Henry Mzili Mujunga

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Henry Mzili Mujunga. Photo by Petra Behnsen

1. How did you go about becoming an artist?

 

Well, I have always had interest in drawing. When I was a little boy, I used to have this obsession with tracing over my shadow with a piece of charcoal. I remember also squatting in the mud under the scotching sun molding tiny bricks with a match box to make tiny houses with streets and all. I also used to make elaborate Honda civic cars from wire. In the early 80s when I was in primary school, I had a friend with whom we would sneak into the local cinema to watch Bruce Lee movies. After which we would make numerous pencil drawings of men in white kung fu suits doing the flying kick!  When I got to secondary school I was mainly interested in designing skyscrapers. In fact I though I would be an architect one day!

Well, like it turned out I was always doing well in the art room and by the time I sat for my A levels, I was one of the few students who new for sure what they were going to do at the university!

Back to the question as to why I decided to become an artist. I guess I was born one, but if you are asking as to when I consciously took on the profession, I would say that it was more of a Saul to Paul affair! You see, after getting my Bachelors in fine arts degree, I resorted to shoving for a living as a bouncer for an events organizing company in Kampala. They used to organize shows for international musicians performing in Kampala. Quite often we were not paid for our services as bouncers, so we would skim off some cream at the entrance by reselling tickets. This way I would support my rather extravagant life style.  It so happened that while I was at it one day, the boss got wind of my dishonesty and ordered a couple of police officers to arrest me. While I was in the small cell awaiting my fate, it suddenly occurred to me that I was in the wrong place at the wrong time. Here I was a guy trained to make beautiful artwork, locked up in a cell for doing a job of a gateman poorly!

I talked (rather bribed) my way out of police custody and have never looked back since.

2.   Who helped you along the way? How?

What? Who what? I have helped many along the way! I am grateful to my art professors Ssengendo and Nnaggenda for introducing me to the elements and practice of art. To Maria Fischer and Daudi Karungi, who supported through their galleries.

Afriart Gallery

Daudi Karungi’s Afriart Gallery, Kampala, Uganda

 

3.   What are you working on at the moment?

I am actively involved in the holistic development of Ugandan art. I have been working with Kampala arts trust (KART) and Start journal. I am actively involved in the programs of the pan African circle of artists (PACA) where discussion, exposure (through tours of Africa) and publishing are our major pursuit. Currently I am doing installations using found objects of significant historical value such as my hair, cow’s teeth and bits of plastic. I guess in a way I am trying to catalogue a decaying civilization!

Buyonjo Balls Participatory Project. Recyling polythene bags into balls.

Buyonjo Balls Participatory Project. Recyling polythene bags into balls, 2013 

4.   Who would you like to engage with your work?

 

To be sincere I work for the West! You see it is my notion that the contemporary visual artist is the last frontier of the colonial labor prejudice. We produce stuff which is quite often meaningless to our local societies. I sell most if not all my work to Western collectors, mainly expatriates and tourists. The sources that inform my style and techniques are drawn from the European art tradition.  In fact of late I am doing stuff that could have direct appeal to key collectors and galleries in Europe and America.

However, as a patriotic pan-African, I would like to produce work for the indigenous folks.

I would like to be collected by rich African entrepreneurs, for instance. But the problem is how to get them interested in my paintings other than the cheap posters of Vincent Van Gogh’s ‘Sunflowers’ that they buy from museum shops during their regular visits to Europe.

On the issue of subject matter, we in Africa are lucky to have a rich material culture. So we do not have to scatter helter-skelter stealing other people’s ideas.

However, I would like to be clear that much as I am critical of my current art market, I would not be this bitter if I were to be accepted by galleries in the West which represent the market for which I was trained to produce art.

art opening at Makerere Art Gallery, December 2009

art opening at Makerere Art Gallery, December 2009

 

5.   Can you tell me about an artist whose life/work you really like?

Perhaps I admire other artists’ work more than I should. I am always appreciative of a job well done in art. It does not matter who has done it!

I have had phases of influence in my work. Picasso and Gauguin were my favorite in college especially when I discovered that they borrowed a lot from African tribal art. Then I got deeply involved with the work of Stephen Kasumba, a Ugandan painter. But my ultimate passion is a fusion of Jackson Pollock, Gustav Klimt, Chris Ofili and Jean Basquiat: You see I like to splash and decorate while searching for beauty in ugliness!

Steven Kasumba, 2003

Steven Kasumba, 2003. Collection: Brent Wolff 

6.   What would you say in a short text message to an aspiring artist?

I have no doubt in my mind that African art rules! It has done so since Picasso stumbled upon it in the early 20th century. However, the world has been negligent of this fact and attributed everything to the European artists. I am glad that the world today is rediscovering African art. There are a lot of modern, innovative and competitive artists on the continent today. I believe that with globalization, we in Africa are well aware of everything going on in the art world except in the auction houses. We know how artists in Europe and America work because we have traveled to their lands through residences and other exchange programs. We believe that we storm the art market when we force the major collectors to abandon the auction houses and exclusive galleries by flooding the streets of Europe and America with masterpieces from Africa (that is if China does not get there first!). 

Buyonjo Balls Participatory Project

Buyonjo Balls Participatory Project, LABA! Art Festival, Kampala, 2013

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About margaretnagawa

I make art, I write about art, I curate art View all posts by margaretnagawa

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