Surviving Ugandan Art
Henry Mzili Mujunga
I first met Ssalongo Joseph Matovu at Nommo gallery in 2000 at a time when Gregory Robison, a British printmaker, was activating print making in Uganda. Joseph Matovu (JM as he signs his prints) struck me as a vibrant stout man in his early50s whose black bow tie on a white short sleeved shirt and khaki trousers made him look neat and accomplished. He told me then that he had just come back from South Africa where he had been training teachers at Thaba Nchu Teachers’ College in Orange Free State, then a Bantustan. He also informed me he had had a seven year stint at Machakos Teachers’ College in Kenya. An accomplished man he was indeed, to confirm my suspicions.
One thing that stood out in our conversation was his love of art, especially printmaking, and his admiration of fellow Ugandan Nairobi exiles; Expedito Mwebe, Nuwa Nyanzi, Jak Katalikawe, Henry Lumu, Wasswa Katongole, et al. I also had the privilege to view some of his prints many of which were reproductions of his earlier works done in the 80s. I thought, wow, here is a man with a history in Ugandan art and the ambition to match.
Subsequently, I bumped into him on several occasions perusing the streets of Kampala in search of subject matter. He was always sketching, oblivious of the stares he attracted from idlers and passersby. At one point I thought he was loony given the way he was dressed; which to be honest, was in sharp contrast with my earlier image of him. I would also catch him at the numerous Exhibition openings in town keeping a low profile among the pretentious crowds that frequent such events. Then he faded into oblivion.
Fast forward to 2015, I got a call from him addressing me as professor; a title I thought was only preserved for the likes of him. He wanted me to visit his studio to review his ‘latest things’, as the popular saying goes. We made an appointment to meet at Rubaga cathedral at 11 am. Like the polished man he still was, he kept time to the second. Upon reaching his studio, he showed me his new woodcuts which I admired for their rich strokes and simple clear images. Nonetheless I chastised him for having not increased on the size of his format since we last met. I also wondered why he had not moved away from typical imagery of women plaiting hair, boda-boda cyclists, bare landscapes and birds which have dominated his work since the 80s.He was quick to point out that his work style had been shaped by his days in self exile.
Whereas in Kenya he was able to interact openly with other artists, even showing work in private galleries like Watatu, segregated South Africa was a more restrictive environment. He found himself mostly confined to his immediate environment where he kept to himself and worked within the reaches of his senses. Most of the artworks of landscapes he made were reflection of the ragged sceneries around the college. He said they reminded him of the works of English landscape artists John Constable and William Turner that he had studied in Makerere Art School in the early 70s. Most of the work done at this time was experiments involving collage and woodcut prints. Apparently he did not pursue these beyond a few works despite urging from the Sculptor Francis Nnagenda. When he returned to Kampala, he instinctively delved into scenes of cyclists, women hanging clothes, sketching the birds which hoped around his yard and capturing idlers and merchants in the busy Kampala streets. In fact his work is a more minimalist interpretation of George Kyeyune’s expressionist paintings of the same.
Having not really perceived his accomplishments as an older generation artist, I quizzed him farther about his growth as an artist. I nonchalantly suggested that he seemed to be overly comfortable in his particular style of work to which he agreed. In explanation JM intimated that he would not dare put hand to sketch unless he was activated emotionally (read moved) by events.
“As students we were always advised to work under ecstasy,” said he.
JM asserts that he has discovered himself in art and is comforted by the fact that his work is appreciated by accomplished artists and art collectors as well as house maids. He said he gets good feedback from whoever sees his woodcuts. His most fluid communication is the black and white woodcuts with expressive strokes. He uses colour in its brilliant primary form without much attempt at chromatic sophistication. The simple images, symmetry and brilliant palette make his work achieve a pop art feel to it.
So the big question is why Joseph Matovu’s work isn’t being sought after by major galleries and collectors globally. Is it a case of poor self promotion or lack of clear channels for the growth and development of art and artists in Uganda?
The artist can be contacted at email@example.com or mobile +256 774956109.
The author is an eclectic artist who enjoys making Afrobeat music and listening to it. He is also part of the Indigenous Expression movement and a Pan Africanist.