Tinga Tinga and the legendary artists of Tanzania

In Summary

-The Tinga Tinga exhibition at Nairobi Gallery will be up until August, and paintings may be taken away at the time of sale to support the gallery and the artists

A second-generation Tinga Tinga artist who painted on Masonite ceiling board like his master, the late Edward Saidi Tinga Tinga.
A second-generation Tinga Tinga artist who painted on Masonite ceiling board like his master, the late Edward Saidi Tinga Tinga.

When Pablo Picasso first saw African masks, textiles and artifacts at the Universal Exhibition in Paris in the early 1900s, he remarked that they were “the most beautiful and the most powerful things the human imagination has ever created”.

For Picasso, these artists from Africa had created something the European artists had failed to do: creating art forms that perfectly blended form and function with meaning. The African artists liberated their European counterparts from centuries of artistic naturalism. Thus the exposure of African art changed the entire course of Western art, as it moved toward abstraction and cubism — the twin pillars of modernism.

Probably the Universal Exhibition at the beginning of the last century did not include art from East Africa, but later on, the art of the Makonde of Mozambique and Tanzania was another African art form that had an impact on world art. It was termed “religious, passionate and abstract”, yet much of it was produced for the Western art consumer.

The Makonde had become famous for their stunning heads of carved ebony, incised in tribal motifs and decorated with real human hair. During the last century, the Ujumaa (“Tree of Life”) and the Picasso-like “Shetani” (spirit) sculptures had a huge effect on Tanzanian artists. An example is the sculptures of “Nyumba ya Sanaa” (NYS), an art centre founded in Dar es Salaam by Sister Jean Pruitt, an American Maryknoll Sister born in Michigan and raised in California.

George Lilanga of NYS completed the circle of African artists influencing European artists and vice versa. This is after he went to Paris in 1976 and saw an exhibition by Picasso, and proclaimed Picasso his favourite artist of all time. Robina Ntila was another artist in the stable of NYS.

Joseph Murumbi, co-founder of African Heritage, bought many Makonde figures in ebony, limestone and ivory in Dar es Salaam, which are now in the Murumbi Collections. There are also artworks on Masonite boards by first generation “Tinga Tinga” artists, which he sold to the Kenyan government in l976, and are displayed in the Murumbi Gallery at the Kenya National Archives.

Pioneer artist Edward Saidi Tingatinga (1932-1972) began his career in the l960s with some of the new materials that had become available. He used scavenged masonite ceiling boards for canvases and bicycle enamel paint from one of his early careers as a bicycle repairman.

Before long, the original Tinga Tinga realised he could make a living painting full time by drawing on the folklore of his Ndonde and Makua heritage, who painted similar designs on their clay houses. Soon, he was training his family members and friends to assist him. His art is quite different from the recent Tinga Tinga copies one sees in all the markets of East Africa. It was more naïve, usually with a plain background and one subject such as the spotted leopard, which was most popular in this art. Sadly, Tinga Tinga was shot dead during an automobile chase in Dar es Salaam in 1972, when he was mistaken as a burglar and killed in a hail of bullets from the police. His memory lives on through all his many disciples, with new generations of painters continuing to paint, now mainly on canvas rather than on the masonite ceiling boards, as most of their customers are tourists and visitors to Africa.

Recently, an original painting by Edward Saidi Tinga Tinga sold for a record sum at the Art Auction East African 2019 in Nairobi, the most ever recorded for an African artist at this auction. There is a huge Tinga Tinga school of painters still flourishing in Tanzania, with hundreds of adherents painting Tinga Tinga-like designs on everything from keyrings to wooden trays and handbags.  

In recent years, Tinga Tinga birds and animals and other creatures have lent inspiration to a series of children’s books and TV programmes and even a musical, which is gracing the stages of New York’s Broadway.

However, the images used in these endeavours bear little resemblance to the original Tinga Tinga artworks from the mid l970s. At the recent musical in Nairobi, there was only one image that can be traced to the original Tinga Tinga art. That is the hornbill (which is considered a messenger bird to the spirit world in many African societies).

The hornbill is almost a trademark image in Tinga Tinga art, found in almost every painting, no matter the main subject. This exhibition features works from the second and third generation of Tinga Tinga artists.


The exhibitions at Nairobi Gallery are dedicated to Sister Jean Pruitt. Credit for information above is given to the book she produced: “INSPIRED: Three Decades of Tanzanian ART”, 2013