Ugandan Artists: Meet Ronex Ahimbisibwe
Ronex Ahimbisibwe.

Ugandan Artists: Meet Ronex Ahimbisibwe


"My work is a revelation of my world, the way I see life, what surrounds me, my culture, my conscious, and the magic of the unconscious. I believe the power of an artist lies in creating worlds, nothing more."

By Jane Musoke-Nteyafas
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First published: April 8, 2006


On the surface, he is just a regular guy. He loves watching football on TV, listening to music especially reggae and country music. His favorite musician is Tracy Chapman- her music inspires him to paint. She is the only musician he plays over and over again and still he cannot get enough of her music. He loves dancing, which helps him relax and get free inspiration at the same time. But on the surface, there is more about this artist than meets the eye.



Art by Ronex Ahimbisibwe
Art by Ronex Ahimbisibwe.

But Ronex Ahimbisibwe, who is a self professed loner, is also a sculptor/painter/printmaker who was born in Uganda in 1977. His artistic style is a rich, colourful blending of acrylics, basco paints, oils, prints and inks on diverse supports as sisal, canvas, bark cloth, paper, cardboard and woods -- mostly rejects. Based in Uganda, he has exhibited his work in Uganda, Tanzania, Germany, the Netherlands and Kenya. He has also been profiled in several magazines and newspapers including New Vision, the Monitor, The Australian Art Review, Rendezvous Magazine, The East African, and Shwandorf Newspaper (Germany.) When I caught up with him, this usually quiet visual artist had quite a bit to share.


Jane: Please tell us more about yourself.

Ronex: I was born on 7th Dec 1977 in Rucence, Mbarara district in Western Uganda but I grew up in Kabale where my father was Bata Shoe Company Manager. He later started his own business dealing in beauty products. I am the first born of the six children my parents called me 'Ahimbisibwe' a Runyankore (one of the dialects of Uganda) word meaning 'let God be praised' its because it took them six years to get a kid. Maybe I was a blessing to them - a reason to praise God and the reason they have cared so much.

The only people who have truly loved me are my parents. They sacrificed a lot, especially my mother, to see a smile on their children's faces. At a tender age I started helping my father in his shop during the holidays. It was hard for me to make friends because I was always behind the counter. Due to that I don't talk much and till to date I still have a problem making friends. I am used to being alone and am happiest when alone because I know what makes me happy and sad. I don't feel comfortable in a place with a lot people. So art is not just a profession to me but also my refuge and comfort; without it I seem lost.

You mentioned that you were born in Rucence. Can you please tell us where exactly that is and tell us more about the area?

Rucence is a small village in Rugando parish (Rwampara constituency) 15 km on Kabale road. It's in a valley surrounded by the Rwampara hills and one main swamp cross the village which has been the source of water and raw materials for crafts. Recently the government introduced gravity water which has been a relief to the people because swamp water is hard water. People in Rucence are both agriculturist and cattle keepers on a small scale. Matooke and millet are the main food of the land.

Art by Ronex Ahimbisibwe
Art by Ronex Ahimbisibwe.

Have you always known that you would be an artist?

I knew that I was going to be artist in senior three. As you know, in Ugandan schools this is a level where you drop some subjects. You go from doing about 13 subjects to half that. So I dropped sciences and in my free time I was practicing art. I remember doing my best works in my secondary life at this time.

What did your parents have to say about that?

It's only my mother who supported me. She used to design wedding gowns and cakes. Maybe she wanted the creative spirit not to die out in my family but for my father it was different. Being his first born child, he thought I should do courses like law or engineering; the so called 'respected professions' which have a lot of say in who I would be called in society. To him it was about respect and my degree being the first degree in our father's lineage, it would have been a disgrace having an artist as the first graduate. To please my dad I chose social sciences as my first choice at university and fine art as the second choice. When I was not called on government sponsorship I remember telling my father that if you are to pay my tuition at university it should be some thing I love to do or I was not willing to go to university.

