Kenyans’ initial encounter with Tinga Tinga has come from the Saturday morning animated television show, ‘Tinga Tinga Tales’ that has been turned into a meta-franchise featuring Tinga Tinga toys, games, videos and DVDs.
Alternatively, more Kenyans might have heard about ‘Tinga Tinga the Musical’ that was such a big hit at Kenya National Theatre last year that it went all the way to New York where it got rave reviews when it was staged on Broadway.
But quite possibly, none of those viewers had ever heard of the late Tanzanian artist Edward Saidi Tinga Tinga whose paintings have gained iconic status since he died in 1972.
What recently attracted public attention to the name Tinga Tinga was the sale of an original Tinga Tinga painting. The untitled ‘Elephant eating from the Marula Tree’ went for a whooping Sh5.6million, the highest figure that any East African artwork has sold for in a Nairobi auction.
The sale was a surprise even to the auctioneers who had listed in their catalogue the probable bidding price of between Sh600,000 and Sh940,000.
But according to Alan Donovan, curator of the Nairobi Gallery where second and third generations of ‘Tinga Tinga artists’ works are currently on show, that price might seem like an outlier.
“But as E.S. Tinga Tinga died in 1972 at the age of 40, the limited supply of his art is bound to drive the value of it up as time goes by,” Donovan said last Sunday at the opening of the exhibition “Tinga Tinga and the Legendary Artists of Tanzania.”
The show itself doesn’t include a single original work by the master.
Yet what it reveals is the extent to which Tinga Tinga triggered what Donovan describes as a ‘revolution in Tanzanian art.’
He recalls that the precursors to Tinga Tinga’s artwork were sculptures by Makonde carvers who were based in Tanzania and Mozambique.
In fact, Tinga Tinga may or may not have been acquainted with Makonde sculpture.
He started out as a bicycle repairman, but like so many local artists, Tinga Tinga began his illustrious career humbly.
He created his art using the enamel paint that he had previously employed when fixing bicycles and he scavenged for Masonite ceiling boards on which he drew in place of costly canvas.
Quickly he discovered his paintings earned him more in sales than his bicycle repair, so he began doing his art full-time.
Tinga Tinga sparked several generations of young Tanzanian artists to follow in his footsteps, painting African animals as the elder did.
Tinga Tinga bird
They paint elephants, leopards, hyena and the most distinctive Tinga Tinga bird, the hornbill which is often viewed as a messenger sent from the ancestral spirit world.
However, some critics claim their artistry lacks originality and individuality.
They say it is being mass produced with artists painting the most typical Tinga Tinga creatures on everything from handbags and key rings to wooden trays that constitute what has been conventionally called ‘airport art’ or ‘souvenir art’.
Either way, Donovan’s appreciation of ‘Tinga Tinga compelled him to put up an exhibition of the affordable art.
What is of interest are the colours, creatures, designs and whimsy of these works which are bright, well-crafted and fun.
For anyone wanting inexpensive yet attractive artworks for their living room walls, these could be right for you.
And whether you think works by the second or third generation of Tinga Tinga artists look a little or a lot like the - did, it doesn’t really matter.
But if someone is looking for art that’s affordable now and likely to accrue in value over time, these Tinga Tinga offshoots may not be right for you.