Uganda: Putting Birds On Canvas to Save Them, and Habitat

Farid Mahfudh's maiden solo art exhibition on birds showing at the Afriart Gallery on 7th Street, Industrial Area in Kampala is testimony of his passion for painting the flying creatures in their natural habitats.

The exhibition titled Endangered: Passion, Concern and Dedication that opened on November 13, 2019 will end on February 1, 2020.

The 32 oil on canvas art paintings capture several birds including the scarlet-chested sunbird, African broadbill, African green broadbill, ross's turaco, red billed quelea, malachite kingfisher, red-checked cordon-blue, yellow-rumped tinkerbird, African fish eagle, grey crested crane, African jacana, and the little grebe (dabchick), among others.

Using drawing and oils on canvas, the wildlife artist takes his time to study his subjects with in their natural habitat to present them to his audience as real as possible.

He believes birds are essential in our ecosystem but feels man has not cared enough to recognise, respect and protect these beautiful species.

Mahfudh pursued a Bachelor's Degree in Fine Art (BIFA) at Makerere University in Kampala where he specialised in oil painting and anatomy study.

This exhibition reminds us that birds are sentinel species and form an integral part of the landscape and soundscape of our daily lives.

That their familiar sounds and comings and goings bring pleasure not only to birders but and interest to all sorts of people around the world.

That they keep eco-systems in balance: They pollinate plants, disperse seeds, scavenge carcasses and recycle nutrients back into the earth hence they should be conserved.

In an interview with The EastAfrican at the opening of his exhibition, Mahfudh said: "Now is the right time to take action, a lot is happening to our environment, not only in Uganda but globally. Global warming and the rise of temperatures is real.

"The great arctic ice belt is melting away at high speed, see levels are rising up, coral reefs are dying out giving too much carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, the Amazon is burning, and there are wild bush fires in swamps and national parks, the deforestation of Mabira Forest in Uganda for selfish reasons and sugarcane planting."

"There are damages in the ozone layer, dangerous ultra violet rays from the sun, poaching and illegal wildlife and bird trade in Uganda and all over Africa is happening every other day. Yet the future of our own race relies on the future of other species for a well-balanced eco system.

"So the purpose of this show is to alarm, educate and inspire, the public and young generation about the relevance of conserving our environment and dying natural heritage," he added.

The contemporary conservation artist has been documenting bird species in Uganda since 2013. Mahfudh recalls that his conservation instinct was ignited after the death of over two million quelea birds following a pesticide spraying at the Kibimba Rice Farm, in eastern Uganda, seven years ago.

"The targeted birds' specie was the red billed quelea bird which was claimed to have destroyed tonnes of rice in the fields every day. However, Kibimba is an entire habitat out there and unfortunately other innocent birds' species got caught up and were caught up in the pesicide spray too especially those that inhabit wetlands. These included birds like the Grey Crested Crane, Black Winged Red Bishop, Fan Tailed Widowbird, Bronze Manikin and Cattle Egret, among others," says Mahfudh.

He has so far identified over 400 bird species and painted 82.

He says he has a target of painting very species on Uganda's list on birds and there are over 1,000 of them from the last count.

He says that the Grey Crowned Crane, African Fish Eagle, Greater Blue Turaco, Ross Turaco, Red Fire Finch, African Green Broadbill, and Shoebill are the bird species that are dear to him.

Mahfudh says he has encountered three endangered bird species, namely; the Shoebill Stork in Mabamba swamps and in the Murchison Falls National Park, the African Green Broadbill in Kibale Forest National Park, and the Grey Crowned Crane, which he has encountered on many of his bird watching nature walks. These three are featured in his maiden solo art exhibition at the Afriart Gallery in Kampala.


According to Mahfudh, his experience of documenting bird species has been very challenging especially with research on smaller birds that are near extinction .

"They are very challenging to differentiate. Individuals sometimes have minor differences, though simple layout in motifs, dots, lines and anatomy can separate a species from another. Such families include pipits, longclaws, larks, alethes, warblers, and sunbirds, among many others.

"In my seven years birding experience, I have also learnt some of the characteristics which help in identifying species, some behavioural, others anatomical, some are calls and colorations. So I will at least have a clue which families to start from when matching my field photographs to the birds' checklist and illustrations."

His love for conservation came about because he says; "I was both born and raised in Masaka District where I had a lot of adventure in wetlands like the Bukoyolo and Namajuzi swamps, I have fond memories of my playmates and myself nursing abandoned hatchlings, feeding them and improvising grassy shelters for them, these became lifelong bonds between me and the birds and the wild.

Today, as a wildlife artist inspired by nature my dream is that in 100 years from now we should have the opportunity to see birds not only in paintings and pictures like these but flocking through the sky like they have done for many, many years."

As to how he goes about capturing the birds in their habitats and painting them, he said, "Every painting starts with an idea, going for field research, seeing the subject, studying its character, sketching from life and taking photos to use as reference in the studio. I use a range of research reference like the Birds of East Africa Field Guide, and Threatened Birds of Africa and Neighbouring Islands (IUCN Red Data List) for detailed reading."

"I start out with a 20x15cm graphite concept sketch on acid free drawing paper, which I will later transfer to the canvas, line and wash in with sepia oils (burnt umber, burnt sienna, raw ochre) using an alkyd medium to mark the highlights and shadows. Once dry I will then block in the first strokes of oil colour and continue to build more layers paying much attention to the character and detail of the bird in relation to its interaction with the environment. It is always until all these elements come together it is then that I create a convincing piece of art," he added.

Mahfudh says he encounters challenges in this process of his art work.

"Finding the best pictures for reference to make a convincing painting. It is very challenging to photograph especially small birds since they are so active, curious and nervous at the same time camouflage within foliage when scared. Drastic change in the Ugandan weather, for example, a beautiful sunny day can abruptly turn into a heavy rain storm making it so hard to continue with field research. There is limited supply of quality art materials on the market."

The life of birder according to Mahfudh, is; "I think as an artist you pursue birding differently from just a non-artist birder and it's probably not a good thing because you are looking at the flora, probably some other fauna in the background may be zebras, cape buffalos, how light bounces of the feathers of the subject, the curvature and anatomy of the bird as the feathers flap, the colours in the sky behind your query. All these subtle things and the beauty of nature capturing your attention."

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