Memories of Chagga Country: Sam Ntiro

By examining the time Tanzanian-born artist Sam Ntiro spent abroad in Uganda and the United Kingdom, art historian Gabriella Nugent explores the transnational interstices of his work. By way of Men Taking Banana Beer to Bride by Night (1956), a painting featured in “One Work, Many Voices,” which focuses on individual artworks chosen from MoMA’s collection, Nugent highlights the role of memory in Ntiro’s practice. She argues that these memories are a product of distance and thus complicate the frameworks of art history that limit understandings of his work to national and continental narratives. Moreover, if there is an orientation toward past memories in Ntiro’s work, his paintings simultaneously propose a future vision of Tanzanian independence.

Fig. 1. Sam Ntiro. Men Taking Banana Beer to Bride by Night. 1956. Oil on canvas, 16 1/8 x 20 in. (40.9 x 50.8 cm). The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Elizabeth Bliss Parkinson Fund

In Men Taking Banana Beer to Bride by Night (1956; fig. 1), Tanzanian-born artist Sam Ntiro (1923–1993) depicts a scene typical of the Chagga peoples, a group living on the southern slopes of Mount Kilmanjaro to which he belonged. Rendered in loose, swirling brushstrokes, the men carry mbege, a kind of banana beer traditional to the Chagga, as an offering to the bride. Transported in gourd containers on top of their heads, mbege is produced through a labor-intensive process involving the cultivation, harvest, and ripening of bananas, which are then mashed and cooked and subsequently left to ferment for several days before being strained and left to sit overnight. Surrounded by a canopy of trees against the evening sky, the men advance with their banana beer across the rolling slopes characteristic of Chagga country. Their onward movement is echoed in Ntiro’s wavelike brushstrokes, which define the verdant green ground below.

After graduating from London’s Slade School of Fine Art in 1955, Ntiro moved to Kampala, Uganda, where he taught at Makerere College and, in 1956, executed Men Taking Banana Beer to Bride by Night. In 1960, the work was included in a solo exhibition in New York City at the Merton Simpson Gallery, from which it was purchased by The Museum of Modern Art, making Ntiro the first African artist to enter the museum’s collection (fig. 2).

Fig. 2. Installation view of Sam Ntiro’s Men Taking Banana Beer to Bride by Night (1956) in the MoMA exhibition Recent Acquisitions, December 21, 1960–February 5, 1961. Photographic Archive. The Museum of Modern Art Archives, New York. IN678.12. Photograph by Soichi Sunami

As exemplified by Men Taking Banana Beer to Bride by Night, Ntiro was committed to depicting scenes of Chagga country. Due to this preoccupation in his oeuvre, the transnational interstices of Ntiro’s work have often been overlooked. In response, I wish to explore the role of memory in his practice. Although he would travel back to Kilimanjaro, Ntiro had not lived in Tanzania for twelve years when he completed Men Taking Banana Beer to Bride by Night.1Mario Pissarra, “Re/writing Sam J Ntiro: Challenges of Framing in the Excavation of a ‘Lost’ Pioneer,” Third Text Africa 4 (2015): 48–49. “He lives far away from his own people and country,” wrote a Ugandan colonial official who supported Ntiro’s application to the Slade in 1951.2Deputy Director of Education, Uganda Education Department, to Slade School of Fine Art, November 22, 1951. Sam Ntiro’s student file, UCL Special Collections, University College London. I contend that Ntiro’s memories of Chagga country are a product of distance and thus, his practice complicates the frameworks of art history that limit understandings of his work to national and continental narratives.3Even as the “global turn” in art history has sought to combat Eurocentric assumptions of modernism, it has often perpetuated the discipline’s methodological nationalism. These national narratives contribute to larger continental frameworks that exasperate divisions between artists.

