The Stray Bulletin

Arts and culture in East Africa and beyond

Me and My Totem October 15, 2010

Filed under: Art reviews — Sophie Alal @ 5:50 am
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Review for AfricanColours published on 27-09-2010

Artists like Taga Nuwagaba are endowed with a wealth of technology previously unavailable to master painters, in the form of cameras and optical instruments, yet a great deal of precision and technical mastery is still required to create any art worthy of their skills.

The Me and My Totem exhibition at the Uganda Museum was a collection of Nuwagaba’s paintings depicting the totems of the Baganda people. A totem is an object such as an animal or plant which serves as the symbol of an ethnic group or clan.

It is revered by its clan members and cannot be eaten. Painting the totems of each of the 52 Baganda clans was a project that took the artist over three years.

The works in this exhibition were so accurately painted that they resembled photos. In trying to get a feel for technique, some people were examining pieces as if they had appeared by some fortunate magic. I saw a young man in a dark shirt at the exhibition studying one of the works. What was in front of him seemed unbelievable in its photographic realism.

After peering intently at the portrait of a lion, he glanced around furtively and did what others only dare imagine. He rubbed the nail of his index finger on the corner of the painting and inspected it. However this was not a marvel of photoshop or laser printing.

Nuwagaba was born in Mbarara in 1968. Effectively his career began in 1979.  While at school, the students were denied some art materials that remained locked up in storage. Ironically, the political events of the era later turned the school into a barracks during the 1979 war.

He recounts that there was no space for the precious materials. “I went to the commander and asked him whether I could take the paints and brushes on the skip, and he said, ‘help yourself’.”

He has been painting since then. Before that it was not uncommon for him to use flowers and leaves, ash and powdered charcoal which were difficult to work with. They didn’t hold fast to the work surface.

After completing his studies at Makerere University, he worked as an artist on Bayswater Road before returning to Uganda in 1993. Two years later he was teaching art at the Christian Brother’s University in Memphis Tennessee as a Fulbright Scholar.

Louis K. Meisel used the term Photorealism in 1969 to describe the use of photographs as source materials and aids to painting. Based on photographs taken during trips to the wilderness, Nuwagaba’s paintings are highly resolved with a full range of tones. Every stroke of fur, bristle and horn are rendered realistically. There are sharp details such as the shine of a damp snout in sunlight, the grooves in a horn and the characteristic variations in body colouring.

Taga Nuwagaba has been hailed as a gifted artist and as a conservationist, he is known for his paintings of gorillas. Previously, he has dabbled in abstract art as well as portraiture and nature. His works are sharp and alive with a very sophisticated photo-realistic technique. He pays a high level of attention to every detail from the colouring to the posture and even the setting of the subject.

Throngs of people milled through the three exhibition halls. It was apparent that by giving the right cultural signals, it was possible to attract people from diverse backgrounds. Various people appreciate different things from the stock choices available e.g music, folk dances and drama.

Omulangira David Wasajja, brother to Kabaka Ronald Muwenda Mutebi was the guest of honour, and rightly so since the exhibition focussed greatly on Buganda Totems and left the bearers of the same brimming with hope for a glorious future.

Unfortunately a certain kind of decline gradually creeps on the Museum, from steps worn smooth, to plaster that chip off to the rhythm of peeling paint. As for the artefacts themselves, there are subtle signs of deterioration not to mention secret wildlife that crawls in the dark corners between them.

But for this particular exhibition, the display cases were concealed in crisp swaths of soft-white fabric on which the frames of the paintings were mounted.

The water colours were delicate and subtle, with a light and vibrant quality. Washes and glazes of various degrees harmonised to create images, while white paper provided the requisite bright surface for working.

Omutima Gw’ensi is a forest floor fungus. In Nuwagaba’s rendering of this totem, a series of green washes provide a balanced background, giving a textured result as well as a striking sense of atmosphere. Alizarin crimson highlighted the fruiting body, softened with white and textured with burnt umber. The greens have been modulated with raw umber and blues, giving the painting a richer feel.

Continue to AfricanColours for more…


Edinburgh Festival of Art

Extract of art review for AfricanColours published on 07-09-2010.

Memory is a delicate thing. A single witness can only hold so much, however a team of archivists can create a mosaic powerful enough to reclaim the past and to await a better future. In a bid to halt the deleterious effects of time, artworks have become vessels through which people cling to their memories, by bearing witness to their pasts.

As is common in most parts of the beautifully weird and winding city of Edinburgh, sandstone steps mottled with a patina of moss descend to the offices of the English Speaking Union. On that chilly August afternoon, the curator returns from his break, and delves straight away into articulating his thoughts to a duo of visitors.

Ed Cross, a gentle, soft spoken man was keen on opening up new avenues for the exposition of African artists in places where they are relatively unknown.

