Under Ningachi's guidance we inspected more than one Makonde village. They are picturesque—not even envy can gainsay that; but not one of the wretched, airy, round huts, in which the generations of these people dream away their dim lives is comfortable even according to the modest standard of the native. They are not even plastered with clay, in the usual fashion, and this of itself makes fresco decoration impossible. In one sense this fact is a relief to me, when I think of the miles I have tramped at other times, on hearing of beautifully painted houses in such and such a village. Painted they were, but the beauty was a matter of taste. We do not admire the scrawls of our children, and just such—clumsy, rudimentary, utterly devoid of perspective—are these beginnings of native art. In fact, wherever artistically untrained man gives way to the universal instinct of scribbling over all accessible surfaces, whether blank walls or smooth rocks, the result is very much the same, whether produced by the European tramp or street-boy, or my Wangoni and Makua.
—Karl Weule (1909: 366)
But one thing is certain, none of them can nowadays be considered a genuine tribal mark. The novice inclined to look at them as such, till taught better, as I was in a most compendious way by old Makachu. This venerable man is covered all over with the same sort of pattern as those displayed by the women, although some of his are much the worse for wear. I asked him why he was thus decorated, expecting to receive a long dissertation on tribal marks and similar institutions, and was somewhat taken aback when he merely said “Ninapenda” (“because I like it so”).
—Karl Weule (1909: 360).
What did it mean to adorn one's home walls with paintings during the heyday of colonialism? Although lacking in appreciation, these quotes of Karl Weule show that he was one of several who noted a widespread pattern of house wall painting among communities in central East Africa during the colonial period. Wall painting was a feature that received little attention during its time and in subsequent scholarship. This article offers a preliminary analysis of wall painting found in parts of central East Africa during the heyday of colonialism between the 1900s-1960s. Home wall painting was far from “child-like” or “quaint,” as some colonial ethnographers would have it. Rather, it was an important popular arts tradition.1 My research collects and analyzes available period documentary and photographic depictions of house wall-art found in present day southern and central Tanzania, Malawi, and northern Mozambique. Precise readings of wall painting are undeniably difficult and subsequent research will undoubtedly deepen present understandings. Nonetheless, this article proposes that wall painting fulfilled a variety of purposes that likely included important roles as media for cultural messages and political critiques. With similar examples found across many cultures, house wall painting was a popular arts tradition apparently tied to neither “ethnic” nor nascent national identities, making it an important example of rural, “average” peoples' popular culture during this period.
As this article's second epigraph relates, there were layers of meaning (as well as possible misunderstanding) found in the colonial encounter with visual arts. When he confronted the Makonde elder, the German ethnographer Karl Weule expected to hear that body art tattoos corresponded to tribal demarcations, a perspective much in keeping with colonial period reductionist thinking about “ethnicity” in Africa (Ranger 1993; Mamdani 1996). Instead, Weule acknowledged the rebuke he received: “because I like it so” (Weule 1909: 366). Missing in this exchange was the vital question of why this elder liked body art. As with tattoo traditions, wall art's popularity may have spoken to individual or cultural aesthetics, deep symbolisms, social and political commentaries or a combination of all these and more reasons. To interpret any art or symbolic communication across time and cultures is not without its challenges (de Luna, Fleisher, and McIntosh 2012; Schoenbrun 2012; Fleish and Stephens 2016). Yet engaging in such analysis offers key insights for historians interested in histories of both African popular culture and African art (Alpers 1988: 75).
I explore wall art as a dynamic artistic tradition and also as a complex historical source, one that reveals African perspectives during the colonial era. Visual art that encapsulated cultural messages, communications, and social or political critiques are well described in other contexts, especially in western Africa during earlier eras of African-European relations (Curnow 2014; Kreamer, Roberts, Harney, and Purpura 2007). Here such imagery indicated African perceptions of ambivalence, power, and alliance (Mark 2002; Blier 1998). In eastern Africa, “average” people used a variety of cultural mediums to resist colonialism. From spiritual healing networks to satirical performances, sculpture, and vampire rumors, many East Africans tapped into broadly shared forms of communication and protest (Monson 2010; Alpers 1983, 1988; White 2000). Wall art painting probably fulfilled similar roles.
