Donald Wasswa August has been painting, carving and training other artistes for over a decade now. A lot of his work, especially from his Elephania series has been critically acclaimed- and received with much praise among Uganda’s art community. But who really is Wasswa Donald?
I met Wasswa last year at his Buziga Art Punch studio. He had just returned from South Africa after scooping third place at the prestigious Barclays L’Atelier art Competition in South Africa. We had a lengthy interview that revealed so much about his person and mostly his art. A quiet, mostly unassuming man, he came across as a deep fellow that thinks carefully about his work and cares deeply about humanity. This will come through clearly in his work that uses materials from the environment; that uses wild life based themes to communicate; that connects human life and experiences to his own surroundings.
But it was at the underground exhibition later that I got to see an even more engaging side to this young man: It was at the Zikunta underground Exhibition at Nakumatt Oasis Mall basement. The exhibition was an artistic exploration of the subject of Immigration. It had an interesting array of installations.
Zikunta brought to life the divisive subject of immigration in an interesting way that utilized people and space to challenge prevalent notions on human movement. Violet Lynus Nantume, the exhibition’s co-curator said: “Zikunta interrogates effects of movement of people, meeting and coexistence of diverse cultures: religions, patterns of thinking and the way they communicate. The opening time of performance and installation, she added “implicates how time becomes secondary in particular situations or crisis.”
It was a timely subject in an era where human movement has become a matter of human, political and even economic survival. For an artist who thinks of his work as boundless, Wasswad’s handling of a subject on boundless movement resonates well with the times and his own journey of artistic self-discovery.
The Barclays Banks L’Atelier art competition is a highly acclaimed annual art contest for young African visual artists aged 21-35. The competition sought out artists whose work “stirs up human imagination, passion and emotion while reflecting a contemporary theme with strong aesthetic qualities. Wasswad received a Merit Award for his serialized entry. He beat over 30 contestants to the title.
In the competition, Wasswad presented three artworks.
“Maali ya Muswangali”.
It showcased two perforated sacks packed with rubbish, telling the story of Muswangali, a peasant farmer who travels to the capital city Kampala for the first time to sell his maize. On arrival, his two sacks of maize disappear. He later finds them, punctured and stuffed with rubbish. All the maize had been stolen and apparently sold in Mombasa. It is a simple piece of work that dramatizes loss, while tickling our sense of the valuable. To this day, Wasswad says, “Muswangali is still looking for his maize.”
an aluminium -plated wire mesh cage with a circular round opening at the top and metallic tins inside it. Picked from his latest “Most weird animal” collection, it is a haunting exploration of life’s constraints and possibilities (the little escape routes it presents us to wiggle out of tight situations).
His third piece is a collection of bones piled into one huge glass jar.
Here, Wasswa offers an interesting take on this piece: “The glass jar represents human flesh with all its frailties, failures and fragility. The bones inside the jar represent the heart and mind- strong, sometimes willful.” It is Wasswa’s contention in this piece that “our true strength as human being comes from within.”
True to style
Wasswad’s style remains endearingly simple- comprising painfully childlike caricatures, miniature artifacts as well as colourful paintings with varying patterns and shapes. His face masks have an old African traditional character to them: wide shapely eyes, long thin noses and tiny dots for lips. He uses different material- from discarded pieces of wood to leather offcuts, wire mesh and cloth conjuring a rich and relatable repertoire. His work is inspired by life especially political and social themes. Environment- including his own surroundings and natural habitats play a key part in his style.
Wasswa dropped out of his art and design degree at Kyambogo university due to lack of school fees. Kyambogo however, opened his eyes to serious visual arts practice. “It is here, that I learnt why and how art comes about,” he says. From school, he went into art practice, painting, carving and collaborating with other artists. He later founded Artpunch studio in Buziga where he continues to practice and train other artistes.
Wasswad at a glance:
• Born in 1984, the third born of five children
• Attended Bat Valley primary school, Bweyogerere central primary school and Nkumba secondary school.
• Wasswad’s first inspiration was his father who used to sketch drawings during his free time.
• He started drawing to mimic his dad’s sketches. His mum provided telex rolls on which he sketched.
• When his teachers discovered Wasswad’s talent, they asked him to sketch classroom charts.
• At Kyambogo University, some of his lecturers did not warm up to his unconventional style. They called him a rebel.