The exhibition entitled Witness: The Spectre of Memory in Contemporary African Art, showcased five important names; Richard Onyango and Peterson Waweru Kamwathi from Kenya. Senegal’s Soly Cisse and the Beninois Dominique Zinkpè, while Zimbabwean Lovemore Kambudzi was a lone herald from Southern Africa.

Continue to AfricanColours for full article.


Ugandan Artist Going Back To Basics August 21, 2010

Filed under: Art reviews — Sophie Alal @ 4:12 pm
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Extract of art review for AfricanColours published on 05/07/2010

At his home-cum-studio, Michael Opio Orech talks about the many years it took for Opitox Art to become recognisable and what it means to his personal pursuit of happiness. After graduating from Makerere University, he was shut up behind documents and spent years as an archivist with the Bank Of Uganda.

Opio at work

Some artists out there are devoted to finding new styles – styles so creative that exponents of contemporary art are still surprising the public with their findings. For other artists, other than delving into an all out white wash of the usual expectations, they are going back to the basics; from dots to lines and finally stick figures.


Another angle to the joy of life is continuously finding new life after the destruction of functional objects. Such pieces include the remains of a calabash, a reconstituted wood panel, abandoned masks and traditional music instruments that have long gone silent. All the jagged pieces are embellished and recast as art.

Please read the full article at AfricanColours


Art & Poetry in Concert: The Butterfly Dance

Filed under: Art reviews,Book reviews,Events,Poetry — Sophie Alal @ 3:52 pm

Extract of art review by Sophie Alal for on 31/05/2010

Window dressing makes some uncomfortable situations bearable, while makeup, when skillfully applied to an ordinary face masks flaws and makes even the plainest individual an enigma.

And thus it is with visual art too, assuring that any extraordinary painting can transform a dull wall, page or any words by lending a little bit more of much needed colour and character.

The Butterfly Dance is the third episode in the poetry poster project series.

Cover of the book

It amounts to a mixed artistic grill, where established authors and upcoming writers collaborate with the finest of Uganda’s contemporary artists in transforming their words into colourful paintings.

The paintings were produced in the book to accompany the poems and stories.

Each one of the paintings was unique, though something similar shared by all of them was the presence of characters and plot.  And so even after taking a casual glance, you can imagine what is going on without the help of the accompanying poem or story.

The various techniques employed in the artists’ colourful interpretations of the poems encompass a wide range of media and styles, giving birth to works of collage, acrylics and water colours.

The artists are Stella Atal, Maria Naita, Paul Kaspa Kasembeko, David Kigozi, Joseph Ntesibe, Anwar Sadat and James Musaali.

After seeing some of David Kigozi’s paintings for the first time, it is natural to give a sigh of wonder at the realism with which he executes his work. His craft is displayed in a number of ways.

One  is the apparent ease with which he treats all his subjects, and the second is the economical use of colour which is in more ways dramatic, and no doubt done with an excellent artistic sense.

A Cockroach, shows fat cockroaches scurrying away to the right. In the near background, the black feet of chickens loom ominously, while the keen eye and beak of one of them is poised to strike.

Read the full review at AfricanColours


Public Art: Pillar of Peace Sheds Symbols of War April 19, 2010

Filed under: Art reviews — Sophie Alal @ 8:56 pm
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Published in AfricanColours  on Mon 12-04-2010

In the hub of Gulu Town’s main business centre is a sculpture by the renowned Ugandan artist David Kigozi – ‘Pillar of Peace’ unveiled in July 2009.

It was commissioned by the Dutch Embassy to commemorate their educational projects in Northern Uganda. And since Gulu is popularly considered the centre of Northern Uganda, to which the surrounding regions are culturally and economically linked, it was also a call to abandon arms. Therefore the sculpture seemingly radiates its steely shine to the whole region.

Pillar of Peace by David  Kigozi

Pillar of Peace by David Kigozi photographed by Bryan Lupton

When the ‘Pillar of Peace’ had just been put up, it depicted a life-sized boy and girl standing behind a neat pile of books.

They stared keenly at the page open before them, their arms leafing through large pages. At the sides of their feet were five guns cast aside. This symbolized their shift towards courting the acquisition of knowledge other than conflict.

However, this work also bears a sinister story that is not often noticed by casual onlookers. What were once five guns embedded in the concrete at the feet of the children have all but disappeared. Now there is only one gun embedded in the cement, the other four having been stolen. This is a constant source of distress for the artist who regarded it as his attempt at recording history. “I think I was disappointed, because this is now a destruction of a monument.” his voice falters and he adds, “It is as if the whole monument has been put down, or vandalised.”

Read the full article here


Burning In A Sea Of Flowers February 28, 2010

Filed under: Art reviews — Sophie Alal @ 2:31 pm
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Extract of an art review for AfricanColours.

Anxiety by Paul Ndema

Afriart Gallery in Kampala describes itself as “a global distributor for original art by emerging talent.” Things have been a little less rosy after a recent downsizing – perhaps the economic downturn has gobbled up some art aficionados and buyers. Nevertheless it remains an important rallying point for young artists in Uganda.

