The Art of Maasai

Maasai by Samuel Susumo 2012

The fascination with Maasais appears as widespread amongst Tanzanians as it is amongst Westerners. Depictions of them are everywhere; in charcoal, oil paint, pastels, wooden sculptures. Always walking abreast, their Pangas at angles away from their bodies, their earlobes swinging as they walk. Some are crudely done but others are truely beautiful.

I found the painting above through John, a local artist at The Roots and Culture Shop. The shop teaches street children arts and crafts, providing them with a cultural education and job skills. John supports two of these children – teaching them how to paint, ensuring they go to school, feeding them and giving them somewhere to stay.

Maasai by Budo “the boy”

The art that is produced is  stunning and hard to believe that some of it comes from the brushes of 14 year-olds’. It was difficult to stop at buying two.

Inspired by my purchases and labouring under the delusion that there is a hitherto untapped well of creativity inside me, I organised a painting class with John for myself and Abby, another Baby Home volunteer.

It started in typical African fashion – we met early at the shop to get a head start on the day, then spent 30 minutes ‘mambo’ing and ‘poa’ing the other artists and most importantly meeting “the boy” Budo, one of the street kids John supports and our assistant for the day.

We then proceeded to somewhere else to pick up the canvases that had been prepared for us. This involved another 30 minute sit down with the boy whilst John disappeared – having exhausted all manner of greetings and introductions at the shop all that was left was to wow Budo with an impressive count to 60 in Swahili and then we each found our own corner of the cafe to stare at with fierce yet artistic determination. 

When John reappeared we began a tour of ALL the dukas in Mwanza, trying to find the right paint – this appeared elusive so we sat with John in a different cafe whilst he sent Budo on a hunt for it. Despite being under strict instructions to return immediately, Budo is 16 with more pressing priorities (“Smoking marjuana John?” “I do not like it, he is not allowed to do it in front of me, it makes him poor at his studies… but maybe”) and he didn’t return for an hour.  On his return it transpired we also needed grease (they make the oil paint by mixing grease and emulsion)…

35 minutes on a dalla dalla, 45 minutes walking through the bush past three villages (where are you going muzungu?) and we finally stopped in front of some rather imposing gates. A 20 minute negotiation for our entrance followed with the Askari and finally we were inside. It was beautiful.  A resort, not yet opened with perfectly manicured lawns that led to a bay and our own beach. If this didn’t inspire my magnus opus, nothing would.

John and Budo found a piece of bark and then started to teach us how to mix the colours together with the grease to get the right consistency. It all felt so natural and authentic, I really did feel that something great was about to happen.

Mixing paint, Tanzania style

“Christy, what would you like to paint?”

“Well, I want to paint a scene of those houses that hang on to the cliffs… in fact, hang on, I have a photo on my camera of what I mean…”

“What background do you want?”

“Oh, well maybe some rocks and trees…”

“No, what colour background do you want?”

“Oh, um, black?”

Once my canvas is covered in black I am then handed the pallet knife. Feeling a little bit under pressure, I start sketching the placement for the trees, huts and rocks into the black with the tip of the knife. This produces a feverish outburst of Swahili from Budo and John steps in.

“Christy, what are you doing? This is sketching. We are not doing a sketching lesson today.”

It’s at this point that the pallet knife is taken off me for the first of what turns out to be many occasions that day.

“What do you want to paint?”

I look across at Abby, who is beavering away on something suspiciously artistic – she’s done this before, Judas – and plump for the same subject.

“Maasai please”

And so we begin, John showing me how to apply the paint, me then displaying my inability to follow even the simplest demonstration, the pallet knife being taken off me again…

The inappropriateness of painting black men on a black background quickly becomes obvious (“Could we maybe just paint in their teeth?”), as did my complete lack of artistic ability and the fact that Abby needs to give up her day job and go work with John

Despite this, I did spend the whole day laughing (as did the gardeners around us) and at least looked the part, covered in paint due to the backwards- and forwards-ing of the knife. Plus it really was a beautiful place to spend the afternoon. Ever the encouraging teacher, on completion John  assured me that he loved my painting (“and I mean this with my heart, not with my eyes”…Mmmh, what an incredibly poetic way of saying something looks shit) and could easily sell it in the shop, although I think this is representative more of the gullibility of tourists than my creative skill.

Below are the results of my and Abby’s hard work. Wave your pallet knife in the air if you think Abby’s done this before…


9 thoughts on “The Art of Maasai

  1. Pingback: From Avaaz – Petition! « Ralphie´s Portal

  2. Hahahahahhahah. Although I have to say kirsty i did see some masai in the dark yesterday and they were reminiscent of your top scene.

  3. Pingback: New rafakis, Konyagi (the local spirit), painting and a weekend away. « Abby in Africa

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