A fine artist by birth who dreamt of painting from a young age, Taga Francis Nuwagaba is a professional oil and water colour painter who owns Tagaframe in Kamwokya, Kampala.
As he launches his maiden book, ‘Totems of Uganda, Buganda edition,’ Taga shares the story of his love for art with Simon Kasyate on 91.3 Capital FM’s Desert Island Discs: –
Good evening and welcome to Desert Island Discs, Mr Taga Nuwagaba.
Thank you so much for welcoming me here. Good evening.
What is the best way to describe you?
I am a fine artist, mainly a conservation artist. My work is biased towards conservation of nature and preservation of culture.
I am looking at [your] book before me, Totems of Uganda, Buganda edition, where you have drawn with your hands, painted with your own hand brush, all the animals that make the totems of this country. Let’s know more about this work.
Basically, I did this book to make sure that when you talk about your totem, you should be able to identify it.
You should be able to know what it looks like. And it’s very unfortunate that I have to say this, that if there is something out there that is not captured in English and Latin, chances of its disappearance are so high.
When I started doing this book, I was trying to make sure that I create these totems, give them names, tag them to other languages like English, Latin, the scientific language, Swahili and about seven local languages in Uganda [so] that when we talk about a given animal, we can actually go to that particular animal and not generalise. Most times people here generalise totems.
Is this something you got [into] out of love or talent? Or was it something you got [into] accidentally?
It was of course not an accident. It was not even love for it [though] love is an element. There was a gap. This book should have been published in the early 1930s or 40s.
It has been missing [and as a result] there is a growing disconnect between the totems and the people who subscribe to them. There was need to close that gap, which this book does.
The [other] main reason as to why I did this particular book was the fact that the element of conservation is usually forgotten.
I was trying to highlight and tell everyone who has a totem, and all the cultures around this tradition, [about the importance of] conserving [each] animal and giving it chance to multiply. It’s why I took so much time in doing this book.
Is that why the cover page of the book is an elephant missing its tusks?
You will find all kinds of elephants they are hurt out there. It’s not as easy as we see it in the movies and animations.
This is a real situation. It’s like finding a human being without a skull. So, elephants also go through these challenges when they are fighting. As you know, they are territorial. But the reason the elephant is on the cover of this book is that it’s the biggest totem on earth.
Who are you, where were you born, when were you born and to whom were you born?
I am called Taga Nuwagaba. I am a visual artist, not a performing artist. I was born [and] educated here in Uganda. The name Taga is not a Christian name but almost there.
It is a traditional name. It comes from Byakutaga. Actually, it is a tradition here to shorten names and I actually get shocked and they can write the name Nuwagaba easily but cannot write Taga. But Byakutaga is my father’s name.
I grew up in Mbarara and I studied in St Helens’ primary school it’s now a girls’ school but back in the days it was a mixed school. From there, I went to Ibanda secondary school and during the war I was here in Kololo SS.
From there, I went to Makerere University. After that I went to the UK where I worked for some years and to the USA where I also worked for some time. Later, I came back here where I am still operating.
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You didn’t tell us about your siblings…
Actually, I am the last born of nine children.
How was your childhood like? And in the case of being a last born, weren’t you a bit of a spoilt brat as one would want to regard last borns?
I do not think so because the environment in which we grew [up] was not the environment we have today. Actually, we grew up during Amin’s regime and the things were different, the political terrain was different, the food was different, technology was different.
If you wanted to send a message to someone, you had to walk there. I grew up in a rural setting and when I was younger, I thought I was going to be a hunter. We tried a little bit of that but I wasn’t very good at running so, I abandoned that.
Then at some stage I thought I was going to be in the army because I loved Idi Amin’s soldiers and the way they played the band. I went with my friends and when I saw what they were going through, I said, ‘No, I cannot.’
They were recruiting boys. I went and I saw the kind of training they were going through and I thought I should focus more on art. I think I was good at art already at that time. You know, I sold my first piece of art in primary five so, I said I think I should harness this talent.
What is it that you had drawn?
Although we were young, the political scene was not as free as it is today so, I was trying to portray what I was seeing at that time. But I didn’t express myself in a realistic form. I expressed myself in a biblical way, like my first pieces were showing David and Goliath.
I did that many times because I saw it when they were shooting people. I couldn’t get a man holding a gun shooting another man but they used some of the biblical stories to portray the situation as it was.
Basically, it is how I was growing up with my siblings who were supporting what I was doing and who thought that maybe I could take it to another level. That was basically my childhood. We didn’t have running water, electricity, cars… everything was done manually.
If we get down to the artist in you, at what point do you realise that you are an artist worth paying attention to?
I actually didn’t realise that. For me it was just about drawing. Even when I was selling this piece on crucifixion, I wasn’t really making it for sale. I had many pieces and my first client who was called Justine Kahindi happened to also be my cousin.
