Born in Ankober to Feleketch Yamatawork and Tekle Mano, Afewerk grew up under the Italian occupation during the Second World War. Following the war, in 1947, Afewerk decided that he wanted to help rebuild Ethiopia and elected to travel to England to study mining engineering. Before departing, Afewerk, together with other students leaving to study overseas, was addressed by Emperor Haile Selassie. Afewerk recalls being told "you must work hard, and when you come back do not tell us what tall buildings you saw in Europe, or what wide streets they have, but make sure you return equipped with the skills and the mindset to rebuild Ethiopia".
Afewerk had already shown talent as an artist as a child, decorating several walls in his home town. Whilst at boarding school in England, this talent was recognised and encouraged by his teachers. As a result, Afewerk was persuaded to switch from engineering and enroll in Central School of Arts and Crafts in London. He then went on to become the first African student to enter the Slade School of Art where he studied painting, sculpture and architecture.
Returning to Ethiopia as a university graduate, Afewerk could have accepted an assigned ministerial post, but instead decided to spend time travelling around the provinces of Ethiopia to get more experience of his native country and culture, which he reflected in his paintings. In 1954 he held his first one man show in Addis Ababa, that gave him the funds to travel around Europe for two years where he learnt how to design and construct stained glass windows. He also made a special study on Ethiopian illustrated manuscripts in the British Library, the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris and the Vatican Library.
Back in Ethiopia, Afewerk opened a studio in the National Library of Ethiopia. His growing recognition lead to government commissions for murals and mosaics in St George's Cathedral, Addis Ababa, and several of his designs were used on the national stamps. He was also commissioned to produce sculptures of famous Ethiopians, although only the monumental statue of Ras Makonnen in Harrar was completed. Most notably, in 1958 he designed the stained glass windows in the Africa Hall of the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa in Addis Ababa. The three windows cover an area of 150 square meters, and represent the sorrow of Africa's past, the struggle of the present, and hope for Africa's future.
In 1961 Afewerk held a major retrospective in Addis Ababa, which led to his painting Maskal Flower being shown at international exhibitions in Russia, the United States and Senegal. Increasing funds allowed Afewerk to travel around the continent of Africa. With much of Africa still emerging from colonialism, Afewerk became fired with black emancipation and the struggles for independence. This is reflected in his paintings of this time, with titles like Backbones of African Civilization and African Unity.
In 1964 he became the first laureate of the Haile Selassie I Prize for Fine Arts. As his reputation spread abroad, Afewerk was invited to put on an exhibition in Moscow following which he toured the Soviet Union giving lectures. The American government responded with an invitation for one man exhibitions in Washington and New York and a similar lecture tour of American universities. Additional international exhibitions followed in Senegal, Turkey, Zaire, the United Arab Republic, Bulgaria, Munich, Kenya and Algeria.
Through much of the 1970s Afewerk was engaged in producting murals and mosaics for many public and religious buildings around Ethiopia, including the mural Last Judgement in the Adigat Cathedral in Tigrai. In 1977, his painting Unity Triptych won the gold medal in the Algiers International Festival.
The early 1980s saw a second major exhibition in Moscow and an exhibition in Bonn. In 1981, his painting Self-portrait was the first work by an African artist to enter the permanent collection of the Uffizi Gallery, Florence, Italy.
In 1997 he exhibited at the Biennale of Aquitaine, France, winning first prize in the international competition. He was also nominated the Laureate of the Biennale which gave him membership of the French International Academy of Arts.
Also Afewerk Tekle had membership of the Russian Academy of Arts, so he became the first African member in 1983. We Thank you for your amazing work & we miss you.