The Missing Ink: An interview with Fred Mutebi

Almost twenty years ago, Fred Mutebi decided to take printmaking in Uganda to another level. Today, no printmaker carves out the lines with such a strength and importance as Mutebi does. In a unique way he captures stunning, evocative images of unpleasant day-to-day scenes.

Editor Thomas Bjørnskau talks to Fred Mutebi about his passion for subject matter and woodcut printmaking.

A collection of Fred Mutebi’s most important artworks were recently exhibited at Afriart Gallery. Twenty pieces in woodcut were on display, and Fred also chose to show the wooden matrices so that the viewers could sense the intricate carvings.

Editor: When and why did you choose to go into printmaking?

”I was introduced to printmaking when I was a student at Makerere between 1990 and 1993. At that time there were few outstanding printmakers in Uganda, and a shortage of artists doing proper block printmaking. I decided to take it to another level, put all my weight into it, and I did my graduation exhibition with prints. Actually, almost all my works were sold, and that was one of the reasons why I continued to explore the elements of printmaking.

But the ultimate factor was that Uganda lacked practicing printmakers, unlike with paintings, sculptures, and batiks and other crafts. There was a gap, and I wanted to fill that gap.”

Sharp lines, strong stories

Ed: What do you think makes printmaking so special?

”It allows me to tell a story in the way I best want to. I think it is because of the nature of printmaking; starting with the wood and its flat surface, which you engrave or cut out. The methods I employ in printmaking allows me to follow the lines exactly the way I want them. I think that strengthens the print and tells the story better than for instance in paintings.”


Ed: Your current show is a retrospect of the last ten years. Comparing it to your graduation exhibition, what kind of progress do you see?

”Obviously, there has been a lot of improvement technically. When I started out it was all very improvised. I had one roller and used it both to roll the ink and to press the ink to the paper on the other side. So, in regards to technique, I must say I have perfected the skill.

As far as subject matter is concerned – oh my God – there is a lot that has changed between the 90s and now. Being a social activist and an environmentalist, there are so many events that have happened. Good things and bad things, and I just keep on documenting.

You see, my work is in the form of projects; whenever there are significant events, I would come in, document and create. And when there are no events, I just go to the community and observe.

I think that is what art is all about, not about making money, but to document so that we can educate the present and the future.”

Motives matter

Ed: So these days you have been really busy?

”Exactly. I documented 1996, 2000, 2006 and 2011 in the area of politics. But even though the content is ugly, like when I documented the Rwandan genocide with bodies floating on the lake and fleeing families, I must make my work beautiful at first sight. You would look at it and see magnificent colours and stunning compositions, but the content may be unpleasant. That is why I always tell people – before they pay – to ask me about the motive of the printwork.”


Ed: Is it a little bit disappointing when people buy your art without asking?

”Yes, it is very frustrating. But it is really something that should concern all art. Art lovers and art buyers should strive to grasp the artists’ stories. Sometimes we create to activate managers’ or politicians’ minds. The people who view our art are the people who should have the solutions to the problems the artists are addressing.”

Ed: Would you say that the ultimate goal of art is to trigger a discussion?

”Yes. Exactly! To trigger discussion. To trigger a dialogue. Without this conversation, it is just a beautiful piece made to romance your eyes. You know, artists have different moods. There are times when you are creating just to make yourself happy, but other times you are a serious artist who is observing society. And we should really pay more attention to art that activates dialogue than to art that just makes us happy.”

In search of the source

Ed: There is an interesting video on your home page, by the way, showing the creative process when you are about to depict a scene from a primary school class. It seems that you really put a lot of effort into single out the most defining moment or feature in a given situation. In that video, you reflected on what told the story best; the kids raising their hands or the looks on their faces when dreaming about the future. Is this a crucial step in your creative process?

”Basically, there are big challenges from the moment you have conceived an idea to the point where you turn it into an artwork. To me, every blink of an eye is an idea, and you can imagine every second. For an artist to choose and compose that one microsecond that ends up as the final artwork, that is where the challenge comes in, and that is also where the skills come in.

With regards to printmaking, you really have to think, because it involves cutting out, which means you constantly limit your alternatives. It is not like in paintings, where you can cover the mistakes with another stroke.

So really, the brain is working so hard. The part of the brain that records different activities that happen, has to be very active and bring out the most dramatic parts. So you are looking for drama, you are looking for the right surroundings, the set-up, but maybe most importantly … for the source of inspiration.

You have to consider the source of inspiration, also for the viewer. The viewer has to love it. You could for instance show a sad moment, but you want to inspire and educate people, so you show how sad things can be turned into solving problems.”

Ed: How to turn it into hope?

”Exactly! People who have problems want to see an element of hope. So in that class room, there is a lot of sadness, children coming from poor backgrounds. But in the crowd there are also smiles, there is an element of showing intelligent and reflective views, especially when they are talking about what they want to be.

And this is very interesting; we have doctors, teachers, politicians that will look at this artwork; should they get the impression and accept that children from poor, rural backgrounds have no future? Using such a setting, you as an artist really want to bring the rural setting to the city, educate urban children and parents, and remind them that these children really exist and have dreams.

I know what it feels like to be such a child, since this is my background, and also, I was not the most intelligent. Now, it is like I am sitting at the same table as these children who want their schools to be the best schools in the world. So my mission as an artist is to convey this message.

When it comes to the process of printmaking, it is a big challenge to catch that moment that tells the story. Sometimes it requires hours of thinking, all throughout the night. Just bring out the wooden plate and look at it.”

Role models presence

Ed: Coming from this background yourself, talking to kids you can relate to, hearing their hopes for the future, and now looking back on the factors that made you succeed – what do you think were the most decisive factors in your early years?

