Ugandan Visual Artists: Meet Benon Lutaaya
I believe there's something for everyone if we dare to seriously x-ray for it.
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First published: October 28, 2010
Occasionally one comes across an unknown artist who is so talented that one wonders why he is not known. Benon Lutaaya is one of those. A remarkable young man, Lutaaya has taken art to the next level with the clever way he works with recycled materials. He specializes particularly in using recycles papers to paint. He paints with a depth and intensity that few artists employ, tackling issues that most people would choose to avoid. He has an impeccable way of putting grief, trials and tribulation on paper in a colorful way that is digestable and thought-provoking. He really captures the human spirit in a delightful way.
Recently the 25-year-old artist exhibited 17 pieces of art at the Bayimba Festival of the Arts in Kampala, Uganda and managed to sell most of them, an impressionable feat for any visual artist. He spent the last three years riding on a wave of creative genius, creating several amazing pieces of art.
Because of the lack of resources to afford painting materials, he chose to use colored papers from magazines, posters on the street, and colored product packs as a medium to paint paper collage). He has also tried to come up with his own technique/style of using papers and glue alone. Benon may be unknown today in east African circles, but it is only a matter of time before that changes. Born in Uganda, he is definitely one to look out for.
Jane: Benon Lutaaya in your own words is...?
Benon: Ooh thank you Jane. Benon Lutaaya in short is an artist because of an unexplainable affiliation he has to the world of art, a natural affinity in me to colors, art forms, art objects, and drawings. I had no exposure to art museums or galleries when growing up. As a child, my fascination for art began with admiration of my elder brother’s colored pencil drawings, leading to the "I bet I could do that" gut feeling. I think that was the spark. Presently, to me, Art is by far more than a career, but rather an obsession. The best way, through which I appreciate our world, inform and inspire others.
At what point in your life did you decide that art was your dream career?
The wish of being a full time artist was always there, but it took me a slow and mindful effort to convince myself. After the university, I didn’t think it was possible to fashion a successful career as a full time practicing artist in Uganda. It was my other passion for reading motivational books that convinced me. Without a single penny, I took the decision to give up everything and concentrate on art. That wasSeptember 2007. It was the toughest decision of my life, but one I am most proud of now. Since then, I have foregone a lot to forge a reputation that has started to follow the signature of my work. I was able to detach from environmental boundaries once I fully understood that expression was a primary need in my life.
That is very encouraging for many others who may want to purse unmet dreams. It’s never too late. What inspires you as an artist?
Well, personallyit’s an inner feeling, the urge to discover a fresh new way to express myself, I want to standout in the crowd, to come up with somethingdifferent, something new and unique. It's this challenge that keeps me wanting to paint, digging around for a better idea, a different technique, a rule to break... that's my idea of a good studio time. Also, looking at the details of my previous paintings generates new possibilities. Developing new ideas from there is a very exciting exercise for me just as visiting art exhibits triggers my crave for painting.
For sure you do stand out because your style is unique. Your passion and compassion can be seen in your art work. What medium do you use?
My work is dominated by the usage of torn papers from coloured glossy magazines and, outdated posters off the streets of Kampala. These papers have become my trademark and my favourite choice of medium to paint with. In the beginning, I was drawn to it because of the tightness of my working budget. Over time, I found it attractive and in particular, by what I perceive as its ‘humanity’ dimension with it.
This basic material, having suffered from life in a similar process that makes us what we are, is worth for me an artistic redemption. That’s what I am trying to provide through its integration into my creative work. I am a painter that takes colours from existing paper material, for whom brush strokes are pieces of torn posters or magazines. To me, these torn papers tell a story of their own besides the subject in the painting....’We survived and here we are, scarred but alive’.
Take us through one day of your life as a visual artist…
Its quite abnormal for a normal person, but fun in my case. I work all day and almost all night with small breaks to eat and drink while listening to music.
I work like that too! I guess its an artist thing. But go on….
