Edison Mugalu’s art: The serendipity of success

I have been following the trends in Uganda’s visual environment in the last decade, with keen interest and I have noted something rather distinct. While the events in art that made headlines in the period of economic recovery (1986-2000) were led by seasoned artists with predictable results, those in the last decade have been dominated by younger artists most of whom in the early stages of their careers.

Written by Professor George Kyeyune

Knowledge of anatomy and perspective for which the success of painting for example was measured in the past, has today lost its credence in favor of experiments with formal content. The young artists have found comfort and repose in appropriating motifs from local resources and imaginatively domesticating them in their art. Even when they want to tell stories, they are rarely explicit; instead stories become a context for painting or sculpture.

Yet, as they carry out these experiments, they remain focused on their primary goal: To sustain the client’s interest and attention, the bulk of whom still remain the expatriate community.

Edison Mugalu at the exhibition at AKA Gallery, February 2012.

Edison Mugalu typifies this cadre of younger artists who have taken to making art as their full-time employment and many have made a success of it. Their work exhibit a bold and aggressive attitude which is also reflected in their marketing strategies.

From Triangle to Ngoma

Ten years ago, Mugalu made his first humble but significant steps on an eventful journey that has brought him to prominence and recognition as a jewel in contemporary Ugandan art. Interestingly, he owes his success to the efforts of Robert Loder, a British promoter of art in Africa, whom he had never even seen or met. Below I explain how this happened.

Apart from collecting contemporary African Art, Robert Loder is reputed for introducing and guiding the Triangle International Artists Workshops in Africa – the first one being hosted in South Africa in the early 1980s.

In Uganda, the first and so far the only international artists workshop took place in 1998 at a former Leprosy Center in Buluba near Iganga. Because of logistical challenges, Ngoma International Artists Workshop (as it was baptized) did not continue the following year as was expected. Fortunately, Ford Foundation agreed to support Artists Studios where artists would come and hire studio spaces at a nominal fee.

The philosophy of experimentation and exploration of unfamiliar territory in art was applied at the Ngoma Artists Studio (NAS) because of its flexible structures which gave artists the opportunity to experiment. This same philosophy had proved successful for both the Triangle International Workshops and Ngoma International Artists Workshop.

Former art students at Makerere School of Industrial and Fine Arts, such as Juuko Hoods and Damba Ismail, were some of the pioneer artists at this centre. The new direction in experimental art ignited a new movement in the new millennium which for its freshness and energy captured the imagination of art collectors.

Owino business

As these events were unfolding, Mugalu had already settled down in business selling second-hand clothes at Owino, a downtown market in Kampala. He had dropped out of school after his Ordinary Level because his mother did not have money for him to further his education. His father was less bothered.

Mugalu hoped, that his savings from the Owino business would enable him to return to school. He did, but for a short time, because the demands of his business left him very little time to concentrate at school.

In Uganda, there are no one-stop shopping centers for art supplies and in many cases, even essential art supplies are not [always] readily available; artist have to improvise. Often times, artists paint on curtain material because of its heavy texture. These were available on Mugalu’s stall, or if not, his neighbor would have them in stock.

As Jjuko was walking in Owino Market looking for ‘canvas’ material, he saw Mugalu, his old friend. The two had been classmates at St Florence Secondary School Bugembe. Jjuko was shocked that his friend had taken to a life of a vendor, moreover in a despised low-class market. Jjuko broke the good news to his friend about the profitable business of art, reminding him how he used to excel in art at school.

“You are sitting on your talent,” Jjuko said – imploring and persuading him to join the NAS.

The legacy of Trowell

Bugembe Secondary School was lucky to have had an imaginative and dedicated teacher who ‘fired’ his students with exciting tasks. “If you want to paint a fight,” Mr. Henry Mawanda would say, “make sure everything in the frame is fighting – including the sky.”

In Mawanda we see echoes of Trowell’s philosophy, of seeking inspiration from local resources. 70 years later, her legacy is still relevant and was in this case key in unlocking the creative potential of these teenagers.

With reluctance and doubt Mugalu left his Owino business and with his meager savings, he stocked colors and canvases to paint on. Once at the Ngoma Artists Resource Centre, he saw that he had a lot of catching up to do. He dedicated the first two years on practicing and learning new skills.

During this time, Ngoma organized a one week artists workshop at Nabinonya on the shore of lake Victoria. The terms and conditions of this workshop, which were also in line with the ideals of Ngoma Artists Studios as well as the Triangle International Artists Workshops, encouraged participants to use anything conceivable within their surroundings to make art.

The tightness of the Nabinonya workshop in terms of materials was later to become a liberating experience for the budding artist. Mugalu learnt to innovate, and later in his career, he could still make art even in times of scarcity. The paintings he made in this workshop boosted his spirits, indeed the once skeptical but determined artist was able to for the time sell his work at a realistic price.