He had to give in saying it was my life and he never wanted to be accused of any thing but still - when I went to collect the tuition - it felt as if he was wasting his money. This reason made me to love art more. It's the only thing I do confidently and never have regrets doing. Since I graduated since 2001 I have never done any thing apart from expressing my self through art. Along the way I have proved him wrong and he is proud of my persistence, achievements and also said how good it is to continue the traditional practices of our ancestors. My grand father was a boat carver and my grand mother a basket weaver and the best of her time. It is tough and challenging but I love challenges because they make life worth living.

Art by Ronex Ahimbisibwe
Art by Ronex Ahimbisibwe.

What was your experience at Makerere University like? Does it deserve its status as one of the best universities in Africa?

As a student I took what I was taught at Makerere University especially the school of industrial and fine arts as a foundation on which I was to build on. I am not doing what I was taught at university. The principles and elements of design taught at the university level are more academic and don't apply in the real art world. But being in that atmosphere inspires one who is serious about being an artist and to tell the truth I learnt a lot more from fellow students than from lecturers as well as from my own experimenting. Most lecturers are good teachers but they don't practice art and to me that is a limitation, especially if they are preparing their students to practice art.

In our year we were about 62 students but we are only two, myself and Eria Nsubuga, an artist you featured recently, who practice the traditional fine arts that is painting, sculpture and printmaking without supplementing it with another job. It's tough but exciting at the same time especially when one sees the result of his creativeness, some call it madness. It's the hardliners who survive in the art world because its hard to predict when you are making a sale or not- that's why most students we graduated with are into teaching and graphics.

Ronex Ahimbisibwe
Ronex Ahimbisibwe.

Your subject matter mostly revolves around women, especially African women who you describe in flattering terms as national treasures. What do you think of all the bleaching and pursuit of Eurocentric beauty standards which some African women seem to be following?

We are living in a changing world and I suppose some things have to follow suit and be redefined. But I wish African women would know that the same European women who they are trying to copy are the same women who are injecting their behinds in order to have them look like the Africans. Ask any man who has seen a true African woman walk - they love the view. Also European women inject their lips in order to have full lips like African woman. The reason why Europeans paint their lips is - it's hard to make out a difference between other parts on the face.

To me it is sad when you see a black lady painting her lips which are never pleasing in that form because of her black complexion as well as wearing too much makeup. I often wonder for what. They are beautiful naturally and so are their lips! I wonder why some women try hard to make themselves ugly when they have everything naturally and freely given. A good thing is - Ugandan men hate skinny women and those who wear too much makeup. So in my works I try to show and preserve the role of our women, their responsibilities and what I regard as African beauty.

So then, what is a true beautiful African woman to you?

It's the unconditional love, the inspiring aspect in a woman. Physically it is the full lips and the usual accumulation of human fat on the African woman's behind and the curvy figure which I call the African curves.

What do you think of the feminism movement in Uganda? Do you support it?

For women in Uganda to rise up their standards in society, it mainly depends entirely upon them. Women need to be proud of their sex - not see it as a curse and need to stop depending on men for anything. They need to love working, have a target in life, have dreams and try harder to accomplish them. They should not have the illusions of getting a rich man and getting married and having a family. If that is their mentality men will treat them as such, as a people who came to find refuge in a man's home, do favors for him and mother his children. They will not be seen as more than that.

Today's Ugandan man needs a challenging woman, with ideas and goals in life, the relationship should be symbiotic not parasitic and then women will get the respect they deserve. Imagine a woman who asks her husband-"darling you see I need new knickers the old ones are loosing shape". Do you think such a woman deserves to have a word called woman emancipation in her vocabulary? On the brighter side more women are getting educated and fighting their way to the top. Their voices are being heard and if they continue trying harder women who today are regarded as a weaker sex will be making history.

