Behind the Artwork: Joseph Ntensibe’s ‘Disappearing Forests’

Two women carry heavy loads of firework through Budongo forest. They are busy working, preparing their next meal, not paying attention to the swaying trees that surround them. Sunlight glimpses through the canopy, less dense that you would have expected a tropical forest to be. The surreal colours of the forest create an almost magical backdrop to the everyday task of moving the wood.

Written by Thomas Bjørnskau, editor of

‘Disappearing Forests’ is part of an ongoing series of paintings about the topic environmental conservation, which Joseph Ntensibe has been working on for more than one year.

Why have you chosen this topic?

I was born in a forest. I recall how green it was everywhere, nature was in full blossom. When I visit these rural areas today, the forests are not there anymore. I feel many of the forests around the country are being abused, they are cutting down too many trees. And then, there is the global warming, of course.

'Disappearing Forest', 2011. Art by Joseph Ntensibe.

I have made about ten paintings up until now in this series, with different motives related to environmental challenges. From the savanna, the tropical forests, the mountains and the urban areas, containing both flora, animals and humans.

What did you want to focus on in this particual painting?

This forest was originally quite deep, with a thick canopy, consisting of huge trees and filled with lots of plants. It was darkness everywhere. Today, this forest is open, with lots of light coming through the canopy. The two women carrying the firewood are there to emphasize that this story is about humans burning down the forest.

How do you get the ideas for a piece like this?

Normally, when I begin a new series of work, I do a lot of research and go all around the country to draw sketches. I travel around to get inspiration. Here, I witnessed how people were taking out the firewoods of the forest, reducing the density of the forest.

I have observed and compared the sixties’ forest with today’s, and obviously there is a big difference. The most important is how the light passes through the canopy and the vegetation. At that time you could hardly walk through the forest, and every plant was competing for space.

When I have the inspiration for a story I would ask myself: ‘What has caused this?’ This painting would be my answer.

And how do you start working on it?

I start by suggesting all the colours that I perceive in a scene like this. My first layer becomes a spontanous application of the colour scheme I envision. In this case, I was thinking of green from the plants, yellow from the light and so on. I use a palette knife to smear it out, all random and with fast movements.

First layer of another painting in the same series. This one depicts a European forest, hence more orange and red colours.

In the next layer I sketch out the main figures. If there is a person in the scene, I normally start by working on some of the features of that person, the ones that convey the messages of the painting. In this one, the women are burdened by the heavy firewood. I need this expression to come out. Therefore, I spend quite some time to sketch out these key articulations.

Often, I start with the face because it gives some sort of direction to the rest of the scene. And I make several sketches – sometimes on paper first – until I get exactly what I want.

Second layer from another painting in the same series... this layer the main figures are carefully sketched.

What do you want these two women to communicate to the viewer?

Firstly, these women are young. They have probably been brought up learning; if you want to make a meal, first you need to go out and cut down trees to get firewood. They are innocent, because they haven’t received any messages about environmental protection. It is their way of life, a necessity. And at the end of the day, they are unaware of the fact that the forest around them is disappearing. The only problem for them is the heavy burden.

My message to our government is that such environmental issues must be addressed at every level, all the way down to the common people. One must start from the root.

Joseph Ntensibe in his studio, 2011. Photo by Thomas Bjørnskau.

How would you describe your way of working?

I am very articulate, working on layer after layer, combining many colours that are not there in reality, and my technique evolves around using the colours of the rainbow. And also, I always leave some of the original colours from my first layer to peep through the upper layers.


Firstly, these diametric shapes are my identity, my signature. They HAVE to be present in all my paintings. Second, these colours are used to reflect, to emphasize and to brighten up the composition.

Look at those yellow; if you remove them, the special light will be gone.

In what way?

I think this light brings something magical to the painting. When you take that magic away, art looses its entertainment. It becomes passive instead of active. When the yellow or orange are presented against a darker background, then they bring out a rays of hope.

Is it a little bit like bringing magical elements into fairytales, to make it a little bit more vivid and fantastic, creating almost a parallel universe?

Yes, you are right. And in a way, that is the difference between a composition made by a painter and one taken by a camera. In a photography you will get things as they are, very straightforward, while an artist is suppose to go beyond that. We need that entertainment, that magical presentation – it is like putting butter on bread.

I like to use all these beautiful colours from the rainbow, and I try to make them harmonize with everything. When I have created this kind of harmony, and then someone wants to destroy the harmony, it enhances my message about environmental protection.

I believe that if we really think it over, we can revive the forests, bring back life to it … which brings me to another element that we haven’t talked about; the dancing light. From a distance you can see better how the light coming through the canopy makes the trees dance, it fills the scene with life.

