PROFILE : Telling stories through art

Sunday September 18 2016

Tanzanian visual artist Godfrey Semwaiko at

Tanzanian visual artist Godfrey Semwaiko at work. PHOTOI TASNEEM HASSANALI. 

By Tasneem Hassanali

40-year-old Godfrey Semwaiko is a living example that learning art is not limited to a degree or age. Through his 40 years of life, the Tanzanian visual artist has not stopped learning and experimenting with various forms of art medias. He began his career as a book illustrator when he was in school and was encouraged to continue building his career as an artist.

Godfrey did not limit his vision in shaping his passion for art and went beyond borders to observe and learn from various artists and professionals. He is an artist with many hats but he is popularly known as the man who tells stories through art illustrations and figurative sketching.

In an interview with Sound Living, Godfrey opens up about his journey as an artist and the value of art in today’s Tanzania.

When did you take your first step into the world of art?

I have grown up watching my brother draw sketches of the legend and musician Bob Marley. My father used to encourage my elder brother by getting him art supplies such as colours and papers. I guess that is when I felt art and colours had a strong visual power.

When I started my primary education at Mkoani primary school in Kibaha, I realised that I had it in me too, just like my elder brother. The school used to conduct competitions to draw from comic books such as Sani and Busara. These books were my childhood inspiration.

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During school breaks, I used to sketch events or announcements on the notice board using a piece of chalk. I used to love doing that, and I became famous in my primary level because of that.

The late Mwalimu Mbwana who was my choir teacher in primary has played an important role in my life as an artist not only because she used to tell me ‘I am good at what I do’ but also pushed me to never give up on art.

Can you describe your first piece of art?

During my advanced level at Kibaha Secondary School, I met a Swedish couple, Per-Olov Olson and Eun Wissing, who wanted to start a publishing house at a small scale. Mrs Olson was an English teacher at my school and she was looking for someone to do illustrations for one of the books written by Josephat Seng’enge.

My classmates including few other teachers suggested my name. The book project was called ‘vitabu vya kibaha’ and the first piece of art illustrations I had done was for the book ‘mtoto katika nyumba ya chatu’. At that time I did not have proper materials, so I sketched the illustrations using a ‘bic pen’.

You recently finished a three-year course on digital art. What motivates you to keep learning?

There is no end in learning different art forms, it always opens up new ideas, opportunities and beginnings. Ever since I completed my advanced level, I have been attending various trainings and courses in Tanzania and beyond the borders. In the year 1996, the Swedish couple introduced me to The Children’s Book Project (CBP) and the British Council. It is here where my opportunities as an artist were bloomed. From hereon, I did not look back and grabbed every learning opportunity I could, and it happens till date. I have been to Zimbabwe to learn the know-how about book illustrations, in Sweden I got introduced to the world of art, in South Africa I developed my animation skills and the list goes on. But living in the art world itself keeps me motivated to keep going.

What characterises Godfrey Semwaiko’s pieces of art?

Majority of my work involves using watercolours and I love using acrylics. But a Semwaiko’s piece of art will be inspired by the concept of light and shade. For instance, if I want to sketch an object, I want to see it as an object, I will see it as a light and shade concept. So where light goes, shadows fall.

What message are you trying to tell through your art?

I’m more of a figurative artist rather than an abstract artist. Firstly, I don’t show sadness or anger in my art. My art mostly will talk about peace, life and light. Secondly, I get inspired to sketch or paint where there is beauty – it can be an energy or light at the end of a tunnel.

What piece of work is closest to your heart?

It has to be ‘Utatu’. It was a painting of three trees standing tall amidst emptiness. I wanted to show life of three energies, which signified that in darkness or emptiness, there is always an invisible life.

Why is awareness about visual arts in Tanzania limited, almost invisible?

I think the system needs to play its role. Let me tell you a story. In 1996, before I went to Zimbabwe, there were only two computer colleges in Dar es Salaam. But because the government and the system put emphasis on it, after 20 years, today there are thousands of Information Technology (IT) courses and professionals. But think, if in the same span of years, the system put effort on forms of art, we could have hundreds of colleges and institutions in Tanzania and would have taken fine art or visual art to a completely another level.

Not only this, we lack on galleries, art materials, opportunities and much more. Art has a long way to go in Tanzania and we have been crying for ages to give importance to it just like any other field or development in science.

How is art valued in Tanzania?

Each piece of art to its own – meaning, it is how it is perceived and by who. Let me give you an example. Notice the ‘Ujamaa’ craft works when passing to Mwenge or other curio shops, to the eyes of many it is just a mere piece of aesthetic art, but in reality it has a lot of value, especially in the political set up and era.

Late Mwalimu Nyerere, back in the 60’s, had emphasised on Ujamaa meaning family-hood, a concept that formed the basis of his social and economic development policies in Tanzania. But the history of politics in Tanzania did not realise that this concept gained popularity and reached out to many through the form of art, and neither did the artists themselves realise. This example shows that art has a lot of value in Tanzania and each form of artwork has its own story behind it.

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