By Margaretta wa Gacheru (posted 8 April 2019)
Kenyans initial encounter with Tinga Tinga most frequently has come from the Saturday morning animated television show, ‘Tinga Tinga Tales’ that has been turned into a meta-franchise featuring Tinga Tinga toys, games, videos and DVDs.
Alternatively, more Kenyans might have heard about ‘Tinga Tinga the Musical’ that was such a big hit at Kenya National Theatre last year that it went all the way to New York where it got rave reviews when it was staged on Broadway.
But quite possibly, none of those viewers had ever heard of the late Tanzanian artist Edward Saidi Tinga Tinga whose paintings not only inspired a cultural revolution in his country since he died in 1972. His art as well as his name has also gained iconic status as a short-hand term for East African art generally.
What recently attracted public attention to the name E.S. Tinga Tinga was the sale at the Art Auction East Africa of an original Tinga Tinga painting. The untitled ‘Elephant eating from the Marula Tree’ went for a whooping Sh5.635 million, the highest figure that any East African artwork has sold for at the auction.
The sale was a surprise even to the auctioneers who had listed in their catalogue the probable bidding price of between Sh600,000 and Sh940,000.
But according to Alan Donovan, curator of the Nairobi Gallery where second and third generations of ‘Tinga Tinga artists’ works are currently on show, that price might seem like an outlier.
“But as E.S. Tinga Tinga died in 1972 at the age of 40, the limited supply of his art is bound to drive the value of it up as time goes by,” Donovan said last Sunday at the opening of the exhibition “Tinga Tinga and the Legendary Artists of Tanzania.”
The show itself doesn’t include a single original work by the Master. Yet what it reveals is the extent to which Tinga Tinga triggered what Donovan describes as a ‘revolution in Tanzanian art.’
Placing the elder artist and his disciples within an historical context, he recalls that the precursors to Tinga Tinga’s artwork were sculptures by Makonde carvers who were based in both Tanzania and Mozambique.
In fact, Tinga Tinga may or may not have been acquainted with Makonde sculpture. He started out as a bicycle repairman, but like so many local artists who have an impulse to create, Tinga Tinga began his illustrious career humbly. He created his art using the enamel paint that he’d previously employed when fixing bicycles and he scavenged for Masonite ceiling boards on which he drew in place of costly canvas.
Quickly he discovered his paintings earned him more in sales than his bicycle repair, so he began doing his art full-time.
The fact that Tinga Tinga sparked several generations of young Tanzanian artists to follow in his footsteps can be viewed severally. For on the one hand, it can be said as Donovan has that Tinga Tinga triggered a ‘renaissance’ in Tanzanian art. Certainly, there are now hundreds of young artists who consider themselves part of the Tinga Tinga School since they also paint African animals as the elder did. They paint elephants, leopards, hyena and the most distinctive Tinga Tinga bird, the Hornbill which is often viewed as a messenger sent from the ancestoral spirit world.
But on the other hand, some critics claim their artistry lacks originality and individuality. They say it is being mass produced with artists painting the most typical Tinga Tinga creatures on everything from handbags and keyrings to wooden trays that constitute what has been conventionally called ‘airport art’ or ‘souvenir art’.
Either way, Donovan’s appreciation of ‘Tinga Tinga and the Legendary Artists of Tanzania’ compelled him to put up an exhibition of extremely affordable art inside the Veteran Artists’ wing of Nairobi Gallery. And whether you think works by the second or third generation of Tinga Tinga artists look a little or a lot like the original’s did, it doesn’t really matter.
What is of interest are the colors, creatures, designs and whimsy of these works which are bright, well-crafted and fun. For anyone wanting inexpensive yet attractive artworks for their living room walls, these could be right for you.
But if someone is looking for art that’s affordable now and likely to accrue in value over time, these Tinga Tinga offshoots may not be right for you.
Nonetheless, who knew an original Tinga Tinga was going to sell for Sh5.6 million? Anything can happen in the crazy world of fine art.