Details of wall art also direct focus to average, rural artists, a topic less studied in histories of both arts and popular cultures in eastern Africa. In earlier times, other visual prestige arts have been richly studied, from—to name but a few examples—coastal Swahili aesthetics (Wynne-Jones 2013; Meier 2016), iron prestige weapons (Kriger 1999; Dewey 1994), glass beads (Wood 2012), and inland architecture at Great Zimbabwe (Dewey 1997). Later scholarly interest often centered on elite and master artists in public arenas, such as with the emergence of “modern” Makonde wood-sculpting, the refashioning of a dynamic, competitive masquerade tradition, and the growth of professional, commercial artists in urban centers (Israel 2014; Kingdon 1996, 2002; Franz 1969; Shore-Bos 1969; West and Sharpes 2002; Wembah-Rashid 1971). Particular artists working on the eve of national independence also received close attention, such as the painter Malangatana Gowenha Valente (Alpers 1988: 85) and master wood-sculptor Chanuo Maundu (Kingdon 1996). Wall art's appearance in a variety of nonurban locations underscored the presence of a rural popular arts tradition; one that existed alongside many of the important urban popular culture developments (such as paperback fiction, cinema, and football) that characterized this period (Callaci 2017; Fair 2018; Domingos and West 2017).
Not apparently restricted to a particular locale, culture, or “ethnicity,” wall art with similarities of style appeared in various adjacent regions of central eastern Africa. This breadth may indicate broader networks that stretched beyond both presumed “ethnic” lines and crossed colonial territories. Available examples of wall art thus complicate and complement histories focused on the emergence of particular “ethnic” arts traditions. In turn, wall art's motifs—which juxtaposed “traditional” cultural symbols with evident “contemporary” images of colonialism—blurred lines of periodization between “traditional” and “modern” arts. In this fashion, wall art also contributes to debates over colonialism's impacts on African cultures (Schoenbrun 2006; Reid 2011).
Various Africans across the continent have created wall art, some in times quite recent and others in deep antiquity.2 It is not clear when wall art first became a widespread tradition in these areas of southern Tanzania, Malawi, and northern Mozambique or whether the tradition continues today. My close review of available sources located no instances of colonial officials claiming credit for introducing house wall painting, a contrast to the contemporaneous situation in western Kenya (Burt 1983). My research thus presumes that house wall painting was an aesthetic tradition independently created and practiced by regional Africans. Ideally, subsequent research will elaborate wall art's history in both precolonial and postcolonial periods, topics beyond the scope of this article.3
I analyzed a collection of historic wall-art that includes available descriptions, sketches, and photographs. My examples date from 1906 to 1964, a time span that overlapped much of the colonial period for Tanzania, Malawi, and Mozambique. In addition to exploring the publications of well-known ethnographers and travelers, I searched for photographs of wall art in the Humphrey Winterton Collection of East African Photographs and the International Mission Photography Archive. Both are large digital collections comprising thousands of photographs. Two research assistants provided valuable help with image-by-image searches of key collections. The end result was a set of historic examples of wall art from seven different sources that consist of textual descriptions, historic sketches, and approximately eighteen photographs, many of which appear in this article. Although I cannot claim this collection is comprehensive or definitive, it is one that speaks to some of the breadth and extent of historic wall art painting found in these parts of central East Africa.
The German ethnographer Karl Weule was one of the first to describe wall art in southern Tanzania, in the early 1900s. Weule's official interest was both ethnographic and curatorial, with an eye to expanding German museum collections. His various publications, including Negerleben in Ostafrika (1908), were narrated in keeping with many colonial-era assumptions and prejudices about “native” Africans. His accounts, nonetheless, were a valuable visual and descriptive source. In the Yao village of Akundonde, located near the Ruvuma River, Weule noted:
The junior headman of the village—a very smart Yao, quite a dandy to local standards, who even wore a watch on a very large chain and consequently had to look at the time every two minutes—proved a much more competent guide to the life and customs of this remote district than morose old Akundonde. The young man showed us plenty of indigenous art—we had only to go from house to house and look under the eaves to find the walls covered with frescoes (Weule 1909: 213–14).
