The Art of Self-making: An interview with Edison Mugalu
He has just finished the works for a new exhibition. This time he depicts the old walls, the street corners and narrow alleys of Zanzibar’s Stone Town. He is giving us an impression of the past days, and every brushstroke intends to teach us more about where we came from.
The artist himself was dragged out of his Owino secondhand clothes shop, to be taught by twelve artists at the Ngoma studio in the early 2000’s. Today, he is a commercial success, but he will never forget his roots. With time, he plans to invest in his own studio and nurture a future generation of visual artists.Editor Thomas Bjørnskau talks to Edison Mugalu about his journey to become one of Uganda’s best-selling visual artists.
Editor: How did it all begin?
”Growing up, I remember Arts being my best subject in school. I used to skip chemistry lessons, sneak out and lock myself in the art room. I grew up in a village in Kayunga. My parents couldn’t afford paint, so what I did was dealing with nature. I used to look for green, red and yellow flowers. I painted with watercolours, used ink mixed with squeezed flowers.
I think I was around 13 years old, and it was a little bit like doing a workshop on my own; experimenting on how to get colours from nature without having to buy them.”
Ed: Why did you enjoy making art so much these early years?
”Maybe because I was always appreciated. People liked what I did. When I returned to the village during the school holidays, I used to make bigger portraits of passport-sized photos for people in the village. They used to love these images, and pay me for the job.
So I returned to school with some pocket money. And at that time, I felt this could be a money-generating thing.”
Ed: But you didn’t go to University to study and to develop your most significant talent. Why was that?
”After completing High School, my parents ran out of money. I decided to do other business and started selling secondhand jeans and trousers at the Owino market. Jjuuko Hoods, who had gone to the same school as me, used to come to the market and buy canvases. He knew my talents for arts, introduced me to his studio – Ngoma Studio – and invited me to come and paint whenever I had time.
So, Sundays and Mondays were days off, I was free to paint those days, every week. Ngoma offered me free space, there were twelve artists under the same roof. They introduced non-stop workshops, sometimes with international artists. There were artists with degrees. They showed my which books to read. They shared different techniques, the same techniques they learned at University.
They used to all be my teachers. Imagine having twelve teachers!”
The importance of red stickers
Ed: But did you feel that this was going to be a living?
”Now, Jjuuko also showed me how the art market works, he took me to Nommo Gallery, to Tulifanya Gallery. And for the first time I saw these price tags. Paintings priced one or two million Ugandan shillings. With red stickers. Which I was told meant that the piece was sold. And here I was striving for 400.000 in a month at Owino.
I remember feeling ’I was born with the money inside me, I just have to bring it out’. So I started paint 24 hours a day at Ngoma, and Jjuuko used to laugh at me for my eagerness.
This was 2002. I call it my rehearsel period. I worked day and night for one year.”
Ed: I guess; at times like that it is easy to give up. What did you tell yourself to keep moving?
”I had this feeling inside me that I always had been an artist. And I should always be an artist.”
Ed: Were you ready to give up at any point?
”At that time, I didn’t have a kid or a wife. I was totally free. And I had to lie to my parents, saying that my business in Owino had gone bad, so I had to sell my cattles. And I had really nowhere else to go. I had quit Owino, and worked 24 hours days at Ngoma.
My focus was to go through it. Never return and never look back. I had always been a survivor and knew that I had to be strong. And also, I could see progress in my work.
So, in 2003, I took two artworks to Nommo Gallery. A guy called Raymond had organised a two-day workshop with the intention to exhibit the final paintings. I painted one piece each day, they were stick figures. Before this, I had probably painted a hundred paintings, most of them were just bad, painted on mount boards, or offcuts from Tulifanya.
But these two artworks were different … I didn’t rush at all.
Later, I was told by a friend that my art piece was the first to be sold in the exhibition. I was so surprised. And excited. I thought I was going to be in my situation – neither exhibiting nor selling – for two whole years. Now, I had got some two hundred thousand shillings, so I could leave the paper stage and cheap paint. I went and bought canvas and acrylics, put aside 70.000 to live on. Then I went back, painted 25 art pieces and took them to exhibitions in Afriart and Tulifanya.
At this point, I started to sell a little, my income increased, and I bought more paint and canvases.”
Finished work, out of business
Ed: It seems to me that you have a strong business mindset…?
”There is one thing I know: If you wake up as an artist and don’t have any more canvases or paint, then you are not an artist any more. Even if you have finished work. Because finished work is finished. I know that lack of materials can cause psychological sickness. So I always buy materials first.”
