By Osei G Kofi | AfricanColours.com
Couple of weeks ago a little storm raged in our Comment pages. It was in reaction to a piece I wrote on Eduardo Saidi Tingatinga and George Lilanga. For some purists I’d made a serious faux pas in describing Lilanga’s art, obliquely, as Tingatinga art.
I kept out of the racy jaw-jaw which went on for a few days. My only misgiving was that the protagonists at some point veered into name-calling and disparagement of each another across the cyberspace. Ah art – what passions thou doth wrought!
ES Tingatinga | Adama Diawara Collection
To boot, aspersion was cast on the record sale made recently by Rajabu Chiwaya’s masterpiece “Gold Spotted Leopard and Friend the Songbird,” at Artcurial’s “Africa Scenes I” auction in Paris. One would have thought that 36,776 Euros paid for a Tingatinga genre which, excepting works by first generation Eduardo, Mpata, Mruta, Mzuguno, Amonde or Tedo, sells under 500 euros, is anything but piffle?! Well, it was all healthy pow-wow and I learnt lots.
Let’s cut to the chase. Is Lilanga a Tingatinga or not? My view is Yes and No. There, I should’ve been a politician. Seriously, I find more convincing the view of the gentleman who insisted Lilanga was and is a Tingatinga.
Yes, Lilanga was plastically distinct from the Tingatinga mainstream. Yes, Lilanga started out as a Makonde carver of shetanis and only much later branched into canvas work. Yes, there’s an esteemed Japanese fundi out there somewhere espousing whatever he is espousing. Yes, Lilanga himself did say he wasn’t a Tingatinga painter.
But, the facts include these. Lilanga was a contemporary of first generation Tingatinga painters. He shared the same cultural ethos. He was motivated to paint by same local market forces. He developed his painterly horror-vacui style symbiotically in the circle of the other Tingatinga artists. His international success – and he was the most successful in output and fame if not in quality - rested on the appreciation of expatriate buyers drawn to a nascent, indigenous art movement called: Tingatinga. In most exhibitions and publications Lilanga is shown, promoted and bought alongside Tingatinga artists – and, rightly so.
The art world offer examples, even if anecdotal ones, on how Lilanga can be correctly listed as Tingatinga. For instance, members of a new wave might spy a particular contemporary as being a “soul mate” and invite him to join their circle. Upon the latter’s refusal the group would conscript him.
Marcel Duchamp's Urinal
Such was the story of Marcel Duchamp, the “anti-art” French artist who adopted nihilism and laziness as philosophy and bonked his friends’ wives. Duchamp was friends with Dadaists Tristan Tzara, Max Ernest, Man Ray, Jean Arp and Francis Picabia during Dada’s early years in Zurich, Paris and New York, just before and after World War I.
By 1920 Man Ray and others felt Duchamp’s subversive creations were so Dada they pressed him to sign their manifesto. “Non!” Duchamp, who in true Dada did things with the express intention to offend, declined. “I’ve no wish to join movements. Besides, I hate all academicism,” he said with Gallic hauteur. Just like Groucho Marx, our cross-dressing libertine refused to be a member of any club that would admit him. His friends went ahead and classified him Dada anyway!
Today, Duchamp’s works such as the "monumental" Uniral, Bicycle Wheel, L.H.O.O.Q or She’s Hot in the Ass, Portrait of Chess Players, Nude Descending a Staircase, Passage from Virgin to Bride, and my favourite of his installations, Etant donne! are considered quintessential Dada - even if the Surrealists, who morphed out of Dadaism, also claim them.
In the loveliness of art ethos, the "click" isn’t in what the artist says she is but in what the public or individuals see of and interpret her. The task of the artist is to build a bridge between his inner world and the external world, after which the viewer, society, takes over. From there on the artist’s job isn’t only done, he no longer owns his creation.