It was also here that Weule took his one and only explicitly captioned photograph of wall painting (Fig. 1), which I will analyze later.4 Near the village of Nchichira, on the southern edge of the Makonde plateau, Weule eagerly looked for the Ngoni, alleged to be southern African migrants, distantly connected to the Zulu, who had migrated to southwestern Tanzania in the 1800s and had caused considerable political and military disruptions. To his disappointment he found no signs of their presence:
The details of hut-construction, too, are exactly the same, and the interiors just as untidy, and furnished with the same sort of grain-stores, pots, and bark boxes, the same bedsteads and the same smoldering log on the hearth as at Mchauru or Akundonde's; while the outer walls are daubed over with the same sort of childish paintings found elsewhere in the country (Weule 1909: 338–39).
Researching around this same time, Friedrich Fülleborn, another a German ethnographer, described wall art in the southwestern highlands, Lake Malawi, and Ruvuma River regions of Tanzania (Fülleborn 1906). His published ethnography included sketches of wall art among Bena, Hehe, Kinga, Ngoni, Nyasa, and Ruvuma communities (Figs. 2–4). Slightly later, other photographic and descriptive sources located examples of wall art in areas that became central Tanzania and Malawi in the 1930s (Figs. 5–9). Several more examples revealed wall art in Malawi and Mozambique in the early 1960s (Figs. 13–15). Taken together, these sources—both those that aimed at more systematic surveys, like Fülleborn's work, and those that noted wall art in passing—help document wall art as a widespread popular arts tradition in these areas.
Contemporary scholars, such as Zachary Kingdon, argue that body art tattooing should be read as a deliberate strategy to direct people's gaze. To wear a tattoo is to wear a “mask of defiance,” to seek to seize control over the views of others (Kingdon 2002: 56). Wall art, too, draws attention to exterior home walls and the motifs themselves; yet, with only sparse colonial records available, many interpretive challenges remain.
In other contexts, similar visual arts functioned as significant mnemonic embodiments of moral spiritual teachings imparted to young people in coming-of-age initiation rites, known as inyago in many regional languages. Often, viewing initiation art (whether masked performers, sculptures, or rock paintings or flour-drawings) was an age-rite in itself, for seeing and understanding such art was part of the process of becoming an adult (Zubieta 2006: 75). Many communities held coming-of-age initiations using temporary dwellings in forested areas on the outskirts of villages. In some cases, flour drawings created the initiation art, with flour representing a food item popular for spiritual offerings (Werner  1969: 97). Such art featured a variety of human, animal, and geometric shapes. Sanderson, a colonial-era linguist and anthropologist, detailed this symbolic corpus, which shared a number of apparently overlapping motifs with wall art:
A varying number of other inyago may be drawn at the fancy of the Master; those seen by me from time to time are: -Mundu, literally a person, but usually said to be a man suffering from disease caused by neglect of taboos; Sato, the Python; Lijoka, any snake; Acinauko, mole-hills, or Matumbi gakucisi, the Ncisi Hills (actually mammae); Lundandambuli, the Spider's Web; Cilalamasi, a mythical Water-Vampire; Likoloto, a Scorpion; Ndope, the Reed-buck; Cijelajela, the Water-Beetle; Mbalapi, the Sable Antelope; and Nyasa (Cilwa), so-called (Sanderson 1955: 37; italics in original).
Sanderson also also reported learning of (but not observing) the use of: “Songo, a mythical snake, Nyandala, the Kudu, Cisui, the Leopard, Lisimba, the Lion, and Lyuwa, the Sun” (Sanderson 1955: 38; italics in original).
