Why Tanzanian artists are not celebrated at home

Friday April 4 2014

Various pieces of works of art by Tanzanian artists. Photos/Caroline Uliwa

Various works of art by Tanzanian artists. Photos/Caroline Uliwa 


Fine art in Tanzania dates back 40,000 years as seen on the rock paintings in Kondoa, Mbulu, Iramba, Singida, Mara and Bukoba. They are the earliest dated rock paintings in the world. In spite of their rich heritage, Tanzanian’s today seldom buy fine art from local artists. 

I solicited opinions from various stakeholders in the fine art industry in the country.

Historically, art was not collected for its mere visual and textural appeal. “In our history, fine art wasn’t placed in the home merely as decoration. Much of it represented ancestral spirits and rites of passage. For instance, the ‘kigoda’ (a wooden stool found in many tribes of Tanzania) made for you will be quite different from the one made for your mother or for the chief; no one else could sit on your kigoda.  The ‘kigoda’ would have gone through prayers from the elders and medicine man, depending on your status.

"Take the ‘mwana nyang’iti/mwana hiti’ from the Zaramo and Kwere tribes of the coast, which many tourists buy today and wear on their necks. The small wooden female figurine with two plaits was traditionally a token passed on in the family from female to female when a daughter came of age entering womanhood; this was to continue fertility in the family,” says Vivian Nsao-Shalua, the arts promotion director of the National Arts Council-Basata.

Our failure to buy our own art is not about being didactic or owning art for arts’ sake. Fine art from Tanzania is found in various homes in the country, although most times it represents strong moralistic, religious or spiritual meaning.

Another reason why Tanzanian’s don’t buy their own art could be colonialism from the Arabs and Europeans who introduced their religions.

The strong persuasion from these cultures to turn Tanzanians into followers of their religions succeeded; resulting in the shunning of native spiritual beliefs as barbaric or evil subsequently making the representative art questionable.

“The majority of Muslims all over the world are not comfortable with artwork that depicts human beings and animals. Some can tolerate paintings and drawings of such objects, but not sculptures. Some parents ask their children not to draw human beings for fear that when they die they will be asked to put their souls in the drawings,” says Prof Elias Jengo from the Department of Fine and Performing Arts at the University of Dar es Salaam.

In the case of Christians, they would rather own a piece of commercial art from Asia depicting their religion than buy an original piece of fine art done by an artist in Tanzania.

“Natives just don’t buy art. We even began a poetry club in the gallery hoping to foster a home market so that more Tanzanians would be interested in the fine art here, but it’s been tough,” said Seppo Mlavamio, the director of Warm Heart art gallery in Arusha, which is closing after just five years in operation.

“From talking to people like Prof Jengo and Robhino Ntila (Tanzanian fine artist), I understand that painting on canvas was brought here in the 1980’s. Most artists were educated in Kampala, at Makerere University. Fine art in this form is new to many Tanzanians. I remember every Tanzanian I’ve sold fine art work to. But as more people are becoming new home owners, they are starting to buy more art,” says Rachel Kessy of Mawazo Art gallery in Dar es Salaam.

Mawazo started as a stationery gallery in 2002, and is now a pop-up gallery that takes art exhibitions to people at various locations. 

One could argue that fine art is too expensive for most Tanzanians. Neighbours Kenya recently sold a painting for more than $211,000.

“Tanzanians have money, however the knowledge and value of fine art as a business isn’t on their minds. Today many young business people buy second-hand cars from Japan knowing that when they sell them they’ll make a profit. However, they may not know if they buy art here they could sell it for a profit in Europe. Just look at how many Nigerians are selling art from Africa in the UK at huge profits,” says fine artist Gadi Ramadhan, who is also a curator at Kokoten.

But have fine artists and fine art stakeholders done enough to address the lack of local buyers?

Sculptress Mwandale Mwanyekwa and illustrator and painter Paul Nduguru say they don’t feel supported by the public art and culture venues like the National Museum.

