What you need to know:
- Ahimbisibwe says there are some works that he makes just for the fun of it, especially if he believes he can change the situation.
A year after graduating with a Bachelor’s Degree in Industrial and Fine Arts from Makerere University’s Margaret Trowel School of Fine Art in 2001, Ronex Ahimbisibwe’s works have established him as Uganda’s most experimental, prolific and vastly skilled contemporary multi-media visual artist.
A master of technical experimental artistic inventions in art, Ronex—who has held 20 solo art exhibitions, as well as participated in group shows home and away—works full-time at his Ronexart Studios.
His specialities are works in sculpture, painting, printmaking and design. It requires, he says, “a lot of sacrifices.” Even still, “it’s never easy to make ends meet.”
Since being an artist “wasn’t forced on me”, Ronex was bitten by the bug when he “started helping my father in his shop in Kabale District in my holidays early in my primary up to my secondary school years.” Ronex noticed that whenever his father “didn’t go to Kampala or Dubai [in the United Arab Emirates] to do shopping, the shop would be almost empty.”
This dependency syndrome that his father displayed inspired Ronex “to produce something not to fully be dependent on what others produced.” Across the two decades he has been active in the visual industry, his handiwork has yielded numerous artworks that were on display as his 20th anniversary exhibition shows occupied the months of October and November.
On display were works from some of his recent solo exhibitions in Kampala, like “The Year That Was” that was held from October 2 to 30, 2021, at Umoja Art Gallery in Bukoto, Kampala. “The Year That Was” featured incredible paintings and sculptures with inspirational stories explicating happenings in the Covid-19 pandemic. There are 20 works in a mask shape, 30 paintings on canvas and 23 round-shaped on board works.
His painting titled “2020 blessings” with a large microscopic image of the new coronavirus known as SARS-CoV-2 virus captured the then constrained lifestyle of Ugandans who had been chained by the pandemic.
On the painting “2020 blessings” are the following writings: lockdown; police; maize flour; intensive care; where is the food; 7pm-6am curfew; closure of schools, cinemas and sports; wash your hands; wear a mask; quarantine; among others.
The painting “Feeling mellow” shows a woman with one eye covered with a face mask.
“There are some works that I make just for the fun of it, especially if I can change the situation. One of the standard operating procedures (SOPs) is to wear the mask that covers the nose and mouth,” Ronex said, adding, “I remember the President saying especially in the first lockdown ‘...don’t touch the soft parts.’ Maybe the eyes too need a mask.”
Bag of contradictions
Ronex’s creations relating to his personal interpretation or observation of dreams, contradictions, possibilities, thoughts, and the ideal versus reality were displayed at his solo exhibition under the theme “Contemplation” at the Afriart Gallery on 7th Street, Industrial Area in Kampala from January 11 to February 28, 2019.
“Contemplation” was made up of mixed media on board, canvas and bark cloth, aluminium cuts and cast, caste iron, hardened paper.
Contemplation 2 shows a Catholic nun in prayer with a rosary hanging in the right hand corner of the art piece. According to Ronex, this artwork poses the question: What if God was Moslem?
Contemplation 4 shows a dark-skinned girl dressed in a white dress and sunglasses with skin-bleaching cream containers hanging on the left side of the art work. Many dark-skinned women use skin bleaching creams in order to have a light colour and attract men.
Ronex says he “experiments with each material in order to take advantage of each material’s strength.” He consequently uses anything from wood to bark cloth and recycled steel.
“I am always driven by one question: What if? I thrive on questions like what if I did this and that? What would be the outcome?” he reveals, adding, “It’s a joy in itself as one gets surprised by the process and reversal of known truths.”
Since he doesn’t perceive creativity linearly, he sets out “to create works that curiously blend in the fashion of the legendary double-edged sword: sophistication meeting naivety, chaos meeting order, beauty meeting ugliness, aesthetics meeting free expression and so on.”
“My work seeks to explain and attempts to answer questions about methods and materials and the effects of texture on one’s perception,” he told Sunday Monitor, adding that describing the art he embodies is “never easy”, especially since “my art is self-portraits hidden in forms and colours.”
As well as failure to distinguish between artist and artiste, Ronex says it is a damning indictment that “the Ugandan Parliament is still drafting the copyright law” in the 21st Century.
“I believe artists give a nation identity and are true ambassadors of their country,” he reasons, adding, “Unconsciously or consciously, they are inspired by what surrounds them, but you get such an important industry and put it under the Gender ministry.”
This, he reckons, is reason enough to believe that Ugandan artists “are on our own” and “we have to do things ourselves.”
On whether Uganda has enough galleries to promote visual art, Ronex holds thus: “First, we have to give credit to individuals who have started something, especially in a Third World country like Uganda with their savings and zero government support. Apart from Makerere Art Gallery, most galleries we have are homes or warehouses turned into galleries, and that has its challenges.”
He adds: “Walls are too low or too high, lighting is a challenge, artists are limited somehow but one has to learn to use what we have or improvise or one might wait forever for the right structures. There will never be enough galleries to accommodate all artists. That is why artists always try to look for alternative spaces or have open studios.”
As to the potential of the visual art industry in Uganda, Ronex believes they are not fulfilling their potential. This explains why in 2008 he “started a page on Facebook called ‘Art Uganda.’ It’s a digital archive, documenting most of what is happening on the Ugandan art scene.”
In 2006, Ronex joined hands with five others to make “a sculpture with the aim of auctioning it in order to start a modern art museum. What might sound funny yet true, we ended up buying it ourselves and that sculpture has been at my studio since then. After our failed attempts, I thought if we couldn’t have a physical art museum, I could start a digital archive on Ugandan art,” he added.
When asked about his marriage and family, he says: “I am a very private person yet reveal everything in my works. If anyone wants to know about the artist, you just critically look at his or her works, the answers are always there. I am not married, and have no children but I am seeing someone.”
As to his future plans, Ronex says: “An egg doesn’t hatch until it’s ready. Art projects take time, when they are ready you will definitely know.”
Ronex says he unwinds after a hard day’s work by watching news or series mainly about history.
What others say about his works
Lilian Mary Nabulime, Uganda’s leading sculptress, describes Ronex as “a very hard working and committed artist who explores different materials and subject matters.”
She adds: “Whenever he puts up a new exhibition, there will be new materials and a variety of topics and themes, which is inspiring.”
Nabulime, who is a lecturer/sculptor at Makerere University’s Sculpture Department School of Industrial and Fine Arts, takes great pride in Ronex, who once upon a time was her student.
Umoja Art Gallery describes Ronex as “…majorly a semi-abstract multimedia painter and sculptor with a great drive for adventure and experimenting new things and hence the complexity and uniqueness of his works...”
Ruganzu Bruno Tusingwire, a Ugandan eco-artist, says pigeonholing Ronex as a contemporary artist is unfair “because those who have been lucky to see his art are amazed by the high level of experimentation and curiosity he employs to create.”