Apollo Magazine

The Art of Life: Maaza Mengiste

The novelist Maaza Mengiste talks to Sophie Barling about the three works of art that mean the most to her – and how she sees every image as a self-portrait

Photo: Nina Subin

The Art of Life podcast invites guests to pick three works that have shaped their lives. Along the way we talk about their own work, and how the art in question may have informed or connected with it.

In this episode of The Art of Life the Booker-shortlisted novelist, essayist and photographer Maaza Mengiste picks out three works of art that have been significant for her. She takes us from a photograph of an armed Ethiopian woman by one of her Italian invaders in the 1930s to Velázquez’s portrait of Juan de Pareja, via a painting-photograph by the Portuguese artist Helena Almeida. Of the Ethiopian photograph and its companions – which Maaza has collected over the years in flea markets and antique shops in Italy and beyond – she explains how the power dynamic between subject and maker fascinates her, and how she began to see these photographs as self-portraits. ‘It has completely rearranged the way I think about images,’ she says. Maaza discusses her most recent novel The Shadow King, and how these photographs influenced it, as well as her love of Homer and the poet Christopher Logue. And there’s one question she begs us all to ask older members of our families: ‘What haven’t you told me?’

The Shadow King by Maaza Mengiste is published in the UK by Canongate. Project 3541, a photographic archive of the 1935–41 Italo-Ethiopian War, can be found here.


Bogalesc or Bogalech, Debre Birhan, Ethiopia, c. 1937. Courtesy Maaza Mengiste


Pintura habitada (1975), Helena Almeida. Fundação de Serralves – Museu de Arte Contemporânea, Porto. Photo: © Filipe Braga

(Find the exact Helena Almeida work referred to in the podcast here)


Juan de Pareja (1606–1670) (1650), Velázquez. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York


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