From medicine to masterpieces: Theresia’s healing path through painting

What you need to know:

  • Her exhibition, titled “All Roads Lead Here,” is an acceptance of the choice she made to become an artist.

By Karen Chalamilla

About a year ago, a dejected Theresia Massawe started to consider a career change. After a long medical degree, a gruelling internship during the Covid-19 pandemic right after, and a 2-year unsuccessful job hunt, she decided it might be time to pivot.

She admits, “I just thought, ‘I have devoted far too much of my youth to this for me to be so dissatisfied at the end’.”

We sat at the entrance of the top floor of the Dar es Salaam Centre for Architectural Heritage (DARCH) hallway. From here, we had a full view of the hallway, adorned with canvases that made up Theresia’s debut solo exhibition.

She gestures towards the paintings and says, “Art became a way for me to heal some of the disappointment from the things that were happening in my life. A lot of the pieces I came up with were due to my struggle with my mental health—dealing with anxiety, wondering if I’m good enough.”

Her exhibition, titled “All Roads Lead Here,” is an acceptance of the choice she made to become an artist. The pieces showcased explore the spectrum of emotions felt on the journey to get to this place of acceptance—those that she experienced in the last few years as well as in her life up to this point.

In her art pieces, you can find loneliness, grief, friendship, rituals, and uninhibited joy, just to name a few.

These varying parts of the human experience are tied together by a vibrant and earthy colour palette and a cubist-inspired painting style that makes the figures in her paintings look fragmented, as if she were puzzling the different body parts together as she was painting. The body parts are also irregularly sized.

“If you look at most of my paintings, they're not very symmetrical,” Theresia explains, “the mouth, sometimes the head, or the nose. Something is always too big or too small.”

She goes on to attribute this lopsidedness to a constant state of finding balance, “nothing is ever perfect, “my career, my personal life at home, my social life, the balance is never there.”

The eyes, in particular, are arresting. In all the human figures, they are slightly droopy and aloof, even a little bored. With bright white corneas that make them the centre of the painting even when they’re not physically placed in the middle of the painting, they’re unavoidable, and yet they refuse to reveal much.

She shares, “I was trying to get at the mystery of people. So much of our real emotions are given away by our eyes. I wanted to reflect on what it’s like to carry burdens and responsibilities while trying to appear strong even when we’re not.”

While the rest of the painting might communicate a clear message, the eyes remain unperturbed. It is almost as if to protect the figure in the painting from being too exposed.

Another recurring element in Theresia’s work is the theme of community. The figures in her painting are hardly ever alone. For instance, pieces like Lean on Me, Round Table, and Wapendanao all speak to the human need for companionship and partnership. Growing up in a big family of three siblings and adopted relatives, she got used to being surrounded by people.

And when she was not in her Dar es Salaam home, Theresia would be in Kibaha, at her grandfather’s farm house.

She shares that “chicken, cows, and goats were always around. And we're expected to help out at the farm, so I was always around animals.”

Animals show up again and again in several of her pieces. A standout moment is in her piece titled Ukarimu, where a human figure clutches a rooster—the companionship of an animal can be comforting too.

Drawing from the past comes easily to Theresia, not just her own memory but collective memory too.

She shares her fondness for imagining what people’s memories look like, “I commute on the mwendo kasi, so I get to see all sorts of people. I love trying to piece together what their story is, what their past looked like, and where they came from.”

You can see her appreciation for memory in some of her work too. Her piece, Michungwani, for instance, named after a village in Tanga, is an ode to shared memory.

On the memory that driving past this area triggers, she says, “There are these orange orchards in that village that remind me of going to neighbours’ farms and plucking the oranges from the tree. And it’s one of those memories that so many people share.”

The painting is a recreation of this reminiscence, it illustrates two kids, one reaching out for oranges and the other holding them. It’s one of those oddly specific happy memories that we can appreciate as a personal one and also as a universal one.

Theresia’s upbringing influences the nature of her paintings subconsciously, sure, but it is also responsible for nurturing her talent.

“My mom made sure I had all these drawing books that I still have,” she starts before adding, “she constantly bought me crayons. And when she got fed up with me drawing on her walls or the bedsheets, she put up a big board on the wall so I could scribble on it."

Nowadays, you can find Theresia clutching an A2 notebook, not quite as big as her childhood board, but big enough to be noticed.

“I used to go to exhibitions, and other artists would spot me because of this A2 notebook and immediately ask me if I drew. They would be so lovely about it and give me all this advice and just be so welcoming,” Theresia recalls excitedly.

She goes on to share that the art scene, in comparison to the medical school environment, is much more welcoming. In particular, she found that while the disparity in the treatment of women and men seemed to be encouraged in medicine, there is an attempt at bringing more women to the forefront in art.

She clarifies, “Don’t get me wrong, women still need coaxing to take up spaces in the art scene, but I’ve found this community to be so much more empowering and generous when it comes to sharing opportunities.”

Making a living off your artwork in Tanzania is not easy. There are very few art collectors and buyers, but most are not consistent enough to be a reliable source of income for visual artists.

Compounded with the fact that artists often finance their art tools out of pocket, the situation can get dire. This arguably makes the guidance and support from an art community even more valuable.

When I asked if she ever thought about what she wanted her art to achieve, Theresia quickly answered, "Yes, healing. My work’s motto is ‘art is healing’.”

She shares that one of her goals is to eventually open an art therapy practice that makes use of her medical degree.

“Even before we could talk, we knew how to use our hands. Like kids scribbling or just using their hands creatively. That’s how we first learned to express our emotions. Combining my knowledge of medical healing with art healing would be perfect.”

Another future ambition is, of course, making more art. More specifically, Theresia is trying to make art happier.

She says soberly, “I’m very conscious not to become a tortured artist. Also, I am actually feeling a lot better now. I feel good. I want my art to show that."