This website uses cookies to improve your experience navigating our site. By continuing to browse, you are agreeing to our use of cookies.

OK, I understand

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’.

This Week

Modernist Australia

1970s Excellence On The Market In Eaglemont

Nestled within the Glenard Estate designed by Walter Burley Griffin and Marion Griffin, this four-bedroom stunner brings the WOW-factor!
Patricia Callan
3:04

Shopping

Sheridan + Grandiflora, Australian Botanicals And Bedding!

Our latest video, celebrating a very special collaboration between Sheridan and Grandiflora.
48:47

Podcast

TDF Talks with Architect, IADV Co-founder, and Academic Jefa Greenaway

The trailblazing architect, advocate and academic reflects on his pivotal role as the first indigenous architect to be registered in Victori...

Shopping

Bright New Ceramic Artists On Show At The Old Clare Hotel

An old bottle shop is home to some of Sydney’s best emerging design until this Sunday!
Maggie Scardifield

Gardens

A Plant Collector's Wild And Wonderful Paradise

Lyle Filippe shares his lifelong love of rare plants and quest to make 'something iconic' via his never-ending passion project, Roraima Nurs...
Georgina Reid

Architecture

The Apple Crate Shack On The Apple Isle!

A $60,000 budget goes a long way in this ambitious project in Flowerpot, Tasmania.
Miriam McGarry
  15 hours ago

Art

Balenciaga Comes To Bendigo!

Direct from the Victoria and Albert museum in London, the ground-breaking exhibition ‘Balenciaga: Shaping Fashion’ arrives at the Bendig...
Miriam McGarry

Bringing Light and Space Into A Fitzroy Terrace House

Taylor Knights Architecture and Interior Design transform this inner city terrace house with a sunken living room, shifting ceiling volumes
Miriam McGarry

News

Australian Ceramics Open Studios Is On Again This Weekend!

Clay artists around Australia are opening their doors this weekend for Australian Ceramics Open Studios 2019.
Amelia Barnes

News

Buxton Contemporary Reflects On 100 Years Of Bauhaus Design

See archival footage and contemporary works inspired by the Bauhaus movement in this Melbourne exhibition.
Amelia Barnes

Food

Julia Busuttil Nishimura's Seasonal Flavours : Citrus

One of our FAVE foodies, Julia Busuttil-Nishimura joins TDF this month as a columnist! First up, she shares a flavour-packed roasted caulifl...
Julia Busuttil Nishimura
  18 hours ago

TDF Design Awards

Celebrating Australia's Best Stylists And Art Directors

Highlighting ten outstanding styling and art direction projects, shortlisted for the TDF Design Awards!

News

Tamara Dean, Bill Henson + Janet Laurence In Conversation With The Planthunter

Georgina Reid of The Planthunter sits down with artists Tamara Dean, Bill Henson + Janet Laurence in a new conversation series connecting ar...
Amelia Barnes
  15 hours ago

Homes

A Prahran East Atelier Adorned With Layers Of History

Revered Melbourne interior designer Tigger Hall shares her artistic home, filled with objects from all over the globe.
Lucy Feagins
  1 hour ago

News

All Are Welcome At North Melbourne School Of Displacement

Learn about and honour the First Nations in this accessible North Melbourne discussion series.
Amelia Barnes

View Comments

Similar Stories

Art

The Next-Gen Australian Artists You Need To Know

Australia's brightest young student artists on show at the National Gallery of Victoria and the Art Gallery of New South Wales.
Elle Murrell

Art

The Boundary Pushing Artist Challenging Structural Norms

Challenging the mainstream, with Sydney-based artist Ramesh Mario Nithiyendran.

Creative People

Inside Ben Quilty's Blockbuster Exhibition 'Quilty'

This major survey exhibition on one of the country’s most acclaimed contemporary artists is unveiled in Adelaide, ahead of touring interst...
Elle Murrell

This Week

News

Tamara Dean, Bill Henson + Janet Laurence In Conversation With The Planthunter

Georgina Reid of The Planthunter sits down with artists Tamara Dean, Bill Henson + Janet Laurence in a new conversation series connecting ar...
Amelia Barnes
  15 hours ago

News

All Are Welcome At North Melbourne School Of Displacement

Learn about and honour the First Nations in this accessible North Melbourne discussion series.
Amelia Barnes

Food

Julia Busuttil Nishimura's Seasonal Flavours : Citrus

One of our FAVE foodies, Julia Busuttil-Nishimura joins TDF this month as a columnist! First up, she shares a flavour-packed roasted caulifl...
Julia Busuttil Nishimura
  18 hours ago

Bringing Light and Space Into A Fitzroy Terrace House

Taylor Knights Architecture and Interior Design transform this inner city terrace house with a sunken living room, shifting ceiling volumes
Miriam McGarry

Gardens

A Plant Collector's Wild And Wonderful Paradise

Lyle Filippe shares his lifelong love of rare plants and quest to make 'something iconic' via his never-ending passion project, Roraima Nurs...
Georgina Reid

News

Australian Ceramics Open Studios Is On Again This Weekend!

Clay artists around Australia are opening their doors this weekend for Australian Ceramics Open Studios 2019.
Amelia Barnes

TDF Design Awards

Celebrating Australia's Best Stylists And Art Directors

Highlighting ten outstanding styling and art direction projects, shortlisted for the TDF Design Awards!
3:04

Shopping

Sheridan + Grandiflora, Australian Botanicals And Bedding!

Our latest video, celebrating a very special collaboration between Sheridan and Grandiflora.

Architecture

The Apple Crate Shack On The Apple Isle!

A $60,000 budget goes a long way in this ambitious project in Flowerpot, Tasmania.
Miriam McGarry
  15 hours ago

Shopping

Bright New Ceramic Artists On Show At The Old Clare Hotel

An old bottle shop is home to some of Sydney’s best emerging design until this Sunday!
Maggie Scardifield

News

Buxton Contemporary Reflects On 100 Years Of Bauhaus Design

See archival footage and contemporary works inspired by the Bauhaus movement in this Melbourne exhibition.
Amelia Barnes

Art

Balenciaga Comes To Bendigo!

Direct from the Victoria and Albert museum in London, the ground-breaking exhibition ‘Balenciaga: Shaping Fashion’ arrives at the Bendig...
Miriam McGarry
48:47

Podcast

TDF Talks with Architect, IADV Co-founder, and Academic Jefa Greenaway

The trailblazing architect, advocate and academic reflects on his pivotal role as the first indigenous architect to be registered in Victori...

Homes

A Prahran East Atelier Adorned With Layers Of History

Revered Melbourne interior designer Tigger Hall shares her artistic home, filled with objects from all over the globe.
Lucy Feagins
  1 hour ago

Modernist Australia

1970s Excellence On The Market In Eaglemont

Nestled within the Glenard Estate designed by Walter Burley Griffin and Marion Griffin, this four-bedroom stunner brings the WOW-factor!
Patricia Callan

Similar Stories

Art

The Next-Gen Australian Artists You Need To Know

Australia's brightest young student artists on show at the NGV and the Art Gallery of NSW.
Elle Murrell

Art

The Boundary Pushing Artist Challenging Structural Norms

Challenging the mainstream, with Sydney-based artist Ramesh Mario Nithiyendran.

Creative People

Inside Ben Quilty's Blockbuster Exhibition 'Quilty'

This major survey exhibition on one of the country’s most acclaimed contemporary artists is unveiled in Adelaide, ahead of touring interst...
Elle Murrell