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The Art of Sam Ntiro
The purpose of this paper is to break the silence on the historical neglect and lack of interest in the study of pioneers of contemporary African art in Africa in general and Tanzania in particular. In this paper we shall confine ourselves to the art of Sam Joseph Ntiro (1923-1993)
Ntiro has been presented to the East African and international public over the last four decades or so as a “naïve” artist. It has been argued that Ntiro’s naivety in his artworks is due mainly to the early art education and training he received under Margaret Trowell (1904 -1986) at Makerere University Art School. Some scholars such as Court (1995:291) said that “Trowell encouraged art associated with local practice, emphasizing skilled work and narrative content…but taught neither observation drawing nor formal experimentation.” Other art educators such as Kingdon (1995:281) who served as a lecturer and later as head of the Makerere Art School, describe Trowell’s teaching period at the Art School as a “rather naïve phase”
Expatriate’s vision of African art
But why was Margaret Trowell fond of promoting naivety in her art teaching? The answer is to be found partly in the general attitude of some European expatriates all over Africa who were bent on founding what they considered to be authentic African schools or movements in the early 1960’s.. Examples include the Cyrene art center in Bulawayo headed by Rev. Patterson where disabled persons were given art materials but no teaching was allowed, the Oshogbo experiment headed by Ulli Beier in which expatriates’ domestic servants and primary school dropouts were given art materials to do whatever they wanted to create without instruction. This intervention in the smooth growth of art in Africa has been the subject of heated discussion by many scholars such as Oguibe (2005:37), Kasfir (1999:64), Nicodemus (1995) and Hassan (1992:3) to mention only a few. Trowell’s efforts in establishing an African school of painting were part of this attitude, to protect the Africans from outside art influences since their forebears were able to create abstract sculpture, that is highly praised in western circles, without the aid of expatriate art instructors.
Inspired by the colonial policy of Indirect Rule pushed forward by Lord Lugard in which, among other things, the African was to be protected from Western cultural contamination, Trowell found it imperative to teach art along traditional African approach in which sketching from observation was not part of the art practice at the Makerere Art School. And like Kenneth Murray in Nigeria, Trowell encouraged her students to base their art on village themes. Being a faithful student of Trowell, Ntiro based his art entirely on his Chagga environment. It is impossible to look at a work of art by Ntiro without seeing a landscape dominated by banana plants, cattle grazing or people brewing local Chagga beer as part of the composition. Almost all his works throughout his life were devoted to Chagga village life. And it should not be forgotten that some Chagga during colonial times asserted themselves as the most educated ethnic group in Tanzania.
Fig 2.Sam Ntiro. Herding Cattle. (Source East Africa Art Biennale catalog 2003).
However, Trowell’s efforts in establishing a unique African school of painting were met with some resistance from some of her students. Notable among them was Abdallah Farahani, a Zanzibari contemporary of Ntiro at the Makerere Art School whose former art teacher and renown watercolour artist; Shariff Mensah Ali (1856-1927) emphasized representational art in his art education. During one of his rare interviews by one of his former art students, the late Seif Salim Salehe and former Fine art student of the Department of Art, Music and Theatre (as it was formerly known) of the University of Dar es Salaam, Farahani had the following to say about Makerere Art School under Trowell:
… At Makerere I met Mrs. Trowell who was starting a School of art that bears close relation with African traditional art. Since this approach involved abstraction and distortion, we did not agreed with each other. Although I liked to know and learn more about art, I did not like to change my original style of painting based on the realistic representation of the subject matter. (Salehe, 1979)
Abdallah Farahani (1900-1980) was a famous art teacher and graphic artist who designed postal stamps for the Zanzibar Post Office.He was also among the designers of the current Tanzania Government Coat of Arms was . As a prolific painter, his artworks were exhibited during the African and Black Cultural Festival in Lagos in 1977.He remained faithful to his representational art throughout his artistic life .As a rebel to Trowell’s attempts at encouraging production of naïve art, Farahani was a role model to most Zanzibari watercolour painters.
It should, however, be realized that most Zanzibari Africans during colonial days aligned themselves with the Shirazi ethnic group from Iran .The Shirazi settled in the East coast of Africa since 500 AD. People of Farahani generation were, therefore, brought up thinking they were of Shirazi descent, as such their art had no traces of traditional African art which his teacher, Margaret Trowell, was bent on instilling in the creative minds of her African art students.
