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Art in Tanzania 2000

Art is absurd - Art is apostasy - Art is heresy - Art is sedition: the razor s edge: the cutting apart of truth from illusion, of justice from hypocrisy, of courage from servitude.


We are now living in the post-colonial, post-modernist era of the new millennium. The era of reality of the “Son of man” so to speak and the tragedy of the past 2000 years together with the fact of modern Neo-imperialism under the label of Globalisation, mixed with ethnic cleansing whatever that may mean, looming on our doorstep.

There may not always be Art, but one hopes there will always be artists. Art depends on the availability of places, galleries and the appreciation of an understanding audience. Here in Tanzania, we artists depend on the expatriate community for everything. Even the government seems to depend on them, one way or the other, exposing territorial identity in a dangerous way, to total annihilation. I know Tanganyika was called Kenya s backwater state by most British, but does Tanzania still have the same nickname, thirty years after independence?

I came to Tanzania in 1964, painting in an abstract idiom. Nobody understood it. Elimu Njau said my paintings were flat, formless and unintelligible. I took the comments to heart and thought perhaps we, in the West, are being misled, living in concrete jungles and loosing that human touch of neighbourliness. Jackson Pollock s works would be considered the impasse of the impossible here. Hence I have developed a more loose figurative style including landscape and still life subject matter. I wanted to be able to communicate with my colleagues.

In the late sixties. Elimu Njau, Francis Msangi and others left Tanzania for the more developed Kenya. Sam Ntiro and I continued to paint in Dar-es-Salaam. He organised painting sessions in MNAZI MMOJA primary school and eventually formed the Society of East African Artists together with Elias Jengo and others. The now famous Jack Katarakawe was a beginner with us.

There were workshops in all three countries and a very successful moving exhibition to the three capitals with excellent write-ups in the local newspapers. The exhibition went on to the Guggenheim Museum of Modern Art in New York with the help of the Community Trust Fund of Tanganyka.

Then came Idi Amin Dada and our art society collapsed. Our country went to war against Uganda to reinstate Milton Obote who was a refugee staying at Oskar Kambona s house. himself a refugee, who fled from the oppression imposed on him and his tribal. Tanzania almost collapsed into the bargain. We were left hanging on the cliff edge economically, the front wheels of our vehicle were spinning in space.

Fortunately, with some donor funds we managed to hang on by the rear wheels and the skin of our teeth. Behold the economic demise of the late seventies and early eighties and with it the cultural decline and disintegration of moral standards.

Art very rarely flourishes in an authoritarian state. Most of the progressive. intellectual artists left the country. Those who had not the “wherewithal to leave. struggled on. The local folk art of Tingatinga style and offshoots has flourished with tourism and expatriate collectors. Young talented, self-taught artists try hard to please the tourist, but one must ask oneself is that what “it” is all about?

There is the reality of money and there is the reality of culture, and there is the true reality of the “Son of man, the first fruit of the spirit of man. Culture cannot be bought. We the people are the true reality, our sovereignty is God given. God is all in all, without God. all is nothing. Without the spirit, the flesh is weak and is totally crushed and broken into a one party state anywhere in the world, but particularly in Tanzania at the present moment. Perhaps some of our readers may take that note

Nearly everyone of us is an artist in one way or the other, in Tanzania. We have to learn the art of how to live and keep the tent of our body and our children s bodies fed. Fortunately we do not need houses because the weather is amenable. Thank God for that. There is no social security for the millions of jobless youths, “machingas by name. They roam the streets bartering their goods and hoping for at least one sale per day for daily bread.

No tomorrow for them for they line a day-by-day life amongst a totally selfish and arrogant class of leaders who rob with impunity. Behold the Greenland Bank closure a year past April i rst and the donation (statement by the Honourable Minister of Finance) of the sale of the National Bank of Commerce (1997) to a South African Bank, not to mention the disgrace of the late payments of the former East African Community workers twenty years later!

I for one can only paint what I paint. My paintings and myself are about dust and shadows. Sam Ntiro is dead and forgotten no commemoration of a great painter. No effort yet to house a permanent collection of contemporary art.

Even though the Faculty of Art and Drama at the university was given new premises after my last article in 1996, “Art, dead or alive in Dar-es-Salaam? one has to wonder why they relegated it. the Faculty, to the auto garage area. Are they in for major repairs or a total writeoff? Behold the cultural vacuum in a fragmented glass house of feudalism, under the guise of participatory democracy.

Suffice it to say that in Bagamoyo (lay down your heart) there is a thriving community of carvers, painters, potters and craftswomen. Also there is a beautiful theatre and an active group of dancers and actors. There are at present fourteen young women carvers four months into their course with Stanislaw Lux, who are producing amazing conceptual work for such a short period of training.

All is not downhill or negative art is forever reviving itself even in the most difficult circumstances. Tanzania is a vast territory. What has been found successful in one area like Bagamoyo can hopefully be tried in another given the will, the money and the talented personnel.

Last Updated on Tuesday 24th November 2009

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