In the visual arts world, Caroline Uliwa, poet and writer, asks "Why Tanzanian artists are not celebrated at home" for the East African. She sites economic, cultural, and religious reasons why Tanzanians would never buy art or collect it, the way it's done in the West. Uliwa writes, "Historically, art was not collected for its mere visual and textural appeal. ...'Take the ‘mwana nyang’iti/mwana hiti’ from the Zaramo and Kwere tribes of the coast, which many tourists buy today and wear on their necks. The small wooden female figurine with two plaits was traditionally a token passed on in the family from female to female when a daughter came of age entering womanhood; this was to continue fertility in the family,” says Vivian Nsao-Shalua, the Arts Promotion Director of the National Arts Council-BASATA."
In her article, Uliwa mentions my new favorite Tanzanian visual artist -- Cloud Chatanda, whose work I saw for the first time at Nafasi Art Space last month in Dar. His work blew me away with its pathos and originality. One of my favorite paintings is called "Kutafuta Ndoa / Searching for Marriage" in which a herd of curvaceous, busty women are seen stampeding toward a single man wearing a suit and clutching his briefcase as he runs ahead of them, looking back in fear. In the backdrop is the Dar es Salaam skyline. Hilarious and tender, the painting's underlining tensions about need, marriage, expectation, hunger, love, and social pressure. Chatanda is best known for his cartoons but I wish his artwork had more of a following, it's really incredible. Chatanda's artist statement blew me away:
I came to realize that the art I'm doing is actually an invisible religion which exists within. These weird feelings of mine hurt me and my mind, and it makes me have day dreams and create an imaginary world. I've lived with this for many years.
In the world of literature and writing, I recently wrote a piece for The Citizen (March 25, 2014), asking whether the stories that change us can also change society -- and if so, how? What are the stories that are not yet being told in Tanzania, and what's at stake if we write / rewrite the stories that shape and define us? I recently posted this piece, Changing Stories, Stories for Change on Contrary because the article printed but was not placed online. I reviewed a talk given by Billy Kahora, editor of KWANI literary journal based in Nairobi, Kenya, on the role of the artist / writer as a change-maker. Together with other poets, writers, publishers, and cultural workers, we took a closer look at the ways in which collaboration, poetry readings, events, and publishing can shift the social and / or political landscape in the days leading up to the 2015 elections.
Kahora talked with us about the history of KWANI, the idea of never sacrificing aesthetics for social change, and encouraged us to "harness youth narratives," -- to tell the stories that have not yet been written. Up for debate were the ways in which Tanzanian artists' pressures to conform make it difficult to take artistic or social risks. Sacrifice was a major theme that kept surfacing -- what are any of us wiling to give up to make the art that makes the most sense to us -- to our hearts & minds?
These online dialogues are a good start -- any conversation on the arts is a good conversation! But we need to widen the circles and find new / different ways to talk about where the arts are going in Tanzania and what we expect or want from a growing arts / music / literary scene in Tanzania. Is there growing consensus or dissonance when it comes to building and strengthening the arts & culture in Tanzania / Zanzibar?