Ntiro Abroad

Fig. 3. Sam Ntiro’s application to Slade School of Fine Art, completed November 22, 1951. Ntiro’s student file, UCL Special Collections, University College London

In his application to the Slade (fig. 3), Ntiro states that he “did Art for the first time [sic]” while studying at Makerere College in Kampala, Uganda, between 1944 and 1947. Born in 1923, Ntiro completed primary and secondary school in Moshi, a municipality on the lower slopes of Kilimanjaro, before leaving Tanzania to pursue his tertiary education in Uganda. At Makerere, Ntiro was taught by Margaret Trowell, a Slade alumna who brought formal art education to Uganda in 1937.4Trowell’s curriculum was formed with the help of her former tutors at the Slade and British educator Marion Richardson. She created close links between her department at Makerere and the Slade. Wary of imposing Western techniques, Trowell often left students alone “to develop an art of their own,” prompting them only with verbal description.5Elsbeth Joyce Court, “Margaret Trowell and the Development of Art Education,” Art Education 38, no. 6 (1985): 39. Trowell has been criticized for this approach,6See Emma Wolukau-Wanambwa, “Margaret Trowell’s School of Art, or How to Keep the Children’s Work Really African,” in The Palgrave Handbook on Race and the Arts in Education, eds. Amelia M. Kraehe, Rubén Gaztambide-Fernández, and Stephen B. Carpenter II (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2018) 85–101. which was premised on an essential difference between Africans and Europeans, and Ntiro has often been dismissed as a faithful disciple of his former teacher, denying him subjectivity.7George Kyeyune, “Art in Uganda in the 20th Century” (PhD diss., School of Oriental and African Studies, 2003), 112. See also Sunanda K. Sanyal, “‘Being Modern’: Identity Debates and Makerere’s Art School in the 1960s,” in A Companion to Modern African Art, eds. Monica Blackmun Visona and Gitti Salami (Malden, MA: Wiley Blackwell, 2013), 267–68.

Upon graduation, Ntiro stayed in Kampala, joining the college’s teaching faculty. With Trowell’s encouragement, Ntiro applied to the Slade in 1951, enrolling in 1952. His classmates included Ibrahim El-Salahi (Sudanese, born 1930), Paula Rego (Portuguese, born 1935), and Menhat Helmy (Egyptian, 1925–2004). On April 24, 1954, Trowell commented on Ntiro in a letter to the Slade’s secretary I. E. Tregarthen Jenkin, “I’m glad our Sam Ntiro is doing so happily at Slade but I wish you’d make a combined effort to make him stop painting nostalgic memories of Chagga country and really take a look at England instead.”8Margaret Trowell to I. E. Tregarthen Jenkin, April 24, 1954. Sam Ntiro’s student file, UCL Special Collections, University College London. Recalling his former classmate, El-Salahi remarked that while students were responding to Cezanne and “painting apples,” Ntiro was painting images of cattle.9Pissarra, “Re/writing Sam J Ntiro,” 49. This refusal described by El-Salahi in 2012 is compelling in that perhaps Ntiro believed that Cezanne and his apples lacked any direct relevance to him. As Ntiro would later state, “My painting is a memory of what I know best of the life of my people.”10Marshall W. Mount, African Art: The Years Since 1920 (Bloomington and London: Indiana University Press, 1973), 98.

After graduating from the Slade in 1955, Ntiro was met with commercial success in London, debuting with Piccadilly Gallery in October of that year. He also returned to his teaching post at Makerere. Echoing Trowell’s comment, the British press celebrated Ntiro for having been “untouched” by his exposure to Western art education despite his adoption of many of the formal qualities of European modernism.11Eric Newton, “Sam Ntiro Exhibition,” Guardian, November 18, 1964. On the formal qualities of European modernism in Ntiro’s practice, see Pissarra, “Re/writing Sam J Ntiro,” 36–37. Working against these stereotypical responses, I contend that Ntiro’s practice was one enabled and forged through his distance from Chagga country, beginning in Uganda and continuing in Europe. His paintings act as a repository for memories of his home, a gesture only made possible by his departure.

Fig. 4. Sam Ntiro. Banana Harvest. 1962. Oil on canvas, 59 7/16 x 59 7/16 in. (151 x 151 cm). Bristol Museum and Art Gallery.
Fig. 5. Sam Ntiro. Cattle Drinking. 1962. Oil on canvas, 59 7/16 x 59 7/16 in. (151 x 151 cm). Bristol Museum and Art Gallery.

