The historic city of Stone Town met the future of visual arts in Africa at the opening of the seven days of the Zanzibar Visual Arts Festival (VAFZ), which surprised its visitors with its wide range of works exhibited by artists from Zanzibar, mainland Tanzania, Haiti, Nigeria, Ghana and Senegal, among other countries.
With the “Hapa Hapa Now” poster (“Here we are now”), VAFZ organizers wanted to “expand creative speeches” in Zanzibar, by connecting local and international artists, emerging and established during the festival that took place held between October 21 and 27, 2019.
Although Zanzibar has a solid arts market, artists often have safe and predictable forms of Tanzanian masters such as the legendary Edward Said Tingatinga. But the works exhibited at VAFZ varied in form, style, medium and subject – a great course for Zanzibar.
VAFZ launched a call for artist submissions in Africa in August and worked at full speed to select various artists, under the leadership of Vijana Vipaji Foundation, based in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, and the Center for Cultural Arts (CAC), based in Stone Town, Zanzibar.
“Everything we are is formed by our heritage and stories, but here we are building and creating today. That ‘plural’ in our festival focuses on collaboration and participation with others within Zanzibar and Africa with our invitation… a conversation about visual arts, ”said VAFZ organizers, according to their press release.
Despite the unusual rain for the season, residents and travelers alike arrived at Hifadhi Zanzibar's Kukutana Hub – restored historical building for multipurpose cultural and social activities – to experience the mixed media display, conversations.
The historical building itself was a visual delicacy. But the visual arts shown — from contemporary painting, drawing and photography to mixed media, crafts, temporary art and fashion, offered a surprise at all times.
The emerging artist Nayja Suleiman, from Zanzibar, offers a bright and vibrant vision of women in portrait art.
The award-winning veteran artist Lute Mwakisopile of Tanzania addresses the hard work and role of artists in contemporary society:
Emerging photographer Ouattara Moussa Idriss Mahaman, from Senegal, presents a moving series called “Black Culture”:
Educate future artists
In the week that the festival lasted, many Zanzibar students impressed the exhibition space in amazement. For almost all the students who visited nearby elementary and secondary schools it was the first time they saw contemporary art in a gallery space, said Hamad Mbarouk Hamad, director of the Center for Cultural Arts, and also a professional artist.
“There is no academic program for visual arts in our schools,” said Hamad. “A school can have an art club, but that's it. The rest that a young man learns about visual arts depends on his own path – and it is usually a struggle, as was mine, ”he continued.
Hamad and his team offered art tours and workshops for student groups during the festival, hoping to inspire the next generation of artists and build a stronger visual arts community in Zanzibar.
“Art is life, it is everything we do. Your life is a work of art, even so! Life itself is art. And it is a form of self-analysis. Art requires great concentration, ”said Hamad. The challenge is to educate the general public about the intrinsic value of art as a form of individual expression and not just its commercial potential.
Farhat Shukran Juma, 23, always knew he liked the arts but never realized that he could devote himself to that seriously until he arrived at the Center for Cultural Arts in Stone Town and entered. He began studying art techniques with Hamad and now, Juma paints his own abstract works and also produces natural soaps to sell in the store. Juma led a recycled paper workshop during the festival to a group of 30 students.
The road to becoming an artist has not been easy.
“Here, most – they talk a lot about you, especially if they don't understand what you are doing or if you are doing something different. They don't really understand abstract art, ”he said, pointing to his work. “(Many) have not received education and can see the recycled paper as‘ dirty ’and wonder why I chose this material. They have no idea that making art has its benefits, ”explains Juma.
Juma's parents supported her in her art career, but artist Evarist Chikawe of the Vijana Vipaji Foundation said her father discouraged her early interest in drawing and painting.
“I think I was born an artist,” Chikawe said. “My father got mad at me when he saw me drawing and drawing and destroyed many drawings, but my sister – she saw something in me and started giving me (art) materials and buying my drawings.”
With tears in his eyes, Chikawe recalled how his sister, now deceased, took him to the home of his first art teacher in his late teens. “My sister was the one who made me an artist,” said Chikawe, emphasizing how defenders have a crucial role in the life path of an artist.
For Hamad, who has worked incessantly to defend the arts in Zanzibar, often with few resources, seeing visitors from the Ministry of Education of Zanzibar and Baraza la Sanaa la Zanzibar (Arts Council of or Zanzibar) on display is a sign of Hope for the future of visual arts in the archipelago.
But for now, beyond the rumor of the festival, Hamad returns to the Center for Cultural Arts every day as his “happy place.”
“I don't have time to watch TV or sit in the baraza (public banking). Seeing what my students achieve in art gives me the greatest joy. It gives me a purpose. Young people need space to talk, learn and exchange ideas. Young people crave creativity. ”