Ugandan finds weight in paper

Ugandan artist Benon Lutaaya moved into paper collage because of poverty. Broke and unable to afford paint, Lutaaya turned to what was readily available: the paper scavenged from Kampala’s streets by ­Ugandan homeless children whom he had befriended.

The artist, born in 1985, was raised by his grandmother “up country” in a serene, rustic landscape “where there were no galleries, professional artists and museums”. Given this background, it is a personal triumph that he will be at this year’s Jo’burg Art Fair as part of the Bag Factory crew.

Lutaaya took up art in high school. Around this time, he was also reading self-help books and acquainting himself with the visual arts and its history. The more he read these books, the more he realised that only through art could he find his way out of the laid-back, quotidian equatorial life that was reflected everywhere he looked.  

After roughing it in the streets of Kampala, Lutaaya applied to study at the Kyambogo University in Kampala, where he studied art and design coupled with education.

Getting into the university was a competitive exercise in which hundreds of thousands of Ugandans tried to outmuscle each another for 2 000 state scholarships.

Already weighted against people in the humanities (75% of the scholarships went to students in the ­sciences), Lutaaya was one of the few students who made the final cut. 

He enters competitions compulsively: for instance, he was one of four finalists for the BBC World ­Service MyWorld documentary global competition in 2010 and this year he was the winner of the Lovell Gallery juried artists competition in Cape Town. He has also been one of the guest artists participating in the Thupelo international artists workshop in Johannesburg and a recipient of an Ithuba Arts Fund grant.  

All this success had its genesis in Lutaaya’s stint as international resident artist at the Bag Factory, the award that allowed him to escape the dull Ugandan visual-art landscape.

Upon graduation from university, he refused to take the teaching option that some in his class opted for. “When I graduated, I had become convinced that I wanted to be an artist. Art gives me satisfaction — that’s why you will always find me in my studio.”  

He never thought of Uganda — where art is confused with craft — as a viable option, so his ears were attuned to ripples on the international circuit. When the Bag Factory, now a vibrant space under the leadership of Sarah Hallatt, called for applications for three-month residences, Lutaaya quickly applied.

His collaboration with children,  starting with Uganda’s street children, continues in South Africa.

Earlier this year he was part of the Anstey’s Kids Project, a collaborative undertaking in which professional artists (including Lehlogonolo Mashaba, Anthea Moys and Donna Kukama) worked with inner-city children. He worked with a 12-year-old girl, Felicia Makoba, whose time spent collaborating with Lutaaya was so beneficial that she has been commissioned by private collectors to produce work with him. The three works the two produced together were sold for R15 000, all of which went to Makoba. Lutaaya has also worked with the Johannesburg ­collective Assemblage.

As a person whose overriding concern is technique, not concept, he is happiest when he is “attacking my canvas”, experimenting to see what comes out and not caring about the final product.

His colourful figurative works — sometimes a mélange of the mediums of painting and collage — are stranded in that wasteland that exists between abstraction and realism. Aesthestically pleasing and featuring the ordinary, there is little of the angst of exile or the brutality of war about which artists who come from societies that have emerged from conflict obsess. Lutaaya said he recreated what he thought was the “truth”, not just what he saw. “I don’t really care about reality,” he said.  

But if Lutaaya appears nonchalant about the final product, collectors (including accomplished artist Sam Nhlengethwa) are not, streaming to his studio to buy his work, some of which can cost as much as R60 000.

Benon Lutaaya is represented by the Bag Factory Artist’s Studios at this year’s FNB Jo’burg Art Fair. The exhibition is the official show of the Arts Alive festival in association with the Gauteng provincial government

Percy Zvomuya
Percy Zvomuya is a writer and critic who has written for numerous publications, including Chimurenga, the Mail & Guardian, Moto in Zimbabwe, the Sunday Times and the London Review of Books blog. He is a co-founder of Johannesburg-based writing collective The Con and, in 2014, was one of the judges for the Caine Prize for African Writing.

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