The Kenyan Heart of Ugandan art?

What is it with Kenya and Uganda’s art industries? Would it be preposterous to suggest that Kenya has had some sort of effect on Uganda’s visual arts industry? In subtle ways maybe. Some of the most celebrated Ugandan painters I have met spent their artistic “formative” years in Kenya and from what they say, their time in Nairobi had such a profound effect on the way they practice and most importantly market their art. I am not sure about style. However, I have seen some subtly similar patterns among some of these artists. Would Nuwa Wamala Nnyanzi, Sanaa Gateja, David Kibuuka, Daniel Sekanwagi have been the same artists today if destiny, fate or whatever you want to call it had not led them to Kenya? What happened to the Katarikawe’s of Uganda’s art?

I have had the privilege to talk to these and more artists on their experiences in Kenya and how time in Nairobi could have changed- or not- their work.

Nuwa Wamala Nnyanzi:

I went to Nairobi in 1978. It is here that I learnt many tricks in the bag of survival. I had to learn how to quickly produce artworks with batik which I had never used before. It was for survival but I learnt a lot from using this material. It has since become my emblem. It is also in Kenya that I learnt the business of

In a recent Facebook post Nnyanzi talks about surviving as an artist in Nairobi. And how Florence his late step sister in Nairobi helped to support him there..

Florence played a significant role in the blossoming of my art career by not only buying my art but also introducing me to her workmates who in turn not only bought my art but also introduced me to other buyers who worked at the Kenyatta International Conference Centre in Nairobi. They formed a foundation on, which I built my career because they provided me with income that enabled me to finance my first one man art exhibition in 1980 at the Goethe Institut, Nairobi.

Nnyanzi whose art catch-word is: Art that Touches the heart is today believed to be the best batik artist in Uganda.

David Kibuuka

kibukaAfter my O levels in Uganda I went into exile in Kenya in 1976. Here, I joined a number of enthusiastic young Ugandans that sought to explore batik as medium of artistic expression: Dan Ssekanwagi, Nuwa Wamala Nnyanzi, Waswa Katongole, Kitamirike and others were trying their hands at this then tricky medium. I learnt a lot from observing and assimilating all possible techniques of batik. While I learnt a lot from my own brother who had come ahead of us, I also looked at several other artistes that were practicing the. However, we all worked independent of each other. I learnt the batik ropes and within a few years was able to produce and sell paintings to the Asian dealers. For seven years, I lived off this skill, beating the exploitative craft industry in Nairobi to survive and fund my own education in art history, literature and figure drawing at the Nairobi Charles Cordems international school. In 1982 I left Kenya for Canada.

Kibuuka is now a leading art entrepreneur, trainer in the application of contemporary batik. He is based in Canada.

Sanaa Gateja

After four months in private business, I left Uganda and went to Mombasa, Kenya’s second largest cit. Here, I opened Sanaa Gallery in 1971. It was the first gallery there and I traded in crafts from all over East Africa, hosted exhibitions and opened a restaurant business there. It is here that I first dealt in jewelry and antics. I later sold furniture, dealt in brass and thrived as an interior designer. I worked for African Heritage Pan African Gallery which was established by the former Vice President of Kenya, Joseph Murumbi and the American former USAID worker Alan Donovan in 1972. These people supported me a lot. I also took a correspondence course in interior design with the UK’s Rhodec international college of interior design. From Mombasa I moved to Nairobi in 1978 where I worked as an interior designer and started painting until I went to Italy in 1982. Kenya for me was a turning point- the place that taught me to survive and thrive in the business of art. I made important contacts here that helped me.

Fondly referred to as Uganda’s bead king, Gateja has popularized bead-making and turned turned it into an income generating job for poor women, thousands of whom he has trained.

I would have loved to hear from Jak Katarikawe – one of Uganda’s artistic exports to Kenya perhaps, but who now has become one of Africa’s leading painters and whom it seems our East African neighbours have claimed as their own. I would also have loved to hear from Expedito Kibbula Mwebe- another Ugandan artist who left Uganda in 1977 and is now a household name in Kenya.
Ian Mwesiga talks about one of his paintings in an exhbition at Makerere University gallery

Ian Mwesiga talks about one of his paintings in an exhbition at Makerere University gallery

Even for the younger generation artists like Ian Mwesiga who recently completed an artist residence at the famed Kuona Trust Visual arts talent promotion centre in Kenya. Speaking about his experience there Mwesiga said: “I feel my path, vision and objective is clear. Mwesiga noted that the Kenyan art scene is very active and vibrant. “The structures here seem to be working and the artists are very active.”
Gregory Maloba’s independence Monument located off Speke Road in Kampala

Gregory Maloba’s independence Monument located off Speke Road in Kampala

Look through their stories and you see a trace of fate in there encounter with Kenya. One thing cannot be denied though: that this country has had a considerable influence on some of Uganda’s leading artists and on Uganda’s art even. After all, it was a Kenyan- Gregory Maloba who was assigned the monumental task of erecting the Ugandan Independence Monument in the early 60s.

How Ironical all this is because it is Uganda that trained some of Kenya’s most respected artists at Makerere University; the Malobas, Rosemary Karuga and Kenya’s legendary sculptor Prof Elkana Ong’esa. Indeed, regional contemporary art, it is believed, had its roots in Uganda thanks to Margaret Trowel’s school of art at Makerere. There was even a time in the 60s that according to Gateja, when Kenyans used to come to Uganda to buy Ugandan art. What happened after that remains the subject of debate.

Bruno Sserunkuuma, a lecturer at Makerere University school of Industrial and Fine art says there is more to this phenomenon than mere fate or economics. “This assertion needs further analysis as there are other factors,” he says.

David Kibuuka sums it up well: “The Kenyan timeline needs a careful study and write up to really understand the forces behind it, I bet, if fate did not take us to Kenya, I would have been for sure a different artist. But as I have pointed out, a good and deeper look into it would benefit a number of artists in Uganda and mainly the younger generation.”

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