Jjuuko Hoods’ visual memoir of Kampala today

It took Jjuuko Hoods, one of Uganda’s most productive, self-motivated and energetic artists, two years of soul-searching, looking back at his past artistic achievements and experiences, to acknowledge that a turn-away from the contemporary mainstream crowd of artists’ was not an option to be debated about, but a must to be acted upon.

By Maria Alawua

Jjuuko admitted that his two-year philosophical journey (2010-2011), during which he visited several galleries and viewed numerous exhibitions, left him with one conclusion. A hard but true reality had dawned on him. This reality was; that to move on in life as an artist, change was a necessity.

The visual artist Jjuuko Hoods.

This truth troubled him to such an extent that he made up his mind to get out of his own comfort zone and unlock the potential that he now realized had been lying dormant on the inside of him for a a long time.

This prompted Jjuuko to depart from the conventional and predictable manner of art representation he had been practicing. The old and conventional therefore gave way to the new and unconventional both in terms of stylistic approach, technique and subject matter.

The series of paintings, currently showing in an exhibition at the Afriart Gallery, all of which are executed on canvas and acrylics are statements of Jjuuko’s transformed mind-set, character, taste and confidence.

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Jjuuko’s new turn-around comes at a time when the now established Kampala Capital City Authority (KCCA) is also in the business of trying to create a new look to a city densely populated with not only people but vehicles, especially the matatus.

It is therefore not at all surprising that this exhibition attempts to document the urban-scape scenes of Kampala knowing full well that the taxis (popularly called Matatus) that are synonymous with Kampala will soon be no more.

Art professionals discussing Jjuuko Hoods' new line of artworks.

History of Cityscape Painting

According to G. Fernández, City Fresco which is an aerial view of a coastal city found in 1997 at the Baths of Trajan, Rome, may be considered to be the first complete cityscape in the history of painting.

Similarly in Stabiae near Pompeii, G. Fernández further writes that some Roman frescoes particularly depicting a coastal city scene have been found.

Fernández also asserts that although cityscapes did not achieve special dominant roles in compositions, during the Middle Ages, partial representations of cities can be found as backgrounds in many illuminated manuscripts.

Referring again to the same author, another Fresco painting known as “City by the Sea” and painted in 1335 by Ambrogio Lorenzetti (C1290-1348) is generally considered the first true cityscape of the history of Western Art.

Notable Venetian Painters like Vittore Carpaccio and Gentile Bellini, according to this same source, created what may be considered the first “Golden Age” of city-scape painting in Western Art.

In more recent times, urban landscapes are increasingly becoming a substantial part of the art scene. For example, artists’ like Camille Pissarro, Claude Monet, Henri Matisse, Robert Delaunay, Raoul Dufy and Marc Chagall, are all cityscape artists of the avant-garde period.

Within their own genre and style, they created unique and strikingly painterly compositions of the French Capital –Paris and other cities of the world. Camille Pissarro and Claude Monet were Impressionists. Willem de Kooning executed several cityscapes in an abstract manner, while Antonio Lopez’s realistic cityscapes of Madrid are a sharp contrast to Richard Estes photorealistic cityscapes of New York.

All the above mentioned avant-garde artists were either Cubists, Fauves, Realists Impressionists, Abstract artists or Abstract Expressionists. Their intentions, as they painted scenic views of cities the world over, were as diverse as the mediums of expression, techniques and stylistic approaches they used.

In Uganda, to the best of my knowledge, the precise date or period when the first cityscape was painted or documented has not yet been established.

However, artists like Nuwagaba Francis Taga, Kateregga Ismael and Kibuuka Michael have in recent years executed impressionistic cityscapes.

Although this brief journey through the history of cityscape painting may not immediately give answers to questions like: When did the tradition of cityscape painting in Uganda begin? or Who are the most prominent cityscape painters?

One thing is certain. Just as art is as old as man so is cityscape painting. When it comes to art, there is nothing new.

Jjuuko’s Intentions and Inspirations

I presume that Jjuuko’s intentions to paint cityscapes obviously differ from the other cityscape artists mentioned in the previous section.

The reasons behind Jjuuko’s quest to paint scenes of Kampala with titles such as: “Wilson Road II”, “Zebra Crossing”, “Old Kampala View”, “Glory be to God”, “Blue Bus”, “In the Mist”, “Three Umbrellas” and “Smile it’s Kampala” are three-fold.