But unlike Farahani, Ntiro remained receptive to Trowell’s ideas on the kind of art she wanted her students to create. He became the key student of Trowell and was consequently recommended for further education to the United Kingdom at the Slade School of Art, London where he graduated with a diploma in Fine art and diploma in Education.
Fig.3 Abdallah Farahani. (Source: East Africa Art Biennale catalog, 2003)
Although in London Ntiro was exposed to various art styles seen in galleries and museums his naive style never changed. He continued to paint from memory the Chagga village life he had left behind. At the Slade, he did life drawing as well as objective study, the courses that demand keen observation of forms. But such courses did very little to alter the way he perceived the world around him.
After graduating from the Slade, Ntiro, returned to Uganda to teach at the Makerere Art School. . In 1958 he married Sarah Nyendwoha, an Oxford University History honours graduate. According to FAWE (Forum for African Women Educationalists), she is the first woman university graduate in East and Central Africa.
When Tanganyika became independent in 1961, Ntiro was appointed Tanganyika’s High Commissioner (Ambassador) to the United Kingdom (1961-1964). Upon his return to Tanzania, Ntiro went back to teach at Makerere Art School which was under the headship of Professor Cecil Todd. But his stay was short because he had applied for a vacant post of Commissioner for Culture in the Tanzania Civil Service and his application was accepted. He therefore left Makerere Art School for good because his new appointment was permanent and pensionable. Professor Todd did not dismiss him as Kasfir (1999: 149) would want us to believe. The present writer was a student at the Makerere Art School at the time and most students knew there was something stiff between the two members of academic staff.
It was during his tenure as Commissioner for Culture that he and Sarah Ntiro were separated. They were later divorced when Ntiro was Associate Professor of Fine Art at the University of Dar es Salaam after he had retired from the Civil Service. He had two boys by the first wife and five by his second wife who was also called Sarah. She served as Ntiro’s personal secretary when he was Commissioner for Culture. They also divorced after fifteen years or so of marriage.
Identity through Ethnicity
It is important to stress that Ntiro’s family life circumstances have had no effect whatsoever on his painting. As Fosu (1986:33) has noted, Ntiro’s painting was a memory of what he knew best of the life of his people, the Chagga, living on the slopes of mount Kilimanjaro. Those familiar with his works know that Ntiro wanted to identify himself as a Chagga first and secondly as a Tanzanian. Fosu attempted to link Ntiro’s work with Nyerere’s socialism because of communal activities depicted in most subject matter in Ntiro’s works. But to link. Ntiro’s work with the socialist policy of Ujamaa declared by Julius Nyerere, Tanzania’s first president is to miss the point because Ntiro’s work was influenced by Trowell’s .insistence in her teaching that required all her African students to identify with their communities; no experimental art was encouraged as the foregoing discussion has illustrated.
For the last four decades or so, elite African artists, writers and academicians have engaged in critical debates about the place of African culture in a postmodern, global society. Central to the debates has been the notion of colonial experience and the search for a new identity. Ntiro was aware of these debates, as he was also an elite artist who was exposed to modern art theories and philosophies. He knew that his art was a synthesis of ethnic cultural environment and western elements. He saw no point in declaring manifestoes to defend his style, iconography, symbolism and technique. In other African cultures such as Nigeria, uli drawing tradition of the Igbo of Eastern Nigeria has, since the era of the Zaria Art Society which declared a guiding principle of Natural Synthesis , been adopted by a young generation of painters who are greatly influenced by the works of the founder of the style, Uche Okeke
In analyzing Ntiro’s style, we should never forget the influence of his mentor, Margaret Trowell, who was extremely fond of traditional African art and design, and expected her African students to adopt its forms most of which disregard such design principles as proportion and scale, and visual elements such as perspective, shape and mass which most art students in formal art schools are expected to express mastery before they go for experimental art. It is no wonder, therefore, detractors of Ntiro’s art with no background knowledge on his training such as Mount , who was quoted by Fosu (1986:33),produce misplaced analysis of his work as follows:
…tiny figures are placed without benefit of linear perspective in a vertical, horizonless landscape. The bare landscape is spotted in most unrealistic fashion with different varieties of trees. Figures are aligned schematically in single file…The flat repetitious figures are amorphous and unarticulated. They wear simple, brightly coloured clothing, contrasting with somber landscape. The figures are in every instance typically out of scale with their surroundings.