Art by Ronex Ahimbisibwe
Art by Ronex Ahimbisibwe.

Art by Ronex Ahimbisibwe
Art by Ronex Ahimbisibwe.

Some of your art pieces, especially the sculptures are very erotic. Is that something you set out to do?

I don't regard my sculptures as erotic but simply nude. Nudity deals with appreciating our own physical beauty with no other attachments. A woman's body represents fertility in the Ugandan perceptive so I think it shouldn't be ignored but noted as characteristic of a modern society. It can also symbolize the desire to stay youthful and sometimes represent lust which leads to death.

As humans we are selfish; we love ourselves more and like representing ourselves because we know ourselves better. As an artist I try to visualize my perceptions and try to bridge them with the real world.

Art by Ronex Ahimbisibwe
Art by Ronex Ahimbisibwe.

So my works shows what I love to see not what people desire to see or expect me to do. Sometimes what people don't like to talk about or show is what inspires me to sculpt or paint. One great aspect of an artist is to create new possibilities of life. The only question I always ask my self is why is it okay to look at a woman's face but when it comes to other parts of her body that's considered erotic while the face is the most detailed on the human figure? I treat all parts the same; no part to me is private or whatever. I see them as a total summing up to a form which inspires me the most. Maybe what people see as eroticism is my desire for moral justification.

It is very clear that you love Uganda, and you want to see her progress. If you were in charge of tourism, how would you attract tourists to Uganda? What sites would you highlight?

I wish the government could understand the role that visual artists, preserving our culture and sports could do to this country. On a sad note it seems they are never on the government's budget. Artists are the true ambassadors a country can have. The majority of the people who appreciate and buy our art works are tourists and expatriates. Art works act as souvenirs which remind people/tourists of the country which they visited and an art piece is like taking part of the country's spirit.

Ronex Ahimbisibwe
Ronex Ahimbisibwe.

An artist is inspired by his culture, what surrounds him plus his/her perceptions and dreams or illusions.

An art piece engulfs all that, thus exporting and promoting our cultures to other countries.

See what publicity Inzikuru and Kiprop did to our country - I wish the government invests more in sports. We have a lot to gain - even fighting unemployment at the same time. I wish the government could open up museums in major districts in the country preserving the area's culture. When one visits the main museum in Kampala, I feel it lacking a lot.

You have exhibited in Uganda, Tanzania, Germany, France and the Netherlands. Where did you get the warmest reception?

Home is always best because people make sense of what we do when they compare it with the real situations in the country. In other countries it feels like you are forcing your self and art on to them.

I am very impressed by the plurality of great visual/fine artists coming from Uganda these days. Do you think that Ugandans appreciate their visual/fine artistic talent?

It's sad but they don't. The majority always ask, "can you paint me?" That's how limited they are. Most define art simply as making portraits and making billboards. Art is more than that. The average Ugandan cannot afford our works. The fact is that art isn't a basic need and they can do without. It is people who have extra to spend who can afford to think that their walls are empty and need art. The people I know always ask me, paint me something or give me a painting for free I know you are talented you will paint others. Such statements are discouraging but I end up giving free painting to Ugandans for one reason-at least my works stay home on Ugandan walls.

That's one of the reasons why we had to start a group called Index Mashariki to show the role of art to the Ugandan society and its contributions through conducting workshops with mainly with street kids and orphans and giving back to society, like accepting charitable projects and giving a percentage of our sales to charity. We have worked with Sanyu Babies home, AIDCHILD, former street kids housed at corner stone, Nzinunura Omunaku primary school in Kyebando and charity projects in Ssese Island. Also individually I worked with acid victims giving 50% of each sale exhibition held at Sheraton hotel.

Can you please tell us more about Index Mashariki?

Index Mashariki is a Ugandan artist group started by 5 artists in 2003 referring to our wish towards a revival of indigenous artistic expression in the Eastern Regions [Mashariki] of Africa.

