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

01:01:05

Podcast

TDF Talks With Chef-Turned-Sustainable-Farmer Paul West

A surprisingly hilarious chat with the River Cottage Australia host, covering his atypical career path, and his philosophies on living a mor...

Art

'Mirka For Melbourne' Fundraiser Exhibition Opens At Heide

Mirka for Melbourne' opens this week, showcasing important acquisitions from the studio of Mirka Mora, funded by your donations!

News

Free To Feed’s Annual Fundraising Bake Sale Is On This Friday!

Do something GREAT this Good Friday and help raise funds for a worthy cause!
Sally Tabart

News

The Bold And Brilliant Exhibition ‘Fashioning Black Identity’

African and African diaspora fashion, photography and portraiture at Cairns Art Gallery.
Miriam McGarry

Dream Job

From Intern to Senior Landscape Designer – Growing A Career At Eckersley Garden Architecture

26-year-old Joshua Cocks charts his journey from University intern to working across award-winning projects, with one of Australia's top fir...
Elle Murrell
  22 hours ago

Studio Visit

Carving Out A New Career With Courtney Petley

The New Zealand based designer and maker shares her handcrafted kitchen utensils, created with reclaimed timber.
Miriam McGarry

Art

Charting A Contemporary Artist’s Remarkable Oeuvre

Spanning almost four decades, Rosslynd Piggott’s ‘I sense you but I cannot see you’ is on now at NGV.
Elle Murrell
  14 hours ago

News

Ebony Truscott's Modern Day Masterpieces

A stunning exhibition of still-life paintings on now in Collingwood.
Sally Tabart

Architecture

Hello 2019 Victorian Architecture Awards Shortlist

Celebrating design longevity with the State’s top residential architecture projects.
Elle Murrell

Homes

A Family Rental With Real Heart

The Caufield Californian bungalow of interior designer Sara Levitas, her Rabbi husband Noam, and family.

Food

Alice Zaslavsky's Gefilte Fish Fritters

There’s no Passover dish that sparks more of a reaction than gefilte fish, so today we share the perfect 'gateway' recipe!
Alice Zaslavsky

TDF Collect

Announcing Our Next Exhibition, Elizabeth Barnett's 'Blue'

A new body of work from Macedon artist Elizabeth Barnett, opening Saturday April 27th at our Collingwood gallery.

Architecture

A Thoroughly Tactile Terrace

Bringing new light and life to a narrow North Fitzroy home, with Olaver Architecture.
Miriam McGarry

News

WIN $500 To Spend At The New Australian HAY Online Store!

You could win $500 to spend at this just-launched e-shop for the Danish design icons, thanks to Cult!

Architecture

A Spectacular Unfolding House Overlooking Sydney Harbour

A minimalist marvel with serious harbour views, by Matthew Woodward Architecture in Vaucluse, Sydney.
Miriam McGarry

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

Architecture

A Spectacular Unfolding House Overlooking Sydney Harbour

A minimalist marvel with serious harbour views, by Matthew Woodward Architecture in Vaucluse, Sydney.
Miriam McGarry

Art

Charting A Contemporary Artist’s Remarkable Oeuvre

Spanning almost four decades, Rosslynd Piggott’s ‘I sense you but I cannot see you’ is on now at NGV.
Elle Murrell
  14 hours ago

TDF Collect

Announcing Our Next Exhibition, Elizabeth Barnett's 'Blue'

A new body of work from Macedon artist Elizabeth Barnett, opening Saturday April 27th at our Collingwood gallery.
01:01:05

Podcast

TDF Talks With Chef-Turned-Sustainable-Farmer Paul West

A surprisingly hilarious chat with the River Cottage Australia host, covering his atypical career path, and his philosophies on living a mor...

Dream Job

From Intern to Senior Landscape Designer – Growing A Career At Eckersley Garden Architecture

26-year-old Joshua Cocks charts his journey from University intern to working across award-winning projects, with one of Australia's top fir...
Elle Murrell
  22 hours ago

Art

'Mirka For Melbourne' Fundraiser Exhibition Opens At Heide

Mirka for Melbourne' opens this week, showcasing important acquisitions from the studio of Mirka Mora, funded by your donations!

News

WIN $500 To Spend At The New Australian HAY Online Store!

You could win $500 to spend at this just-launched e-shop for the Danish design icons, thanks to Cult!

News

Free To Feed’s Annual Fundraising Bake Sale Is On This Friday!

Do something GREAT this Good Friday and help raise funds for a worthy cause!
Sally Tabart

Food

Alice Zaslavsky's Gefilte Fish Fritters

There’s no Passover dish that sparks more of a reaction than gefilte fish, so today we share the perfect 'gateway' recipe!
Alice Zaslavsky

Studio Visit

Carving Out A New Career With Courtney Petley

The New Zealand based designer and maker shares her handcrafted kitchen utensils, created with reclaimed timber.
Miriam McGarry

Architecture

Hello 2019 Victorian Architecture Awards Shortlist

Celebrating design longevity with the State’s top residential architecture projects.
Elle Murrell

News

Ebony Truscott's Modern Day Masterpieces

A stunning exhibition of still-life paintings on now in Collingwood.
Sally Tabart

Architecture

A Thoroughly Tactile Terrace

Bringing new light and life to a narrow North Fitzroy home, with Olaver Architecture.
Miriam McGarry

News

The Bold And Brilliant Exhibition ‘Fashioning Black Identity’

African and African diaspora fashion, photography and portraiture at Cairns Art Gallery.
Miriam McGarry

Homes

A Family Rental With Real Heart

The Caufield Californian bungalow of interior designer Sara Levitas, her Rabbi husband Noam, and family.

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