Available examples of wall art show a variety of animal imagery painted in various colors. Some animals, such as birds, hares, giraffes, and elephants, were not mentioned in Sanderson's descriptions, while others overlapped. I observe this not to assert that wall art was replacing flour-drawings for initiations. To the contrary, the ability of Sanderson and others to document initiations belied the conclusion that missionary work drove such practices underground (or literally onto village house walls). Similarities between initiation and wall art images were important, however, for they suggest possible deeper symbolic repertoires that house wall artists tapped into. For instance, Weule's photograph of wall art taken in southern Tanzania (Fig. 1) features a large leopard-like animal in the foreground. Farther north, a traveler (and later Moravian Church missionary) named Paul Albert Theile photographed quite similar wall art in the Nyamwezi region of north central Tanganyika. One of these photographs shows an abundance of animal images (Fig. 7). Alongside what appear to be fish, hares, and birds, it includes a leopard, a snake or python, and a large crocodile. These animals—snakes, leopards, and crocodiles—were all symbolic motifs noted by Sanderson, with the crocodile often paired with a moon motif (Sanderson 1955: 39).
Beyond possible symbolism or potency attached to cultural registers of certain animals, others, like depictions of snakes or pythons, may have carried political meanings as well. Between 1905–1907, approximately twenty years earlier, many areas of southern and central Tanzania participated in a series of rebellions collectively called the Maji Maji War (Giblin and Monson 2010), one of the largest anticolonial rebellions in East Africa. Some of the participants drew courage and perceived spiritual power from their connections to the hongo serpent shrine. Like the powerful serpent, the creative force, called the Namungumi in the Yao language, also had strong aquatic symbolism and was sometimes conflated (Larson 2010: 81). The appearance of stylized aquatic animals or snakes may have evoked intentional connections to this history, spiritual networks, or memories of the anticolonial war (as seen, for instance, in Figs. 7–9).
Although details on context are often missing from available sources, several examples raise hints about possible purposes for this art. Based on his textual description, Weule's one other photograph of wall art focuses not on the art, but on an elder suffering from “Ububa disease” (Weule 1909: 337). Nonetheless, framed behind this elder is the round wall of a house with faintly discernable traces of animal-like images (Fig. 10). This combination of an ill person and house with wall art may indicate possible connections between wall art and local healers that merit future exploration.
In other cases, wall art seems to affirm local cultures against perceived colonial pressures. An example from an area identified as a Chewa village near Lake Malawi (Fig. 5) portrays alternating human and animal figures in white pigment (MacKay 1914–1918b). The animals resemble a pangolin and a leopard. Unlike earlier paintings that had featured humans with colonial apparel (such as Fig. 1), these people wear either barkcloth or cloth wrappers and have no evident head coverings. The figure on the left raises a hand (perhaps a fist) in the air. The right figure smokes a long pipe, a status symbol that also appears in period photography of elite women in this area (Inglis 1915–1917). The photographer MacKay took this image as part of a much larger collection that documented the activities of the King's African Rifles troop between 1914–1918. This artist's choice to feature human figures in non-European clothing was notable, as many of MacKay's other photographs featured African soldiers wearing colonial uniforms, underscoring their presence in the area (MacKay 1914–1918a).
This home seems to affirm noncolonial cultures with its use of a pipe as a status symbol and the noncolonial attire of its human figures. Yet, tellingly, the painting's use of writing sought to attract broader interest than the local Chewa community. The painting features the word nembo, a term associated with body art tattoos in Yao and Swahili languages (Sanderson 1954: 201; Johnson 1939: 561). The Chewa language (sometimes called Nyanja) has separate, distinct words for body art tattoos (Paas 2005: 408).5 Both Swahili and Yao languages had become more widely spoken in Malawi, due in part to past migrations of Yao communities in the mid-1800s and the prominence of speakers of both languages in the enslaved person trade from Malawi to the East African coast (Alpers 1975: 250–52 Mugane 2015: 195). This home's use of a more broadly understood language, then, likely solicited interest from visitors beyond the immediate vicinity.
