard 2021
The Artsy Vanguard is our annual feature recognizing the most promising artists working today. This fourth edition of The Artsy Vanguard is a triumphant new chapter, as we present an in-person exhibition in Miami featuring the 20 artists’ works, including many available to collect on Artsy. Curated by Erin Jenoa Gilbert, sponsored by MNTN, and generously supported by Mana Public Arts, the show is located at 555 NW 24th Street, Miami, and is open to the public from December 2nd through 5th, 12–6 p.m.
Header and thumbnail image: Portrait of Tariku Shiferaw by Christopher Garcia Valle. Courtesy of Tariku Shiferaw and Galerie Lelong & Co.