The Twentyfour-Seven Artist: An interview with Ronex Ahimbisbwe
The brand named Ronex is built upon continuous experimentation. Every waking hour – and sometimes during sleep – his brain is working on extracting the images from within, discovering artwork he didn’t know that he kept inside. He moves in all kind of directions, and hides away his finished work because he fears making copies.
Startjournal.org’s editor Thomas Bjørnskau talks to Ronex Ahimbisbwe about his artistic journey.
Editor: Can you remember when you decided to be an artist? And why?
”You find there are things you love, something you cannot explain. I think I started to sketch and draw around Primary six. I felt happy and comfortable doing it. I remember helping my parents in their shop a lot, trying to sell, but when the shop was empty I needed to do something else.
So I used to get old paper – ripping out the pages from my father’s old books – and sketch things like super-stars. I used to love superstars, like Toni Braxton. And then listening to music, mime … I had a bad voice though, but I kept me busy listening to reggae music and sketching.”
Ed: So you didn’t run around in the streets and play with the other kids?
”I was always alone, never used to move out. Other people need to have friends around, but I didn’t. Because I had a friend already; the act of creating. And I felt so comfortable putting all my efforts into it, ending up with a work that has no influences at all, something you could look at and say ’this is mine!’ I remember working in different directions until I ended up with something I could feel was truly mine.
I think that is one of the reasons for why I like experimenting.”
Art by accident
Ed: And this is really the key characteristic people would mention when describing Ronex; ’he is experimenting a lot’. Why is experimentation of such importance to you?
”First of all I get easily tired if I limit myself to one style. And I hate making copies. Then I believe that each material has its possibilities. I have always been obsessed with textures – in my work I emphasize on technique more than subject matter – so I would always experiment by looking for new surfaces, there is always more to a material, you know. You find something that excites you, you follow it, and through that you will find something else.
But I think the main reason for my constant experimentation is to discover my own capabilities. I always ask myself ’how did I come to know what I know?’ Is it through chance or something else? And there are things we know, but we don’t know that we know … I am not sure if that makes any sense…
And other times there might be things I am scared of, then I have to confront my fears and see what comes out of it. For instance, earlier I didn’t use red colour, because red was a colour I feared. So I had to say ’let me just confront red’ … and then it became my favourite colour.
In the end; if it fails, it is not a crime.”
The secret friend
Ed: You said you discovered early that ’the act of creating’ was like a friend to you, and then your technique is all about exploring all kinds of textures and surfaces. Is there a dialogue going on between you and the art piece when you’re doing art?
”Yes, there is always a dialogue with for instance the painting, and the artpiece can guide you … especially if you are not doing realism. But for me, I feel there is like a magical thing working in my subconsciousness; you would see something and then wonder where it came from.”
Ed: How often do these magical moments happen?
”I try to make it happen every day. That is why I try to create chaos first, play with the colours without thinking, and by doing that discover the patterns. Sometimes I end up wondering ’how did I do this?’”
Joining the dots
Ed: Tell me a little bit about your process; how do you start?
”First of all, I do all the steps myself, cannot even allow someone to stretch the canvas or prime it … because I can get an idea just by looking at an empty space. And I don’t like to limit myself to for instance always start by sketching, because I believe that causes every work to look the same.
Ed: Many people would describe you as the artist ’who is working every hour of the day’. Do you ever take days off?
”I don’t stop; cause I am scared that if I stop, that will be the end. But I feel like I take a day off every day, really. Every day, every waking hour, I have something to work on that keeps me moving.
Normally I would create until two or three at night, then watch a movie or something, relaxing, but even then I feel like I’m working … cause I might take photos of something onscreen. Sometimes I would even scratch my dvds, so the movie end up being pixelated … I like this pixelated effect, and I might capture an image and use it later in my work. I made a series of those types of images once, scratching epic movies to get that special visual effect.
Ed: Do you ever sleep?
”In the morning, maybe. Sometimes I go to bed at five or six o’clock, and sleep until noon. But then – if I wake up that late – I need to work frenetically for the next four hours, to kind of compensate for the time lost during sleeping. And I think I end up doing more these hours than most artists do in a day.”
Ed: Why is it important that you, Ronex, asks all these ’What if’-questions?
”It is my inner desire to know what exists inside me, a curiosity within me, searching for all these hidden, visual images, always looking for my own perfect style.
And I really believe in the saying ’variety spices up life’. When I am doing something, I eventually get tired of it and would try something different. Which is good for the viewer too, because they will get different experiences.”
