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Tanzanian artist Turakella Edith Gyindo is guided by feelings

Tura is a Tanzanian multi-disciplinary artist based in Dar es Salaam whose medium ranges from painting, installation and live performance. Her work is evocative and rooted in her experiences of isolation, womanhood, emotion and rural/urban environments. In her most recent exhibition at Alliance Francaise, a multi-layered veil of mosquito nets hangs in the center of the room while a video of her performance art plays on a loop on a projected wall. “I rarely know what I mean in my art, I just make what I feel,” she says of her work. In the piece titled, “Existing and Living II,” a lone figure sits on a levelled block surrounded by a wide expanse of dusky colours. It is part of a series about living and existing in different spaces and the emotions that come with growth. Tura’s work often features themes of loneliness, isolation, sadness but she is averse to being labelled as a mental health activist. “I do believe in having these conversations, but I also want to be clear that I do not have the answers. I want my work to steer dialogue” she says. 

Growing up in Morogoro, a mountainous, lushy green city in eastern Tanzania, Tura did not know she was into art. Her surroundings did not feature art and she was not convinced that she could make a livelihood with the profession. The environment she grew up in became claustrophobic and she was motivated to study abroad to get a change of perspective. In 2015, she attained a government scholarship to study in Algeria. While there, she experienced overwhelming feelings of isolation and culture shock. “I went to study chemical and processing engineering, a degree I did not wholeheartedly want to do and my social life was difficult, I felt I could not find people I could relate to.” Tura channelled this desolation into an experimental art practice, where she played with different materials to explore what she was experiencing. Since then, she has come a long way.  Her most recent exhibition was a milestone event. “Mwanangu Kua Nikutume” was hosted at Alliance Française in Dar es Salaam with exceptional attendance and positive reception of the art. “I felt the exhibition was a challenge to the idea of Tanzanian parents’ and societal expectations of work. I wanted to communicate that I can just be me and others can too.” 

Funding from international development partners can set an expectation for African artists to “educate” their community on social and health issues. As a result, artists often feel the need for their art to be didactic, particularly around issues of reproductive health, infectious disease or education. In one of Tura’s pieces, a torn piece of mosquito net drapes over the canvas where she has painted in dark brown and green tones. “There is the temptation to say that this piece and other pieces featuring mosquito nets - known in Kiswahili as chandarua - are about malaria and health prevention but the truth is that my mother was a nurse and it was her job to wash and launder the mosquito nets we used at home”, Tura recalls. Everyday experiences make up the bulk of her practice rather than an overarching aim to educate a community and offer concrete conclusions. “I see the nets as portals. I see them as an opportunity to play around with ideas I have”. Lingering in the unanswered areas of her art and practice allow for interesting conversations and more questions, the most frequent one being, “what does your art mean?”, a question she never truly knows how to answer. 

Title: Fallen II. Medium: Acrylic, coffee on canvas. Size: 180* 150cm

Tura’s whimsical exploration is a luxury that other Tanzanian, and African, artists often do not have. The Tanzanian art scene is largely defined by bright colourful paintings of maasai, wildlife and caricatured black bodies - often for the consumption of foreign tourists. Tura’s art work is worlds apart from this form - her paintings are often muted, earthy colours with abstract figures and materials such as coffee and soil from her surrounding environment. By refusing to conform to these expectations of community educator or tourist-pleasing artist, Tura’s practice adopts a novel convention where she is led by feeling and instinct. The reaction is one of evocation where she invites the viewer to be actively engaged, asking themselves questions and musing in the liminality of her paintings, performances and installations.  

Beyond exploration, collaboration is another central pillar of Tura’s work. In 2022 she was involved in a residency with refugee artists in Germany. Hearing and sharing stories with other women motivated Tura to take an interest in the medium of water. “We have different ways of using water - advances in being able to move across water is what brought colonists to this part of the world and now thousands of people cross water for a better life. I personally go to the ocean every day, water is a very powerful medium for me.” Collaborating with other women motivated Tura to build a platform for women’s voices to be heard. Her art has a strong gendered dimension and through her craft she aims to show the resilience of women. According to UN Women statistics “only 33.3% of legal frameworks that promote, enforce and monitor gender equality, with a focus on violence against women are in place.” As a result, Tanzanian women are often failed by legal systems and experience severe marginalisation in areas such as commerce, health and social settings. Tura’ work addresses this harsh reality in a more subtle way. “I do not set out to be a feminist artist or mental health artist even though these experiences influence my work. Once you label yourself as something it is difficult to be accepted and listened to without the pre-conceptions of what those things are to someone.” This approach allows for dialogue around topics that may be harder to have in everyday settings.

