Probably the best object I brought home from the trip to Kenya was a single painting by a Tanzanian named Sey Rashid Hussein who paints crowded city scenes in a capacious style called Tingatinga, after a self-taught painter in Tanzania of the same name. The real Tingatinga — a man named Eduardo S. Tingatings — flourished as a painter for a few brief years, decades ago. But after his death in a car accident, a few students of his kept painting — and today they represent a curious and quite satisfying current in contemporary African art.
The whole story was rendered brilliantly by Frank Whalley, a perspicacious Nairobi journalist with a deep knowledge of African art. Whalley writes a weekly colun on art for The East African, which is simply the finest regional weekly anywhere on the Continent. In a column earlier this month, which I read just as I arrived in Nairobi, Whalley eloquently argues for the enduring appeal of what might be East Africa’s finest style of indigenous painting.
After reading Whalley’s essay, I visited a gallery in Nairobi currently presenting a collection of new Tingatinga paintings. The exhibition is supported by a valuable catalog of new artists in the style., which mostly emphasizes exotic images of animals from the region. City scenes are a minor note in Tingatinga style, but the current I am most drawn to since I think the energy and improvisational flair of African urban life is often neglected in the obsessive concern among go-gooders for the social and physical shortcomings of these crowded, disorderly places. Of the pieces still available for sale, I found Sey’s people-packed view of Zanzibar Prison most compelling, and purchased it for a reasonable price. The painting,which survived two long flights on KLM, evokes memories of my visit a year ago to Zanzibar — and the mad-cap energy I often witness in Africa’s cities. That Sey chooses a prison as a metaphor for the battle between control and creativity in urban Africa speaks for itself.