Uganda: Monet Makes the World Go Round
15 February 2010
Wildlife is the latest passion of Kampala artist Ismael Kateregga.
And he brings it to life on the canvas thanks to long hours of meticulous observation in the Lake Mburo and Queen Elizabeth game parks of his native Uganda.
Zebras at Lake Mburo caught in a startled half-turn … elephants [see also here] confronting the artist at Queen Elizabeth, with trunks curled and ears spread wide in classic threat displays.
These are small pictures, each perhaps 10cm square – painterly jottings on a canvas notebook; swift studies of mass, form, light and shade.
On a far larger scale is caught a herd of buffalo pausing from grazing to look suspiciously at the painter straight in the eye; and ready to turn on a 10 cent piece to ram him deep into the bush.
Kateregga has caught the tension of their bodies and their combined strength with admirable economy.
However for one of the most successful pictures in his current show – on until the end of the month at the capital’s Tulifanya Gallery – Kateregga did not have to go further than one of Kampala’s recreational parks.
It is of a flock of marabou storks huddled together with their shoulders hunched like a bunch of MPs plotting in the corner of a corridor.
What is remarkable about all these wildlife paintings – and there are 18 of them on show – is that they are largely monochrome; either a soft blue or a gentle sepia.
An exception is the painting of marabous where in parts the overall blue is suffused by a glowing pink, like a blush on the throat pouches, backs and bills.
This restrained palette both forces one to focus on the subject rather than admire the skills of an Impressionist better known for his use of colour, and causes the artist to weigh each stroke with care while producing an accurate tonal scale across the canvas.
“Exploring light, shade and form without colour; it’s a new phenomenon for me,” Kateregga said.
He began his wildlife studies last year after seeing for the first time works by his hero, Claude Monet whose pictures he had seen previously only in reproduction.
He told me he was immediately captivated by Monet’s broad studies of water lilies from his garden at Giverny, completed in the last 30 years of his life.
And although Monet died in 1925 those pictures – plus a view of the Seine in Paris – struck Kateregga as looking as fresh as though painted yesterday.
Kateregga told me, “I thought it would be a challenge to concentrate on form through light and shade and for once leaving out colour, which can be a distraction.”
It was the bones of the pictures he admired, more than the colours which had danced before him in the reproductions he had seen.
Until then he had built a reputation based on his shimmering flickers of urban life, classily composed and painted with a sure touch which owe more than a passing debt to the Impressionist master.
These paintings for which he is best known are also at the Tulifanya.
Any casual visitor can spot why they are so popular … colourful, capable, painted in a style that is fully accepted and not too challenging to the eye.
Typical is the largest picture in the exhibition, a view of Kikuubo Lane in downtown Kampala.
Bustling, bursting with life, alive with colour, yet disciplined and coherent. Not surprisingly it has already sold.
There are many more like it on the walls.
Lovely though they are, I think Kateregga’s move into monochrome is an excellent thing.
More disciplined, and underpinned by rigorous draughtsmanship these paintings point a way forward – away perhaps from the superficial sugary delights of Monet but more towards the master’s underlying structural brilliance.
By going back to basics, Kateregga will hopefully move more towards himself.
Frank Whalley runs Lenga Juu, a fine arts and media consultancy based in Nairobi.