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Making his mark: Tariku Shiferaw

Everything (Nas), 2022

Acrylic on canvas

© Tariku Shiferaw, Courtesy of Galerie Lelong & Co., New York

Tariku Shiferaw (b. 1983) is an abstract painter whose work explores the idea of mark making in society.

Shiferaw makes marks on plastic, vinyl, and canvas. These abstract shapes convey multiple meanings, but a common thread is commentary on Black experience in Western society. His practice is shaped by his experience as a first generation American with Ethiopian roots. It’s shaped by experiences captured in songs by musicians like Kendrick Lamar, Bob Marley, and Cardi B. And it’s shaped by the broader, critical discussions about societal power structures: whose voice is heard, whose mark is made. By channeling these influences into his art, Shiferaw is steadily making his own mark.

Work from Shiferaw’s new series, Mata Semay, will debut in an immersive group exhibition at Smack Mellon in Brooklyn, NY from June 25th to August 7th.

“You don’t have a marked door to enter through in abstraction. You sort of have to find your own door to get in. You have to wait and then if you’re patient things can unfold in very interesting ways.”

Tariku Shiferaw, 2021. Photograph by Christopher Garcia Valle.

Tariku Shiferaw and his siblings arrived in Los Angeles when he was a child. His parents moved from Ethiopia, in search of a better quality of life and opportunity. He was raised in Los Angeles, by most accounts a typical American kid. He loved music and played saxophone in the school band. He enjoyed running and ran on his high school track team. Tariku didn’t identify with the art crowd at his school, but he secretly had a passion for art. He loved to draw and became fascinated by the work of surrealist artists Rene Magritte and Salvador Dali. As an immigrant, and a Black man in Western society, Shiferaw had to wrestle with his identity. He drew inspiration from his high school homeroom teacher, a hippie muralist who played Afrobeats class. During the first week of school, the teacher unplugged the PA system after excessive announcements and counseled his students “do not let the system tell you what to think.” Tariku worked out his own thoughts and feelings by drawing in a series of Moleskin notebooks he kept throughout high school.

In college at USC, Shiferaw felt the acute sting of racism in an experience common to many Black men. A friend from USC invited him to her childhood home to meet her parents. When the parents saw that Tariku was Black, they immediately assumed a defensive posture and made him feel unwelcomed. This experience fueled the title of one of Tariku’s first major bodies of work One of These Black Boys.

Waiting in Vain (Bob Marley), 2021: From the series One of These Black Boys

Lacquer paint, acrylic, canvas, and wood

© Tariku Shiferaw. Courtesy Galerie Lelong & Co., New York.

Shortly before Shiferaw moved to New York to start his master’s studies at Parsons, he had another formative experience. On a walk home, he noticed a broken mirror laying on the sidewalk. He observed the mirror for a few days, watching as grass slowly grew between the cracks. After about a week, he looked down at the mirror from above, and was struck by the reflected beauty of the blue sky, clouds, trees and the fresh grass. This simple moment of respite in an urban environment would inspire the installation in his 2021 solo exhibition It’s a Love Thang, It’s a Joy Thang.

Installation view: Tariku Shiferaw: It’s a love thang, it’s a joy thang, Galerie Lelong & Co., New York, 2021 Courtesy Galerie Lelong & Co., New York

In New York, Shiferaw’s artist practice took firmer shape. He began to explore contradictions within systems, looking first to mathematics. He was struck by the idea that X, which represents an unknown variable, becomes obsolete once the equation is solved. His practice evolved to incorporate horizontal bars, reminiscent of the shipping containers commonly found in industrial areas of Los Angeles and New York. Through the bars, and the reference to trade, Shiferaw began to bring a more human element into his work. He began to title his work, borrowing song titles from Blues, Hip Hop, Jazz, AfroBeat, and Reggae music: music created by Black musicians, music of the African Diaspora. By naming his work in this way, the pieces inherit the emotional substance of the beats, melodies and lyrical references of the songs. They reference Black culture and contribute to the on-going conversations about and critiques of systems.

As Tariku explains best, “The titles draw back to the Black body and Black culture. Shipping pallets are an international symbol of commodity and trade, and then we touch on the history of how Black bodies and Black culture had been treated as a commodity brought from Africa around the world. In music, there has always been a space, a little window for imagining a kind of escape.”

Loverboy (Billy Ocean), 2021

Acrylic on canvas

© Tariku Shiferaw. Courtesy Galerie Lelong & Co., New York.

Most of Shiferaw’s work uses the colors Black and Blue. He likes the aesthetic qualities of the two colors interacting with each other. He also likes the symbolism. Blue represents the clear day sky and calm bodies of water, which are peaceful. But it also represents Blues music, which speaks to the sorrows of life. Black represents the vast night sky, the beauty and mystery of the cosmos. But it also represents the color of bruises to the skin.

Tariku Shiferaw at his studio in NY. Photograph by Nagil Johnson

Shiferaw works mostly on transparent surfaces, either layered plastic (to create optical depth) or clear vinyl. To these surfaces, he applies painter’s tape and acrylic or spray paints. The tape is removed to reveal unpainted areas or underlying translucent film with a shiny, reflective quality.

Tariku enjoys reading - among his favorites, The Illiad, Atomic Habits and The Black Market. He also draws inspiration from studies of the cosmos. “More than art or art history, listening and learning about the cosmos feed by creativity and often increase the level of my curiosity about things in the universe and life in general. Learning about the universe also gives me a freshly new perspective on society and the politics we deploy to co-exist with one another.”

Tariku Shiferaw in his Bronx studio space, in front of work from his new series Mata Semay

Photograph by Anthony Roberts

Starting June 25th, new work from Shiferaw's latest series, Mata Semay, will be on view in an immersive group exhibition at Smack Mellon in Brooklyn, NY. Mata Semay (Amharic for "night skies") imagines a night sky that captures the contributions of Black people – both past and future – as part of the global narrative. The feature piece pictured below is from Tariku's ongoing series One of These Black Boys and is currently available. If you’d like to learn more about this work or others from Tariku, please email

Everything (Nas), 2022

Acrylic on canvas 60 x 48 in

Watch Tariku at work:

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