Talking happiness in love with Edison Mugalu

This exhibition at Umoja Art Gallery in Kamwokya was Mugalu’s clear and heartfelt contribution to a day some people love to love and others love to hate: Valentine’s Day. The reason why some people love to hate the day is not hard to fathom. It’s the high expectations and demands that lovers place on each other which are rarely meant. The flowers, candlelight dinners and whatever else you can drum up in the name of romance are simply a rare treat for a few.

Reviewed by Elizabeth Namakula.

This is why Mugalu’s message was all the more relevant. Love should not be complicated, love should not be expensive. It should be enjoyed in an everyday setting with its simplicity and purity.

Everywhere you turned in the two exhibiting rooms, there was simplicity drenched in soothing colors of gold and cream, and earthly tones of browns, reds and oranges.

Mugalu explained that the love life in big cities is different from the love life in rural areas:

“If you visit the rural areas of Soroti, Arua and even here in Central Uganda, love life is simple and pure. In the big cities people strive for things like posh cars and classy accessories to show their love. Yet they are lonely and miserable, crying in their posh cars.”

Contrary to all this, he added, in the villages a man will go out with his friends after work to drink local brew, and then come home to his loved ones to find supper waiting for him. He will sit down with his family to share this meal.

“Some even have more than one woman living under the same roof, and no one complains! They will only complain if you don’t buy clothes for them. But the moment you spend, fully and equally on both, they will live happy.”

Ugandan visual artist Edison Mugalu, at Umoja Art Gallery, Kampala, February 2013. Photo by Thomas Bjørnskau.

Roses, birds and beaches

The name of each painting was in harmony with the artist’s portrayal. ‘Soul of a rose’ depicted a woman smelling a thousand roses, in gold and earthly tones. ‘Better together’, an acrylic paint in different shades of red, depicted two birds, each on its own stem, one above the other. ‘Always on your side’ showed a communal gathering in a village setting.

‘To our favourite place’ illustrated a woman on a man’s back passing through a marshland, with others wading through. At least that was what I thought until he explained that this particular painting was inspired by a scene from one of the marvelous beaches of Zanzibar; where, when the tide is low, people love to feel the water with their toes, and some women venture out to collect cowries that will be sold to tourists.

Mugalu is known for a certain fondness of maritime life, which perhaps explains his trips to Dar-es-Salaam and Zanzibar to study the local life.

Mugalu insisted that this exhibition was about those moments we miss out on and fail to capture:

“Do you remember when you were young and rubbed soap between your palms to blow bubbles? Do you remember the happiness you felt? Your favourite place? And when friends responded with love when you desperately tried to fit in?”

Such things, Mugalu said, acted as his inspiration:

“I had to capture those moments in an artist exhibition, because such moments in a painting can last forever. If you merely write about them in a book, they will be covered and stored away, but through a painting, visually, they are readily available .”

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Swings, barbeques, peace and serenity

But even in the whole talk of village love and its basic necessities, they were attempts at modern art and contemporary systems. ‘Swing talk’ was about a couple on the swings, with the man pushing a woman. There was also ‘The lover’s barbecue’, a town setting with people streaming to a building with an open door.

“In Swing talk, I would have preferred a swing made of ropes rather than metal, like the one we used when we were growing up. On that swing, you happily enjoyed your free time and leisure in twofold. You had a great time when someone pushed you and gave you momentum; and in turn, that person also felt a sense of contentment when watching you enjoy yourself.

I don’t have the words to describe such a mood. It’s really happiness in love.”

One unmistakable thing about Mugalu’s work is the aura of peace and serenity that evades you when you look at his paintings. He says it is his style:

“I always make a painting that calms you down and makes you feel at home. This is because I capture the moods of the day and I refer to too much light while I’m painting. Light is my first source of inspiration, then maybe the mood of the day, and better yet, the mood I am in.”

Audience reactions

Away from the content of the exhibition—which is still ongoing until the 14 March—is the comments from the visitors of the show.

At first the turnout wasn’t that great, but gradually people kept coming, and on the third day, when I dropped by again, Enoch Mukiibi, another gifted artist, was on hand to share his observations:

“His application of colour is incredible. By this I mean the way he mixes colour to create texture that is amazing.”

He proceeded to point out the painting named ‘An evening with you’ in which different couples are portrayed holding umbrellas. The application of yellow, cream, brown and red in acrylics was indeed brilliant.

“I am blown away by his colour scheme in most of these paintings. It is incredible how he starts with greys and other earth tones, and then moves on to the bright ones like red. Better still, I am impressed with the way he manages to conjure the meaning of each painting with such clarity.”

With this Mukiibi pointed to a painting named ‘Forever’ in which an elderly man embraces a young woman from behind, resting his beard on her shoulder. In turn the young woman throws her arms around him. It’s a curious position I admit.

“No woman will let you hold her like that, resting your beard on her tender and delicate shoulders, unless of course it’s forever.”

I have nothing to say to this, so we move on.

Another observer, who referred to himself as Michael, voiced his appreciation of Mugalu’s work with special emphasis on the use of light:

“He is an artist who knows the importance of light. But it’s not just that, it’s also how he makes it work to his advantage. Most of his paintings let you in, curtsy of this light.”

Martha Menzies from Victoria, Canada, who is visiting Uganda with her partner Jim Sparting, acknowledged that she was no stranger to Mugalu’s work. He just happens to be among her favourite artists:

“I do have some of his paintings back home and I am most likely to go back with one again. I do have others too, from artists in Mexico.”

I asked her what is so different about Mugalu’s work from the artists in Mexico:

“The artists in Mexico are whimsical. Their work is mostly about cathedrals and other catholic regalia while Mugalu’s work is known for amazing colour schemes. You know … he likes to paint with the colours of Africa.”

“What are the colors of Africa?”

“Gold, red, cream and orange…,” she answered.

About the artist

Edison Mugalu is a self-taught artist who traces his humble roots to selling second-hand clothes in Owino Market in order to pay for his tuition. It was a friend who encouraged him to try his hand at visual art, resulting in a two-year residence with 12 other artists under one roof funded by the Ford Foundation.

They learnt, shared and inspired each other, and finally it led to Mugalu’s first arts exhibition in 2003. In 2004, together with Anwar Sadat, he started Mona Art Studios in Kamwokya, which soon will re-open in Kireka where the artist currently stays.

As we concluded the interview, he turned to me and said:

“People have to be satisfied with whatever little they have. You can make a wedding even on a bicycle and still be happy, like the ones I used to see when I was growing up: brides being brought to the banquet hall riding a bike.”

I finally asked him if he would do the same, and he smiled and said:

“Of course, even on a wheel barrow, when the right time comes, of course. This world was given to us to enjoy, not to complain. It’s us who complicate it with our desires.”

The exhibition at Umoja

The exhibition may have started on Valentine’s Day with its simple message, but it’s still ongoing until 14 March. It would not hurt if you dropped by and got your own conclusions on the works, where the major question may be “do you need so much to be happy?”

Elizabeth Namakula is a freelance writer living in Kampala, Uganda. Her short story “A World of Our Own” was recently published in the Femrite-collection “World of Our Own”.

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