It all started with Edward Saidi (E.S.)Tingatinga of Dar-es-Salaam, Tanzania (1939-1972). He painted a series of animal paintings that became wildly popular. Then he started training a number of other fellow Tanzanians to paint in his style. For instance, the image above is by Abdul Amande Makura (b. 1954).
Below is an original by E.S. Tingatinga himself of a zebra with various African birds:
After E.S. Tingatinga died in 1972, six of his associates formed a group called the Tingatinga Partnership to perpetuate their founder’s style. It is thought that the style goes back much earlier than the 20th century, but it has become known as the Tingatinga painting style. According to the article on the style in Wikipedia:
Tingatinga is traditionally made on masonite, using several layers of bicycle paint, which makes for brilliant and highly saturated colours. Many elements of the style are related to the requirements of the tourist-oriented market; for example, the paintings are usually small so they can be easily transported, and subjects are intended to appeal to Europeans and Americans (e.g. the big five [African animals] and other wild fauna). In this sense, Tingatinga paintings can be considered a form of “airport painting.” The drawings themselves can be described as both naïve and caricatural; humour and sarcasm are often explicit.
This afternoon, I took the bus to UCLA and visited the Fowler Museum of global arts and cultures. What impressed me today were the African exhibitions, which included not only Tingatinga art but Fante Asato Flags from Southern Ghana and the work of Kwame Akoto of the Almighty God Art Works in Kumasi, Ghana.
The vigor and color of the African works moved me immeasurably more than anything I have seen by Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, or Piet Mondrian. I feel that we have arrived at an impasse with our art scene in the West.
The Almighty God Art Works in Kumasi, Ghana, is run by Kwame Akoto, an artist whose primitive but powerful work has garnered attention far from his native land. Akoto, who styles himself as “Almighty God,” is a convert to a Pentecostal Christian sect whose teachings have become the subject of much of his work. In one of his paintings, the following free verse appears:
The Supernatural eyes of God the Father
Sees all things.
So we must be extra careful.
When you go under the sea, the great eyes have seen you.
I am afraid of the eyes of God
If you hide under a mortar God have seen you
God saw you be careful
On Sunday afternoon, Akoto’s work impressed me when I visited the Fowler Museum at UCLA. His work, as well as the patterned textiles produced by the Aborigines of Northern Australia, convinced me that the art of Western Civilization is not the only game in town.
The Almighty God Art Works is not only in the art business: Akoto paints signs for local merchants, signs that are every bit as good as his other work.
I suspect that our world is tired of works by Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, Willem de Kooning, and others of that ilk, of art that speaks only to the artist.
Like many American boys at the time, I was a “serious” stamp collector. The quotes are because I was enthusiastic, but I probably had nothing in my collection worth more than eighty cents. I remember going to a stamp show at one of the downtown Cleveland hotels where the big event was the release of stamps from a newly independent African country. The former Gold Coast was now Ghana.
There were already several independent nations which had shed their colonial mantles by that time, including Egypt and Sudan. But that was “before my time.” I was frantic to find everything I could about the new nation, with its heroic leader, Kwame Nkrumah, who called himself the “Osagyefo” (see below).. In English, that meant “The Redeemer.”
Kwame Knrumah, the Osagyefo
I had been someone weary of all the British colonial stamps with their profile of Queen Elizabeth II, who at that time was certainly the cutest monarch with which I was acquainted, but I was ready for some novelty.
It didn’t take long for me to be disabused of the Osagyefo. Right around then, Egypt’s Gamel Abdel Nasser tried to rally the leaders of independent (and, presumably, soon to be independent) states to join his movement of non-aligned countries. As Nasser himself was leaning more and more toward the Communists (Oh Horrors!), it wasn’t long before I began to see him as a fellow traveler. Sure enough, after roiling the waters of West Africa for a few years with his increasingly authoritarian rule, he ended up in Romania, where he died in 1972.
Ghana was just the beginning of a rush to independence of former British colonies. After disillusionment with Nkrumah I became a bit more leery about wishing them well. But then I was only a twelve-year-old stamp collector. What did I know?
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