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Art legend Katarikawe dead at 80

His intuitive style on canvas earned him global fame as Africa’s Chagall

Kampala, Uganda | DOMINIC MUWANGUZI | Jak Katarikawe, one of Uganda’s most celebrated artists who died recently at age 80, was in the early 1960s an ordinary, illiterate chauffeur of a Makerere University Kampala don; David Cook. But he had an undiscovered talent in art, possibly inherited from his mother who was a sought after decorator of huts in their rural village of Kigezi- Kabale in the South-western part of Uganda.

Young Katarikawe often helped his mother paint the huts of the locals, an occupation that to this day remains central to the Bakiga culture. So when he started work as a chauffeur, Cook must have somehow caught a glimpse of Katarikawe’s art.

An excited Cook, who was from the literature department, introduced him to the Makerere University School of Fine Arts where Katarikawe met great artists like Sam Ntiro, Theresa Musoke, and Eli Kyeyune. All had one mission; to teach Katarikawe art. But, since he could not read or write English, Katarikawe failed to learn and soon jumped out of the claws of formal art training to hone his own style.

He mixed his knowledge in traditional indigenous art practices and motifs with the modern bits and pieces he had picked from Makerere to create such visually compelling artworks that it was impossible to dismiss him as artist despite his handicaps.

He also had many stories to tell. So when he picked up art, he told them through his work. In fact, he told several stories for each of his works. So when you asked him what message underlies his painting today he would tell you this story and tomorrow a different one altogether. That is how fascinating he was as an individual and this trait shows up in his paintings which are emotively and intuitively powerful.

He developed a distinct blending of traditional motifs with modernist styles of paintings. He appears to have caught the minimalist bug and often concentrated on a particular aspect of his subject to inspire a specific emotion within the viewer. Mainly, he used the drawings of the long-horned Nkole bull with a wide-eyed stare that over time became associated with his persona as an ambitious and resolute individual who was determined to become a successful artist. It explains how this former chauffeur of a university don, without any formal training, became an art master.

He extravagantly applied primary colours and secondary colours on the same canvas. Needless to say, his technique was purely defiant of the classroom approach, especially in picture construction and colour scheme. In the end, his drawings looked childlike or amateur doodlings with no care of proportionality.

Yet it appears, the more amateurish his style was, the more it earned him admirers. Soon he was being labeled a `legend’ within the local and international art community. At his homecoming show at Makerere Art Gallery in 2005, Katarikawe sold out his show with collectors scrambling for artworks that went for more than US$ 20,000 per painting. Until recently, Katarikawe was the most expensive artist from the East Africa region.

One of his friends, world renowned batik artist Nuwa Nyanzi told The Independent that Katarikawe was so fixated on perfection that he often remained quiet when interacting with English speakers – because he did not want to be caught making a mistake. But he freely communicated with the Germans and other European nationals since their knowledge of the language is not so good, Nyanzi said.

Nonetheless, Katarikawe had a universal communication on canvas whose eloquence no handicap could deter. His work has often been described as “intuitive with an ease in communication”. In fact such spontaneity has earned him a label of “Africa’s Chagall”. Marc Chagall is renowned for his long dreamy compositions on canvas that transported the viewer to a reverie world.

The artist also enthused that he created from the heart and not head, and therefore his paintings were a manifestation of love. From a critical perspective, Katarikawe’s paintings portray a fantasy world where both human and animals live side by side in harmony.

Jak Katarikawe died aged 80 years and his work in East Africa can be found at Watatu Gallery in Nairobi and in a Museum of African Art in Germany.

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