In addition, Tura’s rising talent as a female artist shows that women can take up space and engage in these discussions without shame or fear. Tanzanian women are often expected to be submissive and if allowed to be in spaces not to be overconfident and loud but motherly and at most, stern. Being expressive and experimental is a challenge to this expectation and her work embraces the possibility of shame and of being misunderstood. It is this vulnerability and courage as a female artist that makes Tura’s work both tender and compelling.

Her work also speaks to the human condition, not just women. In her piece, “Existing and Living V,” the gender of the subject is undefined. A figure stands with their back to the viewer, there is a melancholic air around them. In her work, Tura is also passionate about exploring the experiences that affect people beyond gender. By addressing universal themes Tura hopes that viewers can connect to her work and ask themselves questions that may help them work through their own issues. When asked about community, Tura’s answer is very clear. “The community I want to reach are people who want to be vulnerable. I understood myself more when I let myself be more vulnerable and I want my art to do that for others”. 

Decolonising the mind

Tura’s practice also features conversations around heritage, colonialism and traditional healing. While in Algeria, Tura was influenced by the strong coffee culture and began experimenting with it. As a result her work is defined by grainy textures and earth-like tones due to the use of coffee as a painting material. “I started using coffee when I was in Algeria as it was so common and was one of the few things available to me when I started testing out my art practice.” Her resourcefulness adopted a different meaning when contextualised in her home environment. In Tanzania, coffee is a significant aspect of Swahili culture with small porcelain cups of coffee sold by street vendors and on corners under shady trees. However, the commodity also has a darker history related to colonial production.  

Tanzania experienced German colonialism from 1885-1918 but experienced proto-colonialism from as early as the 1840s. During this period, the German colonial state was intent on developing an export colony that would bring significant economic gains. Coffee was one of the chief commodities produced during this period and planting schemes were forcibly enforced. This long history of foreign rule marked by legacies of violence, subjugation and resistance inspires Tura to delve deeper. “I am interested in looking into where we came from and what we had before [colonialism]. We pray to gods that do not understand us - we do not use plants that our forefathers and foremothers used for medicine. I want to learn about the past, ancestors and our history to better understand myself.” 

From Turakella Edith Gyindo's exhibition, "Mwanagu Kua Nkutume"

The environment is a central character in this history as well. Inspired by her childhood in Morogoro and a recent residency under MAZI where she reconnected with the natural surroundings and engaged elders in the community, Tura draws on indigenous knowledge systems. “Taking a break from the chaos of Dar es Salaam and escaping to Morogoro allowed me to reflect on the importance of heritage and the wisdom of elders. During my residency, I recorded conversations I had with one elder, Mzee Said, who taught me about different crops and the history of Morogoro.” These recordings feature as voices that she plans to incorporate into her work or simply draw inspiration from. By listening to elders, Tura was reminded of her grandparents, in particular her grandmother, whose singing features in her work. This ode to ancestral wisdom highlights the importance of intergenerational conversations and the growth that comes from honouring indigenous knowledge. 

Tura’s personal history is an important thread of her work. Drawing on her own memories evokes emotions that other people can connect with. In one of her pieces, a series of bathing loofahs, known in kiswahili as madodoki, are stuck together and bound by thin white rope. Next to the installation is a rippled thin sheet with the imprints of footsteps. Playing with materials that have significance to Tura allows her to shape meaning and bring people into conversation. “I use soil, the songs my grandmother used to sing, sticks and whatever comes to me in my work.” Tura explains. Through these materials, she can engage with recurring themes of identity, womanhood and solitude. It is not always for her work to be understood, she goes on to explain. “My parents came to the exhibition and they did not understand all the pieces but they would sometimes point at something and say, ‘hey, that reminds me of that moment’”. It is this mixed experience of familiarity and novelty that Tura’s art evokes in viewers. By combining a deeply personal history with materials that Tanzanian audiences may be able to relate to but in a completely different context is what makes her work both exciting and relevant. 

Tura’s blossoming art practice cements her as a Tanzanian artist to watch but also as a crucial facilitator of key conversations. “I want to show that art can be accessible. The only way to make people understand [art] is to be confident and comfortable, that way people get it more.” Tura explains how taking a leap of faith into the unknown taught her to embrace uncertainty and a practice that requires daily interrogation and experimentation. In hearing how others interpret and connect with her art, Tura leans into gaining new perspectives on a practice that she is building constantly. Community response and engagement thus plays an important role in her approach. By blending her practice with conventional art practices such as an exhibition in an art gallery and performances in public spaces, Tura engages the community in various ways. She uses language that people can identify with but that is also deeply personal. From her grandmother’s songs to being ordered around by elders, Tura is keen to show that sometimes subverting hierarchical structures whether parental or societal can be freeing. Art can be a powerful tool to engage with these themes of community pressure and the expectation to follow a charted path by showing the many potentials that one can just be. Tura’s practice is an exciting example of an East African artist leaning into the harder questions that may not have clear cut answers but are of the utmost importance to the community she is a part of. 


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