Ntiro indirectly returned to the subject of banana beer in the one of three paintings he was commissioned to create for the 1962 opening of the new Commonwealth Institute building on Kensington High Street in London. In Banana Harvest (fig. 4), he cites an earlier stage in the process of making banana beer: a group of men displace the wooden pole that had propped up one of the banana trees to allow for the collection of fruit, while others gather fruit that has fallen to the ground. Another of these paintings, Cattle Drinking (fig. 5), shows the cattle keenly remembered by El-Salahi. In both works, Ntiro depicts the same rolling hills of Chagga country seen in his 1956 work, but here they have taken over the horizon line, dominating the canvas. There is also specific care given to botany as Ntiro preserves the landscape of his home on the canvas.12In a letter to Slade professor William Coldstream dated April 26, 1954, Ntiro describes his admiration for Henri Rousseau, whose paintings he had seen in Paris. Rousseau’s work is notable for its unique attention to botany, a knowledge garnered from frequent visits to Paris’s Jardin des Plantes. Sam Ntiro‘s student file, UCL Special Collections, University College London.

Fig. 6. Sam Ntiro. Village Gathering. 1962. Oil on canvas, 59 7/16 x 59 7/16 in. (151 x 151 cm). Bristol Museum and Art Gallery.
Fig. 7. Letter from Sam Ntiro to I. E. Tregarthen Jenkin dated October 16, 1958. Sam Ntiro’s student file, UCL Special Collections, University College London
Fig. 7. Letter from Sam Ntiro to I. E. Tregarthen Jenkin dated October 16, 1958. Sam Ntiro’s student file, UCL Special Collections, University College London

Ntiro’s third painting for the Commonwealth Institute building, Village Gathering (fig. 6), depicts a group of people huddled together on the slopes of Kilimanjaro. If there is an orientation toward the past in Ntiro’s work, his paintings simultaneously propose a future.13While I believe that there is a political proposal on display in Ntiro’s work, I would not go as far as Angelo Kakande, who links Ntiro’s paintings to the rural villagization program subsequently implemented by Tanzanian president Julius Nyerere and the visualization of a postcolonial economy. See Kakande, “Contemporary Art in Uganda: A Nexus between Art and Politics” (PhD diss., University of the Witwatersrand, 2008). Alternatively, I concur with Koju Fosu and Pissarra, who contend that Ntiro presents a vision of the future based on the past. See Fosu, 20th Century Art of Africa (Zaria: Gaskiya Corporation, 1986), 30; and Pissarra, “Re/writing Sam J Ntiro,” 59. Returning to Men Taking Banana Beer to the Bride by Night, I contend that Ntiro chose to preserve the traditions of the Chagga at a time when they were threatened by colonial imposition. Ntiro was an ardent supporter of independence. Writing to Tregarthen Jenkin on October 16, 1958, he responded to an inquiry about the Capricorn Africa Society: “It is regarded by Africans in East Africa as a means of pacifying Africans and keeping them from attaining self-government” (fig. 7).14The letter that Tregarthen Jenkin sent to Ntiro in which he asks about the Capricorn Africa Society is not included in Ntiro’s student file at UCL Special Collections, University College London. The Capricorn Africa Society was founded in Southern Rhodesia in 1948 by David Stirling, a Scottish officer in the British Army and founder of the British Special Air Service. Led by Europeans, the group believed that the countries of southern and eastern Africa could prosper if all races shared common loyalty to their countries, one based on belief in a shared future. Their proposals were rejected by white settler opposition and the rising tide of African nationalism to which they objected. I imagine that Tregarthen Jenkin asked Ntiro about the Capricorn Africa Society given the artist’s political allegiances and the group’s prominence within British imperial policy. See Richard Hughes, Capricorn: David Sterling’s Second African Campaign (New York and London: Radcliffe Press, 2003); and Clive Gabay, Imagining Africa: Whiteness and the Western Gaze (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2018), 144–81. Tanzania gained independence in 1961, and Ntiro served as the first East African High Commissioner to the Court of Saint James in London from 1961 until 1964. For his paintings propose a future for Tanzania premised on a past of shared traditions and self-government, one in which the Chagga people are in control of their land—from the means of production it enabled to the communal decisions surrounding it.

