It could very well be that there is no debate harder to win than that of what constitutes art. The subject of art ignites such emotion and passion that historically, fights have been fought, wars have been waged and men and women have died over it. So what exactly is this so-called “art” that has everybody up in arms?
According to Russian author Leo Tolstoy, one of the greatest literary minds of all times, any work of true artistic significance must create an emotional link between the artist and audience. If an artist has strong feelings about a subject matter, and through his or her pen, brush, or other tool can create a work that “infects” its audience with those feelings, then a true work of art has been created.
In countries like Tanzania and Mongolia, where dedicated craftsmanship has been refined and passed on over centuries, artistic creations consistantly infect their audience with genuine emotion. Perhaps in unique places in the world where art is a part of everyday life, there are more ‘true’ artistic creations than in many developed countries where art has turned into an often corrupted billion dollar industry.
Though the ability to elicit feelings and emotions cannot be the only gauge of what constitutes art, there is little debate that when an artistic creation can make an audience feel something, it can vastly make up for other shortcomings the piece may possess.
The Tinga Tinga Effect
For those who seek to be emotionally moved by art, look no further than the works of Tanzanian-born painter Edward Saidi Tingatinga. Born in 1932, he founded one of the most vibrant, dynamic and successful art movements ever known to the continent.
With a pioneering style utilizing recycled, low cost materials – such as several layers of bicycle paint on a piece of masonite – Tingatinga transcended his naïve, untrained style with an approach to natural subjects that bursted with exuberant life, whimsy, color, humor, sarcasm and yes, that ever-elusive trait, feeling. His works straddled the borderline of surrealism and often focused on the most stereotypical of African subjects like African village life, savannahs and wildlife. But nobody could argue the joy and bliss brought upon by observing his striking dancing Africans, musical instruments, swaying coconut palms, fish, monkeys and a plethora of other creatures. Tingatinga had a short artistic life; an extremely social man, one lively Saturday night while driving with his friends in a VW Bug mistaken by police for a getaway car used in a bank robbery, an officer tragically shot Tingatinga to death. After his death, Tingatinga’s artistic style had become so popular that an entire movement of followers and imitators emerged to create the Tinga Tinga style. During the second half of the 20th century, Tinga Tinga paintings became the most widely represented form of tourist art not only in Tanzania, but also in Kenya and other neighboring countries, and can easily be found in tourist markets and airports.
After undergoing somewhat of a revolution, the Tinga Tinga art movement carries on; as Tanzania has undergone changes over the last several decades, new subject matter like the burgeoning multi-ethnic culture of Dar es Salaam and its crowded streets have emerged. However, Tinga Tinga is hardly the only feeling-forward artistic style to gain notoriety in Tanzania.
The Myth of the Makonde
Perhaps more than any other style of artwork produced in Tanzania, the spectacular carvings of the Makonde people are the best-known. Inspired by the ancient myths and stories of their tribe, but allowing for both traditional and contemporary interpretations, the Makonde are yet another example of artists who mastered the infusion of feeling into their works.
Utilizing rich materials like African blackwood and mpingo, the Makonde are well-known for their towering animal statuettes and demon-faced ceremonial masks. Other masks feature near portrait-like human features with real hair and traditional facial scarification. Makonde “Tree of Life” carvings are quite poignant, depicting members of an extended family through multiple generations. Gameboards, for both everyday use and for décor, range from simple to monumental and often demonstrate the best of the tribe members’ ornate carving abilities. The Makonde are such a special group of artists in part because of their geographical isolation; residing on a plateau in the southwest of Tanzania, they were not significantly influenced by outsiders during the colonial period and their stylistic inclinations remain pure. Famously, their original works have been imitated by world-renowned art superstars like Pablo Picasso – one only needs to glance at his Tete de Femme to realize he was not only a fan of Makonde abstracts, but also deeply influenced by them.
Makonde artwork touches the souls of the many tourists who seek it out, or happen to stumble upon it, in the numerous craft markets of Dar es Salaam. Such markets, offering a combination of artwork and everyday craft objects often viewed as art by intrigued shoppers, provide anything one may need for a personalized home or office art collection.
Art in Everyday Objects
Ask Tusker Trail founder Eddie Frank what he considers to be art and he might mention the strikingly beautifully harp-like raw musical instrument he found in Congo; his hand-made wooden paddles from Tanzania that he hangs on his walls, or the horse bridles rolled from camel leather that he picked up in Mongolia.
With his travels rooted in environments where ancient craftsmanship and artistry survives and thrives to this day, it’s not necessarily only works that are created to be art, that actually are art; at least to him. Take a stroll through Eddie’s Lake Tahoe residence and you can’t help but admire the rough-hewn, hand-made axes, poachers’ spears and other tools that, when out of context, look like genuine works of art. However, Eddie has no problem with art for art’s sake either; he acquires pieces from NCOOSH, a brilliant Mongolian artist who carves wood, designs squat caricatures with impossibly detailed faces and designs a Genghis Khan with real horse hair that would blow you away. And when he’s in Tanzania, he takes his clients to Sam Kashinde, his artist friend’s workshop in Moshi – the guy makes brilliant animal and village life batiks that show up in top galleries – and gets them great deals on pieces that might otherwise sell for close to US $1000.
Perhaps there is no greater pleasure than finding art, or something that might not have been meant as art, yet displays one or more of the wonderful characteristics a good piece of art should.
Simplicity, Goodness & Truth
There is no greatness where there is not simplicity, goodness and truth. – Tolstoy
Though in our minds, feelings and emotions can seem very complex, a gifted artist can express feeling and emotion through art in very simple and truthful ways. Just look at Picasso’s Woman Ironing, from his Blue Period; the image is simple, but through his genuine interpretation of how hardship really feels, the piece oozes with feelings of grief, sorrow and deep depression. Undeniably, the everyday artists of Tanzania, Mongolia and many other nations, who have approached their art as a craft and looked deeply into their own lives and culture for inspiration, continue to create works that embody the words of Tolstoy – simplicity, goodness and truth. Oh, yeah – and a whole lot of feeling.