The Customization of Tingatinga African Paintings

The Customization of Tingatinga African Paintings

February 24, 2022

Historical records suggest that African civilization had already risen and fallen well before the rebirth of European civilization in the fifteenth century (Du Bois, Mahmood, & Horne, 2007). However, the Western world unfairly portrayed everything African, including its color and cultural ideas, as "dark." Nkrumah (1964b, para. 4) vividly describes the monstrous image of Africa propagated by Europeans. He refers to an author who claimed that "the history of civilization on the continent begins, as concerns its inhabitants, with Mohammedan invasion," and that Africa has no recorded history (except for the lower Nile Valley and Roman Africa) from which such history can be derived. Similar statements were also documented in the 11th edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica, claiming that Africa is largely a record of the doings of its Asiatic and European conquerors and colonizers, with the exception of Ancient Egypt and Ethiopia (as cited in Bomfeh, 2015, para. 8).

It has taken a millennium and a half of African history for the misconstrued records to be corrected. The misconceptions derived from these statements include the belief that Africans have short memories, no historical records, and have contributed nothing to world civilization. However, Africa's artistic cultural ideas, which were previously criticized as inferior, were the driving force behind new directions in Western art traditions. African art was considered found art (Vansina, 1984), and condemned as art composed of "useless" natural or artificial materials (junks) used by the artists to express their ideas. African art revealed its sensitivity to the environment, but Euro-Christian missionaries labeled it with derogatory descriptions such as primitive, pagan, fetishistic, child-like, superstitious, and unscientific. Ironically, the same African artists were relied upon to promote Christian concepts in Africa (Fosu, 1993, p. 4).

Artworks, in any society, serve as windows into the cultural life of that society, and provide substantial indications that foster better understanding of the artistic ideas, expressions, and philosophical concerns of the society. The artworks of past African ancestry that existed long before their encounter with colonialists should have been the powerhouse of African artistic knowledge for Westerners, had they sought to understand the conceptual focus of African artists. There is an Akan proverb that says, "If your adversary is making mockery of your dance, he skews his waist."

“The ‘darkness’ existed only in the minds of Western observers; it was an image of their own creation, fostered by their inability to appreciate African culture” (Dei-Anang, 1975, p. 195). Their successful practice of the slave trade for four centuries with intensive atrocities committed against the people of the continent might have caused these pronouncements against Africa. Even in the event of the slave trade in the seventeen century in Africa, the colonialists’ contact did not “directly affect the art of most Africa to any great degree” (Vansina, 1984, p. 6).

Art in the African sense is a lived experience. It is the life-wire of both the physical and spiritual life of the African. Be it visual or performance art, the African approached it with unique conceptual strategy and powerful imagination irrespective of the purpose it served in the society. As a conceptual strategy, ancient African artists perceived nature as abstract configuration of forms in both visual and performance art in a way that the ideas conveyed by the forms or the performance matter the most. Fosu testifies that “African art is conceptual rather than representational. It is the ideas conveyed by the art forms which are crucial, rather than their mere visual representation” (1975, p. 34). With this strategy, the choice of media and the production process for the execution of artwork were arbitrary let alone it outward beauty. Once the idea behind a particular work is conveyed, the work is considered to be right, good or inwardly beautiful. The media and processes used became subservient to the accomplishment of the artistic idea. There is an Akan proverb which says What is right is what is beautiful.

What is beautiful is what brings joy. What brings joy is what is goodness. This strategy sustained the conceptual eclecticism of African art that naturally showed total disregard towards realism and rather favoured abstractionism, conceptualism, nonconventional exploitation of found objects; and the development of cornucopia of motifs that serves ideational instruction.

For instance in shrine art  individual objects were not seen in isolation, they were arranged with radical artistic intent in a way that each object reinforced the composite sacerdotal assemblage. The arrangement has a conceptual duality: it may invoke panic or psychological tension, besides, the works did not rely on monetary considerations neither were the works subject to museum restrictions (Fosu, 1975; Getlein, 2002). They were created with conceptual freedom and their superficial arrangement in shrines showed disconnect in meaning making. The masked face with hairs glued to it would not be displayed alone in its typical African shrine art environment or home settings.