Ed: What is your ultimate goal? I have the sensation that Uganda isn’t big enough for you…?
”My dream has always been to be in a modern museum. And of course; if you are to be represented in one of the significant museums, you cannot produce the same things as artists before you did. It has to be something special. And you cannot create something special by doing what you know. You have to do something more than what you know … which for me goes through a lot of experimentation…”
Ed: So this is what you meant by ’things we know but don’t know that we know’. What do you reckon; are you far from this achievement?
”You really cannot tell. I can feel it is there … but maybe I haven’t got it, yet.”
Ed: What if a modern museum purchase some of your works … then what next?
Ronex laughs heartily. ”The thing is, there are more museums. I think that if you create a target and reach it, you will create another one. It is part of being human.”
How it started
Ronex Ahimbisbwe graduated from the Margaret Trowell School of Industrial and Fine Arts in 2001, yet he didn’t leave the Makerere plot. For the next three years he stayed around campus, using waste material other students had thrown away, trying to recycle and improvise, sculpting behind the sculpture studio.
His goal was to be accepted at the only good gallery in town, Tulifanya Gallery, and to obtain this goal without having the financial means, he needed to utilize the paper waste from other students. ”It was a good thing, though, because the paper was already painted on and had textures and patterns, and I used these to discover new and interesting shapes and surfaces.”
During those years, Ronex hadn’t start to sell. At least not enough to call it a living. He lived at Henry Mzili Mujunga’s place. ”I paid for a small room and used him as my mentor. I still do. Mzili is still the only artist I call to comment on my work. I worked a lot in his garage, wanted to be near someone who would always critique me.”
Occasionally he would travel to his hometown Mbarara in western Uganda to ask friends for money. It was a long process, but he always found somebody that could lend him some notes to enable him pay the house rental for the next month.
No parental guidance
”But I never asked my parents. I had to turn down their offers because I didn’t want my father to tell me something just because he paid for my education or housing. You see, my parents did not want me to do art. In our clan we are not well educated – my father ended his education in Primary 7 – therefore he struggled hard so that his children could get a proper education. And then he discovers that I – the first born of four children – decides to do art. My father was very disappointed, and he did not understand what I was going to do neither; ’paint billboards?’
Ed: When did he accept your career choice … that is to say if he now has changed?
”Around a year after I started to sell I brought some things back home, you know a tv or a fridge, and then they could see that it was possible to make a living out of art. Then, he became thankful.
Later, I really felt that my life choice was accepted by my parents when they consented to my younger brother also doing art. But I don’t think my father will ever understand my art,” smiles Ronex. ”But then again, I haven’t even invited him for one of my shows … I think it would be too much for him.”
Ronex himself as not yet formed a family. And the motives in his paintings and sculptures might be heavily influenced by the fact that he is at the same time happy being alone while sensing a kind of frustration from the lack of being in a relationship.
”Being in a relationship is something I have never done. It is really a thing that doesn’t make sense to me. I have always felt that it is a woman’s thing … it is all about the woman … trying to please the woman. I just want to find a woman that is willing to be exactly what I am demanding, which of course is really hard.
And also,I feel more comfortable alone than with a group of people. I feel lost, because I don’t know what to do.”
Ed: Still, I feel that you are involved in many activities that aims to network and bring people together. I have learned about your plans to establish a place in Bugolobi, trying to develop it into an artists’ meeting place. Then you have your Art Uganda-website, trying to connect artists online. I see you participate in most of the art events here and so on.
”I believe you are always stronger as a group. And I don’t want to be left out. I want to be part of new trends, because I enjoy the idea of being taken by surprise by some of these new trends.
Future plans, prior principles
The plans for a new place in Bugolobi started with making furniture for my own bedroom, then continue to make furnitures like benches, tables and bars for this new place. I want to establish an outside area and a conceptual space where artists could showcase creative artwork like installations and conceptual art, things that wouldn’t necessarily fit in the traditional galleries. It will be opened in a few weeks time.”
”I used to have philosophies, I even used to write them down. But the next day I ended up doing the opposite of what I was supposed to believe in, and that was really the fun of it.
One year I wrote down certain statements answering questions like ’what do you believe art is?’ Next year I put down something like ’maybe art should be…’ and leave it open. Then comes ’art is’, and just that. Because how can I define something verbally that is visual.
So now it is like; I define my art visually. Just leave it there…
The best lesson I learned at the University was after I had finished, from Kizito Maria Kasule. He said: ’Leave the principles and elements of design at the gate, go and create your own.’”
All photos by Thomas Bjørnskau.