Waswad Creates Extra-terrestrial Beings
If there is a Ugandan artist who can readily fit into the international art circuit, there is none other than Donald August Wasswa a.k.a Waswad. The contemporary art world is always looking for new ways of expression and Waswad fulfils this with his body of work exhibited at Afriart Gallery, Kamwokya, Kampala which opened up on 31st March 2017 and closed on the 28th April 2017. The exhibition To Live Is To Become comprised of pen drawings and wooden sculptures.
The pen drawings are done in black ink and give off a doodle effect and a child-like quality. But no, don’t bring up that green-covered clichéd line, your six-year-old daughter cannot execute this level of draughtsmanship. In the drawings, he exhibits technical competence, an intention for them to stand as artworks and above all, a mature concept behind the scribbles.
As a self-proclaimed art critic and writer, I have assigned myself the job of identifying good and bad art and putting a pen to that because I noticed that writers had not done the job well enough mostly on the local scene. People who’ve never picked up a brush are “critiquing” art!! The artist understands the art more than anybody else in the world. Why am I writing about Waswad’s exhibition? You might ask yourself.
It is not by mistake that Waswad was the second runner-up for the Barclays L’atelier 2016 Award. For his winning work, Maali Ya Muswangali, Waswad told a story of a farmer and trader, Muswangali who loses his bags of maize in transit and they are discovered in Mombasa but with trash in them instead of maize. With the story, Waswad says it’s a question of belief, and he echoes Damien Hirst on this. Hirst too talks about belief referring to his new collection of works, Treasures From the Wreck of the Unbelievable.
This line of thinking only shows the creative prowess of an artist who has been proving it time and time again that he is an artist who is meant to show in Tate Modern or MoMA. Waswad has created an intellectually rich concept and aesthetically endowed works of art. The kind of stuff you can neither brand “conceptual bullshit” or “kitsch”.
Like I always say, aesthetics and creativity (concept) are the two core aspects of art and he who balances them achieves mastery. Well-polished wooden sculptures atop white pedestals embrace you as you enter Afriart gallery. Made from hardwood tree species like mugavu, muvule, teak and ebony, the works are sanded with great skill and given a very smooth finish. They look like aliens dropped on earth by an UFO. They have that peculiarity, the beautiful kind though. Waswad created a whole other world, a planet with these extra-terrestrials. He frees and opens his mind to imagine a new world with these creatures.
Yves Klein, Donald Judd, Sol LeWitt and company would be drooling with admiration at Waswad’s creations because of the shared school of thought. He, like them, seeks to pare down design elements to their purest form. Waswad told me he has always been drawn to abstraction since his art school days. He would jump straight to simplifying his imagery yet his lecturers demanded evidence of his abstraction steps. This concept appears in his dressing too. He prefers unadorned clothes in dull colours like grey and brown.
When I asked the artist to tell me what he was trying to say in this series, he interestingly replied, “I’m still thinking about what the show is about since I started to work on this body of work”. This statement alone shows the artist’s open-minded nature which is also a powerful ingredient in the making of a 21st-century art maestro. He goes on to say that he is interested in knowing what others think about the work. Well, here is the exhibition statement which should spark your imagination.
‘In the exhibition, To Live Is To Become, Waswad presents a new series of drawings, sculptures and mixed media paintings where he explores, observes and interprets the habitation of humans in undesirable environments where both fear and desire for change arise. It is the ability of humans to adapt to these restrictions that intrigues the artist’s mind. This ignited a debate to re-examine who we really are and hence the new initialism T.M.W.A which is an acronym for The Most Weird Animals.’
I have personally known Waswad for less than two years. I like his abstraction prowess which often leads to minimalism: his elephania style. I discovered that he is highly intelligent, and has excellent knowledge of art. Most Ugandan artists lack the intellectual engagement. To compete favourably, you have to know and understand art in and out.
My favourite artworks were titled My Screw Ups. They were three creased papers stretched out and framed behind glass. They have a gradual brown hue from lightest to darkest with the first one white. It looks as though the artist used soil to apply this progressive colouring. The works pushed the boundaries of what some Ugandans know as art. “Why is this art?” they screamed.
During the opening of the show, I was awed by Henry Mzili Mujunga’s accurate interpretation of the unique works of art. A veteran artist himself, he gave a thorough explanation of the works as if he was the artist. I usually find it hard to interpret other artist’s work. It comes with experience. I also think an artist creates their language as they work, that is if the artist is not painting kitsch-filled landscapes or elephants in the savanna which is a language without nuance.
Well, in his own words, Waswad says, “For me, it’s a question of how many times do I have to mess up in order to become correct, right, clean, perfect. It’s about spiritual growth versus physical. From a couple of mishandled situations or errors we grow, it’s a registration of my failures towards success”.
Tell me if that is not brilliant. Such openness, such honesty, such humanity expressed in this artwork. At the end of it all, Waswad should walk away with a big smile on his face after this good show where he succeeded in shocking us, shifting our mindsets and communicating.
Waswad is a Ugandan, Kampala-based contemporary and multi-disciplinary artist. Born in 1984, he is a graduate of Kyambogo University. Elephania, one of his early concepts and one that he is most known for is a world with dreamy landscapes, harmony, elephants and other creatures. It is an escape from reality, a contrast between the dream concept and reality. He is also the founder of the artist collective, Artpunch studio and is currently working with three artists from different backgrounds and experiences. Waswad has exhibited and worked on projects across borders in Germany, Italy, Denmark and the Netherlands.
Matt Kayem is a contemporary artist, art critic and writer living and working in Kampala, Uganda. He can be reached via email, firstname.lastname@example.org