Downstairs, the main exhibition hall features the emerging talent, 25-year old Ronnie Ogwang, with well-established contemporary artists, the 35-year old David Kigozi and the elusive Paul Ndema – both of whom are on show in the permanent collection.

These were mostly new paintings. Of these three young artists, Paul Ndema brings a sense of mystery and pathos; Ronnie Ogwang glorifies the female persona while David Kigozi renders the daily, domestic scenes, with unabashed delight.

Tucked away are a few hand-painted fabrics hanging on a rack. The wall next to it is hung with an impressive array of contemporary art gracing the short stairwell leading to the exhibition rooms upstairs, where the permanent collection spends its days.

Paul Ndema appears to get his inspiration from the illustrious style of Gustave Klimt, particularly in his use of elegant, golden, and colourful details. In his painting “Anxiety,” there are other likenesses to Klimt’s work such as the detail in the flowers bedecking a woman whose eyelids are shut.

See full article at


Death Would Be Better If It Wasn’t The End Of Life January 27, 2010

Filed under: Art reviews — Sophie Alal @ 6:59 pm
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Extract of art review by Sophie Alal for

Struggling Women

Struggling Women by Paul Kaspa Kasembeko

October 9th came and went, a significant date in the newspapers because it was the 47th anniversary of Uganda’s independence. Thus the exhibition which has been showing since then at Makerere University Art Gallery titled ‘After Independence…So What?… Now What?’

In this diverse exhibition, it was delightful to see art that was political, explicit and topical. Most were either scoffing at Independence, or ranting against post colonial governments. Unfortunately, some of the malaise and management problems the artists were objecting to seem also to apply to the gallery itself; turning up at 10:45, fair enough, as gallery hours are from 9:00 am to 6:00 pm, the doors were only slightly ajar. I poked my head through anyway, but was turned back. “Still cleaning,” said a man in charge. (more…)


Blackware, smoked pottery. November 27, 2009

Filed under: Art reviews — Sophie Alal @ 1:17 pm
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Art Review by Sophie Alal

Published in The East African October 5th, 2009.

Elephant's Ears, by Tony Bukenya

Elephant's Ears, by Tony Bukenya

Smoked pottery has been made for centuries in East Africa, as any visitor to the Uganda Museum or British Museum can confirm. It is a subtle and unique style of making ceramics that has evolved into what contemporary practitioners have dubbed “blackware” in modern art.

This magnificent finish to ceramics is obtained by first coating the clay body of the piece in slip and burnishing it with smooth stones. It is then fired in an oxygen-rich kiln to harden. The unique step in blackware is that a second firing in an oxygen-poor atmosphere produces dark smoke patterns, which can be surprisingly expressive.



Dutch Masters Exhibition

Filed under: Art reviews — Sophie Alal @ 12:17 pm
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Boogschutter, by Rob Veening

Boogschutter, by Rob Veening

The curator of artworks from the Royalafrican Collection, David Oduki, is an infectiously enthusiastic raconteur with a big grin. He manages the largest collection of modern European art intended for display in Africa, which is now on exhibition at the Uganda National Museum. Sitting underneath a jacaranda tree in the grounds, he talks about the extraordinary measures it took the Brazilians to gather a major collection of European art in the São Paulo Museum of Art. Royalafrican aims to do something similar.

The exhibition, Dutch Masters Today, began with controversy as all the artists cancelled their trips due to lack of funds given the global financial downturn, also in fear of swine flu and rioting in Kampala. “It would have been nice to have the artists here to talk about their work and network with the local artists,” admitted Oduki. Nevertheless, all 55 valuable artworks are on display according to plan.



If your old pots and pans could speak, what would they say?

Filed under: Art reviews — Sophie Alal @ 11:49 am
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Review by Sophie Alal

Published in The East African July 27th, 2009.

Family Portrait, by Rose Kirumira.

Family Portrait, by Rose Kirumira.

There is a saying that old people’s bodies speak for themselves, as they record the experiences they have been through. And the same thing could also be said about everyday objects. So what would your old buttons, pots and pans say if they could talk?

The exhibition “Personalities” by Rose Namubiru Kirumira was influenced by the stories of things that are lost or thrown away and somehow resurface in the decay of the city. This is the junk that you stumble upon as you walk along dusty roads, such as coins of antique quality, rusted bottle tops, and abandoned cooking pots and pansEntering the exhibition, one is drawn to some ovate shapes tapered at each end. These are bowls made of burnished rich red wood inlaid with copper, silver, steel and aluminium. A few had been hollowed out to form two or even three bowls.  From afar a singular oval perched on top of the rest looks more like a gigantic eye resting on stalks.

The artist’s theory is that objects gather a history of their own, “A bowl is something that sees and experiences, it gathers stock through what you put in it. Each has its own experience and understanding,” said the 46 year old lecturer from Makerere University.