Ugandan Artists: Meet Ismail Wamala

Ugandan Artists: Meet Ismail Wamala

"The mind is like a sponge. Fill it with the best stuff to get the best results."

By Jane Musoke-Nteyafas
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First published: December 12, 2005

If you have not yet heard of the visual artist Ismail Matovu Wamala, then it’s only a matter of time before you do. Uganda has a plethora of visual artists and he happens to be one of those that live in the Diaspora. 23 years old, he was born in Kampala, Uganda to Fatimah and Abdul Wamala. He left Uganda when he was a year old and moved to Zimbabwe for five years. His next destination was Canada where he has lived ever since. Attending schools like: Parkside Elementary School, Sir Wilfrid Laurier Junior High School and James Fowler High School. He currently lives in Vancouver, Canada. I had the opportunity to interview him a few weeks ago. I found him to be very charming, polite and informative. It is clear that he has a bright future ahead of him.

Jane: You’ve been living in Canada for most of your life and you are pretty much settled here. When did you leave Uganda? Was it difficult for you to settle in Canada?
Ismail: I left Uganda in July of 1982. I lived in Zimbabwe for 5 years. I got on the plane with the family and headed to Canada in November of 1987. Grand Prairie, Alberta was the first destination, I stayed there for a year, then I spent 4 years in Ft. McMurray, and then 10 years in Calgary, and now I reside in Vancouver, while the rest of the family is in Calgary and Hamilton. Settling into Canada was no problem. I had my family and I was proud of where I came from. I was always glad when people asked. "Where are you from?" I saw snow for the first time and it was a contrast to Zimbabwe.

Is there a big Ugandan population in Calgary and Vancouver?
Nope. There are Africans from Jamaica and Barbados as well as Nigeria, and Ghana and Benin, Kenya and Tanzania.

You recently visited Uganda after 22 years. You describe it as a rediscovery of the land of your birth and your family. You describe it as a paradise on Earth. Can you tell us more about that trip? How did you find Uganda after all those years?

With Mom and sisters in Uganda.

My first impression was an exclusive impression. Hence, I had no way to contrast how it was before. All I could see was how it is for the moment and I loved it! After 22 years, I actually felt like I was home. A lot of green, very pleasant to the eyes.

What was most memorable about that trip?
(Dreamily) All of it. Meeting my grandparents, the whole extended family, and running into 5 mosquitoes the entire time I was there. I cried when I got back on the plane. The parts of Uganda I went to were Masaka, Mbarara and Kampala. From Entebbe airport to Kampala for stretches upon stretches there was red earth and green trees.

In Kampala, well, it's a city, a growing city. I didn't do much touring of Kampala. I drove through though. Regarding traffic lights, there's a spot (several spots) where there aren't any stop signs or traffic lights, and 4 ways of traffic. It's interesting that the number of collisions is not extremely large. As a pedestrian, you have to watch out for the drivers.

What did you think of Masaka?
(Thoughtful) Masaka. Now this was one of the most interesting places I took to immensely. It's where my mother grew up. It's an hour drive from Kampala. In Masaka, the number of colleges and sky scrapers is very limited. However the people make up for that immensely. I mean the children and the elders. It's not possible to walk by someone in the villa without saying hello. That's what I found to be most warming. The sheer welcoming I received was overwhelming. In Masaka I never knew this would be possible yet my mother explained to me that what's in Canada is not in Masaka when it comes to religion. The possibility of a catholic church and a mosque right next to each other was a surprise to me and when everyone left their places of worship, they greeted each other as brother and sister. That was a shock to my eyes, and also a pleasant sight to see.

I am sure it was. What other observations did you make about Uganda?
There were coca- cola signs wherever there was a town. Coke everywhere. That was strange. Most of the shop owners I encountered were women. Another observation that I made was the segregated schools. Boys and girls went to separate schools. I found this very interesting, and it made sense, in my opinion. Focus on study when in school and then meet members of the opposite gender after school hours.

For an area (Uganda) that has been recorded to have 24 million people, I realized even more that there's plenty of room on the planet because I didn't see much congestion of people. All I saw was green and sweet potatoes and pineapples growing in gardens. Avocadoes and mangos. There was a lot of fish too and plenty of merchants along the road selling fish to drivers of vehicles passing by. I didn't see any elders with canes or parents with strollers. They carried their children. Ah yes, electricity. If one does not have a generator, they will be out of electricity for 3-4 hours of the night. I saw several signs for the "Solar Project fro Africa." I was reading in a newspaper in Uganda that for $1,000, one can have their home powered by solar energy panels and batteries. Another reason I'm planning on relocation.

As someone that came from outside Uganda, you must have noticed a few things that may be taken for granted by those living there. Do you have any tips to give the tourism minister on how Uganda could improve its image and bring more tourists?
Advice for more tourists? I have none for the tourism minister of Uganda; however I have some advice for tourists. The way I see it, people will go where they want to go. For someone from areas where there is a lot of 'industrialization" I recommend they don't go looking for the exact same thing when they go to other parts of the world.

Given the opportunity, would you move to Uganda? Why?
Absolutely! I am already in the planning phase to make the move a physical reality. Re-learning Luganda is one of those steps. The reason I'd want to return is family, climate, and there are elements I'd like to see enhanced. A society is judged on how it treats its elderly and children. I was very sad to see one incident where I was in Kampala, and there was a child on a cardboard mat holding his hand out for shillings. I saw many well dressed people walk by him, and at times nearly trampling him to get him off the sidewalk. I chose to intervene somehow, and for a brief moment to acknowledge that he existed and I swayed others from pretending that he didn't. Incidents like that, I'm unable to comprehend and encourage. A moment like that is when I wish I could speak Luganda at the time. I don't think things were this way before. A big city shouldn't have big city impersonality.

