Preserving the past and supporting the future of Tanzanian art

Charles Msoga with a piece of in his distinctive style.
Charles Msoga with a painting in his distinctive style.

For Charles Msoga, art imitates fish.

Msoga belongs to Ukerewe, a tribe that lives on an island in Lake Victoria, the biggest lake in Africa. Msoga literally means a type of fish indigenous to the lake. Fish are in his blood and so is art.

Msoga grew up a long way away from the shores of Ukerewe in the bustling metropolis of Dar es Salaam. From an early age, his parents saw that he was creative. Msoga took gymnastics lessons, learned to play the guitar and drew on every piece of paper he could get his hands on. He attended art lessons at the Russian Cultural Centre and developed his craft.

Art is a necessity for Msoga. “Painting is my thing. It’s in my blood. I can’t stop it,” he says.

As an adult, Msoga moved to coastal Mtwara and became a member of the ADEA (African Development through Economics and the Arts) cooperative. He learned to paint in the popular Tingatinga style.

Coconut shells painted in the Tingatinga style by AfricMAK.
Coconut shells painted in the Tingatinga style by AfricMAC.

Edward Said Tingatinga was a Tanzanian artist living in Dar es Salaam. His paintings of whimsical animals on brightly coloured backgrounds earned him international acclaim.

Msoga is proud of the Tingatinga style, but his real passion is a Msoga original. “When I heard the story about Tingatinga, I asked myself, why can’t I have my own style?” he explains.

So, Msoga invented Msoga Samaki Art. These abstract paintings depict fish in continuous patterns, with other symbols hidden beneath the fish. One painting in progress shows fish interlaced with human smiles, representing the joy of a fisherman in his catch.

In a country where 68 per cent of the population lives on less than $1.25 a day, art is also profitable. “Art, because it’s a tourist-based industry, is a viable income,” explains ADEA project director Douglas McFalls.

McFalls left America to visit Tanzania in 1999. As an interior designer, he was enchanted by the traditional carvings of the Makonde tribe. Together with Philipo Lulale, a Tanzanian carver, he founded ADEA in 2003.

The cooperative trains local artists like Msoga and creates a business infrastructure to help them sell their wares. This includes everything from Msoga Samaki Art to aprons in the traditional khanga fabric, to carved wine corks and painted coconut shells.

While ADEA lit the first spark for this cooperative, McFalls is now encouraging the artists to run the business on their own. They have founded AfriMAC – African Makonde Arts and Crafts and now market their wares themselves. “I tried to make it so they didn’t need me,” McFalls explains.

The artistic spirit has a long history in Tanzania. In the Mtwara region, where ADEA is based, the Makonde tribe is famous for its wooden carvings. In addition to supporting AfriMAC, ADEA runs a museum where it displays artifacts from the Makonde tribe as well as the Makua and Yao tribes who are also based in the Mtwara region.

Traditional Makonde carvings on display at ADEA.
Traditional Makonde carvings on display at ADEA.

Makonde carvings served many purposes historically. Handmade masks are commonly used in performances. These performances are entertaining and educational. Performers will dress as lions, elephants or monkeys to teach children about the animals around them and how dangerous they can be.

Sculptures can also serve an educational purpose. On display at ADEA is a sculpture of a woman with two babies climbing on her back. This is designed to start a conversation in Makonde communities about family planning. Two other sculptures depict a woman and man with swollen bellies, to inform people about nutrition.

The history of art in Mtwara is practical, but for Msoga, it’s personal. “It’s something someone has from his heart,” he says.

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