Mugalu believed that the main reason that his work attracted so much attention was because the conditions of the workshop allowed him to follow his heart. And the substance of these conditions are unmistakably traceable to Robert Loder’s efforts.

Tapping into Makerere

Mugalu was not insular. He made trips to the Makerere School of Industrial and Fine Arts where he got acquainted with the art produced there. Makerere’s art had until recently been constrained  by institutional guidelines – in spite of the fact that artists like Francis Nnaggenda who is known for his experimental approach had taught there for a long time (1978-2001).

What Mugalu noted there was the overly emphasis on principles and elements of art. To some students, these would be restrictive and debilitating, while to others, there provided a perfect platform to walk away from, to a risky unknown. Mugalu had already seen the benefits of tasting the unknown, so his encounter with Makerere, albeit for a brief period, was useful particularly in that respect.

It is within this context that I disagree with Mugalu when he refers to himself as a self-taught artist and he does not qualify his assertions. In my view, he is trained, but in a non-formal way given that he has surrounded himself by and works with trained artists.

It is important to remember that at the start of the millennium, Uganda’s economy had become stable and the market for art generally was booming. New art galleries emerged and these included Afriart Gallery, Design Agenda gallery, Okapi Gallery – all located in Kampala – and Equation Gallery (Aid a Child) at the equator, mid-way between Masaka and Kampala. Mugalu and his contemporaries took advantage of these favorable conditions for making and selling art and worked with abandon.

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Pleasant and expressionistic paintings

From 2005, Mugalu was on the way to stardom as he had now gained confidence and knew the taste of his clients very well. His subjects are taken from his childhood he fondly reminisces and life in general around him. Growing up in Kayunga in the neighborhood of river Sezibwa allowed him to swim and play in water and try out fishing. Boats, water and fishermen dominate his paintings.

To him color comes naturally. He applies it without laboring; spontaneously and swiftly he creates pleasant and expressionistic paintings.  With his figures Mugalu is able to say so much with so little.

Because of his love for maritime life, he has from time to time taken trips to Dar-es-salaam and Zanzibar and made studies of local life there too. The narrow and sunny streets of Zanzibar town animated by busy animals and people in white and garbs are painted with affection.

Mugalu has also picked interest in the ‘exotic’ life of the Karamojong as if pleading with government to preserve their traditional lifestyle. Yet, just like any other progressive and modern Ugandan, the Karamojong deserve better.

The rapid success of Mona Studios

In 2004, Mugalu left the protecting wings of Ngoma and together with Anwar Sadat, another budding artist with a similar background, moved on to form Mona Art Studios in Kamwokya. Kamwokya is a well-known place for its squalid conditions, but this did not deter the two determined young artists who knew their goals.

Mona Artists Studios, named after Mugalu’s daughter Mona, became very successful, attracting high-profile art collectors from embassies, government departments and the private sector officials.

It soon became obvious that the location of Mona Art Studios was militating against the high standards the two artists had so scrupulously built. Paintings were being sold for much less than their real market value because the neighbors were Malwa drinkers and the open sewer flowed past the studios which also doubled as a residence for the artists.

Mona moved to a more decent apartment in Bukoto and with money flowing in uninterrupted Mugalu embarked on a buying land and constructing buildings for both rent and studio space.

The drawback of success

His rapid economic growth and moreover at such a young age was a real concern to the Local Council (LC) members of Kireka where he built his first house. These distinguished members of society who in fact are well-respected opinion leaders had never heard about art as a profession that serious people could engage in. This, sadly, goes to prove that art has very few if any advocates even at the grassroots.

Ugandan visual artist Edison Mugalu at his home and studio in Kireka. Photo by Thomas Bjørnskau.

Yet on the other hand, one would not entirely blame our honourable leaders for being so ignorant about such an important resource. Our education system, which prepared them for their roles in society, has up to now failed to appreciate that this country will develop – not necessarily through privileging white-collar job seekers – but through supporting those entrepreneurs who can innovatively use their surroundings and create jobs.

Mugalu told me that no amount of explanation could convince anyone on the village that his rosy pecuniary manifestations are not attributable thuggery or drug pushing. Yet as an artist, he was making honest business, creating employment and more importantly contributing to the cultural diversity of the Kireka community.

What saved Mugalu from undue scrutiny was the interest he developed in music. When he accumulated a large body of work, in 2008, Mugalu could afford to take off time from painting and compose and play songs. He formed the Mona Lisa Family Band that is up to now doing very well. His nominal status as a musician was a relief to the LCs, who concluded that their random and security risk resident as they previously thought was in fact somewhat employed.

Today Mugalu is a comfortable and successful painter who is ready to give back to community. He is a living testimony that where there is a will there is a way. His art has touched many reminding us that there is a purpose in life.

Dr. George Kyeyune is an associate professor at Makerere University art school and definitely Uganda’s leading expressionist, who has helped many local artists and viewers find themselves in his simple narratives about urban life in Kampala.

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