The Perceptive Observer: An interview with George Kyeyune

A cow. A boda boda. A woman carrying her child in a sling. A man pushing a wooden wheelbarrow. George Kyeyune sees extraordinary stories in ordinary events. ”If I can record these moments in time as permanent images. To engage my audience. To show you our history. To provoke you and challenge you about who you are. Then I have accomplished my mission as an artist”.

Editor Thomas Bjørnskau talks to George Kyeyune (born 1962) about his artistic and academic achievements.

George Kyeyune at his home studio, 2010.
George Kyeyune at his home studio, 2010.

Where normal commuters experience the Catch-22s of Kampala’s traffic queues as infectious events, the daily congestions are valuable input for Kyeyune’s production as a sculptor/painter. Sometimes he even chooses to leave work late, because it gives him a chance to experience the streets during the busiest moments.

Travelling between his home in Gayaza Road and his workplace at the Margrete Trowell School of Industrial and Fine Arts at Makerere, gives countless opportunities to store everyday images in his mental memory card.

And George Kyeyune’s life as an artist relies on this bodily flash drive, along with his ability to retrieve images from this storage when he is acting in front of a blank canvas or unmolded clay.

EDITOR: From the paintings I have seen, it looks like you have a very special gift for being able to  distinguish and single out that one outstanding motive from busy normal day. In addition, you have a talent for timing and composition, so you know exactly which posture to freeze. What is fuelling these gifts?

Kyeyune explains: ”I am fascinated by life in itself. Nothing is ordinary or trivial. My goal as an artist is to present a summary of life. Every moment is important. Life is extraordinary. That man pushing that wheelbarrow. It isn’t just about pushing. It’s about everything that has led that man to push that wheelbarrow. Whether there has been fairness on his way leading to that episode. My mission is to reveal everything around that man.

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If my work can arouse your thinking about certain issues, that is where I want to go. Trying to be provocative, rather than narrative about subjects. I feel restless and doubtful, and you might discover these emotions in my work. So, I want you to feel doubtful too, because then the things around us become more interesting.”

The creative process

ED: How do you work?

”Often, sitting in front of that blank canvas, I have no clues. I don’t sketch. My initial question would be: ’What does it want?’ When I start applying colours, that puts me in the right mood. My memory starts working, and all these snapshots from the streets, the markets, the alleys and squares appear.

When I am painting, I am awake and alert. My technique may seem quite wild. I apply colour quite vividly, I am not labouring so much. I have an idea of what I want to say, not in a detailed way though. It is true that by the time I get to that canvas, I have been through a lot of reflections, collecting knowledge about life, storing images in my head. And I feel so restless about what I am thinking, that the canvas helps me to get it out.”

ED: It seems to me that there is a parallel buildup going on here; both inside you, the artist, and – since you mentioned your interest in everything that precedes the motives’ doings – around the subject you are depicting.

”Exactly. In the end, it is like an eruption of something. An explosion. I think it is a result of my reflections around the topics. An interest in the subject matter I portray. And because I have this keen interest in what I paint or sculpture, the best arrangement in form and colour will come out.”

George Kyeyune at his home studio, 2010.
George Kyeyune at his home studio, 2010.

His background

George Kyeyune was born in Masaka, Kyanamukaka subcountry in 1962. He was born into a traditional Ugandan familiy, with a double-digit number of siblings. He recalls strongly drawing pictures on the courtyard floor just after it had rained. George kept on using the ground as a canvas longer than the other kids of the same age. Because this excited him. This enthusiasm for drawings was one of the two reasons that led George to an artistic career. The other being two artist uncles serving as role models.

”I have kept some early work from my youth. One of them being a portait of my father. I think I am able to recognize a certain amount of talent in this first images,” Kyeyune smiles modestly.

He left Masaka in 1981 to become a student of Margaret Trowell School of Fine Arts. That started his lifelong commitment at the Makerere University. He graduated with a Bachelor of Art in 1985, which he supplemented with a Diploma in Education the following year, before heading off to the The Maharaja Sayajirao University of Baroda, India. After spending three years in the state of Gujurat, he returned home in the early 90’s with a Masters of Fine Arts, specialized in Sculpture.

