Talking walls: Abaran gives harmony in paint, branding

Stephen Abaran paints a wall with a company brand. Photos / Jacobs Odongo Seaman

What you need to know:

  • Painting and art branding as a fully-fledged profession is an idea many would still find alien in an economy whose education system has for more than a century ingrained a white collar job mentality. However, this has been an exception for Stephen Abaran, writes Jacobs Odongo Seaman. 

When a client commissioned and paid Shs8m for branding works, Stephen Abaran could have sworn he had “arrived properly.”

For a young man who had been eking out a living from painting the famous “Tutunda soda, amaata, obusheera, amatunda…” signage for shops in Banda and Kireka, this surely was a windfall.

A decade since the humble beginning, Abaran has not only perfected his craft and made hundreds of walls talk in harmony with coatings of paint, but also got a wife while on the job.

“I met Becky in 2009 at the “small gate” in Nakawa as I was branding Coca-Cola kiosks. I was in all sorts of dirt giving the paint of life to the kiosks,” Abaran recalls.

The two had gone to the same high school in Jinja, but parted ways for over a decade when art got him closer to Makerere University Business School. Rebecca Amongin was a student at the Nakawa-based campus.

“She recognised me in my dirty overalls and I was surprised she could still remember me. We exchanged contacts and kept in touch,” Abaran says.

In December 2019, Amongin took on the name Abaran after the couple sealed their union that had been “brokered by art.” And it is the same ‘broker’ that keeps Abaran’s family above the murky waters of life.

From living off arts to getting a wife on the art side of life, there is poetic pleasantry that Abaran’s life has been too closely intertwined with art in its many forms. He paints houses, brands kindergarten walls in alphabets and Disney characters, and is big on corporate product promos.

And when he is not out and about doing these, he will either be painting art on canvas in his in-house studio in Kyaliwajjala in Kira Municipality, Wakiso District, or rumbling on the road in the form of a logo on a truck—his handiwork.

Weaned on art

In 1993, a young Abaran transferred to a new school in Kakira, Jinja District. He was almost scrawny, but oozed life and art. You didn’t need to stare into a crystal ball to tell that Abaran would be an artist. If he was not mimicking Shaba Ranks, he would be ensconced in a corner of the classroom sketching John Rambo or Jean Claude van Damme in his Flamingo or Mwalimu exercise book.

Before the millennials touched life, table cloths defined living rooms. Most mothers did not only knit them for the family coffee sets but also for sale. Children—boys and girls alike—would often learn the craft from households.

“My mama (RIP) used to make table cloths and I used to trace for her the flower patterns, design the clothes and later do embroidery,” Abaran remembers, adding, “Little did I know I was developing my design skill, especially drawing.”

That thin boy would grow a Salva Kiir-esque beard that compensated for his forever athletic figure while competing with kinky dreadlocks. When he ventured into South Sudan, the Itesot in him was swallowed up by Dinka sensibilities as the thick beard made him look much the part for the five years he beat it out there from 2013.

It is in Juba that Abaran earned one of his biggest pay cheques ever yet—a single branding project. And there were two.

“I had a deal with Save the Children and also ADRA [Adventist Development and Relief Agency]. It was designing signposts and erecting them in several villages outside Juba. Some good dollars I got,” he says.

That’s the typical life of an artist involved in a field like Abaran’s. One time, an NGO or even an individual is giving you the value for your talent in cash for work done, and then you’re confronted by the flip side of it all.

Abaran recalls being contracted to brand three fuel stations in the South Sudan capital. Lamentably, for all his efforts, he earned enough excuses to last him a lifetime in form of payment. He had to give up chasing after the money.

But unscrupulousness is human nature. Even in Kampala, there have been many frustrating moments such as when he was subcontracted to do branding for MTN.

The problem here is that big corporations like MTN do not give upstarts such big deals. They usually contract well-established branding companies, who then sub-contract people like Abaran to do the actual job.

“I learnt to stay away from such deals because you can be exploited to the bone marrow. I only do jobs when I am getting the deal directly from the source; not as a third party,” he says, recalling how it took him eight months to get his cut that also came in installments.

But human exploitation aside, Abaran’s is a job of many shocks. None is bigger than while he was engaged in Airtel branding on Mityana Road in Bulenga in 2012. Abaran and his team met the landlord of a building they had earmarked for the branding. After he had accepted that “his house” can be given the red coating and the job had been executed to completion, an elderly woman appeared demanding answers.

“She demanded to know who had given us permission to paint her building,” Abaran recalls. “She told us how she didn’t want red on her building. We had to repaint it to its original colour.”

And if any artist engaged in outdoor branding thought human nature was that bad, they only had to meet the real nature just once. Like a sudden rainfall.

Stephen Abaran and wife Rebecca 

“Rain is the biggest enemy of walls or any outdoor branding,” Abaran says.

A gainful joy

Painting and art branding as a fully-fledged profession is an idea many would still find alien in an economy whose education system has for more than a century ingrained a white collar job mentality. The idea that you can study up to a university and walk out smiling in a flapping graduation gown to go climb ladders with a pail of paint and brush remains light years ahead for many.