Without background knowledge on an artist’s training , we are bound to present misplaced information on his/her work. Today we know a great deal about the influence of art teachers such as Gustave Moreau on his student Henri Matisse or the influence of Frank McEwen on Zimbabwe modern stone sculpture.The zeal with which Trowell armed herself to protect her students from external influences in art resulted in the production of naïve art at the Makerere Art School in the 1950s.But the attitude has continued in the commercial sector among conservative art dealers such as the late Ruth Shaffner of Gallery Watatu in Nairobi Kenya who believed that “academic instruction spoiled the innate creativity of African artists”, (Kasfir, 1999:78).
Fig 4. Margaret Trowell. (Source:C.Delis (ed.) Seven Stories about Modern art in Africa,Flamarion and Whitechapel, London and Paris, 1996)
The foregoing quotation, although based on Mount’s description of one of Ntiro’s paintings entitled “Drawing Water”, can sum up the main stylistic characteristics of Ntiro’s painting. His style never changed throughout his life and he kept on painting the same themes over and over again. Ntiro’s interest in traditional rural themes in his painting is also a reflection of his own experience as a rural product. It is an experience that is shared with most members of his generation who were born after the First World War. This generation has been known to try to reconcile conflicting demands of traditional life with those that the colonial government and missionary agents provided. Ntiro’s love of painting peasants in coffee plantations, village church congregations and cattle rearing, shows not only his love for rural life but also his own rural background, which dominated his life style. This is illustrated by his love of the countryside. A good example is his shifting from a government furnished house for a person of his status in the civil service to an unplanned farmhouse he had built 10 miles (about 16 kilometers) away from the city centre. Some members of his generation would normally have considered it a great honour to be allocated a house that was formerly occupied by an expatriate civil servant but not Ntiro.
A Muralist of Rural Themes
Ntiro was fond of monumental mural projects. At Makerere University’s Northcote Hall, one of his murals adorns the dinning hall. He also executed a large mural at the Kariakoo market in the heart of the city .The Bank of Tanzania and the ruling CCM (Chama cha Mapinduzi) party offered several mural commissions to Ntiro who executed them in co-operation with the present writer. The themes of these murals were rooted in specific functions of the institutions.
Mural execution has been the passion of Ntiro throughout his life. Although his work bears little relation to that of other Makerere trained Tanzanian professional artists the majority of whom regard it as a form of intellectual folk art, expatriate collectors have often been fascinated by it. Some view it as an art that has not been corrupted through western influences and hence authentic. This fictionalized stereotype is yet to be dismantled in Africa. The artist’s technical shortcomings, market forces, mentor’s influences and the artist’s social standing, to mention a few, have often received little or no consideration in examining what is considered by the western art collectors to be genuine contemporary African art.
Consciously parochial, Ntiro did not possess sensitivity to Tanzanian ethno-political suppressed animosities of his time. The Chagga ethnic group during his time was economically ahead of other ethnic groups in Tanzania because the Chagga had a cash crop, coffee, which they exported .This enabled them to send their children to school as a result of the money they realized from coffee sales .They were the envy of many ethnic groups in the country. However, this changed on the eve of the country’s independence. The call was for national unity and free schooling.
In choosing subjects for his works. Ntiro did not offer his nation a sense of oneness. He did not select themes from the whole spectrum of the ethnic population of Tanzania as was done by his contemporaries in other African countries such as Ben Enwonwi in Nigeria as Fosu (1986:29) had observed. His subjects were confined to his Chagga ethnic group of which he showed much admiration and respect in his work.. Was Ntiro a prisoner of the ethnic cultural reality he lived in ? Getlein (2005:41) partly answers this question when he writes,
Art does not happen in a vacuum. Strong ties binds a work of art to the life of its creator, to the tradition it grows from and responds to, to the audience it was made for, and to the society in which it circulated. These circumstances form the context of art, its web of connections to the larger world of human culture.
The audience for which Ntiro’s work was made consisted mainly of western collectors and overseas galleries. In 1960, for example, the Carnegie Corporation of New York provided travel grants to Ntiro and his first wife to visit and exhibit in the United States of America. He was the first East African artist to be granted the grant. During his art exhibition, the National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC, acquired one of his paintings. The majority of local Tanzanian audience often regards his art as an elitist phenomenon suitable only to tourists and curio dealers. They hardly give it serious attention that is necessary for its appreciation and understanding.
