Shoreline artist designs bright symbol for African Union flag

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Yadesa Bojia and his African Unity flag
Photo by Hewan Gebremichael

By Agazit Afeworki

Shoreline-based artist Yadesa Bojia flipped on his TV one evening to discover his flag submission to an African Union competition behind Muammar Gaddafi in a 2009 Larry King interview.

Unbeknownst to him, the flag he designed in 2007 in response to a competition call by the African Union, an organization of 53 African states -- was selected from 110 entries.

And so the artist, painter, graphic designer, and reggae musician thought he was looking at another screen.

“I felt like I was watching my computer so I didn't even pay attention to it,” he said.

The flag had been his desktop wallpaper so it didn't immediately register when he was watching TV, but when the realization hit him he started screaming from joy, he said.

“Then I looked and I'm like god damn that's mine.”

In his creative process, however, Bojia had more composure. After reading the guidelines he knew exactly what the AU would be looking for.

“When I saw the submission, I didn't focus on the design at all. I focused on the message,” he said.

Comparing his design to the last AU flag, they are symbolically unalike. In the old flag, pride was depicted by the color red, reminding Africans of the blood-shed from years of war. But in the new flag, Bojia saw an opportunity for redemption. The Ethiopian-American artist designed Africa’s future, not the past.

“They came from a colonization time, so their logo and their flag symbolized that defensive African mentality because of the struggle they had to come out from,” Bojia said.

The flag he designed features a green background, a requirement from the AU to highlight Africa’s land as their main resource. Against the land motif, Africa beams sun rays and 53 stars encircle the continent.

Artist Yadesa Bojia stands in Red Square at the University of Washington.
Photo by Agazit Afeworki

Having grown up in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, where the AU’s original organization was established, Bojia was knowledgeable about the organization’s history and used that to his advantage. He thoroughly explained his design to those members of the AU board who would debate about the submissions over the course of three years.

The politically minded designer considers art and activism interchangeable, he said, and he submitted a very long design brief to accompany his work. In it he expressed the welfare state of Africa. 

“It [design brief] was about Africans deciding their own fate and trying to stop basically the welfare state mentally: ‘well Africans always need Western help,’” he said.

Bojia’s former design teacher at Seattle Central College sees him as exceptional. Michelle Dunn Marsh, who is the executive director of Photographic Center Northwest and founder of Minor Matters Books, said he is a combination of both respectful to other people’s viewpoints, while being clear and forthright in his own.

When her class was examining the history of design, which per textbook was limited to American and European graphic design, Bojia raised his hand.

“Where is my country in this conversation?” he asked.

“He is both accessible and confrontational, his work is accessible but the man is confrontational,” she said.

Yadesa Bojia holding a miniature version
of the flag he designed for the African Union.
Photo by Agazit Afeworki 

At first glance his flag design is simple, but that’s what Bojia was shooting for. He knew that designers incorporating religious symbols or other specific imagery wouldn’t represent the diverse continent well. It had to be inclusive, he said.

“I was basically thinking, if a person in Togo or a person in Cairo can look at it and say that’s my flag, that’s a requirement for me.”

This wasn't only true for Africans. His work also lured Ellenore Angelidis, the director of Diversity at Amazon who came across Bojia on Facebook. Angelidis is especially connected to Bojia’s homeland having an adopted Ethiopian daughter and a passion to meld American and Ethiopian cultures. She requested to take one flag and inspirational letter from Bojia back to a school in Mercato, an area in the country’s capital, where she helps fund an organization called Ethiopia Reads

Bojia grew up in this very region and agreed to help encourage kids to strive in school.

Angelidis and Bojia have since collaborated through her non-profit, Open Hearts Big Dreams, which fundraises for literacy programs in Ethiopia.

“His personal story is super compelling. Yadesa is a perfect example of how one person can make a difference, it really just takes people,” Angelidis said.

His story as an artist began in sixth or seventh grade when his school asked him to draw a mural. He painted a little boy wearing his father’s war helmet. A young boy expressing his desire to be like his dad, he said.

All of his work continues to be message-oriented. Whether he’s creating a piece challenging the cracks in Ethiopia’s adoption laws, or advocating against police brutality in his recent exhibit “Black Lives Matter” at Columbia City Gallery, he uses his art as a soap-box to speak on pressing social issues in all the communities he occupies.

Marsh noted the lyricism in his earlier work and a penchant to create art on relationships. Design is problem solving and for a Shoreline artist to create a new visual solution to Africa’s growth is rare, Marsh said.

Bojia is certainly not boastful, but he saw evidence of his flag’s impact during his last visit to Addis Ababa for the AU flag launch.

He stopped to try to buy some things from a street vendor, but the man refused. The vendor wouldn’t take his money because he recognized Bojia as the Ethiopian artist who designed the AU flag. He was filled with nationalistic pride.

“And I know what that meant for him,” Bojia said. “This guy was poor, but he wanted to say thank you to me and I was really touched by that. Seeing what it means to people, that’s the biggest reward.” 


Anonymous,  May 19, 2015 at 1:05 PM  

Thank you for this article.

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