Swahili writing also appears alongside several of the painted motifs on another home. In this case, this photograph is one of the only instances where sources indicated some information about the artists. Near Lake Malawi in a Nyakyusa community (called Konde during the colonial period), Ernst Hermann Schnabel took several photographs of an artist's painted home. Only described, anonymously, as “African Artist in Kondeland, Nyasa” it shows the artist standing in front of his large, decorated home (Fig. 8). Other photographs provide close-ups of the house's geometric and animal motifs accompanied by Swahili writing (Fig. 9). Here the Swahili phrase twiga yaliyomo (“a giraffe is inside”) is painted below a small giraffe. To its immediate right is a spiral design with a large python head and neck appearing on top. The use of Swahili suggests this artist was attempting to attract broader audiences, though it remains unclear whether this was for artistic, business, or other purposes. Given the rich symbolism (cultural and often political) attached to python and snake depictions, a deeper metaphorical meaning also seems possible.
Most wall art examples were painted on homes described as average, often, in the colonial language of the times, as “huts” (Weule 1909: 366). Fülleborn noted the one elite exception. During his visit to the compound of the Hehe leader, the Sultan Kwawa, he observed that wall art was displayed in this sultan's inner meeting room (Fülleborn 1906: 244) (Fig. 4 top). Stylistically, both the wall art in this leader's residence and that on the Nyakyusa artist's home appear rather different. For instance, the bold, alternating color striping behind the animal motifs is found only on the Malawi artist's paintings (Figs. 8–9) and in one zebra sketch that Fülleborn attributed to the Ngoni (Fig. 2, left). Likewise, the sketch of elite residence wall art is also geometric and highly abstract. It may, however, have been a stylized form of other regional abstract motifs (see Fig. 4). Although different in style, this example shows that the popularity of wall art had spread, at times, to homes of elites like this ruler.
POLITICAL AND SOCIAL COMMENTARY
Wall art, of course, did not occur in abstraction, but rather among communities grappling with rapidly changing colonial landscapes. Jane Guyer (2004) popularized the idea of “turbulence” in her study of African-Atlantic economies where African entrepreneurs strategically navigated multiplicities of valuation and changing political circumstances. In a literal and metaphorical sense, turbulence was a theme that also well describes the context of colonial rule. Wall art provides a glimpse of various African depictions of the colonial period with images that seem to both document and explicitly comment upon the era.
In available examples, artists juxtaposed paintings of colonial officials, vehicles, and weapons with those of dangerous animals like crocodiles or leopards. Weule's 1906 photograph taken in southern Tanzania features wall art of a colonial official on horseback accompanied by another official and figures who may be guards (Fig. 1). In this image, the human figure's cap and hands-on-hips posture and white skin coloring help characterize the colonial official. To the official's left are other human figures (perhaps African soldiers assisting the colonial officials). They are depicted in darker pigments, but also with white helmets, bandoliers that cross their chests, and hands holding what seem to be rifles. The use of helmets to indicate colonial officials was also noted in period sculptures (Alpers 1988: 79). In the image at the top right are people (likely porters) who carry objects that resemble a colonial litter, a flag, and an ivory tusk. The person carrying the ivory tusk appears to have a rifle placed vertically at their side. These detailed, realistic images of either one colonial party—or perhaps a succession of observed events—contrast starkly in size with the large painted birds and leopard on the same wall.
Farther north, examples from a Tabora home (in north central Tanzania) also combine animal and possible colonial imagery (Fig. 7). In addition to the many other animals already described, this painting includes a leopard, a large crocodile, a rifle, and possibly a spear. Unlike Weule's photograph (Fig. 1), here the two weapon motifs are approximately the same size as the animals. Although most images are carefully spaced apart, the rifle touches the back of the large crocodile. The features of the crocodile and leopard, unlike the other animal silhouettes, also receive considerable detail. The artist painted detailed spots and teeth on the leopard (using at least two paint colors) and the crocodile, in turn, has carefully painted back ridges and white teeth. These style and image placement choices may have been designed to add emphasis to these motifs. Combining dangerous animals and weapons may have referenced local experiences with colonialism, labor during colonial times (such as professional ivory or big-game hunting), or general perceptions of colonial violence.