But at one point in Edison’s career, all these finished artworks from his rehearsel period became assets generating revenue. In 2005 he was introduced to Aidchild, a charity organisation selling to the tourists stopping at the Equator gallery. He selected from his 100+ storage and turned painted mountboards into money. He got monthly cheques with seven digits and an award for being the most money-generating artist.
”This was another advice I got when working at the studio; art never rots, it is not like a tomato. But I also got good advices from my parents on how to plant the money and not loosing them. Because I had one big worry; if Aidchild collapses, I may have to return to Owino.”
Ed: Having had this commercial success; how confident are you that you are able to develop yourself as an artist and sell your paintings in the future?
”In my recent experience from the market, I have realized that art is business. And being an artist is a job. One thing I have learned from the marketplace, is that people always want something new. So, to discover something new is the most important thing.”
Moving on to the town
In the beginning of April, Edison’s most recent artworks will be exhibiting at the Afriart Gallery.
Ed: What do you think are the new features in this coming exhibtion?
”This time, it is the vivid style. I have been working more on impressions. Whenever I paint a figure, I don’t want to see the eyes, the nose, the details. I always want to see the vividness, somewhat unclear figures, but yet you can tell they are persons.”
Ed: But a lot of your previous work has been like that …?
”Yes. It is like a continuing journey. It is a style, like handwriting, which you can’t run away from. But I feel I am bringing out something people can tell is different.”
Ed: And the subject matter?
”It has not changed a lot. I am still on the island of Zanzibar. But now I have changed to Stone Town, old buildings, the alleys and street corners. These old age buildings and walls … I really enjoy working with those motifs.”
Ed: Personally, I am fascinated by how these Stone Town walls lack maintenance…
”Yes. I actually prefer the ones that are completely run-down and dirty. I need that rusty, dusty kind of building. And the reason why I choose to paint old buildings from places like Stone Town, is to bring the past back to the present. If I bring the past from 200 years back and store it now, it will be kept in my paintings forever.”
Ed: And why is bringing the past to the present such an important message, do you think?
”If you don’t know your past, then you don’t know where you’re going. And it tells me where Africa is coming from.”
Ed: Working on this current show, was it easy for you?
”There is no artwork that is easy. Every piece is a challenge. The most difficult thing is that you try to drive it, but it drives you. It is a struggle. You want it to move it in one direction, but it goes its own ways. That is why artists sometimes keep adding layers after layers. Each artwork is a struggle, and you leave the canvas sweating.
But then again, when an artwork pulls you, those are what we call magical moments. Sometimes you see areas on the canvas where the artist only did one stroke, and left it like that. Then you see the strength of that one stroke. Other times you see layers upon layers … and you know the artist was struggling. So, it is a good combination of struggles and magical moments.”
Into the mood
Ed: How do you normally start working?
”First, the natural surroundings must be right. Not too hot. Not too bright lights. Too bright lights might kill my artistic eyes … you know, artists have four eyes, two inside which envision something before you paint it.
Then, I have to be relaxed. I can’t move from the city centre to where I live and work in Kireka and jump directly at it. First, I have to sleep a little, drink lots of water, listen to some cool music, build up the mood.
And the mood drives me. That is why I always paint hot colour or cool blue colours depending on the time of the day. And the mood is also related to the theme I am working on.”
Ed: What happens when you are in the right mood?
”I just paint, quickly. As I said, it is a struggle, and no one can disturb you. I normally paint most of the piece in one go, but sometimes leave the final touches for the next day. I have to make sure I finish the piece before the move goes away.”
Ed: Any favourite motives?
”I have always loved water. When I was little and we used to fetch water in jerry cans, I could sit in the water area for a long time. Just looking at the water and how it reflected the sky and the green surroundings.
Actually, green is very important to me.”
Ed: Is there a message in your art, related to the green movement?
”Yes. I am seeing modernisation swallowing up the green. We should try yo conserve, you have to live green, because the green shapes the mind psychologically. I prefer living in a village near a big town. What I mean is that I need to be in a green area, where I can access the services of the town.”
Much like his consciousness around this cyclus of nature, Mugalu thinks in cyclic terms around his business. He would like to use his recently accumulated wealth to invest in the future generation. He now pursues his dream of making a studio in his home village in Kayunga.
”Many people want to study art from me, as I studied it through Ngoma. I need some space and I am thinking about investing in real estate. When you are building a house, that space can be turned into a class for other people to create art.
And people can fly on their wings after studied arts. Sometimes they don’t know that this market exists, like I didn’t know when I worked in Owino. It was just by chance I started with a friend who helped me see the market. So if by chance I would also help people who are serious.
And I think that is the best thing I can do; to pay back.”