In his shop at the National Theatre, Nuwa Wamala Nnyanzi seems to disappear behind the clutter around him. Every inch of space on the walls is taken up by framed art pieces of every size. If you dropped a pin on his desk, you would have trouble finding it among the tins, envelopes, papers, and paint brushes. The space surrounding him is taken up by boxes, mats and bags.
There appears to be a beautiful symmetry in the clutter, though. Everything seems to be where it is supposed to be; even the small radio gives the appearance of having occupied the same spot on the large brown desk for eons. Perhaps, most surprising is the tall, white bookshelf – a testimony to Nnyanzi’s research work and documentation of his own work.
“If you had come two months ago, you would have been amazed because I was working on something and my desk was a mess,” says the 64-year-old visual artist and Rotarian.”
My first impression of Nnyanzi is of a quiet man who only talks when necessary. How wrong I am! Every question leads to a conversation. I choose not to follow the flow of the questions I have typed out and this brings on a talk about the stereotypical (he calls it genetic) behaviour of the members of our clan – mbogo (buffalo) clan.
Before I take his picture, he says, “Wait! I have to first wear my makeup.” Alarmed, I wait for what I hope will be a short makeup session, only for him to pull a brown face towel out of his bag. He gently pats his face with it. “That’s it; now take the picture,” he says, adding, “What matters is my art, not my face.”
He shows me his most famous art pieces, asking me to interpret what I see. Only those conversant with his work can understand that this is a tough task. But, I passed it; of course, with him providing cues.
His thoughts on Independence
A few years ago, Nnyanzi was Mengo’s minister for culture and art and his passion for the kingdom slips into the conversation when he talks about how Kabaka Muteesa I laid the perfect foundation for Uganda to become a protectorate, not a colony.
“Independence was a missed opportunity. Whatever was promised and expected never came to pass. It was supposed to be a smooth transition and then, take off, because we already had the infrastructure for development. However, when the colonialists handed over power, they expected us to be democrats when they themselves had not been. They never held a single election the time they were here, yet they expected us to hold regular elections.”
He reasons that it was absurd to expect Prime Minister Apollo Milton Obote to act differently.
“When there were dissenters, he detained them, just as the colonialists used to do. We can only fault Obote for being an African behaving like a colonialist. When he and (Idi) Amin were challenged in Parliament for corruption, they went berserk.”
At Independence, Nnyanzi was 19 days shy of his 10th birthday, but the political fever affected him. “I remember my uncle repeating a statement that had appeared in the media, ‘Abaganda okwefuga bakuyise kikwangala.’ (Baganda have described Independence as a sham). That stuck in my mind. I was studying at Duhaga Boys in Hoima and there was a classmate who was politically charged. He threatened me all the time, saying that if Independence came, they would chase all Baganda out of Bunyoro. So to me, independence was for Banyoro. While others were eagerly waiting for it, I was not. And I was too traumatised to tell my mother what was going on at school.”
The only highlight were the fireworks on the hill near the Catholic Church at midnight and being given buns, soda, and a badge with the Ugandan flag at school.
Becoming an artist
For Nnyanzi, art was something he stumbled upon and ran with, to survive. Although he had studied Art as an O-Level student, he did not pursue it.
Between 1972 and 1977, Nnyanzi was an officer of the Uganda Army and deputy in-charge of the medical stores at the General Military Hospital. However, a dispute targeting his superior, Lt Col Dr Gideon (Nsiko) Bogere, sucked him in. “I was detained for nine days for mischief and plotting against the establishment. I do not recall if I was actually plotting something but I was resentful. When I was released, I went into hiding in Jinja with my cousins Col Suleman Hassan and Badru Hassan who were in the military police. We were all jailbirds. Suleman had a bus company and I was the personnel manager. We worked for a year until we received information that a roadblock had been setup at the bridge to net deserters.” The army deserter travelled to Kampala and got clearance from the District Commissioner (who knew he was a deserter) and travelled to Kenya. “In Nairobi, I met Acholi and Langi who we thought had died. They had just disappeared from the barracks, an act which saved their lives.”
He credits his exile with turning him into an artist. “If I had remained in Uganda, I would not have been an artist. In my first year of exile in Nairobi I met an old friend, Dan Ssekanwagi. He was an artist and had been doing some work for Uganda Television, now UBC. He told me batiks were marketable in Nairobi. I did not know what batiks were, and he had little knowledge on them. So, we read and studied other people’s art. The rest is history.”
In 1990, he returned to Uganda with his two young children (one of whom is media personality, Malaika Nnyanzi) after 12 years in exile. At that time, there were no colours in Uganda that an artist could use – only black and white. It was entirely impossible to reproduce an art piece. “People asked me who was going to buy my art, since Ugandans do not appreciate art. I believed that Ugandans appreciated it, but they could not afford it. I was determined to teach them to love art. I did good business exhibiting at the Sheraton Hotel, which became like my sitting room in the evenings.”
Art as a tool of political activism
Nnyanzi stresses that he only tries to capture the motion and emotion of social and cultural issues in his art. “I made a conscious decision in Nairobi not to dwell on the negative. I was not about to sacrifice Uganda on the altar of Obote or Amin. Many people speak ill of Uganda as if the entire society is violent. I capture and show the negative aspects in my art, but out of 20 pieces, there will only be one because Ugandans are peaceful and friendly.” As we talk, he searches through files and bags to bring out some of his pieces portraying the negative aspects, which include Tormented Crested Crane, Kony’s Handiwork, and one about soldiers beating people. “If you looked at them today, you would relate with them. Art can be a tool of political activism. The only surviving relics of Independence are the artistic impressions – the coat of arms, the flag, the Independence monument, and the national anthem. Everything else has been destroyed, discarded, or neglected. Governments have changed and the army and police have been renamed. People today are using imagery, cartoons, and effigies to send out messages and cause revolutions world over. I can cause change in someone by capturing an emotion in a picture or painting.”
Evolution of Ugandan art
For Nnyanzi, the evolution of Ugandan art has been in the fact that art is no longer confined to the academic world. “People are exploring. It is no longer with the traditional paints, but using various media. The only problem is that they are in a hurry to produce work and get money.”
The price of Nnyanzi’s individual art pieces ranges from Shs2,000 to $2,000 (approx. Shs7.2m). “I think I have made history by surviving on art alone, without holding a day job,” he jokes. “I should be in the Guinness World Records. My work has evolved over time. Besides batik, I do graphic and fabric designs, calendars, and wood art.” Nnyanzi, who redesigned the Buganda Flag, has art as his only source of income, either in production, holding workshops or giving talks. The rest of the work he does is voluntary, including being a Rotarian. At the end of the interview, I got a chance to see some of Nnyanzi’s old and famous works. It has been a rewarding three-hour tutorial on the power of art.