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Musango’s Vernacular art

A dichotomy of emotions and indigenous elements on canvas  

Two naked human figures stand next to each other with the nubile female figure on the left having her head bowed. She seems to be immensed in the act of pouring a milky substance mixed with red from a pot that is covering her genitals. The other figure, which combines masculine and feminine features, with head raised upwards and eyes closed as if enjoying the moment or in a meditative mood, feeds on what resembles grapes. The left hand of this figure dangles a small branch with the three grapes.

The painting (Untitled, Undated) seems to be a visual representation of the biblical story of creation with its protagonists Adam and Eve. Unlike the depiction of Adam and Eve as white figures, the artist portrays them as black. Additionally, the pot is figuratively used as a vessel of life instead of the woman’s genitals.

Pots are used to carry and store water or as a cooking utensil in many traditional African settings. But underlying such figurative representation is the subject of emotion that runs through the painting.

The artist, Francis Xavier Musango Gwatamu, primarily aims to evoke emotions in the viewer through the choice of his palette and deliberate emphasis on the body poses of the subjects. He accentuates particular features on the human figures like the piercing breasts and lean muscles to create an emotion of sensual excitement and attraction. The flowing milky substance mixed with red evokes a mood of pain and agony in the painting. It also stimulates confusion in the mind of the viewer: why is this substance flowing endlessly and what does it represent within the context of painting? Similarly, this technical dexterity of combining studio competence and emotions in the artwork is witnessed in a portrait (Untitled, 1968) by the same artist. The painting is arguably of a modern middle aged woman whose social status can be confirmed by the long flowing hair that rests on her back and the heavy makeup she is wearing. The woman who seemingly is of high social class observed by the arrogant smile on her face,  has her red full lips open exposing a set of white teeth. The caricature like drawing probably denotes the image of a modern woman who perceives beauty through wearing cosmetics and long hair. As such, the painting seems to satirize the perception of a beautiful woman as understood by the educated African man and woman.

Musango painted more from memory rather than through observation. This approach inspired him to be uniquely creative in his paintings. The notion of infusing emotion in his art therefore was realized effortlessly because of the connection he had between himself and subject matter. The artist related with the subject matter based on his immediate surroundings and past or present experience. On the account of the painting with two human figures, Musango could have been inspired to interrogate the subject of Creation because of his strong Catholic background. Musango grew up in staunch catholic family and became a cleric of the Brothers of Christian Instruction at about the same time he created the painting. Conversely, the idea of contextualizing the theme of the painting into a local context was largely influenced by his art training at Makerere art school. Mrs. Trowell his mentor emphasized setting biblical themes in the local context to foster indigenous appreciation of art and also as a tool for evangelization. On the other hand, the caricature like portrait of the woman suggests the artist’s perception of beauty. Based on his strong Christian background, Musango understood true beauty to reside from inside and not outside. By satirising the notion of physical beauty represented by the overt make up on the woman, the artist is communicating his disregard and disdain for the commonplaced interpretation of beauty.

Musango’s art was always filled with emotions because he felt that art was a vehicle through which life could be understood. If man spends the greater part of his existence trying to find the meaning of life, he certainly needs a tool that can satisfy this quest.  As such, art is that tool that can adequately help him to realise such a goal.

In Musango’s art he provides that avenue through the myriad of emotions he creates on canvas.  The visual representation of happiness, joy and pain in the artist’s work, makes us suddenly aware of what lies beneath us as human beings. We are not made out of an empty void, but of a greater spirit that hungers for freedom and expression. Musango’s paintings created that figurative empowerment by touching our hearts and made us rethink our existence.


Francis Xavier Musango Gwatamu was professor of Fine art at Makerere University and later Nkumba University. His illustrious art career as both artist and educationist spanned over a period of 40 years and he taught and mentored many established artists today including General Elly Tumwine and Joseph Ntensibe. His paintings have featured severally in the East African Modern and Contemporary art exhibition.

One comment

  1. Great piece. Thanks so much.

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