His heirloom consists of animal skulls and other bones, elephant tusks, fabric, animal skins, bells and imported mass produced materials. These collections were part of the everyday life of the people. Sensory perception of “beauty” is killed by the nature of objects and their arbitrary selection and arrangement. First time non-African observer of this assemblage may attempt to question “where” the art is, its aesthetic pulse and perhaps, meaning as in the case of colonialists prejudice thought about African art. Moving this assemblage of art objects to a different place or environment changes the arrangement.

While mass-production can satisfy a dominant number of tourists, there are various individual touristic needs that must be met by other means. I would like to reiterate that travel-friendliness, a low price and sometimes even the geographical authenticity is not a fixed requirement, since tourists have various touristic needs. Consequently, the distinguishing requirements of each tourist brings in the concept of order.

Order is the most frequently used word of Tingatinga African artists today. They would actively suggest clients to place an order, when they do not find anything to buy, or when they like a certain painting but are not satisfied with its size, or when they have a specific picture in their mind and want to borrow someone’s hands to illustrate it. An order is not based merely on the idea of an artist, in most cases, clients would make contributions to it, which can be as simple as a requirement of size, or as difficult as ‘I want you to paint God’. Simply speaking, they have the power to customize what they want.

Unlike tourists on the way who usually only choose from the readymade Tingatinga paintings or products on display due to a time limit, tourists in residence have made up the majority of the client group who seek for customized works. Apart from the objective reality that the inventory of Tingatinga artists is not yet as wide as to meet most clients’ expectations, their subjective preferences formed most of their motivations to place orders of customized African paintings or products. 

Based on my semi-structured interviews with 15 clients who asked for customization, I summarized the factors mentioned by them as: uniqueness, creativity, handmade authenticity, and love conveyance.

a. Uniqueness
Uniqueness is the major pursuit of clients who placed customized orders, 14 out of 15 informants mentioned this concept as a supportive reason for customization. By customizing a product, an individual may imbue the product with their own subjective preferences, which makes it an extension of their own self-identity (Rokitnicki-Wojcik 2008; Kasfir 1992). For example, a football fan of Simba, one of the most popular teams in Tanzania, had his jersey painted by Tingatinga artists and shared the reasons to do so: I don’t want to wear the same green jerseys as others do. It’s a green ocean at the stadium…but I want to be seen, so I must be special.

Likewise, another informant, who had her bag painted, also mentioned this concept of uniqueness: There is a stain on it, so I want to cover it with a Tingatinga fish… It will definitely go well with the color of my bag… It will be the one and only.

Whether out of indulgent or utilitarian consideration, the uniqueness brought by customization shapes the original object and makes it fit clients’ personal preferences better. The clients with this pursuit tend to have more requirements and higher involvement in the production process, most of them would describe what colors, compositions, motifs they want clearly with the artists.

Nevertheless, some of the final products might turn out to be unsatisfying, but it is rare for clients to cancel the orders because they believe they share a part of the responsibility too. An expatriate in Dar shared his experience of a failed order with me: I came here with a photo of my girlfriend… I wanted him (the artist) to paint a scene that my girlfriend is surrounded by animals, but it did not turn out well…Of course it was not all his fault, I might have not described my idea well. I told him in English, but you know, both of us cannot speak English very well.

b. Creativity
Creativity is a concept that is sometimes brought up by informants together with ‘uniqueness’, but informants who value creativity over uniqueness tend to have a lower involvement yet higher expectation of the final products, which sometimes turns out to be disappointing and would result in revising or even cancellation of the order.

There was a case of an unsuccessful order that I had followed during my fieldwork (Fig.13-14). It had a pleasant beginning where the client gave a big compliment on this artist’s style, saying ‘it is different from other artists here’. Before leaving, she placed an order of three paintings of a rabbit head from different perspectives respectively, with a special requirement of ‘use your style’. The two paintings below were the unfinished works of this artist: 

This artist does have his own style different from the typical Tingatinga style for he attempts to create a three-dimensional vision. He did apply his style into these paintings.

