The drawl – generously sprinkled with quiet laughter, a forehead partly hidden by a tweed fedora, and a total lack of urgency in his movements, all make the man. These attributes are in stark contrast to his muscles.
Being a professional visual artist is hard work. However, like most creative people, Saad Lukwago, admits to attacks of laziness. “I can be lazy, and then, active, the 36-year-old father of two young sons says, continuing, “I think I am lazy. If you start a painting in 2016 and finish it in 2017 or 2018 some people may say you are a lazy artist. But, I just like to take my time with a piece. Sometimes, I get an inspiration when I wake up at 3am to go to the toilet. I will begin working on it immediately.”
It is a hot morning, and as we sit, chatting, in his Fek Fek Studio in Kitemu, Nsangi, he laughs at my insistence to see him without the fedora. “I cannot remove my hat. It is a trademark. It never goes off.”
The tiles are stained with paint, as are Lukwago’s blue jeans and black open sandals. An assortment of paint tins stand on the floor. Near them, are two small paintings he has been working on. Large paintings grace the walls.
Sad bulging eyes and small mouths with full lips, on caricature-like beings are prominent in Lukwago’s art. Lately though, his recent series of work, Men in Suits, is tending towards elongated bodies, small heads, and stick-like limbs.
“I do not like producing realistic work. I want someone to look at my work and try to understand it. It takes me a while to produce it; why should you just take a few seconds to understand it?”
Lukwago’s work has a touch of his feelings and identity. “Even when it is a simple bird, I want to imagine myself as the bird, waking up, eating, fly around, and then, going to sleep.”
Activism through art
Lukwago believes, that as an artist, once in a while, he has a duty to record culture – and politics a part of today’s culture. However, his work is subtle.
“As Africans, we are brought up to veil things. If it is too direct, it makes everything so simple. Also, sometimes, when you are too direct in Uganda… (He laughs). Sometimes, I am angered by events and release my emotions through painting.”
He laughs again when I ask where The Caucus painting is. Originally named The Cock Ass, the painting is on display in Photizo Gallery in Nairobi, Kenya. The painting depicts a family of hens – father wearing a hat, mother, two children, and two uncles.
“They are standing in a compound making decisions for everyone. Of course, there are other chickens that follow them. I made that painting towards the 2016 elections. We all know the Movement is a family thing and the big man decides but disguises it as democracy. He wanted to be the flag bearer.”
Lukwago was too scared to exhibit the piece in Uganda, but now he believes the big man is more concerned with #K’ogikuteko.
Another thought-provoking painting is Yellow on the Inside, showing three men representing branches of the security forces. Beneath their uniforms, they are wearing yellow t-shirts. “This painting was inspired by the Nalufenya torture stories. It shows how the security forces tend to take sides when they block Opposition rallies. Remember when #Togikwatako was starting?”
Other political pieces include The Presidential Handshake, Boots and Sneakers, Walk to Work, 30 years but eh!, and Men in Suits. The latter depicts a man in a yellow suit with a woman on his arm and a sack of money at his feet. The woman is wearing red. Coming from the same direction, they now want to go separate ways. Even their dog is confused, wondering who to follow.
Prominently displayed on the wall is No Herdsman, Just Us, which Lukwago worked on last year in Nairobi, when he was missing his young family. “I was comparing the political situation in Kenya and Uganda. The cows depict people without a leader. I’m sure you know that the leader we chose is not the one we got. So, it is basically a group of cattle looking uncertain, with a questioning expression.”
While in Nairobi, he realised President Museveni is influential in the region. “He is not just an old man; he is a very influential old man. So, I’m thinking of doing something along those lines.”
Cows have a place in Lukwago’s work since his village is in Nyamitanga, Mbarara. His parents – who do not understand, but have accepted, his art – are Hajj Mustapha Kiggundu, a retired civil servant, and Mariam Nakato, a Rwandan. He was born, bred, and schooled in Kampala, attending City Parents School, Kitante Hill School, Old Kampala Secondary School, and Kyambogo University.
Lukwago’s credits Fred Senoga Makubuya alias Snoggie as a big influence on his life during his childhood. “He had a way of capturing people’s characters making me want to be a cartoonist. As I grew up, I discovered Danny Barongo, Gado (Godfrey Mwampembwa), and Nuwa Nnyanzi. I loved the way Danny used colour.”
Lukwago studied Art Education at university but instead of attending lectures, he spent most of his first year in the library reading up on and surfing the internet for famous international artists, such as Picasso.
“I did not find the theory classes interesting. It was only when I missed coursework and test marks that I realised I was actually studying education. I had many retakes from my first year, but I was determined to get the transcript for my father, and then, do my own things.”
In his first year, in 2000, he sold his first painting, The Gift – his only oil painting to-date – at an exhibition in Normo Gallery for Shs300,000. It took him 17 years to discover that his lecturer, Bill Kavuma, bought the painting.
Passing time teaching art
From the sale of his first art pieces, Lukwago opened a studio. However, with rent to pay, life became challenging.
“My studio-mate, Jude Kasagga, was already teaching. He told me about some teaching position and encouraged me to apply. Teaching was never really our thing, though.”
He has taught in a number of schools, but it was at Blessed Sacrament Secondary School Kimaanya that the students – who did not understand his work – called it childish, unserious, and fake art (He later named his work Fek Fek art).
“They thought an artist must produce realistic work. I think the problem is with the education system. The same way art was taught many years ago, is the same way it is being taught now. I wanted to teach them to be open minded and creative but Uneb has a certain way of doing things. That is why I found teaching to be very boring.”
Luckily, he was fired for holding jobs in other schools. “I was happy. I had been wanting to quit teaching for a long time and it helped that I was given three months’ salary advance.”
He then fulfilled his dream of working on radio dream by working for eight months at Best FM in Masaka in 2011. When his aunt bought Sumaya Girls Secondary School in Nsangi, Lukwago was persuaded to return to teaching for a while, until he quit for good in 2015.
Courage to change direction
Since last month, Lukwago has been working on commissions for Café Javas. “Large eyes are a hallmark of my work and I also find inspiration in animated movies. Of late though, my work does not have eyes. The commissions will be hung in public places and some people find the large eyes too sad.”
Lukwago paints with acrylics but he is also teaching himself digital painting on his Samsung tablet. Since colour prominently features in his work, he wants to try out a series of dull paintings.
“I have had this idea for two years, but I love color too much. I think I need to go somewhere without the vibrancy and excitement of Africa. Maybe I should go to some boring wintery place, bore myself, and then, get to work. I would also love to try out a nude painting.”
As he walks me to the dusty road, our conversation is almost drowned out by the noise coming from a passing truck loaded with blaring loudspeakers.
“Makes you wonder about noise pollution,” he says, adding, “I am not anti-government. I just use some of my work to highlighting what is going on. The problem is, there are some people who don’t want to talk about it, and then, there are others who overdo it.”
Marketing Fek Fek art
According to Lukwago, Kenyans understand and appreciate art because of the influence of the white community and the good economy. “In Kenya, you find ordinary people buying art as an investment to auction off later. This is unheard of in Uganda. A few years ago, a few friends and I decided to create market for our work in Nairobi. The late Geoffrey Mukasa was an inspiration because even today, his work still fetches a high price in Nairobi.”
Lukwago charges six cents (to the US dollar) per square inch of a painting. A big painting like Men in Suits costs $1,976 (Shs 7.1m). From his work, Lukwago has been able to buy land and a car. He has exhibited in group shows in Germany and art collectors from California, Qatar, London, Norway, and Ireland have bought his work.