If one were to populate a map of Africa using only the books, articles, and exhibition catalogs written about the continent's art and architecture, the resulting document would little resemble the land mass we know today. While the western and central portions of the continent would be remarkably detailed, the north and south would be littered with holes. And in the east—well, in the east, there would be almost nothing except a note: “Here be dragons.” Enter Gary Van Wyk and his magisterial edited volume Shangaa: Art of Tanzania. Published in 2013 alongside an eponymous exhibition, the collection features ten chapters, seven shorter essays, and over three hundred breathtaking illustrations (most in color), all of which do much to combat the “astounding … notion that Tanzania is poor in art” (p. 25). Indeed, as Van Wyk spells out in his introduction, the alleged dearth of artistry in Tanzania has more to do with the particularities of colonial and postcolonial history than it does with any lack of creativity or production. Although a handful of previous publications had sought to correct this myth, their success was limited by language, small publication runs, and an almost complete reliance on black-and-white images.1 However, where previous authors failed, Van Wyk and the ten Africanist art historians and anthropologists who write alongside him succeed in a most spectacular fashion. It is a volume that I highly recommended for museum and university libraries, and selections, I think, will also prove useful in courses on African art history and anthropology.
Shangaa, however, is more than just an act of historical recovery and canon reorientation. Rather, through well-researched essays grounded in archival research and ethnographic fieldwork, the collection provides a history of certain longstanding sculptural forms in Tanzania. It is, thus, not a survey of Tanzanian art writ large, but instead a volume that “concentrates on cultures that professional art historians have recently studied in depth” (p. 28). This narrow focus allows the authors to amplify the central argument of the collection—which is, in short, that Tanzania's diverse population and dynamic history created ever-evolving art works, each of which are “living traditions, linked to long-enduring practices” (p. 51). Although Van Wyk and his interlocutors recognize the problems of relying on idea of culture and tradition—the editor writes that the “paradigm of ‘one tribe, one style’ is particularly inappropriate for Tanzanian peoples,” given their “mixed heritages and overlapping histories” (p. 28)—it nevertheless serves as the key organizing principle for the essays. However, by paying close attention to the local histories of specific areas and peoples, the authors largely avoid the trap of the ethnographic present and clearly articulate the dynamism of life during the nineteenth, twentieth, and twenty-first centuries.
The chapters themselves focus primarily on objects produced by Bantu speakers near the Indian Ocean coast, Lake Tanganyika, and Lake Victoria. One such culture, the well-known Makonde of southeastern Tanzania and northeastern Mozambique, is addressed in chapters 2 and 3. In the former, Giselher Blesse introduces readers to the art and creative practices of this ethnic group through an examination of Karl Weule's ethnographic mission to southern Tanzania in 1906. Bessell's overview, which details anthropological practice at the time, also provides useful stylistic information on a range of objects, from ear stretchers to mapiko masks. Alexander Bortolot subsequently expands on this introduction to Makonde art with a truly outstanding essay on the effects of the Ruvuma River border on artistic practices. Writing primarily about lipiko masks and mitete protective containers, Bortolot demonstrates how events such as the Indian Ocean slave trade, colonialism, and independence movements instantiated the movement of people and artistic ideas between Mozambican Makonde and their northern neighbors in Tanzania.
The theme of intercultural exchange and artistic innovation is one that returns in later chapters as the book subsequently moves north to consider the art of other peoples residing near the Indian Ocean coast. In chapter 4, Fadhili Mshana discusses the mwana hiti sculptural complex and its relationship to female initiation and fertility within Kwere and Zaramo cultures, and Barbara Thompson follows this with a tight and well-written piece that focuses on a spiritual healing complex in northeastern Tanzania known as uganga. Despite rapid change in the region, Thompson argues that uganga and its associated rites, rituals, and spiritual objects, has remained strong within several regional cultures (e.g. Shambaa, Mbugu, Nango, Pare, Chagaa, and Zigua) due to its “remarkable flexibil[ity]” (p. 185).
From there, the book veers west, toward the Great Lakes region. In chapter 7, Allen F. Roberts discusses the relationship between people on either side of Lake Tanganyika, a large body of water that separates Tanzania from the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Through an analysis of specific figural sculptures from both sides of the lake, Roberts masterfully demonstrates how the exchange of commodities and the movement of enslaved people in the nineteenth century went hand-in-hand with the flow of ideas and artistic practices. Finally, the volume closes with a three-chapter arc on the art of Greater Unyamwezi, a loose grouping of people in northwestern Tanzania that includes Nyamwezi, Sukuma, Sumbwa, Kimbu, and Konongo. Silvia Dolz and Van Wyk, in chapters 8 and 9, respectively, provide detailed overviews of Nyamwezi history during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries and introduce readers to the form and function of the artistic objects in the region. Aimée Bessire then concludes both the Greater Unyamwezi arc and the book itself with a discussion of both the forms and functions of Sukuma art and how it has changed because of tourism and increasing cultural interconnectedness in the twentieth century.
In Kiswahili the verb kushangaa means “to be amazed,” and upon completing this remarkable exhibition catalog that is exactly how I felt. When placed beside the detailed object labels and the diverse array of shorter essays, each of the chapters in this volume not only tells a history of Tanzania through art, but they also highlight just how similar East African art is to that which is produced throughout much of the continent. Although the textbook editors of A History of Art in Africa wrote that “The diversity of East African peoples … makes it difficult to place their art into readily definable categories,” Shangaa shows that East Africa is not exceptional in its art history, and indeed, that it is a place home to the arts of masquerade, royalty, initiation, and spirituality.2 Also important is the comprehensive bibliography and large number of color photographs, both of which will prove incredibly useful for future scholars working in the region.
Given the strength of the individual essays, it is unfortunate that reading them in consort is a largely frustrating exercise. Information in one section is oftentimes repeated in another and the geographical arrangement of the chapters does not necessarily correspond to the arguments made in each. Why, for instance, is Sandra Klopper and Rehema Nchimbi's short chapter on the effects of Ujamaa socialism on dress and ngoma dance in the mid-to-late twentieth century sandwiched between more historical essays by Thompson and Roberts? Moreover, considering the focus of the project, I am surprised that Swahili and Maasai cultures, both alluded to by several authors, were not addressed in their own right. Were Van Wyk to have devoted less space to Greater Unyamwezi, then attention could have been given to other cultures and art objects. Nevertheless, despite these omissions, Shangaa: Art of Tanzania is a signal achievement, both for Van Wyk and for the field of African art and architectural history. With lucid prose, sharp photographs, and keen attention to both local and global histories, the volume successfully re-shapes our understandings of African art and culture and will no doubt inspire generations of scholars and students. Surely there can be no greater accomplishment.
Van Wyk highlights Marc Felix, Mwana Hiti: Life and Art of the Matrilineal Bantu of Tanzania (Munich: Verlag Fred Jahn, 1990) and Jens Jahn, Tanzania: Meisterwerke Afrikanischer Skulptur/Sanaa za mabingwa was Kiafrika (Munich: Fred Jahn Verlag, 1994).
Monica Blackmun Visonà, et. al., A History of Art in Africa (Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Prentice Hall, 2008), 431.