In brief with a three fold mission:

Reach out to the local public – in particular bringing art and creative workshops to the underprivileged in the villages, aid orphanages, local schools, women empowerment groups, etc with a pledge to pay a percentage of our net income from foreign sales to a local charity.

Synergize efforts to rethink, revive and modernize African visual art-this way contributing to what can be called African Renaissance. Experimentation and research in African art History.

Co-operate with production and marketing of art products- in order to reduce time and cost. As part of our marketing strategy, we thought of merchandizing efforts. Examples are calendars, postcards, T-shirts, illustrations etc. Sales of art work aim at the Ugandan public in the first place, at low prices - despite the fact we know that our people's budget is tight.

Art by Ronex Ahimbisibwe
Art by Ronex Ahimbisibwe.

Your primary mediums are sculpture and painting. Is there a preference for one of them or are they both your equally loved babies?

At thought I would live on sculpture but over the years people have preferred my paintings to sculpture. But to answer your question, I love my sculptures more and still have most of my sculptures. I have moved a bit from wood carving to casting bronze and brass and people are attracted to them. I think choice of material matters if one is targeting a certain market.

My paintings are a combination of printmaking techniques and sculptures so I term my paintings "SCULPRI." I mainly paint with a roller used in printmaking and if you look closely my paintings look like low sculpture reliefs.

Sculpture as a medium sounds complicated. Does it take you long to make one piece? How long?

It depends on the size or how complex the idea is or how hard the wood is and casting takes a bit longer because it's more costly and a complex method. It takes between 3 days for a smaller piece and to 3 weeks to a month for a reasonably bigger piece.

Art by Ronex Ahimbisibwe
Art by Ronex Ahimbisibwe.

What about printmaking. How long does it take you to make one average-sized piece?

I only make few copies up to three editions only. To me it doesn't make sense making many copies and keep on staring at them. What if that print and its editions are hated? So I prefer fewer prints but cut more compositions thus offering more variety.

Do you think that Ugandan artists are political? Can Ugandan artists make a positive change?

Most, if not all artists deal with aesthetics and the philosophy of taste and beauty. Those who are somehow political are symbolic in the way they visualize their ideas. An artist can make a positive change if the government and the public realized the artist role in his\her society. It will be hard to do it alone. We have tried as artists but we need backup.

What are your current projects?

I always have a solo at Tulifanya gallery in September which I start preparing for in January. As a group we are organizing two workshops with street kids later this year. I am saving to have an art residency either in Egypt or Italy.

Do you have any words of advice to any young people who may want to follow your path?

Do art as if you don't need the money. If you love it and live it, other things will come automatically.

Where can people who want to buy/see your art find it?

On my website – www.ronexart.com as well as my representative in Europe – www.bazart.com as well as Tulifanya Gallery behind crested tower the road going to M.T.N HOUSE and Afriart gallery, Lugogo Show Ground after Shoprite, Nakawa Road.

What kind of legacy do you want to leave behind?

I want to be remembered as an artist and a person who lived his dream and who tried hard to be his best.

I wish to contribute to the development of our indigenous contemporary Ugandan expression. That's my prayer, AMEN.

Ronex Ahimbisibwe
Ronex Ahimbisibwe.

For more information on Ronex Ahimbisibwe please go to www.ronexart.com and www.bazart.com and uganda.africancolours.net/Ronex

He can be can be reached at ronexart@yahoo.com


Schools

-Auntie Norah Nursery school, Kabale. (1981-1983)

-Kigezi primary school Kabale. (1984-1987)

-Nkoyoyo boarding school Matale, Mukono, Lugazi. (1988-1991)

-Kigezi College, Butobele, Kabale. (1992)

-Mbarara High school, Mbarara. (1993-1998)

-Makerere University Kampala. (1998-2001)

