/ 26 November 2015

Benon Lutaaya: the self-made artist breaking traditions

A work by Benon Lutaaya.
Managing director of Tokyo Medical University, Tetsuo Yukioka and vice-president Keisuke Miyazawa bow as they attend a press conference where they apologised. (Jiji Press/AFP/Getty Images)

‘For artists who stand out due to the artistic excellence of their work; their experience in the industry and the impact this has had on their community and the commerce of the creative industry as a whole.’ Thus reads a statement from one of the recent awards to which Ugandan artist Benon Lutaaya emerged winner.

Lutaaya was declared winner of this year’s Arts and Culture Trust Awards under the visual arts category.

 With countless awards under his belt; the Face of African Youth Foundation 2015 from the ADLER Entrepreneurship Awards in Frankfurt -Germany, 2016 recipient of the European-based international artist residency award by the Southern African Foundation for Contemporary Art, among others, Lutaaya is an artist on the rise.

His star seems to shine so bright not just for his own visibility but to illuminate the community around him and has so far donated up to R400000 to charities and other noble causes in South Africa for the last five years.

“Right now I want to be known for the positive impact to human life. But whether I am a good artist or not, time will tell when I consistently deliver on my ambitions,” he says from his Johannesburg studios.

When he arrived from Uganda in 2011 on an international artist residency award by the Bag Factory Artists’ Studios in Johannesburg, he only had a dream. The future seemed so unclear and the industry had a clearly demarcated culture.

 “South Africans buy South African, artists must sign up with an established museum and critics determine who you are or you will never survive in this industry”, was all he got from his peers in the industry.

“It was not going to be easy for me to break through this strong culture but I had to find a way,” he remembers.

The Kyambogo University graduate armed himself with a bachelor’s degree of fine arts and had to put his mind to a thrifty creative drive, not only to face a future so uncertain but to escape the thought of the so many artists in Uganda that struggle to make ends meet.

“Being penniless with a big name in the industry is not what I was striving for. My work had to be socially impactful and yet personally satiating, financially and psychologically.”

Mindful of the exclusive nature of art, he knew that the only way for a possible breakthrough in an already established South African art industry was to present something unique. The potential clients had to find his work relatable.

“Art is for a given class in society who have the money to spend. But these too can live without it. Your work should be able to add a special sense of value to their lives. So, I had to self-educate about the world around me,” he said.

Built on social adversity, identity and other life notions, his work is an in-depth tale of the life of an African child, which unlike popular perceptions, is rather one of  hope, courage and bravery.

“My hard experience growing up made me strong to face life in Johannesburg when I didn’t have food to eat or a house to call my home and when I went out to pick waste paper on the streets to use as collage, ” he says.

The waste paper material that he uses as medium in his work is an illustration of the vulnerability of human life.

“It’s so amazing how life transitions in minutes or even seconds. This waste paper is picked from trash but thinking about it ,  the art piece its used to create end up in some beautiful home where its treasured and vice versa. That’s the wonder of life,” he says.

But life, just as the pieces of paper creatively patched together, is a collection of different experiences that finally make us who we become. It is an approach into his own personal experiences and identity in the world but also a reflection of how the latter has been formed, shaped and manipulated but like the waste paper, torn and shredded and later glued as part of the creative process.

Through this technique, Lutaaya says he is able to share his views on the various fundamental questions about the complexity of human conditions today such as immigration, political instability and poverty. 

Lutaaya’s work is a combination of both abstract and realistic elements manipulating the different media such as acrylics, collage or a fusion of both to allow for infinite searching, reconfiguration, and rediscovery.

Building a personal relationship with his clients has played a major role in catapulting his brand price from just about R500 a piece back in 2012 to R25,000 onwards per piece. His highest sold art work so far was worth R200,000.

“I had to teach my self how to communicate and build lasting relationships with people, a trait I previously lacked. This has become a core component in my daily tasks”.

“I know exactly where all the art pieces I have sold over the last five years are because every now and then, I receive invitations from my clients who have since become personal friends,” he adds.

Looking back at the four-hour journey from Uganda to Johannesburg that instead took him a week due to lack of money for an air ticket, Lutaaya has since been moulded into one with resilience and only sees opportunities amid challenges.