“I really loved this art, I wished I could have a piece of art like this in my home,” says Janfa, who met the artist and bonded with him over a shared passion for soccer. “I think I loved it because it was very simple. I didn’t want to say ‘I can do it’, because that sounds disrespectful, but I wanted to do something similar.”
On returning to Melbourne, Janfa started drawing images in the style he recalled from the Ethiopian Orthodox churches of his childhood, from the time before he lost his mother (she died when he was 14), the time before civil war once again took hold in his country and he became a refugee.
Those first pictures were a little rough, but they brought him joy all the same. “I was making mistakes, but it was beautiful.”
Soon he was getting scraps of timber from a friend, and painting his vivid pictures embellished with funny phrases on them. He started, he says, “because I wanted just one piece of art for my house. I painted for this wall. I painted for that wall. And then it started to be full so I moved to the shed.”
He’s lost count now of how many he’s done, but reckons it’s more than 100. Each of them takes maybe a week, though fitting them in around his regular jobs – he works as a dishwasher, a sandwich hand and a junior soccer coach – means many take longer. All are suffused with a combination of naivety and humour that is, surely, the key to why he has so quickly found an adoring audience.
“People like my work because it’s not perfect,” he says. “I like it when it’s not straight – people pay attention more.”
Among those paying attention was Kylie Zerbst, owner and chief designer of Melbourne fashion label Obus, which will next week launch its autumn range – consisting of prints based on Janfa’s work.
It’s been a dream run since he first picked up a brush, but Janfa has at least one more goal in mind. “I love Oprah – she reminds me of my mum,” he says. “I wish she would wear my clothes – that would make me happy.”
Though his family was not especially poor in Addis Ababa, he says, having lived in Norway, and now Australia, has helped him see his life there afresh.
“I’m very grateful to have lived in the poorest country in the world and in the richest, to understand the differences,” he says. “It’s not what you have that makes you rich, it’s something else that comes with you.
“I love the Ethiopian culture, I love the way they pray, I love the fasting,” he continues. “When I was in Africa I wasn’t aware of it, but when I go from there I understand how beautiful it is.
“That’s part of me, part of my culture. I don’t want to ignore it and just feel like a Westerner.”
Karl Quinn is a senior culture writer at The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald.