Portrait sculptor sifts through human mind in solo exhibition

What you need to know:

On display are thirty six artworks mainly made up of portraits depicting people whom Atugonza sculpts in ubiquitous materials such as sawdust, resin, sisal ropes, wood, and body filler, and charcoal—all of them being waste materials found within his environment

In his debut solo exhibition entitled Human Nature showing at the Afriart Gallery in Kampala, the Ugandan portrait sculptor Richard Atugonza explores the human experience through people’s feelings and emotions. 

On display are thirty six artworks mainly made up of portraits depicting people whom Atugonza sculpts in ubiquitous materials such as sawdust, resin, sisal ropes, wood, and body filler, and charcoal—all of them being waste materials found within his environment.

Atugonza’s sculpture Brothers made of charcoal residue, body filler, board game, and resin shows two young men playing the board game of Ludo.

“These two are young coworkers and they live under the same roof. Due to the inevitable circumstances, they have got personal similar grievances and challenges at work which they tend to forget by playing a board game,” he told Saturday Monitor.

Prevailing depicts a woman dressed in white dress and headwrap. Her right hand is placed on top of her head, while the left hand is at the back of the head.

“The art piece is more of empowering—that despite the current trials and tribulations, we will always triumph,” the artist says.

Binsobede (Luganda for puzzled) shows the subject holding her head in a perplexed manner since she can’t comprehend the challenges of everyday life. According to Atugonza, life comes at you very fast and hits you very hard.  

The experimental piece Munange, My Dear shows a man resting his head in his left hand. The body language and posture portrays how people want to be sympathised with due to what they go through.

Release depicts a man exercising his right arm in the air while his left arm is lowered. According to the artist this piece is about that time after long hours of work and you may need to stretch a bit.

Lesson learnt—another experimental piece by Atugonza—shows the subject holding his jaw while reflecting on what has happened to him in the past.

Nothing to lose depicts a subject holding a cloth around her chest. The mood is dull and she seems to be trying her best despite the struggles she goes through. She is willing to do anything to make ends meet.

Human experience

The eight-week exhibition that opened on January 13 will close on March 9, 2024. When asked how it feels to hold his debut solo exhibition, Atugonza replied: “I feel so blessed, calm and satisfied to see that I managed to execute the fantasies of my mind into tangible art pieces and installations.”

As to why he titled it Human Nature, he said: “Human nature is more of human beings and their temperaments, but since I was dealing with the coexistence of two analogies of humans and their environment (nature) I decided to title this exhibition, Human Nature.”

As to the message he is conveying in this exhibition, Atugonza told Saturday Monitor thus: “I have two messages I would like to convey: the first one is, I would like the viewer to see my work as a mirror to reflect people’s feelings and emotions. Secondly, I would like the viewers as they walk through the exhibition to develop different conversations and investigations towards environmental conservation policies.”

The exhibition’s curator, Lara Buchmann, said: “In this exhibition, Atugonza explores the human experience and our inextricable entanglements with the natural world around us. As a point of departure, he draws upon his own experiences and those of his models, whose stories, struggles and emotions he shares with us in the form of sculptures. With every sculpture portraying an individual, yet often relatable experience, he opens a poetic angle for recognising our shared humanity.”

His style, approach

Atugonza describes his style of art as “thoughtful” much like his personality, which he says is “introverted.” The artist adds that he “found refuge in doing what I call creative awareness.” The “recycling” he repeatedly does in his approach to art “is the very possible way of expressing myself.”

Atugonza says that his artworks tackle the themes of real life stories, human temperaments, and environmental conservation. He sources materials for his works “from my immediate neighbourhood such as charcoal sellers, timber furniture workshops, among others.” He hastens to add that he does not “mix and fix [the materials] with adhesives and binders to put them together.”

The artist says he prefers sawdust, resin, sisal ropes, wood, and body filler, and charcoal because they are locally available and in plenty.

Asked to describe the state of art in Uganda, he responded:  “It is thriving and the future is bright.”

Atugonza says that he is not well conversant about who buys art in Uganda. He lists listening to music, critical thinking, dance, and sports as some of his hobbies. He adds that he unwinds after a hard day’s work by taking a cold shower, relaxing and listening to music.

Who is Atugonza?

Atugonza was born in 1994 in Fort Portal, western Uganda. He is a sculptor who graduated from Margaret Trowell School of Industrial and Fine Art at Makerere University in Kampala in 2019. He majored in sculpture specifically in portraiture and minors in photography and communication design. 

He previously worked as an apprentice in lost-wax casting and as a technical officer in a furniture workshop which he left in 2020 to join the Silhouette Projects Residency Programme in Kampala and become a full-time artist.

Atugonza has exhibited his work at Walls Speak at Kingdom Kampala (2019), in the group exhibitions Surfaces (2019) and Where the Wild Things are (2022) and in the duo exhibition (Im)perfections (2020) at Afriart Gallery. He has shown at Abu Dhabi Art fair (2020), FNB Art Joburg, 1-54 Contemporary African Art Fair London/New York (2020), and African Galleries Now X Artsy. He was commissioned by Abu Dhabi Art Beyond 2021 to create two large-scale sculptures which were exhibited during the fair.