They feel at home in foreign ambassador’s cultural centres where they’re welcomed to exhibit their works for free, and are supported with curators.

The National Museum is under the Ministry of Tourism. Its grounds are free for permanent exhibitions of historical arts and artifacts, but temporary exhibition spaces are for hire. It costs Tsh500,000 ($313) per day to hire the hall at the National Museum, a fee many artists can’t afford.

“After you’ve taken the pains to create your own raw material, then worked for months to produce works fit for an exhibition, you don’t have enough money to hire an exhibition hall at that rate,” says Paul Nduguru.

Media coverage of fine art exhibitions is minimal. Sometimes local media refuse to cover an exhibition saying they’ll be doing an advertorial.

“For some media houses, art exhibitions aren’t seen as newsworthy. Basata addresses this by trying to educate the public on art, particularly through our forum Jukwaa la Sanaa, which is held in our offices every Monday. Journalists ought to participate in such a forum so that they increase their knowledge in art matters,” says Vivian Shalua.

The current education does not support fine art.

Fine artist Thobias Minzi explains. “I didn’t receive much of an art education in primary school, but there was a programme called Umita Shumta, hosted by Basata, which was an art competition pooling primary school students from across the country. I participated often, meeting students from various schools who liked to draw. Today, unfortunately, the level of exposure of fine art as a subject in our public primary and secondary schools is low, and there’s no more Umita Shumta.

“So when we’re talking about consumers of fine art works from Tanzania, I am not surprised Tanzanians aren’t top on that list as they’ve had little knowledge of fine art and its importance.”

Nsao-Shalua concurs. “Older people in Tanzania today appreciate fine art, and it would be wise to start exposing them to art from a young age. In primary school (in Kenya) our class had to sculpt our pencils so that we wouldn’t steal from each other. We’d be given razors and would carve either a monkey or a girl with plaits.

“In some public primary schools here in the 1960s, one day would be set aside when all the paintings from students in a class would be put on display. They would be given stars and the top winners would get presents. From this outlook, a child would be inclined to buy fine art in the future. But today we have a whole generation that didn’t get this exposure, and for many of them spending Tsh30,000 ($19) to buy art is a waste of money. They would rather buy ‘ugali’.”

There is a syllabus for fine art in primary schools, but it is within the subject of work studies that teaches more about how to fix bicycles than how to draw.

In addition, there is only one teachers’ college in the country for fine art - Butimba in Mwanza.

“I studied there in the 1970s, after I finished primary school, and went on to become a primary school art teacher. But today the college isn’t the same,” says Nsao-Shalua. She explained how trainee teachers are offered a diploma in teaching for three core subjects like Geography, Mathematics and Science, and art is offered as an optional subject. 

Prof Jengo says, “There are three art institutions of higher learning that teach art, namely the University of Dar es Salaam (FPA), University of Dodoma and Tasuba (Taasisi ya Sanaa na Utamaduni Bagamoyo), the former Bagamoyo School of Arts. The Butimba Teachers College has started diploma level art but since the ‘A’ Level art curriculum has not yet been implemented, the programme has not yet started.

“There are 38 secondary schools that teach art at ‘O’ Level. The ‘A’ Level art curriculum was designed in the 1990s by the Tanzania Institute of Education, but it has yet to be implemented in schools.”

Fine artists also have a role to play to market their wares. “Certain types of fine art aren’t selling to most Tanzanians, particularly paintings on canvas and sculptures. There’s a huge home market for artists like Walter Lema, Cloud Chatanda and Paul Nduguru, with their biggest customers being publishers and advertising companies,”  says Adrian Nyangamalle who is a fine artist and president of the Fine Art Association in Tanzania.

“Many painters and sculptors in Tanzania produce works with the target market being foreigners, this from price to subject. They haven’t done enough research of their home market and their needs,” says Nyangamalle.

Many paintings and sculptures depict rose coloured village life. Few express the complexities of Tanzanians today and their challenges.