He did paint the rabbit head from different perspectives. However, after several days of waiting for the balance payment, he received nothing but the client’s disappointing comment, ‘This is not I wanted. I wanted them to be painted in Tingatinga style… and these are not rabbits, these are mice’. Though ashamed, this artist came to me, asking to have a look at rabbit pictures online. He gazed at those pictures for minutes. When I asked him if he needs to sketch them down so as to memorize them better, he refused because ‘a real artist keeps everything he sees in mind.’ But even after revising, this client was still not satisfied. This artist asked her to leave some money for his hard work.
She gave him Tsh 10,000 and left unhappily.

Little knowledge of an artist’s capability and personal style, and the misunderstanding of Tingatinga style resulted in the disappointment of this case. But most times, when both sides, the artist and the client, have a good understanding of each other, the final product can turn out to be very interesting and creative.

african painting made by malikita

Malikita is an artist who receives orders that require creativity frequently. In 2009, he  got his first order of duplicating an Australian aboriginal painting. His successful duplication has attracted more Australian clients to him. Out of trust, some of them asked him to create a painting with Aboriginal style and Tingatinga style mixed according to his own understanding, and above are his final works.

Today, Malikita calls it Australian Style, and is even painting in this style when there is no order. I am not sure whether other artists will pick up this style in the future, but it will also be interesting to see if there is any further development regarding this borrowed style.

c. Strengthened Authenticity in Handmade Products

Fuchs, Schreiner, van Osselaer (2015) demonstrate the existence of handmade effect, which means consumers generally find handmade products more attractive compared with machine-made ones. Although labor force has been largely replaced by machines since the industrial revolution for the latter can work more consistently and produce high-quality products, consumers still perceive that some features of handmade products value more than quality.
By placing an order, one can guarantee the authenticity of one’s trip: this is an artwork made by a local artist, in a local context, therefore, it is ‘authentic’ Tanzanian/African. Some creative clients may even contribute more to solidify this authenticity by taking photos with the artist. Below is an interesting example from my field note:

This client asked for a photo of this artist. She wanted to capture the moment when he was painting, though he was not. The artist put out an unfinished work and pretended to be working on it. However, this client was not satisfied, she put an old radio and a rag, which had been placed on ground, onto the desk to create a scene that she described as ‘supposed to be like’.

This client constructed a scene she believed to be ‘authentic’ according to her own imagination, without knowing, or refusing to admit, that this artist had no painting plan on that day. He only put out some paintings that he wanted to sell on his desk, and what he was actually doing that day was laying back on the wall and listening to music. Artists have sensitively realized clients’ desire for authenticity as well, apart from signing, they would provide a background story to prove that they have put not only labor, but also thoughts and emotions into their paintings.

Mkura is an artist who is known for his elephant paintings. For over ten years, he has been painting the same elephant from the same perspective and orders keep flying to him (Fig.17). He likes sharing his thought about this painting with clients:

I was inspired by Iraq War. This bigger elephant is America, and this smaller one is the UK. They cooperate with each other.

african painting of elephants made by mkura

Without asking why there are only America and the UK in the picture, or why they are represented by elephants, or why they look identical except the size, most clients would be impressed by his thought immediately, for it is much deeper than the animals-livinghappily-in-Serengeti account provided by other artists. In addition, the fact that Mkura’s relatively realistic style is different from typical Tingatinga (uniqueness) further contributed to deepening its impression on clients.

However, when Mkura is asked to paint ‘the Big Five’ of Africa in 2018 (Fig.18), the elephant came onto stage again, with the other four motifs from his other paintings.

This time, there is no America nor the UK. It is the elephant, but merely an elephant without any story. The authenticity embedded in originality is nowhere to find in this painting, but at least, it is a painting handmade by a Tanzanian artist and bought in Tanzania. It still satisfies the basic touristic need of substantiate the authenticity of a trip. A story is merely a bonus.

d. Love conveyance
Linking to the previous paragraphs of ‘handmade authenticity’, the handmade effect is stronger when clients’ gift-giving is motivated by a desire to convey love (Fuchs,Schreiner, van Osselaer 2015). Clients of this group, usually tourists in residence, show the highest involvement in customizing their order, which is demonstrated in providing objects/pictures to be painted (i.e. a photo to paint, an album cover to paint on), a detailed description of designs (i.e. composition, motifs), and frequent follow-ups which even involved DIY(do it yourself) practice. Csikszentmihalyi and Rochberg-Halton (1981) suggested that when an individual devotes time and effort to an object, they impart some of their ‘psychic energy’ into it, making it a part of the self because it grew or emerged from the self. This account also fits into the love message that clients would like to send via a customized or DIY work.

