Cheery wave from the walls

Monday October 5 2009

Police Control by Said Mkumba

Police Control by Said Mkumba 

By FRANK WHALLEY

Sometimes it's good to relax … not to take life too seriously nor to look for too much meaning in anything – just to enjoy what’s there.

I found the ideal place to do exactly that this week, a restaurant in Nairobi where the walls are hung with an exhibition of Tingatinga paintings, brought here from Tanzania.

An explosion of light, colour and pattern they delight the eye. And their cheerful subjects would bring a smile to anyone’s face.

Tingatinga painting occupies that middle ground between what I would (perhaps rather pretentiously) term the High Art of formal easel painting, and the raw energy of graffiti and paintings on kiosks and matatus.

It is produced by a school of artists working almost on a production line basis, borrowing motifs from each other but painting within a framework of bright colours and flat pattern, without linear perspective.

They are decorative and joyful pieces of work.

I write “almost on a production line basis” because although the artists work together (not unlike the Kamba carvers in their sheds) on a common cause, each produces a painting from start to finish.

In that they are unlike the artists working in the Chinese painting villages where one man will paint in the backgrounds, another the clouds, a third do the houses and fourth specialise in animals or whatever.

At first sight most of the Tingatinga paintings look the same.

There appears to be a restricted range of subjects — flowers, birds, animals, market and village scenes.

There is one man who does nothing but butterflies and several who specialise in shetanis … those devils of East Africa folklore.

But actually that’s quite a wide range of subject matter.

Perhaps it is the accent on pattern covering every inch of canvas and the flat, enamelled colours that give that similarity, reminiscent of the overall chip-carved patterning of traditional Swahili doorways, or the busy all-over working on kitenges and kanga cloths.

Interestingly, many of the Tingatinga artists are Makua, from the south of Tanzania and across the border in Mozambique.

Traditional Makua art is stylistically related to the Makonde and to my mind it is more than a coincidence that the Tingatinga paintings of (for instance) writhing, chattering shetani share their iconography with the famous Makonde Tree of Life mpingo wood sculptures, to be found in an airport or curio shop near you.

Once you get your eye in, it soon becomes apparent that there are in fact many different styles of Tingatinga painting — from the bold literalism of market scenes by Said Mkumba to the ethereal delicacy of the fantasy birds painted with such skill by Hamadi Yusufu.

Both these well known painters from the Tingatinga Arts Co-operative Society are represented in the exhibition being held at Le Rustique restaurant on General Mathenge Drive, Nairobi, until the end of October.

Others of note include Sey Rashid Hussein, who contributes a people-packed view of Zanzibar Prison, and Godfrey Tamaru, whose social message is that condoms save lives.

His picture, on a threatening red ground, is split into two, one half showing a bee-keeper and asking “Would you harvest honey without protection?” and the other half showing a couple, while posing the question, “So why jump into bed without a condom?” And it adds: “Aids kills.”

Tingatinga painting, considering its universal spread and popular appeal is a comparatively recent phenomenon.

The name, which resonates well in Kenya, is not a reference to a tractor, nor indeed to a Kenyan politician nor to a political party.

Rather was it the surname of the self-taught painter Edward Saidi Tingatinga, who padded out his meagre income at the Muhimbili Medical Centre in Dar es Salaam, by knocking out a few pictures in his spare time for sale to tourists.

They proved to be popular. So popular that he turned to painting full time but his new career, tragically, lasted for only four years — from 1968 to 1972 — before he was cut down and killed by a stray police bullet.

By then his fame had spread and he had passed on his skills to six students — Simon Mpata, January Linda, Adeus Matambwe, Kasper Henric Tedo, Abdallah Ajaba and Omary Amonde — now all big names in the Tingatinga world

They in turn each passed on the technique and the school’s subject matter to new groups of students — who themselves found students … until now, some 37 years later, there are estimated to be 400-500 painters producing Tingatinga art.

Of these, around 90 — including Daudi, the son of Edward Saidi Tingatinga — operate from the studios of the Tingatinga Arts Co-operative Society at Msasani in Dar.

As is frequently the case, the popularity of the paintings shaped their execution.

Bought mainly by tourists they are generally of a size that can be taken home on an aeroplane, which is why the larger ones are on canvas so they can be rolled and put in a tube for transport, while the smaller ones are on suitcase-sized boards.

More importantly Tingatinga paintings usually contain the elements most foreigners expect to see in African art: Colour, animals and birds, happy village scenes, a general air of good cheer and joy.

They do not for instance contain overt political comment nor protest at police brutality and corruption, nor hark back to recent unpleasant events, although some pictures — including those by Godfrey — occasionally carry warnings about Aids … popular with tourists who have a social conscience.

Another delightful surprise was the low cost of some of these works.

At Le Rustique for example the 26 on show ranged from $120 to $333 (half of them had sold after only three days) and elsewhere they can be even cheaper.

The Banana Hill Art Studio has a selection, starting at as little as US$40 … but prices can be a whole lot higher.

The Watatu Gallery in Nairobi city centre has a few pictures by Edward Saidi Tingatinga himself, the man who started it all — and they range from $6,000 to a thumping $12,000 apiece.

They are simpler, far less intricate than those of his students, whose paintings seem to me to be a bargain.

A little fussy for some tastes perhaps, and lacking the austere strength of their master’s works, they nonetheless radiate charm.

Tingatinga paintings give you a cheery wave from the walls — and they certainly added a smile to my day.

Frank Whalley runs Lenga Juu, a fine arts and media consultancy based in Nairobi.