Keen eyes around Melbourne will recognise Olana Janfa’s artworks in different places across the city. From the colourful basketball court at Fitzroy’s Atherton Gardens to a clothing collaboration with local fashion designer Obus, Janfa’s eye-catching images have become part of his adoptive city’s fabric.
The self-taught artist has come a long way since his humble beginnings: he had never picked up a brush before 2018, when he was inspired to start painting after being struck by an artwork he saw while on holiday in Byron Bay. Janfa started out by trying to recreate Ethiopian Orthodox Church imagery from his childhood, and from there his practice bloomed. “When I started, it was for fun—I wasn’t looking for a style. I just loved it,” he says.
“Janfa’s art captures his experiences as a Black migrant across two countries and cultures, though his lives in the two places also have a significant difference: in Norway he was a refugee, whereas in Australia he is not.”
Born in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, Janfa emigrated to Norway as a refugee with his younger brother when he was a teenager. “They have a really good system to help refugees with no parents, and a really good education system,” he says of the country. “I got the opportunity to study and learn a new language.”
In 2015, he came to Australia on a working holiday visa, and has lived in Melbourne since. Making his love for art into a career, Janfa now works from his studio in the inner-city suburb of Thornbury, primarily painting on recycled timber and found materials with acrylic, oil and pastels.
Janfa’s art captures his experiences as a Black migrant across two countries and cultures, though his lives in the two places also have a significant difference: in Norway he was a refugee, whereas in Australia he is not. Despite only having relatively recently entered the art world, these lenses still make up a critical aspect of his work. “I was living as a Black person in those two different places, and I wasn’t an artist until three or four years ago, but that was my experience,” he says. “Art helps me to express those experiences.”
Janfa’s latest exhibition, What is Your Gov’ment Name, brings his signature brightness and humour to the Immigration Museum across a series of nine works featuring imagined characters of the African diaspora. The images range from earnest depictions of family love, seen in one beautiful orange painting of two figures in a boat, and another titled Sisters; to more tongue-in-cheek commentary, such as works that read “get a white friend” and “no thoughts, just be hot”.
“To break those barriers down even further, Janfa teaches art to children from migrant backgrounds, both with schools and privately.”
Another piece, Send Money to Africa, highlights the absurdity of charitably wiring money back to where you come from—a comment on upward social mobility and class. Janfa’s frequent use of broken English in his work is intentional, pushing back against notions of intelligence that are rooted in racism and white supremacy.
“Living in Europe and Australia, foreign languages are to communicate, but sometimes people see it as a level of intelligence,” he says. “They’ll say, ‘You speak very well English as a Black person. Wow, that’s very smart.’ Or if you speak French or German or Norwegian… For me, a language is to communicate with each other.”
To break those barriers down even further, Janfa teaches art to children from migrant backgrounds, both with schools and privately. It’s a way of giving back to the community, as well as rejecting notions of elitism and making access to art more equitable, regardless of class status.
“I find that art, in Western countries and even in Australia, is more for the upper class—no one is valuing art from the immigrant experience or from the lower class,” he says. “As a child, I didn’t have the opportunity of someone who looks like me, someone who comes from where I come from, to show me it’s possible—you can do this, you can paint that. I want to show kids who come from the same background as me that it’s possible.”
Having now collaborated with international brands and labels like Nike, and illustrated a children’s book, Janfa is looking to diversify his practice even further with a range of different projects, including working alongside musicians. “Music and fashion are my biggest passions—it’s one of my dreams,” he says. “I’m working on those plans, so hopefully that will happen by this time next year.”
Janfa hopes that by engaging with his work, viewers will come away with an understanding of, and insight into, his culture and his life, in all its shades of complexity; and that African people will see their own lives represented. It’s his past and present experiences—‘ Melbourne dad’ being his latest identity—all rolled into one.
“It’s my experience as a migrant living in Australia and living in Europe, as an immigrant, as a Black person, as a person with English as a third language,” he says. “I want them to experience those things.”
This article was originally published in the July/August 2023 print edition of Art Guide Australia.
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