Wasswa Donald: I Speak Elephanish
Whether as a proprietor of @rt Punch Studios, or as a painter, or sculptor, or clothing designer, or as a teacher, Wasswa Donald’s full-bore involvement in the Uganda art scene as one of Uganda’s top contemporary artists frequently earns praise, but it’s his wildlife paintings that provoke the most discussion.By Kate von Achen
Wasswa most frequently paints whimsical, semi-abstract depictions of wildlife common to East Africa, and is best known for dreamy elephant depictions.
Wasswa’s recent works were exhibited at Tulifanya Gallery, a space established in 1995 by Canadian artist, Beverly Paden. Running from 26 April through 30 April 2011, Wasswa’s show titled “I Speak Elephanish” simultaneously highlighted Wasswa’s oneness with nature as well as artistic diversity, showcasing various media including painting, pen and ink, mixed media, sculpture and clothing and accessories design.
With formal training from Kyambogo University in art and design, Wasswa is a natural born artist at heart. “My father inspired me in the early days when he made several drawings. I looked up to him when I was young, but at my secondary level he discouraged me from concentrating more on art than other subjects. He always said that I can do art anytime because I have the talent and that I should concentrate on the science subjects. But I always had a self drive that has kept me going,” Wasswa explained.
While “I Speak Elephanish” was heavy with depictions of elephants in Wasswa’s various media, there were also numerous depictions of giraffes, zebras and faces. Wasswa explained, “I started painting elephants in 2008 as the main source of inspiration. I do love elephants compared to other wildlife animals, but later I had to bring in other animals because they felt lonely and also be able to clarify on some of the message am passing over.”
To the unfocused eye, Wasswa’s creations are full of ecological daydream, almost what a safari might be like on peyote, but these masterpieces have a much deeper meaning. Wasswa addresses the economic, political, social and environmental situations in Uganda, often all in one painting. We are all animals existing on Earth weather elephant, grasshopper or human. Money and politics influence society which in turn impact the environment, and vice verse. These themes can be seen at varying stages through Wasswa’s paintings especially. While the vivid colours may initially spark a feeling of happiness, once you are looking at a lone elephant in a seemingly empty landscape, your mind may turn to worry. On the other hand, the next painting may have multitudes of animals bringing your mind back to the hope of an abundant, communal and peaceful coexistence.
Other pieces standing out in this exhibition incorporated human faces. Influenced and often inspired by women especially, faces are a relatively new topic for Wasswa. “My source of inspiration can be you or anything around me at a given time. I love listening to people, music, sounds of animals and birds. I do study women a lot compared to men. Their [women’s] discussions are a great source of inspiration. Everyone thinks different so am inspired to put across the different opinions on separate canvas,” Wasswa explained. “The faces are so recent. I got inspired by the lifestyle of my late twin sister, the women at large and the babies. These keep coming to me that I can’t hold on to painting these faces. The faces are basically my ways of presenting the life style of women and babies.”
Hailing from the Kingdom of Buganda, Wasswa, a mulangira (prince) of said Kingdom, found his inspiration for the hanging sculptures in the exhibition from his heritage. “The hanging sculptures are made wood together with terracotta (clay traditionally used by the Buganda for making pots), smoke fired buttons, ebony wood, aluminum metal sheets, paper beads and frequently bark cloth (the traditional fabric of the Buganda, made from the bark of the Ficus tree). My main source of inspiration is the Buganda Kingdom.” Wasswa explained.
Delving into Wasswa’s mind, attempting to dissect what of the various influences inspired each piece, leads to curiosity of the atmosphere of Wasswa’s creative space. What setting is most conducive to this man’s creativity? When asked what sort of background was most beneficial to his creative process we learned that his creative atmosphere is as flexible as his creative media. “Am always working. It’s only when I have things to do in town or when [I] am sick that I don’t work. But basically I love waking up and prepare myself then start off to work. When the mood is really good I work till the next day getting some short breaks within. When I feel kind of depressed I do prefer a quiet atmosphere with less people around or no one. If not I do sleep till it’s the right atmosphere. When am really alright I do have hip hop playing in the background to keep me in the spirit.” Wasswa explained.
So how does one speak Elephanish I wondered? According to Wasswa, “it’s the language am speaking of late when it comes to art; these are stories, experiences, complaints, gossip, lols, music that I share with the rest of the World.” And Wasswa made certain that visitors to the opening and throughout the exhibition would, in deed, be speaking Elephanish for a long time to come.Kate von Achen is the founding director of Awava, a Kampala-based fair trade organisation selling hand bags, jewellery and accessories based on Ugandan culture. [facebook-like-button]