”My feeling is that adults are crucial in bringing up and nurturing children. The parents, of course, but also primary teachers, other relatives and people within the community. Back then, I think every element of this structure worked in favour of transforming me from a child into a responsible adult citizen.

Especially, I think my parents were good. They would assign duties, force me to go to school, and feed me well.”

Ed: Did they encourage you to be an artist?

”No, that was the one thing they didn’t do. They wanted me to be a doctor or a lawyer, but – thank God – one of my uncles was an artist, doing arts at the School of Fine Art. And he was the person who inspired me. I think inspiration also comes from whoever influences the child – a person the child looks up to and aspires to be.

For me, I had my uncle. I looked at his sketchbooks. At that time, I made drawings of very naive things, like any young boy. But catching a glimpse of those sketchbooks; all those ideas that came into my mind!

When I was in Primary seven I visited my uncle at the University, and when I joined Masaka Secondary School I started doing Arts as an official subject. Then I decided that I wanted to be an artist and go to the University, just like my uncle.

There is one remark I overheard my father making, which I still remember very well. I had drawn something in the living room. And then my father said to my mother: ’I think this boy will be like his uncle’. And this comment really energised me, it was a big compliment, and it was like he put a stamp of approval on my big ambition.”

Ed: It seems you emphasize role models as much as deliberate choices for why you entered the field of art?

”Well, actually, due to circumstances like HIV/AIDS we have lost so many artists, famous and unknown ones. There is a missing generation when it comes to sources of inspiration. Young, aspiring artists never get the role model inspiration they might need.

I think that is why society is beginning to crumble, and I believe people have lost it. Artists have lost it. They are looking for money as opposed to educating the community. Both visual and performing artists. If you look at musicians; they bring out a song, and in one week it is history. Whereas you can play a song composed in the 50s or 60s and it still applies today.”

Ed: What do you think needs to be done?

”Most importantly, it starts with the dialogue.”

Connecting with real people

Ed: And if I read you correctly; the kind of dialogue you treasure the most, you get from going out to the countryside and talking to real people?

”Exactly! The real people. We are detached from the real people. You make money, and when you can, you buy a car. You need to go to the real people. Observe them, listen to them and see what is happening to them. They are helping us out … everything that inspires me is rural people.”

Ed: Would you say you are their voice?

”In a way, but I feel bad, though. These days, people are only listening to religious people or to politicians, when the people who really have solutions to our problems would be the ordinary, rural, underprivileged communities. Because they are living a very improvised life. And they are managing!”

Ed: I guess one of the big challenges is to bring the art that expresses these ideas to the decision makers, because the ones in power – politicians, businessmen, bureaucrats – do they visit art galleries? Do they collect art?

”No. And this issue is really burning in my heart. We create to educate about rural life, but the works just end up in a gallery where nobody in power will experience it.”

Let Art Talk …

Ed: But how do you think the artistic community can get their art to local decision makers?

”This concern is really one of the reasons why I started the organisation Let Art Talk. So we can bridge the gap between the rural people and the other communities, between the underprivileged and the affluent. We don’t just create, but educate other people where they are and address their problems.

My main concern now is to connect the people; the affluent with the needy. When you buy my artworks, fifty per cent of the proceeds goes to the organisation. As soon as I sell an artwork, I will make a program that will buy materials and I will make a trip, either to Masaka or any other place I feel I should do something.”

Ed: Are these projects normally directed towards young people?

”Well, in a way, but wherever there is a young person, there is an old one. I think it is imperative that we also include the old people.”

…through Talking Murals

Ed: And how do you do that?

”It’s kind of a challenge. The main idea with Let Art Talk is to take important issues – like child labour, gender issues – and inspire the youth to get into the subject and interpret it as art. The tool has been the talking murals, which allows the kids to combine text with visual images.

When we establish a theme, let’s say poverty, we would start by calling the parents to a parents meeting. Together we brainstorm on a blackboard, writing down all their concerns, like lack of equipment, environment, crops planting, etcetera. Then we take some of the issues, i.e. the environment, and establish some visions like ’commit to passing on a cleaner earth to the future generation’. And then we might also ask the parents: ’How do we do it?’ Then somebody suggests planting trees and the children will draw or contribute in other ways and include these solutions in the murals.

So these techniques involve the gathering of words and statements which we illustrate as visions, and finally exchange those views between different communities in different settings.

You have to inspire the children and somehow involve the elder. Each one of them can contribute. And with time – I can assure you that it will not happen quickly – it will create a better future. If you do not empower a young person with the skills of being creative, education will stop, business will stop, and culture will stop.”

Fred’s finest prints

There are artists who want their work to speak for itself. And then, there are artists who want their work to tell important stories, which they will use as a starting point for conversation and a framework in which they express even greater ideas for the ones who want to listen. Fred Mutebi is definitely in the latter category.

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He speaks enthusiastically about the metaphors and symbols he uses to convey his social criticism. Whether it is the game of football that illustrates the lack of teamwork, the men sipping the local brew malwa using long straws in the same pot that questions how humanity is draining Mother Earth, the women activists’ mouths now being padlocked, or the bus moving in the same direction as always illustrating that the government has not really learned. Fred Mutebi prepares his food for thought so vividly, so delicately, that you will not remain a bystander.

Don’t miss the review

In this edition of, Lesli Robertson, curator of the University of North Texas, reviews Fred Mutebi’s collection of artworks recently displayed at the Afriart Gallery.


3 thoughts on “The Missing Ink: An interview with Fred Mutebi

  1. Fred, this is à beautifull interview of you, your work and thought. I enjoyed reading this up here in Holland. Great!
    Hope we Will visit you soon, but first Mr . Boon wil visit Uganda! All THE best! Bas

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