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Vizazi vingi:  Tanzanian Modern & Contemporary Art in Regional & Globalising Art Worlds

Recently, artists born in Tanzania or with a Tanzanian affiliation have been gaining new levels of recognition in international exhibitions, heritage initiatives and art historical discourse. This includes practitioners from different generations who use diverse visual media, some of whom operate transnationally. Yet lacunae persist regarding Tanzania’s historical engagements with modern art at home, with other regions of eastern Africa, and with the wider world. These concerns animated the 2019 art and decolonization workshop Vizazi convened at SOAS University of  London upon which this session builds. Vizazi: generations, derived from the Swahili verb -zaa to give birth, focuses attention upon the importance of generational interactions – and reactions.

We sought to explore how different generations of Tanzanian artists have reimagined and used the past in transnational spaces of exchange and operated alongside the decolonization of the country’s political history. The session marks the centenary of Sam Ntiro’s birth (the first Tanzanian artist to receive international attention) and aims to draw on recent scholarship about – and by – a subsequent generation of artists who work in Europe including Lubaina Himid (b.1954, Zanzibar) and Everlyn Nicodemus (b.1954, Moshi). It also brings attention to the younger, millennium generation of artists who currently are exploring their place in wider art worlds. We welcomed proposals that focus on artists from Tanzania and its diasporas whose work reflects on the theme Vizazi as well as proposals considering other East African viewpoints about the institutions, markets, and politics different generations of cultural workers from the region have mediated.  

Session Convenors: 

Elsbeth Court, SOAS University of London 
Jonathan Shirland, Bridgewater State University, MA, USA 

Speakers: 

Elsbeth Court, Lecturer Emerita, SOAS University, London  

Vizazi Vingi/Generations:  A Purview  

This presentation concerns the panel’s theme of generations, broadly interpreted, in the history of modern art in East Africa, with specific attention to Tanzania. It focuses upon two dynamic periods: the Independence generation: 1960’s – early 1970’s, e.g.  Sam Ntiro 1923-1993, Elimo Njau b.1927, George Lilanga 1934-2005, Tinga Tinga 1937-1972, Elias Jengo b.1937, Francis Msangi 1937-2003) and the millennial generation: 2010’s-2020’s, creatives born after 1985, e.g. Rehema Chachage, Sungi Mlengeya, Amil Shijvi.  The notion of generations is also present in the ubiquitous textile khanga (since the mid-19th century) and the practices of highly acclaimed, diaspora Tanzanian-born or heritage artists (Everlyn Nicodemus b.1954, Lubaina Himid b.1954). Lastly, attention is drawn to three current, non-commercial exhibitions that utilize the generation paradigm: Mwili, Akili na Roho 10 Figurative Artists (Nairobi Contemporary Art Institute until 26 January 2023), Africa Fashion (Victoria & Albert Museum, London until 16 April 2023) and Mangi Meli Remains, a collaborative heritage and contemporary art in Moshi, Tanzania. 

Jonathan Shirland, Bridgewater State University, MA, USA 

“Peering beneath the ochre-colored attractions we face the poetic expression of a unification of social forces”: Sam Ntiro’s generational artistic agency in regional and globalizing art worlds  

From the vantage point of 2023, 100 years after his birth, Sam Ntiro’s importance to wider narratives of African modernism is becoming incrementally acknowledged. Yet the nuances of his creative agency remain hidden. Through paying particular attention to his own writings, this paper seeks to give back to Ntiro’s paintings a discursive vitality that allows for the fact that meaning is made and remade over times and spaces. Ntiro mediated expectations of different global audiences during periods of unprecedented political change and viewed transnationally his deceptively stable paintings produced over four decades come into focus as fraught negotiations of the complexities of East African cultural identity spanning colonial and postcolonial geographical and ontological terrains. His paintings were part of his broader commitment to a restaging of Chagga historical memory, became implicated in the Tanzanian state’s efforts to forge a workable national visual imaginary, and were subjected to mechanisms of the global economy operating in the shadow of the Cold War, but are not reducible to any of these forces. The complexity of his “unification of social forces” can be discerned through seeing his artworks as fluctuating between Svetlana Boym’s concepts of reflective and restorative nostalgia, and Alastair Bonnett’s radical nostalgia. I propose that his efforts at cultural diplomacy were developed through a strategic balance of optical revelation and an adumbration of meaning in his paintings and that this helps to account for the neglect of his legacy both inside and outside Tanzania by subsequent generations.     

Ziddi Msangi, University of Massachusetts Dartmouth, MA, United States  

The Creation of a Global Tanzanian Artist: new insights into the development of Kiure Francis Msangi  

This paper gives insights into the creative work of Kiure Francis Msangi (1937-2003). Through multi-generational perspectives and surveying the archive, K. F. Msangi’s journey as an artist and scholar emerges. He graduated from Makerere University, Uganda; BFA and Diploma Ed (1964) and taught art in Tanzania until he received a Fulbright scholarship for further education in California: BFA in Graphic Design (1975), M.A. in Art Education (1977), PhD (Stanford University, 1987). His thesis Proposal for a Comprehensive Arts and Crafts Education Program for Tanzania (1984) advocates for the inclusion of traditional artists in the school curriculum. K. F. Msangi was born to Hannah Msangi in the village of Usangi, Tanzania. Our oral history reveals that she would place him under a tree while the family tilled the earth. Hannah would marvel at the drawings he created in the soil. Despite food insecurity, her prayer was that the drawings would allow him to live a full life. “The Baba Project”, a film directed by her granddaughter Ekwa Msangi affirms the support and encouragement he received from his community. K. F. Msangi developed a world view based on his observations of village life, the independence movement, the natural, and supernatural. The evolution of his aesthetic is a result of the different techniques and resources he had access to during his transnational journey. The sharing of Hanna’s intervention acts as a form of generational dialogue and an affirmation of identity, which ultimately participates in acts of political engagement and artistic agency. 

Franziska Fay, Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz, Germany  

“There Could be an Endless Ocean”: gender, generation and the (Swahili) seas in Lubaina Himid’s political painting  

Recalling Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor’s approach to “story the ocean”, that is, what she calls the Swahili Seas, I am interested in thinking about the ‘Indian Ocean’, gender, and generation(s) with 2017 Turner prize winning artist Lubaina Himid’s paintings of women and water. As a Zanzibari-British artist growing up and working in the diaspora, Himid’s body of work can serve as a starting point a) to story the ocean, Indian – Afrabian – Swahili, otherwise, b) to think through the lens of gender about sea-situations and sea-people’s associated practices, such as dress, that historical narratives have largely viewed in masculine terms, and c) to engage with inter- and intragenerational change across Zanzibari contemporary art practice – whether (post)diasporic or not.   

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