There are few souvenirs as evocative as a piece of traditional artwork, and for travelers to Tanzania, there’s one widespread form souvenir-hunters are sure to see: Tingatinga painting. The pictures’ bright, eye-popping colors; simple, almost abstracted shapes and bold outlines; and flattened perspectives evoke traditional African artwork, but this style, developed in the mid-20th century, is a distinctly modern form of expression throughout the country.
The style originated with Edward Tingatinga, who started painting his highly-stylized animals and scenery in Dar es Salaam in the late-1960s. Using inexpensive materials, such as Masonite (a hard-board formed from wood scraps) and bicycle paint, Tingatinga quickly drew attention from tourists, who loved his use of extremely bright colors and his naïve style.
Tingatinga died just a few years later, in 1972, but by then his style had caught on. Followers of his school recreated nearly all of his works (meaning it’s not only rare to find an original Tingatinga these days, it’s often hard to authenticate one), and over the years, expanded and evolved the form. Today, Tingatinga artwork may hew closely to Edward Tingatinga’s early style and choices of subject matter (he often painted animals), or it may simply use the fundamental elements Tingatinga employed—abstraction, bright colors, and simple, graphic shapes—as a springboard for highly individual works of art.
While devotees of the style claim it’s a completely original invention of Tingatinga’s, many art critics and historians believe the style is better understood as an interpretation of traditional forms of East African art. Especially considering how quickly Tingatinga style became widespread, it seems likely that it’s at least tapping into, if not exactly replicating, traditional forms. Some even link the style to early rock paintings, which persisted in much of Africa well into the 19th century (which in the words of art curator Kenji Shiraishi would single out Tingatinga as “the longest artist trend ever”).
Regardless of when it really started, though, or who deserves the most credit for it (Tingatinga or his great-great-75-more-greats-grandfather, that is), the Tingatinga style is distinctly Tanzanian, so keep an eye peeled for this exuberant art form!