In addition, the backdrop of this painting may be of importance. Not only was this wall, like all painted walls, by necessity plastered with clay to create a smooth surface, it also was painted over with several colors to create space for this painting (Fig. 7). This background painting added color contrast in some places, such as around the crocodile. Yet the white box background on the image at the left is more unusual. It is possible that this represents an earlier painting that was painted over to make space for this new image. Differences in paint brightness in other images, such as Figure 1, hint at other possible successive or changing house wall compositions. Here there are noticeable differences in the brightness between the white pigment used for the two birds, one colonial official, and the horse in comparison to the other colonial depictions and the large leopard (Fig. 1). These details may indicate ongoing, collective artistic work that shaped these paintings, a factor that could have made them not only representations and commentaries on colonialism, but dynamic ones as well.
As much as some paintings are abstract in their portrayal of colonialism (such as Fig. 7), others seem to provide explicit historical record keeping. Another wall painting, also in Tabora, captures the details of a colonial ship complete with flag, anchor, twin masts, steam boiler, and a cloud of smoke (Fig. 6). Although Tabora lay inland, it was relatively near two large East African lakes, Tanganyika and Victoria. The former was the site of a major World War I battle among Belgium, British, and German ships. It seems plausible that this painting came from an artist who directly observed one of these ships. Perhaps the artist was one of the many colonial subjects hired or conscripted for building projects such as the extensive central railroad line that connected Tabora to Lake Tanganyika (Iliffe 1979: 137). Based on the painting's details, this image most closely resembles the historic German steamship the Graf von Goetzen (Von Clemens 2010). The painting shows two triangular sails with a connecting rope and a single (not double) steam funnel, which also feature in available photographs of this ship, unlike others engaged in the Battle of Lake Tanganyika (Fig. 11). Although the Germans sank this ship in 1916 to prevent its capture, the British raised and refurbished it after they took over colonial Tanganyika. Renamed Liemba, it began sailing the lake again in 1927 (Laver 1956: 257–60 Meyer Werft 2019).6 The painting details, however, seem to match the ship's original design, not the subsequent renovation.
Unlike most wall paintings, this one is notable for its singular focus on the ship. No other obvious figures or animals feature in the image and the rest of the house wall was either blank or partially painted over with a uniform color. One detail, however, may represent a symbolic statement. In front of the steamship's funnel is an intriguing curved shape, not easily identifiable on historic images of the ship. This could simply be cargo or a weapon being installed. The Goetzen had indeed received fame in naval history for being shipped to Lake Tanganyika in parts and then assembled in situ (Meyer Werft 2019). It is also possible that this painter had observed modifications to the steamship, such as moving an object like a cannon (Laver 1956: 257–60). Yet a metaphorical meaning of this shape also seems plausible, given the rich symbolism found in other wall paintings. This curved object could have represented a stylized head and neck of an aquatic animal, perhaps a figure such as the mythical water animal Namungumi turned sideways (see Fig. 12). To the front of the mast (image left side) appears another partial rounded form that might be the neck and head of this creature. It touches the stylized rifle that faces this ambiguous object.
As much as certain wall paintings suggest a wide range of purposes, from cultural affirmations to possible healing and business practices, others had an overt political role. Like oral narratives and other visual arts, it seems that painters used wall art to document, comment upon, and critique historic events. Some may have been composite or collaborative reflections (Fig. 1), others symbolic critiques (Fig. 7), and still others visual records of particular events (Fig. 6). Together, these examples underscore how wall art—like rumor, performance, or oral histories—provided an expressive canvas for navigating colonial times.
