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The Self-Taught Painter Inspired By His Ethiopian Heritage

Studio Visit

Olana Janfa has already created more than 70 artworks since he first picked up a paintbrush just over six months ago. 

Born in Addis Ababa in Ethiopia, Olana spent his childhood in Africa before moving to Norway as a teenager. After traveling to Australia in 2014 and then returning the following year for a working holiday, Olana fell in love and relocated to Melbourne, where he’s lived for the past three years.

A desire to connect with his Ethiopian heritage first prompted Olana to try painting. Recreating memories and ideas from his childhood in his bold, bright works, Olana has discovered a creative passion he never knew existed.

We visit Olana in his Thornbury studio to hear more about his blossoming practice.

19th March, 2019

Self-taught artist Olana Janfa’s lovely garden shed studio in Thornbury. Photo – Amelia Stanwix.

Olana started painting in 2018 as a way to reconnect with his culture and beliefs. Photo – Amelia Stanwix.

Olana enjoys painting on recycled wood surfaces to make use out of things that would otherwise go to waste. ‘I think it’s beautiful’, he says. Photo – Amelia Stanwix.

‘Waiting For Ideas’ by Olana Janfa. Photo – Peter Tarasiuk.

‘East African Woman’ by Olana Janfa. Photo – Peter Tarasiuk.

‘Have Mercy On Them’ by Olana Janfa. Photo – Amelia Stanwix.

The artist uses a mix of acrylic, oil, and pastels to create his work. Photo – Amelia Stanwix.

Since first picking up a paintbrush 6 months ago, Olana has painted over 70 pieces. Photo – Amelia Stanwix.

Olana at home in his studio. Photo – Amelia Stanwix.

‘I love my space because I can make a mess and feel free. I can listen to the birds and my music. I can look out of the windows and see the trees, see the garden,’ Olana explains. Photo – Amelia Stanwix.

When Olana isn’t painting, he works as a soccer coach for kids. Photo – Amelia Stanwix.

Painting detail on ‘East African Woman’. Photo – Amelia Stanwix.

‘Queen Sheba’ by Olana Janfa. Photo – Amelia Stanwix.

The subjects of Olana’s paintings are often strong women. Photo – Amelia Stanwix.

‘Haircut for man’ by Olana Janfa. Photo – Amelia Stanwix.

Sally Tabart
Tuesday 19th March 2019

‘The more I practiced, the more I started to feel connected to my beliefs and culture.’ –  Olana Janfa.

Reflecting on a life in Africa where ‘poverty is real’, 29-year-old Olana Janfa explains how creative studies were taken less seriously when he was a child living in Ethiopia than more academic fields providing a clear path to university. ‘There’s no system to support you, education is the only way to get out [of poverty],’ he explains, ‘kids in Australia have a lot more freedom to explore art and music’.

Olana distinctly remembers being in awe of the traditional art in the Ethiopian Orthodox church he used to visit weekly with friends and family. He hasn’t returned to Ethiopia since migrating to Norway as a teenager, and the desire to document and reconnect with these early memories of his life in Africa inspired him to pick up a paintbrush less than a year ago. ‘I started painting because whenever I saw images of Ethiopian art, I felt very inspired and wanted to have them in my house,’ he tells.

Recreating memories, places, and ideas from his childhood, Olana has now painted over 70 works since he first picked up a paintbrush. ‘The more I practiced, the more I started to feel connected to my beliefs and culture,’ he says. Images of strong women are also a major theme in his bold, colourful paintings. ‘…in Ethiopia, I saw that the women were hard workers and very strong,’ he reflects, ‘it makes me appreciate how much women do, especially the mums taking care of their family and their kids’.

Working out of his garden shed studio in Thornbury, discovering painting has been transformative for Olana, and an important way for him to create a deeper sense of home. Waking up around 4.30 or 5.00am, he makes a coffee and spends some quiet time alone before going out to the shed to begin painting on the days he’s not working as a kids soccer coach. After a brief stint painting from the sunroom inside his house (resulting in a paint-splattered couch and an unimpressed girlfriend), having a space of his own has afforded Olana a sense of freedom to explore ideas as they come to him. ‘I love my space because I can make a mess and feel free. I can listen to the birds and my music. I can look out of the windows and see the trees, see the garden,’ he explains.

Using a mix of acrylic, oil, and pastels, Olana paints mostly on wood and often rides his bike around the neighbourhood to look for recycled pieces at construction sites. ‘It adds a different energy,’ he explains, ‘I love that I’m giving new life to something that would otherwise be wasted’.

Citing the ‘freedom and DIY spirit’ of untrained American artist Jean-Michel Basquiat ‘as a bit of an outsider to the established art world’, Olana is also creating his own rules as a self-taught painter. Since he started sharing work on Instagram, he’s been overwhelmed by the support he’s received from friends and strangers alike, inspiring him to continue following the path of this unplanned journey, through which he feels he has ‘really found himself’.

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The Design Files acknowledge the traditional custodians of the lands on which we work, the Wurundjeri people of the Kulin Nation. We pay our respects to Elders past and present.

First Nations artists, designers, makers and creative business owners are encouraged to submit their projects for coverage on The Design Files – we would love to hear from you.

Please email us here.