What inspired you to become a visual artist?
The possibility that I could make a monetary means of sustenance from such an endeavour. I received a chocolate bar from my aunt when I was 4 years old for drawing a picture of her and my uncle. It was a picture of them in wedding attire. I don't recall if the picture looked like them exactly. Either way, I made the connection between art and the potential for more chocolate bars. (Candy being the one of many tools of commerce for a 4 year old.) My drawings were added to the barter system. There was also constant competition between my brothers and myself on who could draw the best; I always wanted to be as good as my oldest brother and my sister. In all the family, I was the one who kept on drawing. Everyone else stopped. In grade 5 a classmate of mine pointed out the possibility of me becoming a comic book artist. So I had a career path when I was 10 years old. These days, it's less of a need for competition as to why I do what I do.

Are your parents supportive of your artistic endeavours?
Yes and no. They wanted me to become a doctor.

What are your themes for your art?
Most of my art and design themes are based on Africa and Asia. In movies and games, there are African and Asian themed designs, yet, at times they are not utilized in an empowering light. Particularly, in my opinion, the African themed designs.

How would you define your style?
(Laughs) It's still developing. I'll call it adaptive.

Did you receive formal training for your art?
Yes and no. I talked with many artists, watched them work, read books, applied what I learned, and still continue to learn. It's one of the best ways to learn in my opinion, find artists you like, and ask them lots of questions and if they authored books like Andrew Loomis or made DVD's soak it all up. That's my formal training that still continues to this day. There's always something new to learn everyday.

I notice a strong affinity for science fiction and comics in your style. Your paintings are very detailed and it is clear that you are very in tune with your sense of imagination. What do you have on your mind when you draw for example your creature’s collection?

The world around me is what I keep in mind when designing. For creatures, I think of fish, reptiles and insects, mostly iguanas and crocodiles. Anything with an interesting exoskeleton or scales interests me. I also love the texture of an elephant's skin. I have an affinity for elephants. Basically, I have a particular animal in mind when I start to design and I mix and match it with another animal, like a lobster and a mouse. Interesting combinations.

I like the fact that your art has that Asiatic feel to it that is not typically African. It’s a fresh perspective…
Yes, but what is typically African? A lot of so-called Asiatic culture comes from Africa anyway in the long run…

True… What plans do you have for your art? Are you looking into getting into the television medium and making cartoons?
(Excitedly) Two words... okay, this one is probably one hyphenated word- "Multi-Media."

Many artistic people say that out of the whole of Canada, Vancouver is the best place for artists. What has been your experience in this respect?
It's a good place for videogames and film that's for sure. Most of the artists (I've heard) live in the areas of Vancouver called the "West End" and "Commercial Drive." I rarely run into any and if I do, I don't know it. A lot of people here keep to themselves. It took me a while to come to a conclusion as to why. It's because some people's friendliness isn't quite so genuine.

What is the most ridiculous stereotype you have had to deal with?
"You play basketball?" "You box?" I don't know if that's a compliment or if it's ignorance, who knows? Perhaps they look at my stature and build and assume I'm an athletic individual, though I can recall an experience where a gentleman looked at my hands and smiled. "These are the hands of an artist." I also get "You smoke, man?" "Hey, you know where I can get some chronic? (drugs)", "You buying?'" "Offer you some rock (drugs) bro?" Watch a rap video these days anything on the news that's got a face that looks like mine on the headlines and those twisted images are stereotyped here. Hence my involvement in multi-media.

Those are disturbing stereotypes. Where do you see yourself in the next five years?

Who are your role models?
My mother and father, my brothers and sister, my grand parents, my family. Ida B Wells, Marcus Garvey, Malcolm X, John Henrik Clarke, Marimba Ani, Jane Nteyafas, Serene Bridgett Hollingsworth, Keidi Obi Owadu, Del Jones, The Love Brothers, Kadir Nelson, Chen Yi Chang, Doug Chiang, Whilce Portacio, So many to name. The list will go on and on, all in all the qualities of the above are in the people I refer to as role models.

What music do you listen to?
All kinds. As long as it's positive and makes me feel good, and to think I love it and if it's got a nice beat, yet the lyrics aren't positive, I have to make the decision to turn it off. The mind is like a sponge. Fill it with the best stuff to get the best results.

What is a beautiful woman in your experience?
Total package, to repeat a cliché. Some qualities I've noticed of beautiful women; Confidence, vitality, it's a presence more than it is a concrete aesthetic that fully defines beauty in my experience.

Thank you Ismail for the interview.
Thank you for interviewing me. You are an artist yourself and you know how good exposure is.

For more information on Ismail Matovu Wamala please visit his website

By Jane Musoke-Nteyafas
more from author >>
First published: December 12, 2005
Jane Musoke-Nteyafas, poet/author/artist and playwright, was born in Moscow, Russia and currently resides in Toronto, Canada. She is the daughter of retired diplomats. By the time she was 19, she spoke French, English, Spanish, Danish, Luganda, some Russian and had lived in Russia, Uganda, France, Denmark, Cuba and Canada.

Jane won the Miss Africanada beauty pageant 2000 in Toronto where she was also named ‘one of the new voices of Africa’ after reciting one of her poems. In 2004, she was published in T-Dot Griots-An Anthology of Toronto's Black storytellers and in February 2005, her art piece Namyenya was featured as the poster piece for the Human Rights through Art-Black History Month Exhibit.

She is the recipient of numerous awards for her poetry, art and playwriting and is becoming a household name in Toronto circles. Please visit her website at