Tingatinga is an instantly recognisable style of graphic painting throughout Tanzania.
Though the Tingatinga style is sometimes believed to be fixed, this is far from the truth. The style has adapted to ever-changing conditions, attracting global interest across decades.
2012 is the 40th anniversary of the death of Edward Saidi Tingatinga, the founding father of the Tingatinga style of painting.
Edward Saidi Tingatinga (thought to be born in 1932) was raised in the South of Tanzania. His first known paintings were on the walls of buildings, following in the tradition of the Makua people to whom he belonged.
Moving to Dar es Salam in his 20s to find work, Edward became inspired by the works of Congolese artists being sold in the capital.
He continued to paint and, by the late-1960s, he began to paint in the style now known as Tingatinga. A self-taught artist, he depicted village life and wild animals in a brightly coloured and uncomplicated style using high-gloss paints on hardboard, a style and form of painting which soon became popular.
Tragically, in 1972, Edward Tingatinga was mistakenly shot dead by a police officer who mistook him for a fugitive. During his short-lived painting career, however, Edward had trained a few close relatives and the Tingatinga style was able to survive its founding father's untimely demise.
After Edward Saidi Tingatinga's death, some of those he had taught organised themselves into the “Tingatinga partnership”. These artists taught and learnt from one another, following on from the Tingatinga style.
The partnership changed its name in 1990 to the “Tingatinga Arts Cooperative Society” (TACS) and has continued to grow with membership numbers today at around one hundred.
Artists inspired by the Tingatinga style, however, are by no means limited to members of TACS, and there are possibly 500 or more artists across Tanzania, Kenya, South Africa, Europe, America and Japan doing Tingatinga-style work.
The first generation of Tingatinga painters after Edward Tingatinga’s death tended to follow their founding father’s style and themes closely.
Subjects were often cut down to their bare essentials and presented in a two-dimensional form, sometimes without any background or sense of depth.
Traditions, however, are never simply handed down. They are continuously reinvented and adapted down and across generations.
Mohamed Waisa Charinda often paints historical scenes such as the Arab slave trade and political rallies. The growing urban spaces are also depicted by many artists, such as Maurus Malikita who paints hospital scenes and Issa Saidi Mitole whose city scenes after dusk raise awareness of HIV and ways to avoid it. Some artists such as David Mzuguno, regarded as one of the greats of his generation, predominantly paint Africa’s flora.
These artists have all added their own personality and vision to Tingatinga, and artists are no longer just painting on hardboard. Many use stretched canvases of all sizes as well as wooden and metal objects, such as bowls and chests. And many artists exploit the success of popular imagery by mass-producing designs, sometimes with little alteration.
The Tingatinga style of art has influenced artists who are not working definitively in the Tingatinga style. The late George Lilanga, one of the most internationally successful Tanzanian artists for example, often has his worked exhibited beside the work of Tingatinga artists given their similarities. Drawing inspiration from Makonde carving and the Tingatinga style and palette, George Lilanga developed his own distinctive visual language.
Painting with gloss or sculpting in wood, Lilanga portrays colourful characters which interact with one another through harmonious composition. And Lilanga’s style has been continued and further adapted in not only his own grandson’s (Henrick John Lilanga) works, but the internationally-acclaimed American artist Keith Haring.
Many visitors to Tanzania will come across Tingatinga, and for some this encounter will leave a lasting impression. In 2005, Claudia Lloyd, head of animation at British television production company Tiger Aspect, visited Tanzania and the Tingatinga paintings immediately caught her attention.
She devised an ambitious concept for a children’s cartoon inspired by the style of Tingatinga and African tales. She spoke with Tingatinga artists from TACS eventually hiring four Tanzanian artists through TACS to work with a team of graphic designers in Nairobi’s Homeboyz studio.
The concept soon became the popular children’s show Tinga Tinga Tales which launched in 2010 being broadcast on the BBC and Disney.
The success of the show was perhaps bigger than anticipated and before long a huge range of merchandise, from books and children’s toys to clothing and home-ware was soon on the shelves.
However, many of TAC’s Tanzanian artists were left unhappy and feeling exploited.
Although TACS signed a contract that was written in English and Swahili, members of TACS had failed to get a lawyer to look over it. TACS feels that their members’ work was exploited and that signatories to the contract were not fully aware of its consequences.
TACS also claim that they did not realise what an international success this project would be or the range and amount of merchandise that would be sold. TACS only received a onetime settlement of around TSH 30 million ($25,000) - around $500 per member.
Tiger Aspect state that they did not act in bad faith before, during or after negotiations. The company points to Claudia Lloyd’s love of Tinga Tinga art and commitment to African cultures and development as its motivation. They reject claims on unfairness, stating that negotiations were “very fair” and within the law as Tiger Aspect sought legal advice from one Kenyan and one Tanzanian law firm.
Despite the UK industry norms used to come to the legal agreement between TACS and Tiger Aspect, it is clear that, once the ink was dry on the contract, western corporate and legal conceptions of justice and equity were at odds with TACS’. The heart of the dispute does not appear to be legalistic but rather a difference in values and discourse between the two sides. Indeed, TACS state that it is unlikely that the dispute will become a legal matter due to lack of resources, but the co-operative argues that this does not alter their claims on fairness.
This is not the first time Tanzanian artists have been in dispute over use and licensing of their art. Last year Zantel, one of Tanzania’s largest phone operators, launched a nationwide billboard campaign and animated commercial using Tingatinga images without permission. This resulted in Zantel being sued for copyright infringement.
These stories are sad but are testament to popularity of Tingatinga art which today provides a means of income for hundreds of painters across Tanzania. And its influence and reputation is increasingly reaching across borders. In 2010, a Tingatinga-style painting by the late artist Rajabu Chiwaya sold at an auction in Paris for $51,000.
The style of Tingatinga offers something to everyone and fifty years on from the death of the great Edward Saidi Tingatinga no doubt continue to grow whilst artistic excellence prevails.
Correction 11/04/2012: The article originally stated that 2012 was the 50th anniversary of Tingatinga's death. It has now been corrected to 40.
Amendment 30/4/12: The section concerning TACS's dispute with Tiger Aspect has been significantly expanded and altered following discussions with and the provision of further information from both Tiger Aspect and TACS.
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