East Africa Calling
By Victoria Donohoe FOR THE INQUIRER
Published: May 25, 2012
I love you dear (detail) by James Mbuthia (b.1958 Banana Hill, Nairobi, Kenya)
"East African Encounters: Contemporary Art From Kenya and Tanzania" at Indigo Arts Gallery spotlights artists largely self-taught, not the many professionally trained East African artists.
Tanzanian artistry mainly from the Dar es Salaam coastal center has won recognition and enormous success, much more so than that of Kenya. But Kenya is catching up.
Early Tanzanian art achievement was sparked by two masters, George Lilanga and Edward Saidi Tingatinga (1932-72). In his all-too-brief career (1968 until he was killed by police in 1972) Tingatinga painted pictures of wild animals, birds, and village scenes in off-hours from his job as a hospital ward attendant. Inventor of "Tinga Tinga" painting, he earned wide attention, took on apprentices, and launched a painting industry that continues in his native land to this day.
Lilanga (1934-2005) became Tanzania's best-known artist and an African superstar with many followers. He's represented here by a pair of moody color etchings. Plentiful and of particular charm and interest are this show's Tanzanian paintings of animals (especially leopards) and lively village scenes often painted in bicycle lacquers by talented followers of the two masters.
Soon after Kenya's 1963 independence, the workshop movement became a catalyst for change and the growth of lively art-making. Many art centers soon opened in the Nairobi vicinity and were the springboard for prominent Kenyan artists "Sane" Mbugua Wadu, Kamau "Cartoon" Joseph, and Kivuthi Mbuno, followed by the opening of strong commercial galleries such as Gallery Watatu.
This is an important and informative show, resourcefully put together. Understandably it features more artwork by followers than by leaders of movements. But a satisfying "East African Encounter" it assuredly is for summer browsing. (Don't overlook Kevin Kariuki's marvelously crafted large 3-D "bugs.")
25 May 2012
Indigo Arts Gallery, Crane Arts Building, 1400 N. American St.
To September 1, 2012.
Wed-sat noon-6. Free. 215-765-1041.
This article appeared in print in the Philadelphia Inquirer on May 25, 2012.