While contemporary African visual art is on the rise, Tanzania, which is known worldwide for the Tinga Tinga style of paintings, seems to be left behind. Art education in primary and secondary schools is non-existent, and very few artists carry the Tanzanian flag in international arenas. Is fine art dead in Tanzania? If not, where can we find it?
People on the street are unaware of what is happening with the arts. Internationally acclaimed Tanzanian artists are seldom known or respected at home. And efforts, such as the 1974 Mwalimu Julius Nyerere’s establishment of Nyumba ya Sanaa, House of Culture, are sabotaged by shortsighted leaders, mismanagement and blindfolded citizens who couldn’t care less about the promotion of our arts.
There is a graveyard sort of feeling, a lingering sense of loss of our cultural heritage, whenever I pass what used to be the most vibrant art space and attraction, Nyumba ya Sanaa, demolished to make way for other so called developments. I imagine the ghost of George Lilanga, the internationally acclaimed painter and sculptor born of the space, haunting the premises in the same shetani (devil) figures that he sculpted and which adorned the space for many years. How could we let such a national treasure disappear?
While policy makers are doing little for the arts, various talented artists are also committing murder to their craft by succumbing to the demand for “tourist art”; others fall into the donor-funded art trap, allowing their creativity and point of view to be restricted by the donors’ agenda.
Two weeks ago, while walking through the Mwenge artisan Market in Dar es Salaam, I was saddened by the uniformity of art displayed in hundred or more stalls available at the market; carvings and paintings made to attract tourists who want to carry a little bit of the Tanzania they liked to look at with them – big five animals, Masaai women carrying pots on their heads, and Masaai men with brilliant red sheets draped on their shoulders, swallowed by a beautiful orange sunset. The same kind of art is seen in Bagamoyo, Arusha, and Zanzibar.
Tired of the same boring spectacle, I pleaded with one of the vendors to show me some real art. He shuffled through piles of canvases and brown sack pieces until he finally fished out a very blue and emotional depiction of a love triangle. It was beautiful. When I asked him why he sold “tourist art”, he told me with a sense of resigned sadness, “I still have to eat.”
Have tourists killed our fine art? And if not for them, how would artists survive?
Amateur artists find themselves learning their craft and trade secrets from the common marketplace. Rams King, a self-taught, emerging painter, tries to be different and to get Tanzanians to purchase and find value in his work. Creating work from home, King, like many up and coming artists, feels sidelined by the major art galleries and organizations. He relies solely on Facebook and Instagram to market his paintings. His artistic talent is evident in his work, yet his lack of training, he feels, affects his composition.
Meanwhile, at Nafasi Art Space, a mere 15 minutes’ walk from the Mwenge artisan market, a different breed of artists thrive.
At the door of Masoud Kibwana’s studio, a big question mark made of cut-out wood pieces welcomes you. This is a place where the artist’s mind is at work, creating compositions that entice the mind and probe people to look deeper. In another studio, a ten foot metal container that looks like a shop, Amani Abeid, an illustrator and painter works on children’s book; a collection of his recent works catches my attention. He used spilled coffee to create backgrounds and textures for his impressions. Abeid’s uncompromising creativity pulsates through each of his works, making even the most unlikely of things come to life on paper or canvas.
Lionel Garang, a visiting artist from Kenya, shares the studio with Abeid. He has the infectious zeal and ambition of our Kenyan brethren. He is creating his own unique mixed media art, a depiction of facial expressions people wear as their masks. He is enthralled by the creativity different Tanzanian artists portray, like Vita Malulu and Cloud Chitanda.
A renowned visual artist and curator, Gadi Ramadhani is a big part of the revival of Tanzanian visual arts in recent years. He sees the need for diligent curators to push our art beyond borders. “Artists also have the responsibility to drive people to examine their thinking, thinking outside the box and creating art that is socially relevant,” he told me. Ramadhani’s figurative installation of Nithamini monument in Sengerema, Mwanza, that advocates for rights of people with albinism and pays tributes to those who were affected by horrific albino killings, is one such creation. The presence of organizations like Nafasi, and Vipaji Foundation, which give artists a platform to create art, interact with others, and showcase it to the public, also help. However, Ramadhani sees the need for more Tanzanian-driven projects and spaces that promote visual arts.
Artists like Kibwana and Abeid are anomalous. Together they initiated a project where they go to famous places in Dar-es-Salaam, and paint the place with an audience of regular people watching them create. They raise people’s awareness and interest in the arts, while capturing the spirit of time in these places that will not look the same in the future. Through them, I see hope for the revival of our Tanzanian art.
According to Abeid, it is artists themselves that can change the art scene in Tanzania. If artists in particular, and Tanzanians in general, wait for a savior to bring changes, nothing good will happen to our arts, or our country. So what can we do to revive our art scene? What can we do, to change our country?