Duplicating Fabian Mpagi’s, the thinker, by Waddimba spurs controversy

By Samuel Kiwanuka

The next big story in the Uganda contemporary art scene could be the duplicating of the painting, the thinker, by Edward Waddimba. The thinker (1993) is a series of paintings composed of a stoic human figure squatting with a hunched back with its right elbow almost supporting its right chin to create an impression of someone in a pensive mood. This painting originally painted by, Fabian Kamulu Mpagi, one of the masters of modern and contemporary art in Uganda, was duplicated in 2008 by Waddimba his former protégé.

The thinker by Mpagi
The thinker, by Fabian Kamulu Mpagi (far left) collected by Kaddu Sebunya. Image courtesy of Startjournal.org

Recently when the artist shared this painting on social media, allegations that he was a copy-cat went viral on Facebook. But beneath the allegations and bitter exchange of words there was a renewed debate on what is the difference between being inspired by an artwork or artist and the act of downright copy an artwork.

Inspired by Mpagi

In his defense to this criticism, Waddimba says that he was inspired by Mpagi, hence creating, the thinker, arguably one of Mpagi’s most popular painting of his time. He goes on to say that he finds no fault in walking in his footsteps of the artist he owes so much. As a young artist, Waddimba worked with Mpagi in his studio.

This situation does not exist in isolation. Pablo Picasso, one of the icon figures of modern European art is often criticized by art scholars for stealing the concept of the African Mask from traditional African art practice and duplicating it in his art. The many paintings of Picasso that include the famous, Les Demoiselles d’Avigron, carry the mask as a recurring motif. In fact, the mask idea has since been adopted by several artists across the continent for either aesthetic or artistic reasons.

Inspiration or copying?

Yet there’s a difference between being inspired by the work of a great artist like Picasso and the notion of carbon copying an artwork. In the former incident, the artist collects the work of his mentor and studies it; carefully observing his technique and style and then emulating it into his own painting. On the other hand, carbon copying entails copying the artist’s work and passing it on as your own.

The thinker by Waddimba
Waddimba’s controversial painting of the, the thinker ( far left). The image went viral on social media. Image courtesy of Facebook.

Presented with such a scenario, anyone who has seen Waddimba’s, the thinker, cannot fail to conclude that he carbon copied the original piece by Mpagi. The only difference is that, he at least had the humility to sign it with his own name and not of his mentor.

Nevertheless plagiarism in the Fine Arts can be interpreted as a relative terminology. In his book, “How to Steal Like an Artist”, the author, Austin Kleon says that every idea is just a mashup or remix of previous ideas. This argument is based on the academic structure of art learning at college or university where the first stage of the drawing class entails copying the works of master artists like Van Vogh, Matisse, Picasso and Leonardo de Vinci.

Picasso 02
Picasso’s painting of Les Demoiselles d’Avigron depicting the concept of the African Mask that inspired the artist. Image courtesy of the Web.

Waddimba though a self-taught artist is probably familiar with this approach. In painting, the thinker, he possibly was emulating his former master. Fortunately, the act has given him a lot of prominence on the local art scene. Everyone is talking about him and his duplication. If he’s quite smart enough, he could use this opportunity to become a successful artist.

Creativity and experimentation

Such an incident reflects the irony of creativity and experimentation. Artists are always looking for new ideas to work with in order to appeal to their audiences. Sometimes the idea may not be original but the artist feels that he can rework it to suit a particular context or situation. The outcome may be a modified version of the original artwork that gives the audience a renewed appreciation of the artist’s creativity or it could spark off controversy about duplication of the artwork that may evoke mediocrity of the artist.
Edward Waddimba is currently the President of Uganda Visual Artists and Designers  Association (UVADA).