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History and Types of Tanzanian African Art

History and Types of Tanzanian African Art

December 16, 2022

Tanzanian East African art history has played a significant role in shaping the culture and history of the world. The belief that Africa is the cradle of the history of mankind is virtually unshakeable. The origins of African art history lie long before recorded history, preserved in the obscurity of time. Rock Art is centuries old, while shell beads fashioned for a necklace have been recovered in a cave in the furthest reach of the southern peninsula of South Africa that are 75,000 years old.

A study of African art history indicates the earliest sculpture forms found come from Nigeria and are dated around 500BC. However, the lack of archaeological excavations inhibits knowledge of the antiquity of African art and the sheer disposable nature of the raw materials used in the creation of art objects means that an untold wealth of pieces have disintegrated in time.

Compounding this, as these objects were not coveted as aesthetic accomplishments by the indigenous communities who created them, no effort was made to preserve them. Often their value was negligible once their function was performed.

Foreign colonisation of most countries in sub-Saharan Africa took place from 1840 onwards and different values became omnipresent. A lot of African art was acquired for curious means by travellers, traders and missionaries in the century before and left the continent. Colonialists most often did not give indigenous art the merit and attention it deserved and thereby African art history was not preserved or documented.

There has been a huge emphasis on Central African art history for two reasons, one being that the communities who resided there were the most sedentary of the tribes in Africa and secondly, that they produced figurative sculptures that Western collectors could most easily identify with as 'art'; as they defined it.

The basic subject is the human figure and strong formal qualities were exhibited with strong design features creating balance and harmony. These formal design qualities combined with a powerful spirituality and expressive vigour attracted early twentieth century artists to explore new dynamics in visual art and became the birthstone for modern day abstraction.

The surge in interest in collecting African art, both tribal and contemporary, has forced scholars and investors, governments and institutions to re-examine the very essence of African art. Collections that have been inhabiting deep, dark depths of museum vaults have been moved to the forefront of African art history museums, galleries and auction houses to be observed and celebrated for the beautiful and fascinating field of art that it is. European and African researchers are studying collections not only to see how they may be used to shed more light on African art history but also to help restore lost traditions and skills in the crafts of the cultures from whence they came.

Historically, some communities were non sedentary and would have carried with them as little as possible and therefore only utilitarian objects would have been transported. Because their value was based on their functionality and their spiritual attributes, should their purpose no longer be of service to the creator and his community, they would have been abandoned.

Africa must have lost uncountable pieces of art that would have been lost on the wayside of migratory existence. 

Artistic expression is a universal human trait. As the oldest human remains have been unearthed in Tanzania and the country has, perhaps the longest of human occupation, it also has one of the oldest traditions of artifact making in the world. Besides language, art is central to Tanzania’s cultural preservation, expression, and transmission. It preserves, expresses, and transmits the country’s history, cultural values, and knowledge as well as its social aspirations, goals, and ideals. Because art is appreciated by all in the society, irrespective of class, income, or education level, it has the ability to communicate to people across diverse cultural backgrounds and languages. In contrast, the written word is only able to reach the literate segments of society. As art and culture are often very tightly interwoven, Tanzanian art is a good reflection of the country’s culture. Thus the arts reflect the country’s immense cultural diversity as well as its overriding communal social orientation.

Edward Tingatinga began painting African art around 1968 in Tanzania (Dar es Salaam). He employed low cost materials such as masonite and bicycle paint and attracted the attention of tourists for their colorful, both naïve and surrealistic style. When Tingatinga died in 1972, his style was so popular that it had started a wide movement of imitators and followers, sometimes informally referred to as the "Tingatinga school".

The first generation of artists from the Tingatinga school basically reproduced the works of the school's founder. In the 1990s new trends emerged within the Tingatinga style, in response to the transformations that the Tanzanian society was undergoing after independence. New subjects related to the new urban and multi-ethnic society of Dar es Salaam (e.g., crowded and busy streets and squares) were introduced, together with occasional technical novelties (such as the use of perspective). One of the most well known second-generation Tingatinga painters is Edward Tingatinga's brother-in-law, Simon Mpata.

