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Don’t Mess with Texas

July 7, 2011

When I realized I got had, I was standing in the Dar es Salaam airport Duty Free shop, a place I don’t generally associate with sober reflection. When I realized I got had, my first thought was, “it was the damn shoes.”

The shoes were Converse All-Stars, and the guy wearing them was friendly, seemed cosmopolitan, and was wearing a “Don’t Mess with Texas” t-shirt, skinny jeans, and those damn Converse All-Stars. He described his artistic process in great detail (pallet knives, oil paint, traditional treatment for the canvass, which is made out of local plant materials, etcetc) and told me about his great joy at being funded by a USAID project encouraging youth to pursue artistic careers. The All-Stars signaled a couple things to me. One, they told me that he (I can’t remember his real name – his artist name is “Shaman”) knew how artists/hipsters in the US dressed. That meant he was probably quite committed to art, or at least looking like an artist – tapping into that culture in Dar es Salaam could not be especially easy. Second, they told me he had a little bit of money and didn’t need to be hustling tourists on the street (someone I ignored that this is exactly how I met him: “Hello there. Where are you from. America? I am from Dar es Salaam. I’m a painter.”). He must be the real deal.

He rolled out a few canvasses. I liked his work, though it wasn’t edgy enough for me (and I was a little surprised that All-Star would go for this sort of traditional art). I went through the painting a couple times and found the most unique piece of his batch, a group of Masai warriors in red and blue. He asked 30,000 Tanzanian Shillings (about $20); I countered with 20,000 Shillings (just over $13), because that is actually all I had on me. He very carefully rolled up the canvass, gave it to me, and I walked back to my hotel thinking about whether I would go through the trouble to frame the painting, or find a way to fix it directly to the wall. It could go in my room, but maybe it would fit better in the office. When I left for the airport the next day I made sure the painting was tightly rolled in my suitcase.

Standing in the Duty Free shop in the Dar es Salaam airport, I picked up a stack of 20 or 30 paintings, largely of Masai warriors. They were all familiar. I looked at the artist’s signature and you will not be shocked that it said “Shaman.” I called over the manager and asked “do you know who painted these?” He did not and said he had a buyer who handled that sort of thing. I told him that I had bought an identical painting on the street from a young guy, and wondered if there was an off-chance that he had sold the painting to the Duty Free. “In Africa there is a lot of this, you know. Maybe there is a shipment and some of it goes missing and it ends up on the street.” He shook his head. “People just steal thing and sell them.” I told him I had paid more on the street for the painting than he was asking and he was shocked – he thought his price was already too high and (I think) was appalled that someone was out-gauging him. He said, “this is very, very sad,” shook his head again, and walked away.

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