Tingatinga artists often get orders of portraits or more innovative works involving portrait elements (Fig.19), though it is not what most Tingatinga artists are good at and the final products usually turn out to be non-Tingatinga or a strange combination of styles. Clients can also choose to paint by themselves under the guidance of a Tingatinga artist. A young client who DIYed a painting for his parents shared his experience with me: I think it will be more meaningful. I chose to have three giraffes on my painting, which means my dad, mom and me… I could choose the readymade paintings with three giraffes, but they are just giraffes. I cannot tell my parents that these giraffes represent us… because I know they are not.

His account shows a clear link between customization and love conveyance. Though Fuchs, Schreiner, van Osselaer (2015) have already proved that handmade products are perceived to be made with love by the producer and even to convey love, for clients who have specific persons to show their love or relative emotions to, merely being handmade is not enough. Customization or even DIY guarantees the emotion is to be conveyed correctly and genuinely, and limited its possessor to be the one and only.

Chaining Up: From Customization to Souvenirization

Having specified the three steps towards tourist art, my last point to make is that this development is not a linear process, instead, it is cycling forward, and on the cycle is souvenirization, mass-production and customization.
As the example of Malikita shows, good customized works stay, but artist often need customers to help them evaluate these works. Thereafter, the novelty brought by customization is absorbed again, and the following mass-production made it an ordinary unoriginal one in the inventory.

When both ideas and materials are ready, a new cycle begins, and more African paintings and products that are deemed as ‘tourist art’ come into the world.

The development of Tingatinga as tourist art, as self-evident as it is, is a result of a joint force of both artists and tourists. Therefore, by adopting the dialogism theory, I first categorized three types of tourists, whom I define as people with ‘tourist consciousness’, as tourists at home, on the way and in residence based on their status and needs.

Thereafter, I introduced Tingatinga artists, not profile by profile, as most authors of Tingatinga-related publications did, but as a group bonded by familyhood and are trained under the ‘watch-and-learn’ mode. Apart from these two major interlocutors, workshop as a context in a narrow sense serves as a space for learning from each other and interacting with audience while the Ujamaa policy and tourism boom of Tanzania is included in a context in a broad sense. Based on the research results, I reconceptualized Tingatinga’s development as tourist art by building a new cycling mode of souvenirization, mass-production and customization.

Souvenirization occurs when an object is perceived as a souvenir, which means it is emotionally relatable to the destination of the purchaser. Once the trade is done, the artists, most of whom are profit-driven due to their economic constraints would begin to learn from the object that is sold successfully as a souvenir, but due to the training mode that emphasizes imitating as a natural learning process and a general benevolent attitude towards imitating works and deeds, plus the technique upgrade of Tingatinga, mass-production begins.

However, since touristic needs vary, Tingatinga artists provide customizing service for those who have specific needs which I categorized as uniqueness, creativity, strengthened authenticity by handmade products and loveconveyance. When the customized works, which are deemed as emotionally relatable by other audience, another cycle starts. Driven by the continuous artist-tourist dialogue chain, Tingatinga keeps cycling forward in the direction of tourist art.


We would like to thank Y. Chen for her dissertation on "Tingatinga as a Tourist Art" at Leiden University. 

Our website holds a large catalog of African paintings for sale. Visit our homepage and see the full collection. 

Size Guide

Centimeters (CM)

Inches (IN)

50CM x 40CM

19 11/16 in X 15 3/4 in

50CM x 50CM

19 11/16 in X 19 11/16 in

60CM x 60CM

23 5/8 in X 23 5/8 in

70CM x 50CM

27 9/16 in X 19 11/16 in

80CM x 60CM

31 1/2 in X 23 5/8 in

100CM x 80CM

39 3/8 in X 31 1/2 in

140CM x 110CM

55 1/8 in X 43 5/16 in