Kyeyune considers his Indian stay as his transforming years:

”This experience was completely overwhelming. I was fascinated with India. Its ancient history. The progress during its Golden Age. The old religions that originated there. The tempels. The statues. The fact that it was colonised by the British, yet kept their religions. I asked myself : ’Why was that the case?’ India is deeply rooted in religions, completely different from how Uganda adapted Christianity.”

Also, for the first time in his life, he questioned his cultural inheritance:

”People expected me to come with a luggage, consisting of traditional African art, e.g. the mask and other symbols. But I didn’t have these roots. Ugandan culture isn’t rooted in masks. Our heritage is baskets and stools, myths and legends.

For the first time, I was made aware of the importance of my African culture. I tried to understand the logic of questioning me about why I didn’t make use of African art forms. In a way, I had to leave Africa to become aware of my cultural roots. And this opened many windows to understand my identity.”

George Kyeyune at his home studio, 2010.
George Kyeyune at his home studio, 2010.

Lecturing at Makerere

Returning from India, Kyeyune spent the first half of the 90’s teaching sculpture to students at Makerere. He also did sculptures for exhibition and worked as an illustrator. In 1996 he returned to painting. Something started to happen around painters in Kampala, a market was developing. Also, his work as an illustrator declined.

During these two decades, he has held different positions at the University; Head of Sculpture, Deputy Dean, and latest the Dean of Fine Arts, a position he has recently stepped down from. All the time, except three years spent in the UK to get a Ph.D. from 1999-2003, he has been lecturing sculpture.

”Being a lecturer allows me to constantly interact with other people; future artists and arts professionals. To discuss art and to get valuable feedback on my work.”

An obligation to humanity

ED: What do you want to tell your audience?

”You see, I am very emotional when I work. I record life around me, in an intriguing, sometimes humorous way. At the end of the day, I am only thinking about sharing my psyche. Sometimes I feel better. I have satisfied myself, been able to say something about the images I have memorized.

And that feels like an obligation to humanity. To use my skills and capacity to share these images. It’s like if I don’t share this to others, I have been mean. I am really dealing with two things. One: Make a good painting. Two: Tell the right story.

I want to tell you; these people are worth talking about. These motives – the subject matter – is as important than anything else you can think of. I use the brush and the paint, the mallet and the chisel to acknowledge and recognize ordinary people. And by doing this, enhance the audience’s feelings about themselves. What they think they are and want to do.”

George Kyeyune. (c) 2010. All rights reserved.
George Kyeyune. (c) 2010. All rights reserved.

George Kyeyune recently had an exhibition at the Afriart Gallery, showing twentysomething of his latest paintings.

”Since I hadn’t produced in a while, I found it quite difficult to come up with enough paintings for the exhibition. I had to push myself to do it.”

ED: Where do you get you main ideas?

George grins: ”Ideas are everywhere around us. A lot of things don’t get noticed because people feel they’re ordinary. But they’re not ordinary.

They are extraordinary.”

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Discuss Kyeyune’s work would love to hear the readers’ opinions on George Kyeyune’s life and artwork. What kind of role has he played as a teacher for younger artists? Does his artwork engage and provoke you the way he is describing? Which piece of his work do you appreciate the most?

Please comment and participate in the discussion!

5 thoughts on “The Perceptive Observer: An interview with George Kyeyune

  1. The work is fascinating.I like the freshness and dexterity in colour use and mastery of the human figure. Ordinary events become extra ordinary.

  2. i get my self being inspired by him. his simplicity both as a person and his themes are just eye gripping. In fact i had to just force my eyes off the ‘the female circumcision’ and ‘Jesus writing on the ground’

  3. Dr George kyeyune is my teacher not only at school but in other fields out side school. He’s got a painting style i admire most and his life style is so inspiring.

    HE IS A SCULPTOR, a big reason why i opted for it at school. i just fell in love with his sculpting style, a good realist when it comes to portriture

  4. I admire the work of George and the other lecturers at Makerere University. They are serious, each in their own way defining what Contemporary Art means in Africa in a post-colonial time. I was lucky to meet this gentle, unassuming man at the Thapong International Artists’ Workshop, Botwana, 1995. Thank you for the write up – Art in Africa needs more! :))

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