Isabella Alice Mwebaza believes art chose her, but her spark kicked in when she was 10. At Silver Spoon School, her father hired a painter to make a portrait of the family.
It is that magnificent portrait that stimulated her passion for art. But there was one stumbling block. She needed to convince her parents that she was choosing art for a career.
“There were no success stories for artists then, especially women. I was scared to tell my parents about my career aspirations,” Mwebaza says.
Becoming an artist
At the Catholic University of Eastern Africa (CUEA) in Nairobi, she enrolled for an accounting course. She was also elected as a deputy guild president, a position that gave her a platform to mobilise students from different nationalities to showcase their cultures mainly through art.
In a Miss and Mister CUEA event, she worked on body paint for the models that were competing for the crown. “When their photos came out, they were all over - even in newspapers and people started to look for the person that did the art,” she recounts.
What Mwebaza thought was a one-time gig turned out to be a profitable venture. From her first fun project, she got three jobs straight after. Her maiden work opened for her many business doors. She received many calls and started working with event companies in Nairobi.She had used her pocket money to buy white wash and food colour (used in baking) which she mixed to make the paint.
This was a quick fix and she was not thinking more would come out of it. She started searching for quality body paint and fortunately for her, she landed on Textbook Centre in Nairobi that sells body-friendly paint and creams.
Taking art full time
While doing all that, she was still a student of accounting and she excelled. “I wanted to work for one of the big four accounting firms which were PWC, Deloitte, Ernst and Young or KPMG,” Mwebaza says.
Like any graduate, she applied to all of them and waited. But she continued doing her art although she was not thinking of it as a promising career.
When job opportunities from reputable firms did not come through, she started working in hardware shop. But she discovered that she could make the money she made in that shop from art and behold, she quit.
Four years ago, she started Bella Art, which was more into doing body art and she later started Sip and Paint, where she conducts painting sessions. “I am a visual artist and my medium is painting. I can paint on any medium; human body; the hair, the nails, full body, legs, name it. I can paint on a plain cloth canvas, murals on walls, sculptures, among others,” she said.
Mwebaza believes a job well done is good enough to connect a proprietor to the next customer. “Do not tell people what you can do. Show them what you do. If people like what you do, they will need your services and they will refer you to their friends and family,” she says. This is her way of marketing her work. She is also exploring ways of reaching out to bigger audiences through social media.
During the lockdown, she decided to do something she has always wanted to do.
“I had always wanted to have a YouTube channel, but I was so scared to do it. The lockdown gave me the courage to start the channel because it was an avenue for me to showcase my art and talent to the world,” she says.
Though she has not got any monetary returns, it kept her creative and when part of the world opened up, she got some clients.
Many artists in Uganda sell their art at a price that is actually less its value. Although art is valuable, the mentality that art is expensive forces artists to undersell their art.
She believes the Ugandan population of art consumers is at an advantage because they are still able to exploit existing artists. In other countries, art is priced relatively high. “If you want an art piece and still complain about the price, then you are not the target audience,” she says.
Mwebaza says when she encounters a challenge, she looks for ways of solving it as quickly as possible.
There are things she never knew would be possible in the beginning of her art journey. That included having projects to work on all the time. Today, one job leads to another and she is seldom out of work.
“The fact that I am still working four years down the road is an achievement itself,” she says.
She has also worked with several big brands such as Uganda Breweries Limited (UBL), MTN Pulse, Silk events, house of DJs, travel companies, Swangz Avenue, something she is proud of.
“I want to work with international brands, Royal Kingdom in the UK, and have my paintings in the Louvre in Paris” she said.
The Louvre is the largest museum and historic monument in Paris, France and a limited number of African artwork is exhibited there. She dreams of representing Uganda and Africa by having a painting there.
Having worked with people from all walks of life with different interests, temperaments and intentions, she has learnt to remain calm even amidst adversity. Mwebaza says how much she gets on a good day depends on the business she is doing. “Some days are good, others are better and others are really bad. But on a good day, I can make Shs1m,” she says.
“I run two separate businesses, Bella art, which is more of body painting. Paint and Sip Kampala, is where I conduct painting sessions” she says.
At Bella art, her standard fee for the smallest type of body art is Shs10, 000 and the rate can go as high as Shs600, 000, for a full body 360 artwork. She says this varies according to the complexity of concepts.
At Paint and sip Kampala, the standard fee is Shs70, 000 which allows one to attend the paint session and clients are allowed to take their framed masterpiece home.
“You only need to believe in yourself and improve your talent through research. It is not difficult to be an artist. You just have to love what you do,” she says.
Mwebaza did not study art, but accounting and she says she got where she is by practicing, researching and improving her skill.