Zanzibar Art, Paintings and Spices

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Published: 07th January 2011
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Zanzibar is a place that evokes images of dhows, white sands, crystal clear seas, palm trees – the smell of cloves that is carried on the breeze. The port of Stone Town is the way into to main island of Zanzibar. This bustling port produces a plethora of art. Many artists come to study on the island and remain here making a living from painting.

The Nyumba ya Sanaa is the place to study art – the House of Art. Many students come here from the mainland port of Dar es Salaam to study here. The island lives up to its reputation and is exotic and romantic and produces some of the finest art in Tanzania.

Before you rush off from the port to the beaches or to the spice plantations on a "spice tour" take some time to relax in Stone Town. It is not often, in Africa, that you will have the opportunity to explore a town that is steeped in a rich and at one time bloody and shameful history. Some parts of the town date back to the 13th century and the labyrinth of narrow streets lined with fascinating shops is an adventure not to be missed.

When leaving the port I always take a short walk along the road that follows the shore, filled with anticipation about the African Art on offer in the Old Fort. A taxi or guide is not needed unless you have luggage. I never tire of walking along the short distance along the coast to town - walking passed the Beit el-Ajaib [the House of Wonders] - a palace that stands four stories high and dominates the sky-line as you approach the island by sea - and was built in 1883 for Sultan Barghash.

I try not to buy from the curio shops along the high street at all. The guides/safari drivers may prefer the curio shops on the High Streets as profit margins are higher and therefore commissions much better than the art markets. Your guide may even suggest the art markets are not safe. Ignore this advice, the art markets are the better option, a part of the adventure and the artists get a better share of the profits and you a more likely to get the art at a lower price.

M. Ausy specialises in watercolour and soft pastels. He works and lives in Zanzibar, moving from mainland Tanzania in 1999 to study art at Nyumba ya Sanaa [house of art]. Since graduation he has remained on the island. His work shop and studio is situated at the Old Fort in Stone Town, next to the House of Wonders along the ocean road. If you arrive in Stone Town by ferry then you will immediately be aware of both these buildings. Mmoud Ausy’s gallery is stacked full of paintings from many artists working in Zanzibar. M Ausy is a gentleman and negotiations are made easy because of this. Next to his gallery in the Old Fort is a bistro it is pleasant to go there to negotiate [by the way you will most certainly find one or two paintings here by S. Ray].

The old narrow streets of Stone town host many ‘galleries’ and the art is breathtaking [in a good way]. Try to find, in the maze of narrow streets, the ‘Basket Shop’ run by Jackson. This is a fascinating shop that sells huge batiks that are great for wall hanging. It is an Aladdin’s cave of art, fabrics and baskets all made by rural women who have banded together to form a cooperative. Jackson’s shop is one of the outlets for this women’s group.

This brief guide about where to find art is meant to kick-start your art shopping in Tanzania and Zanzibar. If you need any further pointing in the right direction, please do not hesitate to contact us.

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