Tajah Olson was born in Lilongwe, in the southeastern African country of Malawi. She spent her early years living in a crowded two-room shack in the sprawling township at the edge of the city, with her young single mom who made a living selling used clothing. Her eldest cousin mainly took care of her as her mum was busy with her clothing business.The tiny house was also home to various aunts, uncles and cousins, who came and went. This was during the African HIV-AIDS pandemic, which hit Malawi particularly hard, and Tajah lost many family members to the disease. Some of her cousins are now orphans living with HIV.
Tajah’s maternal grandparents had been forced to flee neighboring Zambia for political reasons, settling in a village near Lilongwe. Though Tajah never knew her grandfather, she often visited the village, where her grandmother was a subsistence farmer, raising chickens, goats and growing her own food. “My artwork is inspired by my memories of home and my maternal grandmother Aswesi, strong, tough but yet kind hearted ” Tajah says. “Most of all my art celebrates the strength and beauty of tribal African women.”
Tajah’s life changed at the age of 7, when her mother married a Canadian UNICEF employee who worked in youth AIDS prevention in Malawi. Tajah spoke only Chichewa until she met her new dad, but the change in her family circumstances gave her the courage to literally cross the busiest highway in the city of Lilongwe by herself from the township to an English-language school and take a front seat in a classroom. She was determined to learn English and never return to the crowded government school where 100-200 children had to share desks or sit on the dirty broken cement floors in the classrooms. The principal of the English-Language school was so impressed he allowed her to stay unofficially until her parents enrolled her.
Eventually, Tajah left Malawi and travelled to Canada, to live with her dad’s family and attend high school in Victoria, on Canada's Vancouver Island. Her Canadian aunts and grandmother encouraged her creativity, plying her with paints and other art supplies and pushing her to try new things. She had always liked making things with her hands – she has an early memory of making little figures out of mud when she couldn’t express her unhappiness as a child. She loved fashion and bright colours and was inspired by the beauty of nature. But in Victoria, home to the iconic 20th century Canadian painter Emily Carr, she began to take it more seriously. She experimented with fabric and painting outdoors. She began making self-portraits, which helped her express her identity issues as a young African woman dealing with a new life, and a Western family and culture.
Like many young women the world over, Tajah thought she would like to be a model, but the Canadian aunts persuaded her that fashion design was a better option. She studied fashion design at a private college in Victoria, and then found work in a screen-printing shop. But her mother insisted that she go to university. Tajah, who is now a Canadian citizen, was accepted into a degree program at the prestigious Emily Carr University of Art and Design in Vancouver. She has spent the years since graduation developing her art practice, while working a wide array of jobs (including teaching African dance and working as senior care taker).
She appeared on Canada’s Got Talent in 2011, showcasing her dance in body paint and painted costumes that she constructed herself. ”My body is my canvas,” she explained during an appearance in 2015 on the Canadian reality show Crash Gallery. http://www.cbc.ca/arts/crashgallery/tajah-olson-turns-her-body-into-a-remarkable-living-canvas-1.3280556
A big break came when the City of Seattle bought Three of Tajah’s works for their Municipal Tower Gallery. By then Tajah was working with large-scale photo-based images using herself as a model, using body paint and costume to depict powerful icons of African womanhood. She currently shows her work in Vancouver, New Orleans and continues to develop her art practice.
She hopes that her message of strength, beauty and positivity resonate with women everywhere.
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