Varnishing Bongo's art with gold

Saturday July 6 2019

 

By Joseph Muhozi

A popular story is told of a man called Mundwi, who used to live in a village called Bumangi in Mara Region, next to Mwalimu Julius Kambarage Nyerere’s Butiama.

He was an excellent artist and sculptor who created a lot of works which he sold cheaply to villagers and gave away some free to relatives. On one auspicious day, something happened.

A story used to be told often in the village on how Mundwi’s works, which portrayed African freedom fighters and Ujamaa, caught Mwalimu’s eye one day leading to a surprise invitation to Butiama for an audience with the great statesman, who wanted to acknowledge the talents of the humble artist.

But Mundwi’s surprise and elation didn’t end there, for he later on got to fly alongside Mwalimu to Dar es Salaam, with all the VIP trappings associated with seating next to Baba wa Taifa!

While in the city, the artist from Bumangi was connected with famous artists and learnt to speak English, which facilitated a fruitful interaction with foreign customers years ahead.

After some years of fame in the city, he went back to the village with little money he made from his works.

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To him, flying with Mwalimu rendered his first flight experience with fondest memory which always brings a smile whenever he narrates it. “Mwalimu was my friend, he liked my works and connected me with prominent people, utaniambia nini?” he often brags at gongo joints, throwing some English expressions to show he is at a different level from other revelers.

It is painful to reflect, however, that Mundwi, elderly and quite broke, has nothing to show that his works are still valued in the world and that this is hardly a different narrative related to the lives of many Tanzanian artists and sculptors.

In another environment, given that artwork grows in value at rates faster than many other investments, generations of these artists would be swimming in cash - so to speak.

For example of fortunes embedded in art works, consider the artwork attributed to an Italian Leonardo da Vinci who lived (1452–1519), which was auctioned and sold for $453 million in 2017.

In addition, a painting of Willem de Kooning, a Dutchman who died in 1997, was sold in 2015 for $312 million. He could be any artist from Tanzania!

What this means is this: Mundwi could be a millionaire if our system was supportive and sustainable in identifying creators of similarly admired masterpieces.

But, how can we help the artisans if we cannot identify them? Fixing ‘the system’ should begin with artist’s identification along with formalizing the art industry and providing capital to enhance quality and growth.

While it is heartening that some artists have now registered with the National Arts Council of Tanzania commonly known as Basata, to strengthen the system, we would need an electronic database which enhances retrieval of their information anywhere anytime. Moreover, the system should enhance accessibility of the global market and capital facilitation.

Providentially, the Ministry of Information, Culture, Art and Sports is utilizing available technological development to revamp the situation. In cooperation with a Dar es Salaam-based ICT company, DataVision International, it has officiated the registration and identification of artists, through a project known as Tanzania Arts and Crafts Identification Project (TACIP), which initially aims at saving Tanzanian artisans and craftsmen from a wide range of pressing issues that they have been facing for years.

The project is under the guardianship of former Prime Minister, Mizengo Pinda, and through it, all artists who have fully registered with TACIP are eligible to receive a wide range of benefits in multiple areas from their daily activities to financial inclusion. Most importantly, the project creates the e-Commerce platform to enable artisans in the country to reach the potential clients all over the globe and access the huge global market electronically (online market).

One would hope this project, which has started with artisans and craftsmen, will finally cut across the art industry and be recognized in legal frameworks, for every artist to adhere with registration and identification processes.

Then, the art industry will foster industrialization by providing more income to 6 million artists, according to data from Basata, hence creating more than 6 million taxpayers.

Such an initiative would have helped to avoid the controversy, which erupted in the year 2017, when three people claimed to be designers of the nation’s court of arm, with the government conceding in Parliament that it had no means of resolving the controversy. Consequently, there is no one to enjoy the accolade of having designed the historical ‘Bibi na Bwana’.

The head of Tanzania Federation of Crafts and Arts (Tafca)’ Mr. Adrian Nyangamalle, told the press that with TACIP, Tanzanian art industry would be recognized globally and that via the project all the artist’s works would be provided with the barcode to be identified worldwide. In addition, with TACIP identity card, artists would have access to loans and training to help make their products comply with international standards.

However, it is unbelievable that despite the efforts of everybody involved in the endeavour, some artists are still hesitating to grab the opportunity presented - almost as if to endorse Thomas Edison’s famed observation, “opportunity is missed by most people because it is dressed in overalls and looks like work.”

According to the Minister for Finance and Planning, Dr. Philip Mpango, when outlining main areas of the fiscal budget for the next financial and summary of economic performance over the past year in Parliament, the art and entertainment sector was the fastest in growth at 13.7 percent, above the construction sector (12.0 percent) and transport and logistics (11.8 percent). Imagine the outcome in a nation where there is an artist almost in every household, if all were to be identified and registered accordingly and were to enjoy the TACIP benefits! No wonder even the Shadow Minister for Information, Culture, Art and Sports, Joseph Mbilinyi (Chadema), who is a hip hop artist popularly known as Sugu, commended Dr. Mwakyembe’s effort in curbing the longtime challenges in the art sector.

Let us make the art sector a catalyst for the middle-income economy by embracing TACIP as the means to do it. Technology has made the world a street with open supermarkets; registration and identifications should be a legal requirement for the wellbeing of the sector.

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