Once upon a time, I came across this wonderful quote: “Great art is one in which each observer makes the subject his own, interpret it and make it speak to him.” It’s a kernel of wisdom I’ve often failed to follow, and recently paid a little price for.
Dove, Peace on Earth Series by Jak Katarikawe
The setting was the 3rd Joburg Art Fair, Johannesburg, March 2010. A famous, erudite, South African couple, mid seventies, visited my stall. A canvas by the Ugandan master Jak Katarikawe caught their attention. After a round of the stall they went back to it. I watched them from the corner of my eye. After a respectable time-lapse I sauntered over to them. From their body language I felt they were ready to make a buy. I proceeded to pitch what Jak told me about the painting, its meaning, what inspired it. “I don’t need any interpretation!” the old lady snapped, cutting me short. Zut – I’d blundered. She huffed out of my stall, dutifully trailed by the husband, a tall beautiful old man who gave me a little pained look of sympathy. I’d messed up with his wife’s mind’s eye, taken away the magic she saw and, therefore, they were no longer interested in the painting.
Those of you who know Katarikawe's work, which art movement would you place him? Some call him Africa's Chagall. But, I digress!
Let’s look at the onerous matter of authenticity in the body of works bequeathed by Eduardo Saidi Tingatinga. Please allow me some e-ink space here because I find the issue extremely important.
Beyond an artist’s signature, core factors in authentication include: provenance, raw materials used, and period of execution. Fortunately, these are relatively easy to suss out in Eduardo's and the first generation Tingatinga painters. Also, Eduardo, unlike Lilanga, had a short professional life, four years, and so the number of his works out there is easy to keep tabs on. Three to four hundred in total, maybe?
“Tinga Tinga - Popular Paintings from Tanzania” is a coffee-table compendium by Yves Goscinny, sponsored by the Swiss Development Corporation and the Swiss Association for International Cooperation, Helvetas. It’s a lovely piece of cornerstone in the building of institutional memory for the Tingatinga movement. If you haven’t got a copy do yourself a favour and go get one. Just ignore page 47 where Goscinny attempts a Papal ruling on “True” and “Fake” Tingatinga signatures.
Tinga Tinga signatures - Real or Unreal. Can you tell?
Goscinny says he discovered the art of EST in 1995, long after the young maestro’s tragic death in a cock-up shooting at a police road block in Dar in 1972. In 27 years I’ve handled or seen, on three continents, about 200 of his 60x60cm boards and bigger canvases or rubber; some bought from Eduardo himself and now in museums and private collections - including my own little treasure trove. The signatures are exact to some of those considered “fake” by Goscinny.
I photographed the signatures on the boards I handled as well as Goscinny’s page 47 and sent them for expert study. The advice is, Mr Goscinny may want to tread carefully. I am posting page 47 here. Ir wouldn be interesting to compare notes with any other calligraphic experts out there! I have a university education while E.S Tingatinga had basic education.
l pen my signature to x number of documents all the time and – lo, there was an occasion in the days of paper checks when my bank asked me to come over to reconfirm a signature for it looked too uncharacteristic.The point here is, signatures of even highly schooled folks can differ from one day to the next.
Even if there are discrepancies in the signatures of Tingatinga, let’s remember he headed a “factory.” In the communal structure he had in Msasani Village it wouldn’t be unconscionable for a co-worker to sign a tableau or two.
His sudden tragic death also almost certainly meant some finished or semi-finished works were left unsigned and the honour done by a factory member. There’s also the matter that some of the works Tingatinga signed had been finished, if not entirely done, by a factory member. At times, I feel I can tell which piece wasn’t painted by him but bears one of his signatures. It doesn’t detract from the authenticity of the work.
In effect, Eduardo was a trailblazer, reaching back to the ancestral practice of art of the collective, which - presto - is much in vogue today.