Wall paintings that juxtaposed animal and colonial imagery appeared over a broad time span, from examples early in the colonial period, like Weule's photographs (Fig. 1) to the 1930s (Figs. 6–7), followed by still later examples. The sparse available photographic archive, regretably, does not provide sequential examples of wall art in each area. Limited sources make it unclear whether wall art persisted throughout or beyond the colonial era in all locations. However, some sources reveal examples of wall art from the 1960s, which may point to its continued cultural and political resonance. These photographs were taken just before 1964 when, in that same year, Tanganyika merged with Zanzibar to become the independent Tanzania and fighters began their armed struggle to liberate Mozambique. While comparing local architecture styles, Agnete Bisgaard noted,
I measured up and drew sketches of two houses of this type, one belonging to the above-mentioned woman called Malia, whose husband lived next door in an isienga. She was a Christian—actually a church-elder. On the outside of her bamboo-framed, mud-roughcast wall, she had drawn a church in yellow, red, and black colours, and below she had written the word kanisa (church). Apart from a house near Lake Nyasa, of which I took a photograph and which had very modernistic and drastic drawings on its outside wall (crocodiles, a man and his bicycle, a man with his firearm), it is the only instance in which I saw any kind of coloured decoration on a house (Bisgaard 1962: 56; italics in original).
Bisgaard's comment on the general lack of painted homes in southwestern Tanzania may indicate that colonial conditions led to a decrease of wall art there, a stark contrast to the frequency Fülleborn had reported back in 1906. However, her mention of a painted home near Lake Nyasa (Malawi) indicated a possible continuity of home painting. Back in 1914–1918, MacKay had also photographed a painted home that combined animal and human imagery (see Fig. 5). Unlike this earlier painting, the use of a bicycle and a man and his firearm may have more directly referenced colonialism's social and political changes. The crocodile, like the earlier painting's use of the leopard, in turn could be cultural or political symbolism in the form of a dangerous animal.
Farther south in northern Mozambique, the detailed ethnographic work conducted by Jorge Dias and Margot Dias in the early 1960s documented the prevalence of wall art. These paintings resembled styles of the earlier Tanzanian and Malawi examples. Jorge Dias summarized,
Once the houses have been covered with clay, they become a brownish yellow, sometimes golden or reddish, according to the clay that was used. The people frequently draw on these walls for decoration and in some cases show excellent taste and ornamental sense. Some of the drawings are quite realistic, though slightly stylized, and reproduce scenes of everyday life, above all of men and animals. Others are more stylized and make use of geometric or plant forms. The colours used are of mineral or vegetable origin (Dias 1961: 37–38).
Notably, artists here also juxtaposed geometric and animal imagery with colonial depictions. One Dias photograph (Fig. 13) shows a home with a window that was decorated with a geometric motif. On the other side of the door appeared the large body of spotted animal, perhaps a leopard. Just behind this animal was a person wearing a cap, possibly one used for either mining or military work. Reminiscent of the 1906 Weule photograph where the colonial party was flanked by a large leopard in the foreground (Fig. 1), this Mozambican painting likely tapped into symbolic or political meanings with this animal and human pairing. Another photograph (Fig. 14), described by the Dias as a “home with drawings of animals,” indeed shows animals. It also includes a person holding a rifle in firing position (image left). Still another photograph from this same collection (Fig. 15) shows a drawing and Portuguese writing, both indicating a Catholic church (right). On this house's left side were multiple images of trucks and a person holding aloft what seemed to be a blade. As much as these paintings may have included political and social critiques, they may also have served as more explicit calls for action. In 1964, the same year this ethnographic collection was published, the armed struggle for Mozambican independence began. Led by Frelimo (Frente de Libertação de Moçambique), this movement received support from many in northern Mozambique. Within a year, much of the area that included these Makonde villages had already become Frelimo-controlled territory (Newitt 2009: 524). Thus imagery of people with weapons (whether rifles or spears) may have been sharp critiques of colonial violence, such as the nearby shooting of political demonstrators in Mueda in 1960 (Newitt 2009: 521). Equally possible, these images could have urged support for armed resistance to colonial rule.
Wall art of similar styles, then, appeared amongst diverse central East African communities during both the early decades of formal colonial rule and, in a few places, on the eve of these countries' independence. Available records do not reveal the details of these artists' lives nor whether deliberate ties existed among the many locations with similar styles. Nonetheless, this corpus stands as an important example of widespread nonurban and also likely nonelite artistic expressions. As much as colonialism did create and alter certain “ethnic” identities, local and regional efforts to navigate these fraught times led to more complex, alternate shared cultures (Mamdani 1996; Ranger 1993; Alpers 1988; MacArthur 2016; Hay 2004). Wall art, in turn, may highlight still other linkages that were neither “ethnic” nor protonational among varied communities in parts of present day Tanzania, Malawi, and Mozambique. Whether the connections were primarily artistic, cultural, or political is a question that merits further exploration.
