By Steve Lalli
A new art gallery has just opened in Tanzania’s largest city, and a country’s once-hidden artists, long championed by the Maryknoll Sisters, now have hope and vision to transform and share their lives.
The Vipaji Gallery is a dream three years in the making. It might not have been possible without the determination of Sister Jean Pruitt, a Maryknoll Sister who has advocated for the importance of artists in east Africa for more than forty years.The vision of the new art space is to enlarge Tanzania’s deep pool of talent and creativity. Both the artists and the surrounding community would benefit from the enhanced cultural expression for which people hunger.
“It is the hope of this project to take these artists out of the shadows and empower them to share their creativity and talents in schools, in museums, in exhibitions, and on the Web,” Sister Jean said.
In fact, Sister Jean gave the Vipaji Gallery’s opening-night remarks when it welcomed the public for the first time on May 14 in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania’s largest city.
The country has more than 150 active artists who over the years have contributed to several schools of art that have emerged on the Tanzania art scene over the years. “Henry Likonde, John Kuchele, Balozi, and Msafiri are all artists who have been painting for more than 35 years in the southernmost town of Mtwara,” Sister Jean said. “Msafiri has been the teacher for two of the painters showcased in this exhibition–Evarist Chikawe and Johnson Mjindo.”
The names may not ring a bell to you now, but Vipaji’s opening could soon change that and “ignite the passions of Tanzanian artists through a journey of connectedness in image, form, color, body, lines and shapes,” Sister Jean says, “that spiral and dance in the lives of all who connect with their dreams.” Their names have already been celebrated through the Sisters’ book, Inspired: Three Decades of Tanzanian Art.
Many of the artists exhibiting at Vipaji also have been touched by Nyumba ya Sanaa, the first-ever art gallery in Dar es Salaam, founded by Sister Jean in 1972. The center’s mission was to support local artists, and to help them display and sell their works, among other cultural activities. It also offered vocational training in the arts, including arts and crafts, fine art paintings, clay, wood and metal sculpture.
The new Vipaji Gallery is continuing in that eclectic tradition, bringing together artwork from Tanzania’s henna painting and sculpture communities, among others. The gallery is exhibiting some of the henna artists’ more recent works, while some of the sculptures on display will remind people of some of the great artists of Tanzania’s past.
“The work of ten women (whose Henna art is being exhibited at Vipaji) heralded a renaissance moment in color, style and technique in east African art when these women artist first created and exhibited their work in 2007,” Sister Jean remarked.
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