Kenya, Tanzania, Zanzibar: The Witchcraft Of Art

Contemporary Artists From Kenya, Tanzania And Zanzibar

Catalogue of the Imago Mundi Collection:Kenya, Tanzania, Zanzibar: The Witchcraft Of Art (2013) by Contemporary Artists From Kenya, Tanzania And ZanzibarImago Mundi

African Aesthetics Joins the Global Art March

There is a saying that an African is a natural born artist, the result of a vibrant cultural environment steeped in artistic expressions, be it in music, language, drawings or sculpting. This belies the isolation of Africa from the mainstream of the modern and contemporary art marketplace - a serious handicap indeed. Therefore it is heart- warming that contemporary African art is receiving the international attention it deserves. Finally. The cognoscenti believe this century is Africa’s century.

Akily Issa Abdallah - Untitled, Akily Issa Abdallah, 2013, From the collection of: Imago Mundi
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Akily Issa Abdallah - Untitled (2013)

Some Africans object to the term ‘African art’, insisting that art is art and any regional categorization is unacceptable. It is a false issue. There are resonances that are particular to different cultural and geographic spaces. Admittedly, some undercurrents exoticize and undervalue African things. However, geographic categorization in art is purely technical, with no hierarchical agenda. There is Chinese art, Brazilian art, Latin American art. The most successful contemporary artists are those whose works reveal discernible cultural and geographic traditions. The best African artists are inspired by their community’s experiences. They create art from images of what they have lived or dreamt about, with the triggers being ceremonies and rites of passage between birth and death. Cultural specificities provide a ‘wow’ factor, making the global art scene varied, non-formulaic – and continually refreshing.

Sarange Ramadhani - Masai, Sarange Ramadhani, 2013, From the collection of: Imago Mundi
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Sarange Ramadhani - Masai (2013)

Contemporary Art in East Africa

The concept of art for art’s sake is alien to the African. Since time immemorial, African artistic expression has responded to a purpose, a use, as a component in spiritual divination, healing, fecundity, the celebration of birth, the mourning of death, ancestral appeasement or for beautifying the community. There are national, regional and sub-regional peculiarities in the renditions of these realities - just as there were a staggering number of types and styles in our ancient art, as found in the plastic legacies of ancient Asante, Baule, Chokwe, Fang, Makonde or Yoruba.

Joseph Mwalyombo - Future Use Not Be The Same, Joseph Mwalyombo, 2013, From the collection of: Imago Mundi
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Joseph Mwalyombo - Future Use Not Be The Same (2013)

Contemporary art in East Africa, which dates from the 1950s and 1960s, has distinct regional characteristics too. Key influencers on East African modernism, or Afro-modernism in general, include the ethnicity and culture of the artist, type of informal or formal education the artist received and what may be the target market/collectors; is the art to be sold to expatriates or is it commissioned by the national museum?

Mussa Wasia - Zebra, Mussa Wasia, 2013, From the collection of: Imago Mundi
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Mussa Wasia - Zebra (2013)

Tanzania and Zanzibar

The bulk of the artistic works, sculpture or painting, in urban mainland Tanzania and island Zanzibar was developed, and exists, purely to meet a specific market demand – European visitors and tourists. The preponderant style is called ‘Tingatinga’ which clogs airports and tourist spots with its enamel- based garish splashes, depicting a plethora of Africa’s fauna and flora on all sorts of wares and decorative handicrafts. For better or for worse two iconic figures, Edward Saidi Tingatinga and George Lilanga, and the genre they founded dominate the regional artscape. ‘Tingatinga-Lilanga’ has been so successful in capturing the national space that it risks being the definer of Tanzania’s contemporary art.

Maurus M. Malikita - Untitled, Maurus M. Malikita, 2013, From the collection of: Imago Mundi
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Maurus M. Malikita - Untitled (2013)

Initially, art was the last thing on the mind of Edward Saidi Tingatinga (1937-1972), one-time sisal farm labourer, hospital orderly and security guard. However, in the early post independence years (1960s) there was money to be made hawking kitsch to European residents and tourists. So Tingatinga taught himself to paint. He drew from childhood images of his rural home where women decorated the homestead with naif art. He’d seen plentiful wildlife so he painted them - lions, leopards, buffalo, elephants, monkeys, rhinos. He added the shetani, a band of disrespectful, rarely malefic spirits from ancestral folklore who loved inserting themselves into people’s nightmares! Tingatinga used enamel or bicycle and industrial paints on masonite, cardboard, cloth, animal hide and, later, canvas. The most stunning of his works are on rubber. He attracted acolytes, some of them close relations, who carried on the ‘tingatinga style’ after his tragic death when he was accidentally shot by police in Dar es Salaam in 1972. He’d created perhaps 200-300 works in his lifetime. These originals are now collectors’ item.

