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Inspiration from a master

 Fabian Mpagi’s legacy lives on through Waddimba

Whether he recognized it as such or not, when President Yoweri Museveni officiated at an exhibition of contemporary Ugandan art in Vienna, Austria in 1992, he launched the re-entry of the nation onto the global art market.The two Ugandan artists exhibiting were Geoffrey Mukasa and Fabian Mpagi, writes Nathan Kiwere.

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In his doctoral thesis, Angelo Kakande, a lecturer at the Margaret Trowell School of Industrial and Fine Arts, recalls that the President made the following remarks: “Art cannot flourish in a situation plagued with terror and human indifference. Peace and security has returned to our country. We have gone a long way to encourage the revival of arts. The fine works exhibited are a vivid testimony that art has come to life again in Uganda. Certainly, both the public and the critics will recognise that Uganda has taken up her place in the world of modern art. It is an opportune moment for us to portray through these paintings a promising new picture of the new Uganda.”

That exhibition, Kakande argues, sparked a revival of contemporary art culture in Uganda that had gone into limbo in the mid-1970s following the rough political situation then. Sadly, the two artists never got to see the fruits of their work as Mpagi died about a decade later followed by Mukasa.

Fabian Mpagi’s legacy remains through some apprentices that he inspired. One of them is Edward Waddimba. From 1998 till his mentor’s eventual demise in 2001, Waddimba lurked in the shadow of Fabian Mpagi who honed his infantile skills from almost nothing.

He learnt his trade in painting, sculpture, and multimedia and even worked as an assistant art director in Mpagi’s film productions. Today Waddimba has carved his own path and established himself as one of the most prolific artists on the local scene. The ingenuity manifest in his work is reminiscent of the creative milk he suckled from Mpagi’s breast.

He has taken it a notch higher by inventing new materials that he uses in his sculpture productions. In this method, he mixes saw dust with car auto filler to come up with a synthetic medium that resembles wood. The medium hardens so fast and it is water-tight. He finishes the same with auto paint that renders a metallic surface luster.

One such piece is a portrait of a nubile woman titled `Yes No Yes Yes No’, rendered in high relief. A typical African belle, the topless woman coyly looks away as she exposes her sensuous bust. Her nudity is, however , well balanced with elaborate embellishment of her headgear and hair style that is common with urban women of high society.

The sleek ebony finish gives her body the complete African nature. Waddimba is also heavily influenced by African masks particularly from West Africa. He has sculpted several versions of those from Mali, Congo and Nigerian while in some cases he attaches them to a bust. In his version of `Thinking Man’, he portrays a male figurine seemingly lost in thought. With its head resting on the right hand, with the eyes, nose and mouth of its mask-like face reduced to figurative shapes.

The artist also has a repertoire of paintings whose style is analogous to Fabian Mpagi’s both in structure and inspiration. Because of his imagination and aesthetic showbiz, Waddimba is one of the leading festival artists that dominate the annual KCCA carnival as companies fall over each other to secure his touch on their floats.

Through Waddimba, as President Museveni rightly predicted nearly a quarter of a century ago, art has come to life in Uganda.

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