I have sought here to rectify the overlooked importance of wall painting in this part of East Africa and offer preliminary insights into this widespread popular arts tradition. Available examples of house wall art indicate that this was a tradition that was artistically, culturally, and probably politically significant in a variety of ways during the colonial era. House wall art was clearly much more than mere “scrawls of children,” as some period ethnographers had claimed. By painting their home exteriors, these African artists made complex visual statements that reveal the perspectives of “average” people during the heyday of colonialism. This visual record adds much to early twentieth century histories of “average” peoples' colonial experiences and ways in which apparently nonelite and nonurban artists participated in an arts tradition that was shared across regional, “ethnic,” and protonational lines. Whether for reasons explicitly anticolonial, spiritual, political, or cultural, residents in various locales used wall painting to depict and comment upon these times. A flexible popular arts tradition that allowed for individual expression and broader dialogue, wall arts made a variety of statements, some that subsequent research ideally will expand and clarify. Perhaps its very complexity gave wall art notable long-term staying power as a powerful, yet subtle form of expression and resistance, often overlooked by colonial observers.
I am grateful to many inspirations (both personal and professional) for my early interests and thinking about African popular cultures and visual arts. For sharing helpful questions and feedback on an early article draft, I wish to thank my colleagues who participated in the Simon H. Rifkind Center for the Humanities and the Arts Interdisciplinary Faculty Seminar in 2017–2018. For support at later stages I also gratefully acknowledge my mentor Vanessa Valdés and colleagues from the CUNY Mellon Faculty Diversity Initiative cohort of 2018–2019. I would thank as well the editors and the anonymous reviews at African Arts for their comments, questions, and suggestions. I am very grateful for the assistance of two insightful and talented research assistants, Nabila Akthar and Aidan A. Delilkan-Russell, whose careful research made possible thorough searches for wall art in large digital collections of colonial-era photography. Last, but far from least, particular thanks go to my two colleagues, Ellen Handy and Barbara Naddeo, who offered insightful feedback and encouragement at multiple stages.
A number of images analyzed by this article come from publications that are now in the public domain. I have been unable to trace any rights holders for the images shown in Figs. 1, 2, 3, 4, and 10. If anyone claims ownership of them, please contact African Arts and we shall credit you in a subsequent issue.
I characterize this wall art as a popular arts tradition. My use of the term “tradition” is not to imply any sense of timeless, unchanging past. Rather, I treat “tradition” as a collective, dynamic practice, not apparently restricted to a particular artist or “ethnicity” during the colonial period (Vansina 2004: 272). Likewise, my choice of the term “popular arts” emphasizes the use of this art generally outside of evident elite residences or spheres.
Haselberger (1957) offered an attempt at a systematic continent survey of wall art, although coverage was significantly more detailed for northern, western, and central Africa.
Visual styles and motifs of wall art found here at times present fascinating possible similarities to styles and forms found elsewhere on the continent and to certain styles of ancient regional rock art. See, for instance, Redinha (1953) and Zubieta (2006). Such possible connections could ideally be explored by future collaborative research.
Image placement differs between the German, Portuguese, and English language editions of Weule's monograph. For consistency, I cite the images as they appeared in the English edition translated by Werner.
Chewa (Nyanja) terms for tattoos were “1. Mphini/; he has two tattoos on the forehead = ali ndi mphini awwiri pa mphumi; old ladies used to have tattoos on their skins for decoration purpose = akazi akale adali kulemba mphini pa thupi lawo pofuna kudzikongoletsa; 2. Locho/ma-; 3. Ayata/- (kind of tattoos made in the thigh and buttocks of ladies” (Paas 2006: 408). The author also checked for and did not locate the term nembo in the older Chewa dictionary compiled by Scott and Hetherwick ( 1970).