Rajabu Duke - Masai And Mama Africa, Rajabu Duke, 2013, From the collection of: Imago Mundi
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Rajabu Duke - Masai And Mama Africa (2013)

If Tingatinga blazed a foundational trail, Lilanga (1934-2005) was most successful in bringing the beginnings of contemporary African art onto the global scene. Martina Corgnati summed up Lilanga as an infinitely repetitive painter who never repeated himself, with his flat yet not superficial paintings, which lacked a centre of interest but expanded in all directions, ‘as if the laws of perspective and gravity didn’t exist’. More of a Makonde carver, Lilanga painted to chase the mighty ‘white man’s’ dollar. Lilanga was inspired by Tingatinga and the shetani but his own Eureka moment was when he innovated with a teasing, long-limbed, pot-bellied, asexual humanoid, bent on trickery and mischief. American, Japanese, Korean and Scandinavian visitors fell in love with Lilanga’s contortionist avatar. Demand for his art, including his multi-coloured grotesquerie carvings, modernized Makonde, soared.

Fatma Mohamed - Africa Rally, Fatma Mohamed, 2013, From the collection of: Imago Mundi
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Fatma Mohamed - Africa Rally (2013)

Lilanga was among the first Africans to exhibit in American and European galleries. His show at the Maryknoll Ossining Centre, upstate New York, and at the World Bank, Washington, in 1978 inspired the young Keith Haring. The rest is history, although Haring wouldn’t acknowledge Lilanga as the genus of his art. Lilanga also dabbled in batik, then a recent art-form in East Africa. He produced a few prints. Today, collectors hunt for them. Lilanga took part in Simon Njami’s landmark ‘Africa Remix’ exhibition which toured Europe, Japan and the US (2004-2006). Luxury brand Hermes of Paris issued a Lilanga scarf in 2010, so far the only Hermes motif dedicated to an African artist. The headquarters of UNAIDS in Geneva has used Lilanga art in their life-saving messages campaign. World citizen entrepreneur and collector of things African, Jean Pigozzi, used a Lilanga shetani as the label for his new Limoland clothing brand. Enrico Mascelloni published a Lilanga catalogue raisonné, one of the first on an African contemporary artist.

Ole Lei - Thinking Maasai, Ole Lei, 2013, From the collection of: Imago Mundi
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Ole Lei - Thinking Maasai (2013)

Today, too many artists, in mainland Tanzania and island Zanzibar, are still umbilical-joined to the instant pocket money ‘airport art’, with little innovation since Lilanga and David Mzuguno passed away. The exception may be Hendrik Lilanga, with a fresh verve to his grandfather’s art. Skilled fundis Robino Ntila, Fred Hala and Haji Chilonga, from the heyday of Nyumba ya Sanaa, are among the artists who have created their own distinctive styles. Others, in their twenties and thirties, are developing individual expressions in wood, stone or metal. The British Council supported Nafasi Art Space in Dar es Salaam has great potential, to help diversify and professionalize art in Tanzania.

Vincent Mdira - In The Wild, Vincent Mdira, 2013, From the collection of: Imago Mundi
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Vincent Mdira - In The Wild (2013)

The case of Kenya

The Kenyan art scene is diverse and prolific, with an amalgam of genres, steeped in the traditional, modern and avant garde; from canvas, leather, batik, twine, clay, marble, granite to scrap metal works and photography. Lately, some artists have been venturing into installation and performance art, a natural progression, for traditional Africa is replete in similar expressions, emanating from rooted communal religious-divinity practices. The relatively more expansive and varied feel of art in Kenya is because it has a more modern infrastructure. Formative institutions such as the Go Down, Kuona Trust and a restructured National Museum, not discounting art and design courses at some of the national universities, provide a range of creative support to artists; from seminars, tutorials, studio space, exhibitions to art retreats and residencies. Every year several Kenyans depart for international residencies, mainly in Europe and North America. The professionalism and synergies they bring home are immediately felt in their work.

