Tingatinga​—Art That Makes You Smile

“TINGATINGA shows us how to see the world with our inner child. Funny, happy and colorful,” writes Daniel Augusta, manager of the Tingatinga Arts Co-operative Society. Tingatinga art is about Africa​—its wildlife and culture, especially that of Tanzania, the birthplace of the art form.

The Tingatinga style is named after its originator, Edward Said Tingatinga, born in 1932. As Edward grew up, the countryside and wild animals around his village in southern Tanzania evidently made a deep impression on him. When he was in his mid-20’s, he left home in search of work and a higher standard of living. Later he moved to the capital city of Tanzania, Dar es Salaam, and obtained work as a gardener. In the evenings, his artistic talent found expression in music and dance; he even made a name for himself as a performer.

The year 1968 was a turning point in Edward’s life. He got a government job as a ward attendant in the Muhimbili public hospital in Dar es Salaam. While there, he found time to put his vivid childhood memories and impressions into his own art form. As a result, Tingatinga art was born. Edward did not have access to art shops with their specialized brushes, paints, pigments, and other items. So he used materials that anyone could buy in a local hardware store. His paint, for example, was enamel bicycle paint, and his “canvases” were pieces of compressed fiberboard that had a smooth, shiny finish on one side, making it ideal for painting glossy images.

Edward’s painting style was simple. He used one or two colors for the background and then filled the frame with only one object​—a brightly colored and somewhat stylized African animal. He added no scenery or other details.

Edward allowed a handful of close associates and relatives to observe while he  painted. Soon, several of these became his “students,” and his style began to grow in popularity.

From the very first painting, Tingatinga art has used strong colors and simplified figures with distinguished contours. Over the years, however, the style has developed, becoming more elaborate and featuring several figures in each work. Indeed, some artists fill their paintings with people, animals, and various objects.

Sources of Inspiration

Tingatinga art has an inexhaustible source of inspiration​—African fauna and flora in all its forms: antelope, buffalo, elephants, giraffes, hippos, lions, monkeys, zebras, and other animals, as well as flowers, trees, birds, and fish—​especially those with striking colors. A popular background is Africa’s highest mountain, Kilimanjaro, located in northeastern Tanzania.

Modern Tingatinga art also tries to capture the people of Africa and their culture. A work may portray a day at a busy market, a visit to a local hospital, or just daily village life.

Since its inception, Tingatinga art has given artistically talented Africans a means to express themselves, while at the same time providing a most welcome supplement to their income. Indeed, the Tingatinga artists have grown into a cooperative of painters based in Dar es Salaam. Some even adhere to the tradition of painting with bicycle enamel. If Edward Tingatinga were alive today (he died in 1972), the popularity of his art form would no doubt bring a big smile to his face.