Andy Warhol institutionalized it in pop art at his Factory. Jeff Koons, Paul McCarthy, Takeshi Murakami, Anish Kapoor, Damien Hirst, Ai Wei Wei and, closer home, El Anatsui and Yinka Shonibare are making great art from the welcome synergy and exuberance - while smiling all the way to the bank.
It’s acceptable practice to posthumously complete and sell unfinished artworks of a famous artist, or to release fresh pieces using his mold, or based on an “idea” of the dead master. But they must, at least, have “la pate,” an old French expression for paw, i.e the artist’s personal touch. The practice here is that these must be clearly marked and marketed as such. A hundred years after the death of Rodin and Camille Claudel and decades after Matisse, some of the great auction houses offer “mold” or “idea” sculptures from these titans, based on a clear, transparent understanding between seller and buyer.
Of course, the posthumous pieces enjoy inferior prices. If the families or estate of Lilanga or Tingatinga would like to go this route and don’t know how to proceed, they know where and who to call. But they should be aware that the market for Lilanga is getting saturated. But, an excellent Lilanga will always always stand out - signed by him or an acolyte.
Now, isn’t it time we stopped wanting to have our ugali after eating it? When one sells a work of art the copyright passes on to the new owner in toto who can do whatever he or she pleases with it – including giving it to Hermes of Paris to model its eponymous scarves on. Also, that Jean Pigozzi once “paid for copyright” on one of his Tingatingas is laughable. He’s a very rich man and quite Africaphile, and whatever cash he gave to anyone in Tanzania, trust me, was mere charity.
Much ink of contestation has flowed lately on the issue of copycats, copyrights, intellectual property, etc. Unfortunately, any scalper in Tokyo or Guangzhou can copy Lilanga motifs print them on silk or whatever accessory and call it “Lilanga” or “Tingatinga.” While there’s still some plausible window to regulate the market in the case of Lilanga who died in 2005, the son of the soil of Mindu-Makua, Eduardo, died 38 years ago and I am afraid it’s rather too late for anyone to claim “Tingatinga.” It’s passed into universal usage and exploitation. Just like the von Thurn und Taxis, founders of the postal service, can’t claim exclusive use of “taxi” today. Pity, Tanzania isn’t Cote d’Ivoire which claims a 99-year copyright period, or Mexico, 100 years - not necessarily backed by WIPO, the World Intellectual Propert Organisation.
Just for thought. Serengeti is a successful sunglasses and safari wear brand in Europe. Should the Tanzanian government ask the company to pay royalty? Likewise, Kalenji (sic) is a great athletics goods brand owned by the Decathlon company. Should they pay user fee to Kenyan Kalenjin marathoners on whom Decathlon, no brainer there, modeled their Kalenji running shoes – currently snapping at the heels of Nike? Ha!
Lastly, I came across a conflicted website about Lilanga a while ago. No need to cite it, but the experts behind it, including some members of Lilanga’s extended family members, had the brainwave that, perhaps, it was time to take down the old maestro, or, to dismantle his legacy in order to build their own. It got me confused because the man behind it is someone I respect and whom I thought was doing a “heckuva job,” to quote GW Bush, in helping to promote art in Tanzanian.
The website more or less implied Lilanga didn’t know how to make a triangle from a straight line, so to speak, much more to have made all those beautiful pieces he signed. Hmnnn. They forgot a small detail; that Lilanga was invited to a few residencies abroad where he actually did produce things.
A section titled a “Closer Look at the Artists Behind George Lilanga” showcased what I’d call a Gang of Sixteen trying to convince the world how talented they were vis a vis the zilchness of the departed old man. Man, sometimes I wonder, if some don’t enjoy shooting themselves, not in the foot, but in the head? Do the Gang of Sixteen believe Koons, McCarthy, Murakami, Kapoor, Hirst, Wei Wei, etc, actually produce all those mind-blowingly bankable art all by themselves?
Osei G. Kofi, Nana Dede-Art Africa Investment, Geneva.
Posted By: Maggie Otieno
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