Taga Unveils Totems of Uganda

“Do not go where the path is. Go where there is none, so that you may leave a trail,” one official from the American Embassy advised while opening a painting exhibition at Nommo Gallery. If at all Taga was present at that show, he must have taken the advise very seriously. The recent Totems of Uganda painting project by Taga Nuwagaba was nothing short of a new testament of creative thinking and artistry put together.

Review by Nathan Kiwere

For some unexplainable reason, canvases of countless Ugandan artists have been pervaded by the ubiquitous female figure that has been wrought in all manner of form. Whether this is attributed to sheer obsession or the curvaceous nature of female body, as many of the artists claim, this content has become a common banality that is screaming for a radical departure from convention.

If change is what the local art scene has been starved of since time immemorial, then that change has sure come. During the opening at the Uganda Museum, most patrons agreed that Taga had raised the bar of visual arts presentation: The more than 1,500 guests, the fanfare, and much more, was a far cry from what had come to typify art Ugandan exhibitions in a very long time.

Road kill inspiration

Taga got the inspiration for the project a couple of years ago while he was travelling in a taxi on Masaka road. The driver of the vehicle, identified only as Sengendo, was speeding when an unidentified squirrel-like animal crossed the road. Whether it was by instinct or sheer cruelty, Sengendo calculatingly trailed the animal, and crashed it to death, much to the displeasure of the conductor and some passengers.

When a passenger identified the crash victim, it turned out to be effumbe, the actual totem of Sengendo.

For obvious reasons, Sengendo was hit hard by this realization, and he had no strength left to proceed. The conductor had to take over the steering wheel to Masaka, as his colleague languished in excruciating regret and shame.

To Taga, if only Sengendo knew the physical identity of his totem, none of that would have happened. Moreover, Sengendo represented a majority of Baganda that had no idea about their own totems, beyond knowing the name. As they say; the rest is now history.

Supernatural nature

For more than a decade, Taga has had to search every nook and cranny that could provide a piece of information about the totems of Uganda, starting with Buganda. And the effort has clearly paid off. Looking at the collection of 52 paintings of Buganda’s totems gracing the walls of the Uganda Museum, was not only refreshing, but a moment of triumph for the visual arts.

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For once, art made sense in the eyes of many that had hitherto scorned and relegated it to one of the professions of little consequence. The show vindicated artists in no uncertain terms and this change of attitude could potentially translated into greater fortunes for them (artists).

All Taga’s works were rendered in a medley of photographic precision and exaggerated backdrops. The species included the elephant, the leopard, different kinds of birds, nine kinds of cows, plants and many others. Observers had to be keen enough to be sure that the art works were not camera works.

This is where Taga has carved a niche as one-of-a-kind artist; his ability to reproduce nature with uncanny detail is quite compelling for human comprehension.

The works were accompanied by briefs about the species: the English name, botanical name and the Luganda equivalent. Many patrons gazed in a mixture of astonishment and relief at seeing their actual totems for the first time in their lives. Those who could afford walked away with a printed version of their totems, as the original works were not for sale. Taga now has big plans for disseminating this information in other creative forms.

Taga’s recent breakthrough

Moreover, Taga’s proficiency that he has exhibited at this time should not come as a big surprise. He has been playing and growing with the painting brush for as long as he can remember. Even though he graduated from Makerere University some two decades ago, he confesses that his breakthrough did not come so long ago.

Having struggled to make it as an artist at the time when the economic situation in the country was bleak, he had a stint at the Bayswater Street in London, where he variously exhibited his painting on the street. During this time, he exposed his works to immense criticism. Some patrons appreciated the works and even bought, while others trashed and scorned it.

However, his determined character drove him to chase his passion and ambition, regardless of the circumstances. When he decided to return to Uganda, his perseverance would soon pay off. Today, Taga has become a brand name. You cannot hold a serious discussion about Ugandan art without allusion to Taga.

Like him or hate him, but he is the epitome of excellence, grace, power and progress combined.

Gasping for fresh air

Away from the totems talk; is Taga’s exhibition a precursor to a radical shift that could potentially see Ugandan artists turn a new page in their presentation?

Could his gesture challenge the cliché female figure and landscapes that have become all too stale?

Whatever the answers to these rather rhetoric questions, one thing is clear: Ugandan art is gasping for fresh air, and Taga’s bold move is fanning this quest. Should other young and progressive local artists catch the flu and begin to think in like manner, Uganda could potentially be on the brink on a grand revolution.

Fortunately, the local artists will not have to look very far for the much needed inspiration; the Totems of Uganda show was a clear demonstration of the wealth of culture latent within our vicinity.