But those who have submitted to their talents and taken up industrial art and design as a course are deeply aware of what their calling is.

Abaran studied Textile and Fabric Design at Kyambogo University and while he goes around branding T-shirts with messages such as “I’m Vinci Coffee, come beat me”, deals that involve going out for branding to all corners of the country keep calling.

“Just when I had left campus in 2007,”Abaran says of his experience as an employee after he had been taken in as an Internet cafe administrator around Arua Park in downtown Kampala. “I didn’t even last for the second month. The salary was a measly Shs80,000. Can you imagine? You had to wake up early, and work until late … I just had to disappear, never to appear again,” says the man who treats formal employment as a burden.

The Covid-19 pandemic that upended the global order for two years was devastating, but it helped Abaran find his footing. Well, in a different way. He had been sharing an office space at Nasser Road in Kampala with four others. With lockdown and stay-at-home orders, he reinvented by turning a room in his home into a studio.

Abaran admits setting up a fully-fledged studio and employing artists is a dream he has procrastinated on for years now as he waited to penetrate a government deal.

“I am getting there. It’s just a matter of time,” he says, revealing his envisaged ‘Maridadi Media’ is already a blueprint.

“I want this to be a one-stop service provider for all kinds of advertisement needs—designing, printing and branding all in one place. Of course, this business is capital-intensive because of the humongous prices of the machinery. Digital printing machines are extremely expensive. But we shall get there. Once we get one big machine, it will produce another,” he says.

‘Identify your passion’

The job market is shrinking to absurd smithereens. While the go-getter and get-your-hands-dirty attitudes of the likes of Abaran would inspire many who are willing to dust themselves off and do something, the painter himself believes identifying one’s innate passion should drive the job mentality.

Abaran says not everyone studied and graduated in what they are passionate about and warns that employment limits personal growth.

“You can’t think beyond a monthly salary when in formal employment but even if you are there and you are doing what you love, you get to know of many other opportunities even in things you didn’t imagine could make you money,” he says.

After Graduating from Kyambogo University in 2007, Abaran began by writing in people’s shops around Kamuli Road in Kireka, Wakiso District, where he lived and within the Banda area.

“We could write those things… ‘soda, water, butunda, obusheera’ and stuff,” he recalls.

Occasionally, too, he would get a deal to brand kiosks and this placed him in a place where a breakthrough was always lurking. It came while working for a man whose company was branding jobs for Regal Paints in 2008.

The sales manager at Regal Paints, Ronald Marwora, was impressed by the lanky young man engrossed in branding their product promos. The Kenyan contracted Abaran directly soon after.

“He gave me a deal where I earned my first one million, although it disappeared within a week,” he remembers with a chuckle.

A year later, it was again a Kenyan calling. Bathed in paint as he branded Regal Paints in Kireka, the Kenyan stopped and engaged Abaran. The project was branding Coca-Cola kiosks and starting the very next day.

“We branded lots of these all over town to Nakawa. In 2013, Ronald took me to brand Sadolin (now Plascon) in Juba. And that is how I saw opportunities to do my own stuff and run my own show, leading me to branding deals with NGOs like Save the Children, Oxfam, ADRA and UNDP and many others.”

Good enough, Abaran appears cut for the job, especially his physical shape. Painting is physically demanding and requires a lot of bending, kneeling, reaching, and climbing.

And then on the job proper, this is one where a contractor often finds themselves investing in what they are producing before they are paid upon delivery. Take branding signposts, for instance. For more clients, you take the contract and go and execute. They see the result and pay.

“It means you have to design, weld, brand the signposts and erect them,” he says.

A good contract that sees a down payment could facilitate much of the needed investment in deliverables. This takes good negotiation skills lest one spends all their labour and other attendant costs on a contract.

For those with established companies, cracking the needs can be easier. For Abaran and others like him, it is a touch and go. But fulfilling, nevertheless.

What they say...

Rebecca Abaran, wife.

Art brings life to Stephen, it lights up in his eyes. He does his work with rare passion and patience; he says art is not for hurrying. He treats his works with importance, no matter the size and money he’s earning. The downside of his work is that sometimes it takes him away from home for long.

Adonias Ocom, visual artist.

Abaran is very versatile as his skills cross from fine arts to graphics. Being versatile helps a lot in creativity. It’s hard to separate his character as an artist and as a person because his character is always seen in his works. Abaran is very keen to detail and very informed about different aspects of life.

Bruce Muhame, manager, BrightLife.

Steve is a very dedicated branding guy, always understands the concept, always eager to contribute to the vision of our company and his work always exceeds what we really pay him for. You will not be shocked to find him at midnight alone in a foreign town doing his work.

Robert Caesar Dramani, art teacher.

Right from his days as a student at Kakira, Abaran valued his appearance. He was always neat. Unlike most artists, he was vocal with a good command of the English language. While at Kyambogo, he never lost touch with us and he would bring his pieces for us to critique.

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