Otieno Ondongo - Flamingo, Otieno Ondongo, 2013, From the collection of: Imago Mundi
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Otieno Ondongo - Flamingo (2013)

The vibrancy of art in Kenya also rests on three generations of professional artists, from octogenarian icons to teenagers with wonderful promise. Museum commissioners and collectors are spoilt for choice in the monumental stone and granite sculptures of Elkana Ong’esa, Gerard Motondi and Samuel Wanjau, the earthy landscapes and murals of Camille Wekesa, the luscious nudes of Anne Mwiti, the romance of Richard Onyango, social commentary and urban visions of Peterson Kamwithi and Samuel Githi, the naughty pop art of Michael Soi, Leonard Ngure and Joseph Cartoon, etc, etc. And the latest kid on the block C-Stunners eyewear art of Cyrus Kabiru, featured at TED (Technology Entertainment & Design) in California a while ago. Prominent among the old-timers is Jak Katarikawe (b.1937/1940), an illiterate, self-taught maestro some call Africa’s Chagall for his painterly palette, bubbling humour and naif, dream-infused storytelling. Originally from Uganda, Katarikawe has lived most of his adult life in Kenya and is East Africa’s most successful (non Diaspora) artist for the instant recognizability, bankability and staying power of his fine art. The first African to have a painting in the Kremlin, Katarikawe has won several national and international prizes. He is in homes, embassies, and more than 50 major collections and state museums worldwide. No one celebrates rural life, fauna and flora with more poetic fantasy and sensuality than Katarikawe. His long horned cows, zebra and elephants huddle in conversations and whisper secrets in derision of human foibles. His is a dreamy Edenic place where there is no separation between the human and the animal world; mothers with babies strapped to their back float above trees, houses and wildlife. Birds, cows, lions, zebras and roguish elephants fall in love, marry, cheat on spouses, protect offspring, betray trust and alliances, make war and peace – just like humans.

Suleiman - Zanzibar Time, Suleiman, 2013, From the collection of: Imago Mundi
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Suleiman - Zanzibar Time (2013)

Two other aesthetes, Wanyu Brush and Sane Wadu, close friends, typify what is most weighty, non- frivolous in contemporary art in Kenya today. Brush is an Art Brut practitioner with a Pollocky bent, painting in a horror vacui configuration of human and animal forms. His work is largely sombre, with the occasional splash of vibrant colours. He is a tormented free spirit, an acute social commentator, chronicling grotesqueries and brutalities in our society. Until lately, Brush had the status of the highest price paid for the work of a non-Diaspora Kenyan. Wadu on the other hand is a post-impressionist, also trending a horror vacui style in most of his tableaux. He’s adept at showing subtleties of colour and a delicate sense of light and balance. Two of his masterworks, ‘New York 9/11’ and ‘The African President-Shall We Crucify Him, are priceless’.

Ochie - Our Culture, Ochie, 2013, From the collection of: Imago Mundi
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Ochie - Our Culture (2013)

Kenya has had the highest number of commercial outlets for art in East Africa. Several galleries sprang up right after Independence in 1963. Most failed to survive for long. The famous Watatu Gallery, which at one time had 150 artists on its books, prospered for over 40 years. Sadly, it faces an existential threat from intra-family wrangling in the law courts after the last owner Adama Diawara died intestate in 2011. Plans are afoot to reopen the beautiful RaMoma space after it folded in 2010. The tourist hotels, up-scale restaurants, shopping malls and collector-promotional hubs such as the Malindi-based Sarenco and the newly- minted Circle Art Agency are helping to update and professionalize the art business. Sadly, patronage continues to be overwhelmingly expatriate. Indigenous Kenyans, or Africans in general, constitute perhaps 5-10 percent of the art buyers. This sad situation is purely economic and not due to a lack of appreciation. The expatriate class, mostly corporate investors and international professionals, have more spare liquidity although some Kenyan families are among the super wealthy in the country. They have yet to demonstrate a sustained penchant for art collection or patronage and the benefits therein. At times it feels there are too many artists in Kenya. The field is quite crowded, with the three generations of practitioners, most of who barely eke out a decent living. But then, there can never be too much of a good thing when it comes to artistic creativity. For many artists or would-be artists, it’s simply a spiritual calling.

Osei G. Kofi Curator, President of the Nana Dede Foundation, Geneva Contemporary African Art Consultant

Shabani Mkalekua - Untitled, Shabani Mkalekua, 2013, From the collection of: Imago Mundi
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Shabani Mkalekua - Untitled (2013)

Credits: Story

Project management


Editorial coordination


Editing and translation

Art direction

MARCO PAVAN (Artworks)


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Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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