Donald Wasswa: visual art's 'weird animal'

By Stephen Ssenkaaba

Added 20th January 2017 12:48 PM

While many painters, sculptors, illustrators and photographers have done and will continue doing great work this year, one artist, we think- will be particularly interesting.

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One of Wasswad’s art works showcased during the Zikunta exhibition last year

While many painters, sculptors, illustrators and photographers have done and will continue doing great work this year, one artist, we think- will be particularly interesting.

In the BEAT Magazine today, The New Vision’s entertainment pullout focuses on musicians who rocked 2016 and are likely to pull crowds this year. What about visual artists?

While many painters, sculptors, illustrators and photographers have done and will continue doing great work this year, one artist, we think- will be particularly interesting.

Wasswa Donald August not only won a prestigious continental visual arts award last year, his versatile approach portends an interesting trajectory that will be worth following.

 asswa receiving his arclays anks telier art competition award in outh frica last year Wasswa receiving his Barclays Banks L'Atelier art competition award in South Africa last year


Slowly but surely. We see art breaking out of the conventional mold. So now we know that any place, not just the art gallery, can be a good place to showcase good art. That any time can be a good time to host an exhibition.

Ask Donald Wasswa August (Wasswad) whose art exhibition entitled “Zikunta” happened a couple of months ago at the Underground in the Nakumatt Oasis Mall basement.

It started at an unusual hour: 11:59 pm. It showcased an interesting combination of installation work, sculptures and drawings.  A man perhaps best known for his colourful patterns, nature-inspired themes and functional art thus showed how far he can stretch his creativity. It was impressive.


Zikunta brought to life the divisive subject of immigration in an interesting way that utilized people and space to challenge prevalent notions on human movement. Violet Lynus Nantume, the exhibition’s co-curator said:  “Zikunta interrogates effects of movement of people, meeting and coexistence of diverse cultures: religions, patterns of thinking and the way they communicate. 

 asswads winning work emmali yamuswangali Wasswad’s winning work: emmali yamuswangali

The opening time of performance and installation, she added “implicates how time becomes secondary in particular situations or crisis.”

It was a timely subject in an era where human movement has become a matter of human, political and even economic survival. For an artist who thinks of his work as boundless, Wasswad’s handling of a subject on boundless movement resonates well with the times and his own journey of artistic self-discovery.

The Barclays Award

Before that, Wasswad won third place at the prestigious Barclays Banks L'Atelier art competition- a highly acclaimed annual art contest for young African visual artists aged 21-35. The competition sought out artists whose work “stirs up human imagination, passion and emotion while reflecting a contemporary theme with strong aesthetic qualities.  Wasswad received a Merit Award for his serialized entry. He beat over 30 contestants to the title.

In the competition, Wasswad presented three artworks.

His winning entry was a dramatic installation entitled “Maali ya Muswangali”. It  showcased two perforated sacks packed with rubbish, telling the story of Muswangali, a peasant farmer who travels to the capital city Kampala for the first time to sell his maize. On arrival, his two sacks of maize disappear. He later finds them, punctured and stuffed with rubbish.  All the maize had been stolen and apparently sold in Mombasa.  It is a simple piece of work that dramatizes loss, while tickling our sense of the valuable. To this day, Wasswad says, “Muswangali is still looking for his maize.”

 is second work maka ga wansolo His second work Amaka ga wansolo

In his second work, Wasswad presents “Amaka gawansolo”- an aluminium -plated wire mesh cage with a circular round opening at the top and metallic tins inside it. Picked from his latest “Most weird animal” collection, it is a haunting exploration of life’s constraints and possibilities (the little escape routes it presents us to wiggle out of tight situations).

His third piece is a collection of bones piled into one huge glass jar. Wasswa offers an interesting take on this piece: “The glass jar represents human flesh with all its frailties, failures and fragility. The bones inside the jar represent the heart and mind- strong, sometimes willful.” It is Wasswa’s contention in this piece that “our true strength as human being comes from within.”

Turning point

This critically acclaimed work marked an important turning point not only in Wasswad’s fortunes (he won a two months art residency on Sylt Island in Germany) but also in his style. From exploring wild animals (especially elephants) in his elephania series to human life through what he calls the “Weird animal” series.

“The concept of “the most weird animal” explores human behavior, motivations, fears and desires. It is my attempt to understand my place in life as a human being,” he explains.

  is third work showing bones His third work; showing bones

Despite his widely experimental approach- (he produces wood carvings, dimensional sculptures as well as paintings), Wasswad’s style remains endearingly simple- comprising painfully childlike caricatures, miniature artifacts as well as colourful paintings with varying patterns and shapes.

His face masks have an old African traditional character to them: wide shapely eyes, long thin noses and tiny dots for lips. He uses different material- from discarded pieces of wood to leather offcuts, wire mesh and cloth conjuring a rich and relatable repertoire. His work is inspired by life especially political and social themes. Environment- including his own surroundings and natural habitats play a key part in his style.

A long way

It has been a long, winding journey for a man who, due to lack of tuition fees- abandoned his art and design degree at a reputable university in Kyambogo. This only encouraged him to work harder. Kyambogo however, opened his eyes to serious visual arts practice. “It is here, that I learnt why and how art comes about,” he says. From school, he went into art practice, painting, carving and collaborating with other artists. He later founded Artpunch studio in Buziga where he continues to practice and train other artistes.

Wasswad fact file:

  • Born in 1984, the third born of five children
  • His father was an accountant, his mother a secretary
  • Spent his childhood in Nakivubo, Kyebando and Bweyogerere
  • Attended Bat Valley primary school, Bweyogerere central primary school and Nkumba secondary school.
  • Wasswad’s first inspiration was his father who used to sketch drawings during his free time.
  • He started drawing to mimic his dad’s sketches. His mum provided telex rolls on which he sketched.
  • When his teachers discovered Wasswad’s talent, they asked him to sketch classroom charts.
  • At Kyambogo University, some of his lecturers did not warm up to his unconventional style. They called him a rebel.
  • He lives in Buziga and is currently working on a new project entitled 'T.M.W.A.' in which he explores human environments.

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