I never want to part with my painting work. When I feel that a painting has developed its own song and is coming alive, as one artist remarked…I want to live with it, talk to it, quarrel with it, and agree with it. In other words, I never want to put my signature to it, as that would bring the experience to an end. It’s that fun.
You recently participated in the Bayimba International Festival of the Arts. How was that?
Fantastic! If I can sum it in one word. All the artworks I exhibited sold out. I was the best seller. I chose this festival to announce my arrival on the Ugandan art scene. It was the first time I showcased my creativity on a bigger scale. The response was absolutely amazing. I felt rewarded for all the hard work and commitment I have put in for years. I have destroyed more artworks in the process of mastering the technique you see in my pieces today, than I can actually show. The international press took significant notice and interviews on me. It was a great way to represent my country.
It sure is. Uganda is gaining a good reputation as a source of art. Do you get dry spells when you just cannot create and what do you do when that happens?
Yes, I do get dry spells when I just cannot create. This is when I take the opportunity to go out and find the materials I use in my work, from friends, garbage places and off the streets of Kampala, you know. Listening to audio motivational books beautifully steal my attention when I'm less than interested in what's happening on the canvas. They help me hang around long enough to break through that dry spell.
Tell us about your values in life. What drives you?
Overall, it’s my vision. Certainly it’s the goals I want to achieve that set the yardstick for every step I take in life. I am so very faithful to my principles. I have learned to be patient, accepted that good things come when you discover who you’re and work really very hard at it. I believe there’s something for everyone if we dare to seriously x-ray for it. The desire to be successful, to find happiness in my abilities, and to pay back the people that have helped me along in my life motivates me a lot.
I like the titles to your artwork. “Dejected,” “Vulnerable Girl” and “Ashamed to be happy.” These are real pieces dealing with real issues. You create deep, insightful pieces. Where does someone as young as you are get such depth? How has suffering molded you as an artist?
Most of my figure and portrait paintings carry a depiction of wrestling everyday with who they are, wondering how heavily life’s uncertainty and the challenge of living for just another day weighs on them and whether they can ever escape its shadow. They convey an emotional story that illustrates the fragility of life from a personal experience. That’s why my titles sound absurd. They try to connect with the unreachable, subtle side of being, the substance behind the outward show.
I strive to create images to communicate the complexity of human conditions and issues pertaining to influences in our society today. They juxtapose ideas and emotions commonly experienced by people whose lives have been knocked, wounded and deformed by high levels of poverty and HIV/AIDS in an effort to encourage deeper reflection and awareness. When people see my work though, I would like them to enjoy each piece for its color harmony, pleasing visual appeal and the ability to connect and communicate.
Which are your three favorite pieces?
Actually I have no favorite pieces in my artworks, but there’s something special about some paintings. A case in point is, ‘Ashamed to be Happy’, ‘Abandoned to their fate’ and ‘Vulnerable girl’. These three pieces depict my deep, emotional feelings on the sufferings of children.
Abandoned to Their Fate.
I felt a connection to “Vulnerable Girl” as well and “Ashamed to be happy.” They were virtually visual. I could feel what that feel. That is how well you painted them. Their feelings and their suffering is made tangible through the way that you paint.
I am glad that they did, Visually, they offer an interpretation of how I view my subject matter in relationship to the connections I have with it.
I noticed a tendency towards fashion in some of your work especially “Quilt of Events.” How can the Ugandan government help the arts and fashion industry in your opinion?
Personally, I am not into Fashion although it fascinates me a lot. In fact, some ideas in my paintings are inspired by fashion designing. ‘Black beauty’ and ‘Pillars of the Family’, ‘ Quilt of Events’, and many others were every inch an inspiration from fashion.
I think the Ugandan government, needs to design initiatives that would spur the growth and development of the creative industry as a whole. For instance, to put into place creative grants and programs to tap, nurture and support creative talents. A lot of it die and rot out there having not realized their dreams.
What is your greatest success story so far?
