Aggrey Mwasha is a Tanzanian artist from Kilimanjaro, the north east region of Tanzania. Born in 1969, he is self-taught and started painting when he was ten years old, making different coloured paints from plants and flowers. While still at school, his work started to garner attention, exhibited in both his local region in Kilimanjaro and also in Dar es Salaam. In 1989 he won first prize in the World Food Day drawing competition that took place in Dar es Salaam. His work has also received international recognition where it was included in the Artpurha Exhibition in Finland in 2001. In 2002, he took part in a work shop arranged by the Fine Arts department of the University of Dar es Salaam with the Dutch artist Mrs. Els Waigers. His paintings have been sold across the globe including countries such as America, England, Finland, Norway and South Africa. He was recently selected to participate in the Pan African Cultural Festival in Algiers, Algeria, in July of this year, the first Tanzanian to do so. When he is not painting, Mr. Mwasha works as a Curator at the Wasanii Art Centre, in Slipway, Dar es Salaam. The other day, he kindly took the time to answer my questions about his Art. The following is an edited version of our conversation.
Tell me a little bit about yourself?
My name is Aggrey Masha, I am a painter. I started painting since I was about ten yrs old. At that time I was making colours using flowers and plants, myself, [and] I was using them to paint on paper. After…I started primary school, I was able to buy some coloured pencils and water colours. I [taught] myself and then when I [got] to secondary school, I [took] fine arts subjects [and] was able to mix colours, paint better paintings. I have been participating in exhibitions since I was very young. When I completed Form 4, I participated in a world food day drawing competition (in 1989) organized by FAO, it was called World Food Day drawing competition. When I completed secondary school, I decided to go to the College of Business Education because I also like business, but when I completed my course, I [wanted] to continue painting. So I continued teaching myself, attending many workshops and exhibitions. I was improv[ing] day after day. I [started] to take the profession serious[ly] from 1991. From 1991, I decided to be an Artist full time. And from there, I have managed to sell my paintings abroad. I have [attended] many workshops. There are some famous artists in Tanzania who have helped me, for example Prof. [Elias] Jengo from the University of Dar es Salaam and Dr. Masanja. I have been with these people for many years, [they] taught me how to improve my work. [Art] I can say is part of my life. I like to do it always. Wherever I am. Even at work. At home. I like to do it. I started with very realistic paintings when I was very young. But I am changing day to day. Now I am not doing realistic. I am doing abstract impressionism, using oil colours, acrylic, pastel, water colours. So I’ve managed to use all media.
Was there a moment or something that made you want to be an artist?
I [wanted] to be a painter because I like colours. Something which is very colourful, I like it. For example, Mount Kilimanjaro (I was born in Kilimanjaro region) in the sunset, Mount Kilimanjaro becomes very colourful, very [beautiful]. It attracts me, the colours, when I see something attractive like that I try to paint it, to mix [different] kinds of colours and make it […] In fact, automatically. Automatically from nowhere, I decided to be a painter by looking at [beautiful] things, like the Ngorongoro Crater, the Zebras, I like to [create] something which is beautiful. So there is nothing else that made me want to be a painter [but that].
Where do you paint?
I paint at home. I mostly paint at home […] Outside the house or inside. Even when I am here [at the centre] I can paint outside, I can [mix] colours and paint outside. But I need a place which is quiet.
What is your routine? Do you paint everyday or when inspiration comes to you?
I paint everyday. Everyday, but sometimes it happens that, may be I can paint [for] a week everyday and may one day or two days I don’t paint. It depends on how I feel. If I don’t feel good, may be I’ve got problems, lots of things to think [about]. [I don’t paint]. It happens not always, may be once a week, or twice. But I like to paint everyday. When I wake up I paint at home, when I am at work I paint[…] In fact, I like to paint in the mornings and evenings. When it is cool. In the morning, the mind is fresh. I can paint very peaceful[ly]. But in the afternoon, may be from 12 up to 3, that is not [a] good time. But in the evenings it is a very good time for me to paint.
Can you name may be two or three works of art that mostly inspire you to do your paintings?
I like paintings by Prof. Jengo. I have been with him [for a long time]. Since I started painting. I like how he mixes the colours. And Dr. Masanja, though he is late now […] I like how [Prof. Jengo] mixes the colours, he gets very attractive colours. Just the colours, not the subject. As I said [before] I like the colours […] when I do abstract […] in the colours you can get the message. I put the message in the colours.
Tell me about your artistic development, your evolution as an artist
At the beginning I was doing very realistic paintings. Like photographs. I continued doing that for a long time. I [received] a lot of orders from people. Some asked me to do their portraits, to enlarge their [photographic] portraits, to [turn them] from black and white to colour. But the time came when I [got] very bored [doing this]. I felt that I’ll be happy if I do what I like, from my heart. So I decided to create my pictures from my heart […] and that was when […] I started to create my style of painting. I was bored do[ing] [realism]. I wanted to do what I feel from my heart […] so I moved from realism to impressionism [and now] abstract [impressionism] […] I like smooth things. I tried Cubism but […] I was not comfortable with [it’s] sharp[ness]. I like something smooth [that I get with impressionism].
What do you think of the Art Scene in TZ, if there is such a thing?
Yea there is. I can say that there art galleries. We have [a] few art galleries, like La Petita Art Gallery, [where] you can see [Art] by Tanzanian artists. There is [the] Mawazo Art Gallery, Colour Centre. And this, Wasanii Art Centre. This is different from other galleries. You know, other galleries they sell [artists’ work] and take commissions, may be 30% or 35%. But […] Wasanii Art Centre is a place where artists can display their works [and] when they sell [something], they don’t give any commissions. Because in the beginning of this, we donated our art works and we brought two art works each and [when] they were sold, 100% [of the revenue] went to the centre, and the other piece 80%. And the artists who donated, are the ones who are members of this art centre[…] So this is something different.
Pick three of your paintings and talk a little bit about what you were trying to convey in each of them
The Beginning of the World’ (2007)
[Here] I was trying to explain that […] at the beginning of the earth…I can imagine that there was nothing…everything was black. But later on, the light started, and [this shows that], day and night together. [The colours convey that] night is going to be finished, day is coming now.
‘The Beach’ (2009)
I just like to show our country. [In this painting] you can see a coconut tree and it is showing […] our beautiful coast. Many artists these days don’t paint the beach, I don’t know why. We have beautiful beaches, we have Coco Beach, we have Msasani Beach. So I was reminding them that we have beautiful beaches. We can go and enjoy there. And you can see [in the painting] two people enjoying our beach […]I did it in an impressionist style because this has been done realistically many times, it is boring me. Something that is very realistic is boring. I wanted to put it in a [different], more attractive way.
‘The Harvest’ (2008)
This reminds me of home, where I was born. I was born in Kilimanjaro region. We plant a lot of bananas, plenty. So I just [wanted to convey] our activities in that area, that we have […] these activities going on that are different from other places, like Dar es Salaam you can’t do these [things]. I have done it, in impressionistic style, that is my style.
What are you working on at the moment?
I just finished a painting, called ‘Welcome to Ngorongoro, and I just started on another one, ‘The Market’, but it’s still in my imagination, it has not yet made it to the canvas.