10 July 2012

Uganda: Mugalula Mukiibi - Turning Art Into Heritage

Nobody who sees Mugalula Mukiibi Ssalongo's art work can easily forget it. A study of his paintings yields a curious mix of realistic and abstract. He calls his paintings "keyhole" impressions of society.

Mugalula's unforgettable works span over 50 years and can be found in what he calls the second museum in Kampala, the "Twin Heritage Museum," located at Kanyanya village, five miles off Gayaza Road, near Namasole's palace.

Whichever way you turn, there is a unique exhibit of our history in an enviable and precious form. It could be a bark cloth artwork, a touch of wildlife, the long horned Ankole cows and their herdsmen, enchanting landscapes, sculptures or the elegant Karamojong pastoralists.

There are artifacts that reflect the experience of Ugandans over time and a section of archaeology featuring known sites like Ntusi, Bigo and others.

The section of musicology is my favourite. There is a fantastic display of musical instruments representing almost all tribes in Uganda. In the same section is a large display showing traditional music and dances of Uganda.

Scenes of elders, giraffes, village women and pastoralist mark his paintings and his impressions of Uganda. A realist painting Peasant Samburu Mother of a mother showing affection and love to her child catches my eye.

The impressions of his art come from different sources: human activities, nature, tradition, folklore, dance, music and also from his reminisces.

Devoted artist

Mugalula is a career artist who has not had any other job since 1971, and has received numerous international academic and professional awards. He is considered one of the most innovative and influential artists from Uganda's early to mid- 1960s.

This museum is the climax of Mugalula's research and practice 22 over five decades. "I have accumulated 50 years of my art career into a museum as my humble homage to Uganda. Through it, I pay tribute to humanity," Mugalula said while launching the new museum recently.

At 69, the soft-spoken Mugalula is modest, yet confident. He is dedicated, industrious and patriotic with deep interest in the welfare of the less fortunate.

Artists with the Uganda Modern Art Movement cite Mugalula as a primary influence on them. His contribution to the techniques of two-dimensional semi-abstract forms and the first known use of bark cloth for art, mark him as a distinctive art originator.

"This is a very, perceptive and inspired record of Uganda's cultural heritage," Dr. Arthur Gakwandi, a writer, publisher and diplomat, wrote about Mugalula's work.

First gallery

He was born in 1943 at Kira-Kito village near Kampala, to Enoch Mukiibi, a school teacher turned farmer, and Erina Nakkazi Namaguddu. Mugalula's parents instilled in him the value of hard work after spotting his numerous sketches pasted on the walls.

"As a sign of encouragement to my passion, my parents assigned the house corridor to me as my first gallery. I cherished it and it is still standing as a monument in my birth place," he says.

The seventh son of 10 children, he was educated at Kira Primary School, Kings College Buddo, eventually doing a diploma in Art and in Education at Makerere University. On graduation in 1968, Mugalula taught Art in several high schools in the country.

Painting for Africa

Later he established his own workshop, studio and gallery - Afrodesigns and Arts, on Bombo Road, Kampala in 1971.

It is this gallery from which the Twin Heritage Museum has been birthed.

Mugalula was commissioned in 1980 to make an original oil painting for the newly independent Republic of Zimbabwe. It was presented to the President Robert Mugabe in Salisbury by the Uganda delegation, which was led by President Museveni.

Its title was 'Viva Zimbabwe' (Monument of Triumph and Protection) and it hangs in the Zimbabwe Parliament Building. Another memorable commission was a painting to mark the release of Nelson Mandela from prison. Mugalula's eyes sparkle when he speaks of his numerous achievements.

In 1980 he was again commissioned to execute an oil painting with a spiritual message which was presented by the Ugandan President to Pope John Paul II to mark the official opening of the 22 Ugandan Catholic Martyrs Chapel in the Vatican. It is titled God Is With Us and it hangs in the Vatican.

Mugalula has travelled widely and held over 70 shows in East Africa, Europe and the United States. He has designed works for State House, Entebbe, Nile Hotel and Lake Victoria Hotel Entebbe. Mugalula got his first ever royal handshake from Kabaka Freddie Edward Mutesa, the late Buganda king and president of Uganda, thanks to his art.

This was in 1964 at an Esso Art Competition Exhibition when the Kabaka presented the prizes to winners. Mugula always fondly refers to the photograph taken on that occasion and published in the Uganda Argus as "King Freddie and the Artist, The King and I."

And he has created presents for the current Buganda King Ronald Mutebi and his wife Sylvia Naginda, although he would not give details, saying they are royal secrets.

Joy in a brush

For Mugalula, art has developed from a pastime into a passion and consequently, into a profession. "My entire joy in life hangs on the tip of a brush," he says.

When the museum becomes fully operational, it will act as a medium of visual education for schools and for the public. It will also form an important tourist attraction to many foreign visitors who will learn more about Uganda and its culture and natural heritage.

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