Tingatinga piece fetches EA record price in Paris auction

Saturday November 06 2010

The late Rajabu Chiwaya's Gold Spotted Leopard and Friend The Songbird was bought 1o years ago at the Galley Watatu in Nairobi for $600. Picture by Frank Whalley

The world record price for an East African painting has been set at $51,079.

And the picture — a Tingatinga piece by the late Rajabu Chiwaya — was bought 10 years ago at the Gallery Watatu in Nairobi, for just…$6,000.

A Tingatinga piece at the same gallery would now cost anything from $15,000-$25,000.

The picture that set the record, at an auction in Paris by Artcurial, is called Gold Spotted Leopard and Friend The Songbird, and was painted in the 1970s in enamels on a threaded rubber board. It measures 106cm by 82cm.

If you can’t manage the Watatu’s price range, don’t worry — there are plenty of other places to buy.

The most obvious is the studios of the Tingatinga Arts Co-operative Society at Msanani in Dar. Or, if you are based in Nairobi, you need not go further than the Banana Hill Arts Centre, a 30-minute drive from the city centre.


There, the gallery owner Shine Tani will show you a group of genuine, if small, Tingatinga pieces (each around 30cm by 30cm) at only Ksh3,000 ($40) each. These paintings — of hippos, lions, birds and other delightfully innocent creatures — are stacked on Tani’s desk, not on the wall.

That honour goes to another Tanzanian artist, Haji Chilonga whose works are on display until the end of this month.

They make for an interesting show. Chilonga is an artist with real talent but, as seen here, it is somewhat submerged by what for me is an irritating trend towards the sort of slickness seen in advertising work and magazine illustrations.

At times, Chilonga struggles to be seen through his own popularity and mannerisms.

For example, a figure pulling the vegetable cart in one of the strongest pictures on show is shadowed by a series of curves — like those speed stripes you see in cartoons — while the legs, which should be straining with the effort of heaving the cart, are reduced to ciphers — a couple of paint strokes merely to indicate their presence but not to support the weight of the figure they bear.

Too much of Chilonga’s work is like that: Substance surrendered to style.

You can see it again in his painting of a group of people carrying what I take to be water containers on their heads. These are two dimensional indications (colourful and attractive patterns though they might be) rather than solid statements that describe weight and form.

This is very clever but not convincing.

It is what is famously known as Marmite painting — the quality is there and you either like it or you don’t. I don’t. It’s too automatic for my taste (no sense of struggle) and rather too contrived.

However, in its technical ability, Chilonga’s work is head and shoulders above a lot of the stuff seen on gallery walls, and it is easy to see how he gained his reputation.

When he relaxes and paints what is before him — and the picture of a palm tree here, though still somewhat stylised, is a fair example — he is rather good.

He captures the palm’s fountain-like spray of leaves perfectly while its cool, morning tones are enlivened by little touches of orange, signalling the rising sun and the day ahead.

Another successful picture, I thought was the one hanging near the front door of a herd of cattle dashing through the dust.

He has caught the form of the beasts and the flurries of his paint give us something of their stamping energy, too.

It’s just that Chilonga seems to spend too much of his time trying to paint Chilongas… and his natural fluency becomes ever more rigid as style takes over.

Frank Whalley runs Lenga Juu, a fine arts and media consultancy based in Nairobi. E-mail: [email protected]