My greatest story so far? That is yet to happen. Even though, I am thrilled by the overwhelming positive response to my work at the Bayimba International festival of the Arts. Winning a 3 year government Scholarship for my BFA with Education is something I am quite proud of. It crowned my toughest years of struggle to attain education. I cannot undermine the role of my formal artistic training as well.
How is the general reception of your artwork in Uganda?
It’s great. People do appreciate my work a lot, the choice of medium, my technique and the scheme of my palette. But, most of them can’t afford to buy one. They think they’re expensive. I have never sold a single artwork to a Ugandan except through commissions. All my pieces have been sold either to Asians, Europeans, Americans or Canadians. By the way, my first time to exhibit my work in a group art show at Makerere University Art gallery, all my pieces(5) sold out in the first week of opening.
What about internationally?
Earlier this year, I participated in the worldwide 2minutes documentary competition organized by the BBC called MyWorld. My video comprising of my paper collage artworks, won the BBC.com curators’ competitive choice for the BBC TV broadcast and promotion through the internet.
It was also amongst the only 4 videos from the African continent to make the final list of 40 most powerful videos out of 500 entries received worldwide. The story-telling artworks that made the video were also bought by the BBC journalists.
Somehow Passion Survives.
Where do you see yourself in the next 5 years?
I see myself more in tune with my inner self as an artist. I want to continue to be frenetically busy, successful, happy but, above all, absorbed with some good arrangements that will allow me to showcase my creativity in the world’s top galleries in Paris, New York, Amsterdam, Madrid, Berlin and so on. I’m sure a lot will come out of there.
Any tips for people who may be looking to be where you are?
I would advise them to continue only if they’re really convinced. Experience has shown me that, this work doesn't work in an atmosphere of uncertainty. Uncertainty is the enemy of creativity.
This is a journey of search to find the self. It isn’t an easy one. It requires hard work. I would suggest they establish a routine of developing their art and own technique. That’s the first signature if they are to reap from Art. The world is craving for something fresh not clones. Also, they should try getting advice from professionals and taking part in art shows and competitions. That will give them a pretty good experience.
Would you say you are living your childhood dream?
Not really. As a child I wanted to be just like my grandfather, he was a trained medical doctor. But I am happy to be my own self.
Would you like to share with us your current goals in life?
I am at a point in my career that features a very satisfying view of my life as an artist. At the moment I am actually prepared to go the extra mile to reap the very best possible out it. Have a happy family and a good life.
Who are your role models?
I have no standout role models. Every successful person regardless of the field they’re in, inspires me.
What is your spiritual life like?
It’s surprising I am not religious although I come from a strong Christian background. But I have a strong attachment to God. I believe in HIM.
Born in Africa.
How do you spend your time when you are not painting?
I love to read. That is when I read a good book; visit some friends, watch a movie or two. I am a football fanatic and diehard fan of Arsenal FC in England. So I go out to watch soccer matches. Follow world events by watching and listening to the BBC.
That’s when I go online to check my emails to keep in touch with friends, explore artsy opportunities as international competitions, exhibition opportunities, funding opportunities, International residences, visit other artists’ websites, and check out the walls of local galleries. I do graphic designing as well. This helps me refresh my mind, generate new ideas, so that next time I start on the next level of the spiral.
Any parting words?
Oh yeah. Again, I would like to thank you for this opportunity to talk to the world about my creativity. I am extremely grateful because this is my first published artistic interview. I would also like to thank my friend and mother Donna Martin in Chesterville, Canada for all the support, for believing in me, and encouraging me to continue with art as a career.
I would also like to extend my special thanks to Mr. Ssebunya Joseph for supporting my creative efforts. Also Madam Maria Alawua, senior lecturer Makerere University Art School for the invitation to showcase my work for the first time at the University art gallery. Thank you all. May God bless you!
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First published: October 28, 2010
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 including the 2007 Planet Africa Rising Star Award and the 2008 African Canadian Women Achievement Award. Her first book Butterflies of the Nile was published in May 2008. Please visit her website at www.nteyafas.com.