Memberships Professional Organizations

- Founding Member of the Ugandan Artist Group INDEX MASHARIKI since Jan 2003

- Member of Uganda Printmakers Association since 2001

- Member of Ugandan Artist Association since 2001   

Major Exhibitions By Ronex Ahimbisibwe

- 2000 Millennium Exhibition at NOMMO GALLERY (Kampala, Uganda) -- Group

- Abruzzo Wild Life Exhibition at NOMMO GALLERY (Kampala, Uganda) -- Group

- 2001 All Artists Exhibition at NOMMO GALLERY (Kampala, Uganda) -- Group

- 1st Printmaking Exhibition at NOMMO GALLERY (Kampala, Uganda) -- Group

- 3rd Women Exhibition (guest artist) at NOMMO GALLERY (Kampala, Uganda) -- Group

- Nude Exhibition at NOMMO Gallery (Kampala, Uganda) -- Group

- Anti-Corruption Exhibition at NOMMO GALLERY (Kampala, Uganda) -- Group

- The Sour and Sweet Exhibition at NOMMO GALLERY (Kampala, Uganda) -- Group

- 2002  Agali Awamu/Print Making Exhibition at NOMMO GALLERY (Kampala, Uganda)- Group

- Women's International Day Exhibition at MAKERERE GALLERY (Kampala, Uganda)- Group

- Artist Of the Month Exhibition at ALLIANCE FRANCAISE (Kampala, Uganda) - Solo

- Wildlife Exhibition at the GERMAN CULTURAL CENTER (Kampala, Uganda) -- Group

- End of the Year Exhibition at NOMMO GALLERY (Kampala, Uganda) -- Group

- 2003  Discoveries -- Young Artist Exhibition at TULIFANYA GALLERY (Kampala, Uganda)-- Solo

- Single Impact Exhibition at the GERMAN CULTURAL CENTER (Kampala, Uganda)- Solo

- Autumn Exhibition at NIEMANDSLAND (Dusseldorf, Germany) -- Group

- Kunstsupermarkt-4 Exhibition at ROSSO ART WORK (Amsterdam, Netherlands) -- Group

- Olympics Competition Exhibition at UGANDA MUSEUM (Kampala, Uganda) -- Group

- Winter Exhibition in WOONGROEP HOLLAND (Amstelveen, Netherlands) -- Group

- East African Art Biennale/EASTAFAB (Dar-es-Salaam, Tanzania) -- Group

- Christmas Exhibition with Former Street Kids –Design Agenda (Kampala, Uganda) - Group

- 2004 Ultra Hot Wired Life Art Show at AFRIART GALLERY (Kampala, Uganda) -- Bilateral Group Exhibition with Norway

- Ronex Ahimbisibwe Exhibition at TULIFANYA GALLERY (Kampala, Uganda) -- Solo

- International Child Day Exhibition at Afri-art gallery (Kampala, Uganda) -- Group  

- Sunday Brunch with Kamya at Aid child's Equation a Café, (Masaka, Uganda)

- Boda-boda era, Nommo gallery, (Kampala, Uganda)

-'Paint a smile' at Sheraton hotel, (Kampala, Uganda) 50% of all sales went to acid survivors solo

Major Commissions

2001-- Painted reliefs on 3 ceilings -- a private Residence (Namugongo, Uganda)

2002-- Large mural and reliefs -- Namirembe Guest House (Namirembe, Uganda)

2002-banana plantation reliefs at pioneer mall, (Kampala, Uganda)

2003-- Large outdoors sculpture "Girls with a Vision" -- Trinity College (Nabbingo, Uganda)

2003 –Art for abato 2003– 'rocking horses' –fundraiser Nsambya babies home, (Kampala, Uganda)  

2004 –Art for abato 2004 'thrones, crowns & treasure chests'- annual exhibition and fundraiser for the children of Nsambya babies home

2005 –Curved Kyambogo University's mess

By Jane Musoke-Nteyafas
more from author >>
First published: April 8, 2006
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 www.nteyafas.com.