So you have two purposes for working on how the light shines through the canopy…?

Yes. It tells a story of a forest being less dense than it used to. And it also creates life and movement, a dance within the forest.

Another thing I’ve noticed, is that you apply the paint on the foreground elements differently than the application in the background. Why?

Basically, I want it to be a difference between the humans and the nature. Having said that, I also like the colours to be in harmony. So the clothes of the ladies are based on the same colour palette as the trees and the plants. By doing so I want to communicate the message ‘don’t detach yourself from the forest, because it feeds you’.

I have tried to get the same multitude of colours from the flowers and the plants into the clothes of the women.

What was your biggest challenge making this painting?

The most important thing in my art is always how to pass on a message to the viewer. I need to get everything right. Therefore, I have to do extensive research to help my messages to be conveyed to the public the way I want them to. And when I research a forest, for instance, I need to carefully observe this forest throughout all seasons.

Another challenge is to identify the elements of drama. The drama is really what art is about, and how I come to life as an artist. So this area, where the trees are moving and creating a rhythm in the scene, is really crucial.

And also, since I have chosen to include humans in this scene, it was important to add a sense of movement and activity to the forest. A reminder that when the forest is still there, the trees will come to life and compete for light.

We need to keep the forest alive, it generates oxygen and if we destroy too much, people will not have enough oxygen. It is a source of life. Let us revive the forests. And we need to work on every level to achieve this. That is my message, and it is my intention to have exhibitions all around the world to convey this message.

Joseph Ntensibe in his studio, 2011. Photo by Thomas Bjørnskau.

Artist profile: Joseph Ntensibe was born in Uganda in 1954. Teachers, recognizing his talent, secured him an art scholarship at the renowned Makerere University School of Fine Art that produced so many now famous African Artists. Brought to the attention of Iris Hunt in 1977, she exposed him to different media. Iris’ promotion and special exhibits at Mount Kenya Art Gallery made it possible for Joseph to become a full time Artist and concentrate on developing his own style. Many overseas exhibitions followed and gained Joseph Ntensibe a place amongst Africa’s famous painters. Many of Ntensibe’s works have quite a magical quality, eerie creatures of the night, peering at us from the canvas, or his concern with the endangered wildlife of his native Africa: Gorillas depicted as the warm and loving “People of the forest,” and the bongo moving silently through the forest’s rays of light. (Taken from Mount Kenya Art Gallery’s website)

5 thoughts on “Behind the Artwork: Joseph Ntensibe’s ‘Disappearing Forests’

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  2. Joseph is one of my favorite Ugandan artists of all time. He’s a friend (i was introduced to him by Taga a former student of his). Since that day i have never regretted meeting him.
    I am lucky that I am one of the very few people he has let inside his studio. Wooh!! he’s work his amazing.
    I have watched him paint. I love his passion on canvas. I love the way he handles each piece as if its his last.
    These emotions are what make Joseph’s paintings special. The emotional entensity ( whether good or bad) is always very important in an art composition. Its what draws the audience to an art piece.
    His love for drama and fantasy thus is not by accident. His paintings are almost crawling with life ( he reminds me of David Mzuguno the Tiga Tiga master i met before he passed on).
    A lesson to the young generation of artists: You can never be a master of your trade if you are not passionate about what you do. Everything, including the money, comes later on when you are passionate about your work.
    Yes, its a great endurance (doing a piece in two months or so, is nothing that comes easy), but you can do it.
    Thank you again Joseph for that magic. I guess your work holds the true principles of fine art: art should be able to offer the appreciator a new perspective to life.
    And thank you Thomas for that interview. I do believe you left Joseph’s studio not the same man like i did the first time when i went there in April 2011. i was astounded.

  3. Bravo Sebo Mzee Ntensibe. Powerful and timely reminders of the painting brush to all Ugandans and NEMA specifically. Sebo have you known that kampala’s temp yesturday reached 35 degrees celicious? tampering with the nature cover! U have reminded me of amabira gekyaggwe.

  4. This article reminds me of all the good memories I have visiting Joseph Ntensibe in 2009 and 2010 at his studio. The article describes the process of painting very well and I recognize the quality of his work, the intensity of art as a way of awareness of problems in society.
    He cooperated in the Poetry Poster Project of FEMRITE and we were very proud of this famous artist to be one of our illustrators on the first poetry anthology for children by Ugandan poets and artists. hia anthology The Butterfly Dance is nominated for the Unesco Book Design award 2012.
    Thanks again, Mr. Ntensibe!

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