However, the official Tanzania government cultural policy has concrete ideas on the type of support the arts should have .The establishment of the Tanzania Culture Trust Fund commonly known as Mfuko wa Utamaduni has shown that the government is increasingly looking at the arts as a form of informal sector in the economic development of the nation .Countless artists and crafts people have benefited from the grants issued by the Fund since its inception in the late 1990’s.
An organizer of art organizations
Ntiro will be remembered as a keen organizer of art groups. He initiated the establishment of the Tanzania Craft Council, Tanzania Art Society and East African Community of Artists with membership from Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania. And in 1969 he organized the first ever art exhibition of East African art in Moscow, Russia. Among the artists who participated was Jak Katarikawe of Uganda who now resides in Nairobi, Kenya.
These elitist organizations never had the right circumstances to produce an art movement in the way some African countries such as Nigeria, Senegal and Sudan, to mention a few examples, has had. It is the less elitist and highly commercialized movements such as the modern Makonde sculpture and the Tingatinga painting school that have caught the attention of the art world since the 1960,s.
But it would be short sighted to assume that these commercialized art movements became popular through the efforts of the artists who created them. Patronage has been through government agencies such as SIDO (Small Industries Development Organization) and Handico (Tanzania Handicrafts Marketing Organization). Some private patrons such as Mohamed Peera worked very hard in the promotion of Makonde sculpture in the early 1960’s. These government agencies have little to do with contemporary art of Tanzania which most elite artists create and jealously protect from becoming a mass-produced commodity. It is never hawked in busy streets and markets . It is only displayed during exhibitions, which are normally opened by notable dignitaries.
Ntiro will also be remembered for his efforts and enthusiasm that culminated into the establishment of fine art at the University of Dar es Salaam. Following the break up of the University of East Africa, the country found itself with only a theatre arts department .Through Ntiro’s advice to the Ministry of Education where he had formerly worked as Commissioner for Culture, a new Department of Art, Music and Theatre was introduced. The current name is Department of Fine and Performing Arts responsible for teaching and research on visual arts such as painting, sculpture, design, film and radio, theatre and music. Ntiro became the first head of the fine art sub-department in 1975 until his formal retirement in 1983.He continued to paint and exhibit until his death on January 31, 1993 at his Kimara home in the outskirts of Dar es Salaam.
Contemporary African art is still attracting the attention of many foreign scholars and collectors. Some curate exhibitions of African art that are said to “contribute to a new understanding of African art that will remove it from the realm of the ethnographic, and place it firmly within the framework of the transcultural aesthetic that has become accepted practice among Western artists “ ( Clarke, 1995:86 ).
The wish to get away from the restricted image of African creativity by outsiders seems to take an awfully long way to fulfill. However, it can be achieved if African artists become critical of the present trend in which their art is viewed through Western mentor’s assertions of what constitutes contemporary African art. Contemporary art from Africa need to be viewed through the culture that produce it. This calls for intentional efforts on the part of Africans themselves to sensitize the young artists through seminars, publications, instructions in schools and colleges that would help to create the needed confidence to produce what they would regard as contemporary art.
Ntiro and his generation of contemporary African artists do no seem to have transcended limitations of geography, culture , ethnicity, nationhood and race. The reason here is that their mentors considered Africans as unchanging, backward and irrational . This falsehood, although losing ground, is still being exploited by mentors who deal with contemporary African artists with little or no formal education in the visual arts .Such artists are often wrongly viewed as the sole representatives of African aesthetics .They are not viewed as producing ” art of the other “ but as creative producers of authentic contemporary African art. Some Western mentors such as Jean Pigozzi (2005:11) admits very openly that the non-education of the self-taught African artists fascinates him because that makes them non-derivative. While the debate on the art of schooled and unschooled contemporary African artists continues, we must be careful not to link unschooled art with Senghor’s negritude or Mobutu’s idea of authenticity as suggested by McEvilley (2005:34) Such movements were not related to naïve artistic creations of any kind .A good advice to western patrons is that they should be free to collect any kind of art they prefer from Africa but they should not propagate false patronizing ideas which suggest that good contemporary African art is the one produced by the unschooled African or by schooled Africans who are closely instructed by Western mentors to avoid techniques that are believed to be the prerogatives of the West.
**************An abridged version of this article was published byThe Express, January 8-14, 2009, page 9.
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Fig.1 Sam Ntiro (Source: Mario Pissarra, “Re/Writing Sam J.Ntiro: Challenges of framing in the excavation of a ‘lost’ pioneer”, in Third Text Africa, Vol.4 2015)
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