The arts of Africa and Tanzania constitute one of the most diverse legacies on earth. While many observers tend to generalize "traditional" African art, the continent is full of peoples, societies, and civilizations, each with a unique visual culture.

From c. 6000 B.C.E., rock drawings in Africa have included representations of animals and hunters. From the beginning of tribal differentiation, tribal art has become a way of isolating one tribe from another, and tribal art can take the form of scarification, (to create a design on the skin by means of shallow cuts that are sometimes rubbed with a colorant or irritant to enhance the resulting scar tissue), body painting, or sculptural masks used in religious ceremonies. Diversity also appears in separate geographical regions, where natural resources controlled the materials used, while tribal power, wealth, or sophistication was responsible for the type of objects produced.

Often, African art production has been related to ritual or tribal ceremonies, as well as serving more secular decorative functions. However, it is not always easy to determine the function of a particular work. In many tribes, the artist had a high status, but the artist would not necessarily have been the equivalent of the western fine artist who relied on patronage or the marketplace to regulate their production.

In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, European colonizers "discovered" African art and it was embraced by Modernist artists for its lack of pretension and exciting formal qualities. With the Westernization of much of African society, "traditional" art became commercialized and sold as souvenirs. While from the 1920s, the growth of African art colleges in more modernized sections of Africa has led a number of African artists to adopt Western influences in their work. At the same time, more-established African artists have seen the sale price of their work increase as it became the object of serious artistic consideration.

The art of the Makonde, an ethnic group in southeast Tanzania and northern Mozambique, is subdivided into different areas. The Makonde are known as master carvers throughout East Africa, and their statuary can be found both in tourist markets and in museums. They traditionally carve household objects, figures, and masks. Since the 1950s, the so-called Modern Makonde Art style has developed, with an essential step being the adoption of abstract figures, mostly spirits (Shetani), that play a special role in the genre. The Makonde style is also represented by important contemporary artists of Africa, such as George Lilanga.

Africa is home to a great and thriving contemporary art culture. This has been sadly understudied until recently, due to scholars' and art collectors' emphasis on traditional art. Notable modern artists include Zerihun Yetmgeta, Olu Oguibe, Lubaina Himid, and Bill Bidjocka. Art biennials are held in Dakar, Senegal, and Johannesburg, South Africa. Many contemporary African artists are represented in museum collections, and their art may sell for high prices at art auctions. Despite this, many contemporary African artists tend to have difficult times finding a market for their work. Many contemporary African arts borrow heavily from traditional predecessors.


Exhibition of Contemporary African Art was pioneered by the October Gallery in London and many famous collectors, like Jean Pigozzi and Gianni Baiocchi in Rome, who taught other art collectors like Olivier Doria d'Angri the secrets of collecting nice and inexpensive works. Searching for African Art has become a speedy process thanks to the development of computerized search engines. More exposure comes from the trend of sponsoring African art by banks including Deutsche Bank, Merrill Lynch, Goldman Sachs, Barclays, and BNP Paribas. Exhibiting artists at the Venice Biennale, held every calendar year, and Documenta have helped the movement that was ready to benefit from the explosion in art prices at auctions. Modern works are relatively affordable and easy to find. Recently, online-video-game installations have also taken part in the price action. It is not unreasonable to envisage further positive developments thanks to the sponsoring of web sites, Casinos, and listed companies from South Africa, acting as a hub for all the continent's works.

Tingatinga is an African painting style that developed in the second half of the 20th century in the Oyster Bay area in Dar es Salaam (Tanzania) and later spread to most East Africa. Tingatinga is one of the most widely represented forms of tourist-oriented paintings in Tanzania, Kenya and neighboring countries. The genre is named after its founder, Tanzanian painter Edward Said Tingatinga.


Tingatinga is traditionally made on masonite, using several layers of bicycle paint, which makes for a brilliant and highly saturated colors. Many elements of the style are related to requirements of the tourist-oriented market; for example, the paintings are usually small so they can be easily transported, and subjects are intended to appeal to the Europeans and Americans (e.g., the big five and other wild fauna). In this sense, Tingatinga African paintings can be considered a form of "airport painting".

The drawings themselves can be described as both naïve and caricatural, and humor and sarcasm are often explicit. We have a broad range of African art for sale. Visit our homepage and see our 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