Remembering Tingatinga, the legendary artist

Saturday April 20 2019

Tinga Tinga art. PHOTO | KARI MUTU | NMG

Tinga Tinga art. PHOTO | KARI MUTU | NMG 

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Tinga Tinga paintings, with their vivid colours and nature themes, have become synonymous with art from East Africa.

Original to Tanzania, Tinga Tinga is being celebrated afresh with a new exhibition called Tinga Tinga and The Legendary Artists of Tanzania.

Showing at the Nairobi Gallery, it is organised by the National Museums of Kenya and art specialist Alan Donovan.

The creator of the school, Edward Saidi Tingatinga, was born in southern Tanzania in 1932. He worked as a bicycle repairman before becoming an artist in the late 1960s with no formal training. When he started, he used recycled materials such as ceiling boards and bicycle paint, influenced by folklore and designs on the exterior walls of local houses.

He died in 1972 at just 40 years old, shot dead by police in a case of mistaken identity. Yet his short art career spurred generations of Tinga Tinga artists.

Some of them remain true to the original Saidi technique of simple images in bold colour palettes, painted in a flat style, usually composed of a single animal and with hints of surrealism.


Over the decades, Tinga Tinga art has spread across borders and become more elaborate, incorporating multiple characters, urban settings, and the use of only black-and-white colours.

Though Tinga Tinga paintings can be found in shops and markets across East Africa, very few original Saidi creations remain. At a recent auction in Nairobi, an authentic Saidi painting sold for more than Ksh4 million ($40,000).

On display at the Nairobi Gallery exhibition are canvas paintings by second and third generation Tinga Tinga creators mainly from Tanzania.

A shoal of blue-green fish fill up a canvas in a never-ending circle that has a mesmerising quality.

A leopard with wide eyes sits in an exaggerated pose of high-arching back under a flock of hornbills on a deep blue background.

I particularly like a painting of several elegant black hornbills with red wings, yellow beaks and their heads gracefully bent downwards. Hornbills and leopards are archetypal characters in Tinga Tinga art.

Visitors to the Nairobi Gallery can buy the paintings, and the exhibition continues until the end of August.