  • 1
    Mario Pissarra, “Re/writing Sam J Ntiro: Challenges of Framing in the Excavation of a ‘Lost’ Pioneer,” Third Text Africa 4 (2015): 48–49.
  • 2
    Deputy Director of Education, Uganda Education Department, to Slade School of Fine Art, November 22, 1951. Sam Ntiro’s student file, UCL Special Collections, University College London.
  • 3
    Even as the “global turn” in art history has sought to combat Eurocentric assumptions of modernism, it has often perpetuated the discipline’s methodological nationalism. These national narratives contribute to larger continental frameworks that exasperate divisions between artists.
  • 4
    Trowell’s curriculum was formed with the help of her former tutors at the Slade and British educator Marion Richardson. She created close links between her department at Makerere and the Slade.
  • 5
    Elsbeth Joyce Court, “Margaret Trowell and the Development of Art Education,” Art Education 38, no. 6 (1985): 39.
  • 6
    See Emma Wolukau-Wanambwa, “Margaret Trowell’s School of Art, or How to Keep the Children’s Work Really African,” in The Palgrave Handbook on Race and the Arts in Education, eds. Amelia M. Kraehe, Rubén Gaztambide-Fernández, and Stephen B. Carpenter II (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2018) 85–101.
  • 7
    George Kyeyune, “Art in Uganda in the 20th Century” (PhD diss., School of Oriental and African Studies, 2003), 112. See also Sunanda K. Sanyal, “‘Being Modern’: Identity Debates and Makerere’s Art School in the 1960s,” in A Companion to Modern African Art, eds. Monica Blackmun Visona and Gitti Salami (Malden, MA: Wiley Blackwell, 2013), 267–68.
  • 8
    Margaret Trowell to I. E. Tregarthen Jenkin, April 24, 1954. Sam Ntiro’s student file, UCL Special Collections, University College London.
  • 9
    Pissarra, “Re/writing Sam J Ntiro,” 49.
  • 10
    Marshall W. Mount, African Art: The Years Since 1920 (Bloomington and London: Indiana University Press, 1973), 98.
  • 11
    Eric Newton, “Sam Ntiro Exhibition,” Guardian, November 18, 1964. On the formal qualities of European modernism in Ntiro’s practice, see Pissarra, “Re/writing Sam J Ntiro,” 36–37.
  • 12
    In a letter to Slade professor William Coldstream dated April 26, 1954, Ntiro describes his admiration for Henri Rousseau, whose paintings he had seen in Paris. Rousseau’s work is notable for its unique attention to botany, a knowledge garnered from frequent visits to Paris’s Jardin des Plantes. Sam Ntiro‘s student file, UCL Special Collections, University College London.
  • 13
    While I believe that there is a political proposal on display in Ntiro’s work, I would not go as far as Angelo Kakande, who links Ntiro’s paintings to the rural villagization program subsequently implemented by Tanzanian president Julius Nyerere and the visualization of a postcolonial economy. See Kakande, “Contemporary Art in Uganda: A Nexus between Art and Politics” (PhD diss., University of the Witwatersrand, 2008). Alternatively, I concur with Koju Fosu and Pissarra, who contend that Ntiro presents a vision of the future based on the past. See Fosu, 20th Century Art of Africa (Zaria: Gaskiya Corporation, 1986), 30; and Pissarra, “Re/writing Sam J Ntiro,” 59.
  • 14
    The letter that Tregarthen Jenkin sent to Ntiro in which he asks about the Capricorn Africa Society is not included in Ntiro’s student file at UCL Special Collections, University College London. The Capricorn Africa Society was founded in Southern Rhodesia in 1948 by David Stirling, a Scottish officer in the British Army and founder of the British Special Air Service. Led by Europeans, the group believed that the countries of southern and eastern Africa could prosper if all races shared common loyalty to their countries, one based on belief in a shared future. Their proposals were rejected by white settler opposition and the rising tide of African nationalism to which they objected. I imagine that Tregarthen Jenkin asked Ntiro about the Capricorn Africa Society given the artist’s political allegiances and the group’s prominence within British imperial policy. See Richard Hughes, Capricorn: David Sterling’s Second African Campaign (New York and London: Radcliffe Press, 2003); and Clive Gabay, Imagining Africa: Whiteness and the Western Gaze (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2018), 144–81.

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