  1. The urgent need to visually document cityscape scenes of Kampala before the much-anticipated changes in Kampala actually takes place.
  2. Expressing environmental concerns by advocating for a cleaner environment. He has done this through incorporating scrap metal, discarded bottle-tops and discarded wood (the art of recycling) in his recent sculptures.
  3. A complete make-over. By re-evaluating and redefining himself as an artist, Jjuuko has shown that artists can actually bring aesthetic value to art by occasionally being different from the norm.

Jjuuko hopes that the positive steps he has taken will serve as an eye-opener to other artists in Uganda. Chains can actually be broken thus opening avenues for opportunities to explore techniques, subject matter and colour schemes hitherto to unknown to the artists.

About the paintings

Through these paintings, Jjuuko has clearly shown that he is a great visual narrator.

The matatus, only rivaled in numbers by the infamous boda-bodas appear to be the sole focus of the painterly compositions.

Artwork by Jjuuko Hoods, 2012. All rights reserved.

The architecture, that appears to occasionally dominate some of the paintings and the numerous ‘faceless’ people, who appear to be motionless, with no distinguishing features, are also a part of the compositions

The lives of the lower and middle class Ugandans, that daily depend on taxis (Matatus or Kamunyes) to transport them to various destinations within Kampala, are – for once – captured with such an aloof atmosphere.

An occasional portrayal of buses brightly painted in reds and blues in some of Jjuuko’s paintings, is perhaps his way of making a statement that soon the taxis will be a thing of the past as the buses take center stage in the lives of Kampala’s commuters.

Artwork by Jjuuko Hoods, 2012. All rights reserved.

Most of the paintings display the minimum of architectural or anatomical detail. Just enough to sense the impressions of buildings, perceive the people mingling with the matatus, as they either cross the roads or inch slowly in traffic jams that are a familiar sight in downtown Kampala.

Sandwiched between closely spaced buildings, some of which merge at the horizon with a misty hazy sky, the narrow roads bring to focus the endless line of taxis, which are depicted as rectangular white shapes, with dark windows and the all too familiar blue square patterns that symbolizes what they are – public service vehicles.

Artwork by Jjuuko Hoods, 2012. All rights reserved.

The artist chooses to show us a mysterious and indecipherable Kampala in which all objects are semi-abstract and impressionistic.

Traditionally, Jjuuko’s taste for colour has bordered on the savagely raw and pure. Although patches of bright colour do appear in some of the paintings being showcased at Afriart Gallery, their intensity has obviously been subdued by the dominant use of dull colours including white and black.

About the sculptures

The sculptures are quite appealing in their simplicity. Jjuuko incorporates in these wood sculptures scrap-metal and other found materials such as nails, copper wire, sisal-string and pieces of bark-cloth.

According to the artists most of the material used to carve these sculptures was either leftovers or discarded pieces of wood. The surfaces of the wood appear to have been charred slightly to give it an antique look.

The deep incisions are carefully and systematically arranged to create an appealing arrangement on the woods surface. The found materials are also added in such a manner that suggests they were not just randomly placed on the wood surface.

Sculpture by Jjuuko Hoods, 2012. All rights reserved.

Another very interesting feature in this exhibition is the coffee table. One of a kind, the surface also appears to be charred, while at the centre, is what appears to be a hollowed out area in which roasted coffee beans are placed. I may doubt the ability of this piece to function as a table, but it is indeed an inspiring work of art.

Sculpture by Jjuuko Hoods, 2012. All rights reserved.

The old age saying goes that beauty lies in the eyes of the beholder.

Basing on the comments that the artists has received, ever since this exhibition opened, it is clear that the people who have visited the exhibition love his new approach. If this is so, then Jjuuko has every reason to believe that there are no regrets concerning the path that he has chosen to take.

Some day in the future, maybe decades later, when the face of Kampala changes from what it is today, we will undoubtedly have on record, an artist who was there to capture the sights of Kampala.

A visual inheritance would have been passed on to us. I only hope that some one out there will be thoughtful enough to put it on record that during this epoch such memorable scenes of Kampala were captured by an artist called Jjuuko Hoods.

Maria Alawua is an Art Historian, working as a lecturer at the Margaret Trowell School of Industrial and Fine Arts, Makerere University.