By Stephen Ssenkaaba
Nuwa Wamala-Nnyanzi is one of Uganda’s noteworthy painters. Over the years, he has mastered the use of batik to document Uganda’s varied cultural landscape.
‘Art that touches the heart’ has become the byword for his emotive and calming images that seek to explore human emotions of love, longing and celebration.
When Nuwa Wamala Nnyanzi returned to Uganda in 1992, from 12 years of exile in Kenya, there was very little for him to come back to.
At the time of his return, the country was still recovering from war and as he now recalls, art was the last thing on many people’s minds. Even then, returning to Uganda was the best decision for his family and career.
“Kenya had become increasingly unsafe for Ugandan exiles,” he said.
“Besides, I wanted to raise my children in Uganda. I also strongly felt that despite all challenges, this was the best place for me to do my art.”
It is puzzling to understand how a country where artists were mostly confi ned to their studios; where the only available national gallery was crumbling; where the national museum was on its knees; and where visual art had no known following among the general public, could have been the ideal environment for Nnyanzi to advance his career.
“It was my strong conviction that we could work together to raise the profi le of visual art and that people needed to be interested in it,” he says.
Twenty four years in Uganda
Nnyanzi marked his 24 years of art in Uganda with a high profi le group exhibition at the prestigious international Maiden Tower Festival in Baku, Azerbaijan.
The festival, held in May, brought together international painters and sculptors from different parts of the world to share their cultural experiences.
As if to stamp Uganda’s presence on the world art scene — he painted a gazelle— very much looking like the national kob—and dressed up in the national colours; black, yellow and red. It was a telling testimony to the resilience and faith of an artist, who started out selling black and white greeting cards in restaurants; and to the growth of the visual arts in Uganda.
Nnyanzi had his first art exhibition in 1980 at Goethe-Institute, Nairobi
Agnes Birungi, a Ugandan who attended the Baku exhibition, says Nnyanzi’s work opened up Uganda and its culture to many people that did not know the country.
“Nnyanzi had to explain a lot about the people and culture of Uganda,” she explains. Shirin Melikova, the exhibition coordinator, says Nnyanzi’s participation enabled viewers from different parts of the world to discover Uganda and learn about her history, customs and traditions.
“In his work we could even feel the colours of Africa, that special African style, which is always extremely attractive,” she says. “It was a big opportunity for us to learn more about Africa, its people and the many things that we have in common.”
All this would not have been possible if Nnyanzi had not taken that leap of faith to come and operate in Uganda 24 years ago. “It was a struggle to get anything going at that time”, Nnyanzi narrates, as he reminisces his bumpy artistic journey.
This journey started in a humble two-bedroom room house on Plot 39 William Street, which served as Nnyanzi’s fi rst home on his return from exile. It also served as his art studio.
With the eldest of his two children aged six years, Nnyanzi relied on his savings to support his young family while sketching ways of establishing a visual arts business. “I used to peddle my greetings cards and serigraphs in shops, supermarkets and other public places,” he recounts.
“With no ready access to colour separation facilities in Uganda and Kenya, I reproduced the black and white cards until about a year later when Gems of Africa and Sabbokai galleries in the USA and UK respectively, offered to produce the cards in colour. They sold well, but it was hard selling art in any other form.”
Nnyanzi’s first public art exhibition after his return was a joint show at the Uganda Museum in 1991. It featured seven leading visual artists: Pilkington Ssengendo, George Kyeyune, Cotilda Nakate, Ronald Wasswa Katumba, George William Kavuma and Yusuf Lwanyaga Musoke.
From 1991 through to 2000 Nnyanzi expanded his horizons, leaving his small house for the Raja Chambers on Parliament Avenue. He later set up shop at the National Theatre’s cultural village.
Within about 10 years, he had established himself as an important cultural ambassador, documenting the varied cultures of Uganda and ways of life of our people.
His style combines a range of techniques, mostly infl uenced by the Batik style in which he applies various shades of colour; manipulating light and darkness. His work depicts scenes of celebration, cultural dances as well as beautiful human forms.
One of his most celebrated pieces, The pearl of Africa , combines several things that make Uganda unique: flora, fauna, material cultures and people. As a strong Christian man grounded in his own Ganda culture; as a well- travelled man who has experienced a wide range of cultures, his art has become a powerful tool to connect communities and people across the globe.
Throughout his career, Nnyanzi has met presidents, royalty and ordinary people alike. He has most importantly shared his talent, helping to mentor many young and old visual artists as well as promoting their work.
His work is displayed all over the world and most prominently at South Africa’s Transkei University where it forms a prominent mural masterpiece on the University’s administration block. He has also served in different roles, as the Internal Affairs minister in Buganda kingdom; as chair of the Uganda Artists’ Association; and as a keen commentator on the arts.
Today Nnyanzi continues to travel the world, inspiring artists and advocating friendly and supportive national policies for the arts in government.
Nuwa Wamala -Nnyanzi was born on Tuesday, October 28, 1952 to Henry Wilberforce Wamala, a World War II veteran and senior laboratory assistant and Erina Atwooki Bachayaya, a nurse.
He grew up in different parts of Uganda- from Masindi, Moyo, Hoima, Mityana and Kampala as his parents kept moving. He
attended Kyema Primary School in Masindi, Duhaga Integrated Primary School in Hoima, Mityana Secondary School Namukozi, St. Francis Tutorial College Kampala and the Institute of Computer in Nairobi, Kenya.
In 2005, he earned a master’s degree in art (design professional practice) from Middlesex University in the UK. Before becoming an active visual artist, Nnyanzi served in the Uganda armed forces under President Idi Amin.
He worked in Moroto and at Mbuya military general hospital as a deputy in charge of medical stores. He also served as personnel manager at Victoria Nile bus services in Jinja. It is from here that he fled into exile in Nairobi in 1978. His career as an artist started here. Nnyanzi mainly works in acrylic, oil and water colours.
Working in Kenya
Nnyanzi was introduced to batik in Kenya, by a TV graphics designer friend. One day he suggested that we go into batiks,”
Nnyanzi recalls. “We could not find anybody to teach us so we bought books and read about the art, we also studied what others had done to get a hang of things.”
He says it was a diffi cult skill to master, which the two friends thought they could improve by visiting art galleries. “When the Asian gallery owners realised we were not buying art, they chased us out of their galleries,” he says. The duo resorted to craft their own style. But when the Asian curator looked at their work, he was not
impressed. He chased them.
“We asked him to just display our pieces; we would check later if any of them had sold,” Nnyanzi says. No sooner had they left, than the curator called them back. Their pieces had sold for $5.
He paid them Ksh5 per piece for their work. That year Nyanzi sold a Map of Africa in batik, probably his fi rst big sale to Rev. Keefa Sempangi at Ksh350.
His best-selling batik has been one he designed for the World Health Organisation report of 1999. He earned $3,000 from the piece.
He has, however, earned more from other genres of art such as a mural he did in South Africa and earned $10,000 He is quick to advise young artists that very few people do fi ne art and live on it alone because art income is seasonal.
Anyone choosing this path must have financial discipline. “Money from art should be spent like you will never sell again,” he says adding, “Living on art requires patience and dedication.