How contemporary is Tanzanian Art?

Originally a panel presentation during Imaginings: The Worlds of George Lilanga exhibition

zenzile-spade11 zenzile-spade22
Mawande Ka Zenzile, To call a spade a spade, 2014
The above works are extracts from a series that Mawande Ka Zenzile had created in June and July 2014 while on a residency in Tanzania. He called this series IMPORT/EXPORT and it engages with the artist’s experience with Tanzania as a political and cultural space that is affected by global geopolitics.

As a practicing Tanzanian artist also functioning as the artistic manager for Nafasi Art Space since February this year, I have had the chance to reflect a lot about my art practice and about the Tanzanian visual art scene in general. Today I would like to share some of my reflections and pose some questions I have been wrestling with; hoping that they will generate a discussion on the state of contemporary art in Tanzania. My overarching question is: How contemporary is our art scene? And to address this question it is in my view that we also need to pose a number of other questions such as: To what extent is our art evolving to catch up with contemporary reality? And who are we producing for; what kind of ‘eye’ appreciates what we produce? And finally I would like us to reflect on our own agency as artists—do we affect our context or are we simply affected by it? And in this dance between the artist and her/his context; are we propelling ourselves to become innovative or do we remain stifled and stagnant (due to this context)? I think the answer to these questions is where the future of our art scene really lies.

How contemporary is Tanzanian art?

Contemporary art, by definition, is art that reflects a wide range of materials, media, and technologies. It also reflects artists that are exploring ideas, concepts, questions, and practices that examine the past, describe the present, and are imaginative of the future. Contemporary art is very diverse, and there is not really a simple or singular way to define it, since the art itself can on the one hand seem overwhelming and difficult, and on the other hand it seems too simple that the viewer might wonder if they are perhaps missing something (Like with the blank canvas with the red dot in the center, an example that Prof. Elias Jengo confusedly gave when he was presenting). And so, maybe the most helpful definition for contemporary art is the most obvious one: contemporary art is simply the art of today.

Art 21, the very resourceful documentary series for artists to challenge their own practice and to stay in touch with other artists and art practices of today, has one of the most interesting definitions for contemporary art. They define it as four things… They define it as;

– The work of artists who are living in the twenty-first century,

– As art that mirrors contemporary culture and society, offering teachers, students, and general audiences a rich resource through which to consider current ideas and rethink the familiar.

– Art comprising of a dynamic combination of materials, methods, concepts, and subjects that challenge the traditional boundaries and defies easy definition.

– Art that is diverse, eclectic, and one that is distinguished by its very lack of a uniform organizing principle or ideology.

Is there contemporary art in Tanzania?

How much does our art mirror any or all of the above-mentioned defining characteristics of contemporary art? And how much are our artists giving voice to the varied and changing cultural landscape of identity, values, and beliefs (In this globally influenced but locally anchored, culturally diverse, and technologically advancing world)?

Working from Nafasi, I get to converse a lot with different artists that are members of the center, or just visit the center on a day-to-day basis, as well as the general public. And in these conversations, this question comes up every now and then. Majority of the feedback that I receive, and especially feedback from international artists coming from more exposed and more developed contemporary art scenes, is that there is no contemporary art in Tanzania, because, in their view, our art still concerns itself with technique and aesthetics over subject matter and that it still mimics the traditional styles and imagery that used to be captured by our old masters like Tinga Tinga, the Makonde carvers, etc as well as by the old European masters… and therefore it is not evolving.

If this is the argument, and not to say whether it is the right argument or not, then perhaps the answer to the question is there contemporary art in Tanzania’ lies in the answer to my next question; to what extent is our art evolving to catch up with contemporary reality? And here I would include art schools and curricula, art spaces and our old masters and their practices that help to mentor our artists

When we look at a work of art, we tend think about things that we have seen, things that we have heard, or things that we have experienced before. Art does not (or should not rather) just appear—it is not created in a vacuum because artists are constantly supposed to be researching and referencing; building on timeless themes and researching on forgotten histories, or borrowing from traditional methods and techniques to realize new ideas.

Looking at Tanzanian art; in what ways can we say that our artists are diverging from traditional notions or assumptions about Tanzanian art? And to what extent are our art schools, curricula, art spaces, and old masters mentoring, helping or inspiring our artists to do so?

Tanzanian learning system is critiqued for being a system that nurtures cramming over understanding. If the argument is that our art still mimics the traditional styles and imagery, and mimicking basically equates to cramming… because it is simply a repetition of what one knows/has been taught, not less, not more. Are we then perhaps simply an art scene of crammers? To what extent are our art schools, curricula, art spaces, and old masters that mentor artists challenging our artists to be more imaginative, original, and to challenge known notions of what art is and how it can be made?

And how challenged exactly are our artists if the art schools are not producing any art critics or curators… and if the country has less than a handful of spaces from which artists can exhibit their works? Is it possible for artists to evolve without the exposure to critics, curators, collectors, art galleries and museums?

[I went to an art school that was, unfortunately, not local, and there we were required, since first year, to every week visit an art exhibition and submit a review of the exhibition at the end of the week. We were required to curate our own student exhibitions that happened twice a year (and were marked down for bad curating), and we were also required to reflect and write about our own practice in relation to historical references and contemporary references. Looking at the context in which I practice in now, and how limited it is, I wonder how challenged an art teacher would be to even attempt to create this kind of curricula for their students!]

It is a known that, culture by definition is something that is always changing and evolving. Who are the propellers of this change of a culture? And since art is a cultural product, but the argument is that the majority of our art (and artists) are not evolving/changing, do we then not fall into the trap of simply becoming an art scene of crafts people or Artisans? Because crafts are often functional, and often only concern itself with technique, and aesthetics, but not so much with subject matter, and crafts rarely ever evolve, and they have a very particular audience… this, by the way, leads me to my third question; who are we producing for; what kind of ‘eye’ appreciates what we produce?

Who are our artists producing their artworks for? Is it for tourists and other types of voyeurs from other cultures in search for the exotic (for our case its the exotic African sunset, imagery of animals, maasais, village life, etc), is it for people who are simply seeking to decorate the walls of their home and very specific about size and colors amongst other things of the pieces they are buying? Or is it for the hardly existing curators, collectors, art museums and galleries in the country?

Is making art that sells the number one driving force for our artists, and if so, does making art that sell allow for/demand for our growth as an art scene?

Who is our audience? What kind of ‘eye’ appreciates what we produce? Audience is mandatory to an art practice. And if our audience taste, interest and understanding for art does not evolve, is it really possible for our art to evolve?

I came across an interesting read once titled What is contemporary art and how does it matter? By Ric Kasini Kadour who wrote; and I quote

Art is incomplete until it is received by the viewer. Just as artists need to evolve, society needs to evolve as well.  Before the message of the artist is relevant, the audience has to be able to receive it… we need to learn how to read art!’ end of quote

The audience plays a very active role in the process of constructing meaning in a work of art. Some artists (including myself) often find that the viewer has a big contribution in completing their artworks by simply contributing his or her personal reflections, experiences, opinions, and interpretations of the artwork.

To what extent can we say that our artists are interacting and receiving useful feedback on their practice from our Tanzanian public?

I think that is where the challenge for the Tanzanian artist is, i.e their agency vs their context

Do we affect our context or are we simply affected by it? And in this dance between the artist and her/his context; are we propelling ourselves to become innovative or do we remain stifled and stagnant (due to this context)?