She used to love what I was doing and at that time to be paid fifty shillings for a piece of art, it was inconceivable. Coming to Kampala was about five shillings so it was [a lot of money].
Describe that piece a little more in detail.
The piece was basically showing Jesus Christ in a lot of pain. The way I felt it is the way I expressed it those firing squads.
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You could have gone away by taking pictures of these animals. But you chose to draw them. Why?
Do you know why people take wonderful photographs and after that, they move these pictures to artists to paint them? There is something about a human hand that the camera cannot capture the way it edits and audits something.
With art, you are able to focus on areas of interest, the way you apply colour and come up with these textures and the fact that it is done by a human hand.
You know, when you go to buy a rug out there, if it is handmade, it has more value. With visual art, even if it has been photographed or you are working with a photograph, there is more to the art because there is so much you take away and there is so much that you create.
You abandon the photograph and pull more into the art work, a reference image.
You were in secondary school at this point did you have anything else you dreamed of other than being an artist?
I always wanted to be an artist. My first choice in high school when I was going to the university was art, then law.
The teacher brought back the papers and said, ‘You have made a mistake. We start with law, then art.’ I said, ‘No, I want to be an artist.’ I didn’t see myself doing anything else other than art.
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When you got to the university, you were offered the course of your dreams. How was your impression of university life?
And what happens, I come with a six in fine art. Everyone [else] got a distinction and that crushed me. To be given art for my combination at [A-level], I had to sit three interviews.
So, I failed art at senior four and I was so depressed. When I was in that long vacation, everything kind of felt a mess and everyone on the village wondered how I failed something I was good at.
But that happened and then I still struggled and said I wanted to do fine art. When I got the points to join the university, I was offered fine art and I hit this school of art. When you go to this school of art, the first thing they wanted you to show was your portfolio.
What is a portfolio here?
You have to have some pieces of your previous work and it had to be in a file. They demanded, I think, 18 pieces and I remember I showed up with three files which had a thousand pieces (laughs).
The lecturer said, ‘It is okay,’ and I was admitted. I was very excited because I was now going to study professional art.
I was in trouble again joining second year. I didn’t fail but we were doing an exam in sculpture and I thought I knew everything. I quickly did this piece and walked away and it crumbled while I walked away and I was told a few days later that I had failed the exam.
I said, ‘Okay, what do I do this time?’ I did what every one was doing, taking all the time focusing and honing your skill getting better.
At this university, how much did you learn because you seemed to have already known something?
I basically learnt maturing colours because when you are in high school, you basically do not know why you are struggling with these colours. You do not know why you are making a great piece.
Many times students make very fine drawings but they do not want to put colour because colour is going to destroy their drawing. So basically, what the university taught me was to mature the colours I was using because they were raw.
At elementary level, you do not go into maturity of colour. You use primary and tertiary colours. At the university, I was able to understand colour, how to use conflicting colours and still create harmony, composition.
There is quite a lot to learn and the unfortunate thing with art is that you learn for ever. Up to now, I am still learning because when we are painting, we are doing experiments. That is why we keep getting better and better.
But beyond doing art at the university, didn’t you ever go out with friends and try out a number of things?
Yeah, when I was at the university – it is a social palace you know – you are free to do anything you want. And it was around that time when I met my wife Doreen.
She was in Nakawa and I used to go to Nakawa to visit my niece. She was studying with my niece and she became my favourite niece and so on and so forth. So, there was the social element into it but I was also already into art and exhibitions abroad.
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For an artist that has gone through the kind of exposures that you have, when did these opportunities throw themselves at you? What is there to earn from art?
In every discipline, you will have avenues. You have to find ways of making money and of course art makes money. Have you ever seen a starving lawyer?
You need to look so hard but you will find someone maybe not doing so well as a lawyer and also struggling in his own way and you will probably find an artist who isn’t struggling that much.
It depends. There are those making money and others who are not but you can be a teacher, a professor it is a choice. There are all kinds of ways through which you can earn from art. And by the way, by doing this book, I am trying to say, you do not have to sell your originals. You can come up with a book.
How much is a copy going for?
It will be going for Shs 200,000. But later, we shall have prints going for Shs 20,000 and schools should buy and put in their libraries.
Is there plagiarism?
Yes, there is and, for me, I like it. If you are an artist without people trying to copy your work, it’s like being a pastor without a flock. The other thing is that it’s so hard to find original artists. We learn from others.
I remember for some time I painted like Joseph Ntesimbe, my teacher. But after sometime, I developed my own identity and my own way of working. So if you are an artist out there and someone tries to copy your work, do not get angry. Someone is trying to learn, you are inspiring someone.
How about getting pieces of what you have done and some people simply make copies and sell?
That is very wrong an artist who copies your work and puts [their] signature on that work is very wrong. They should learn from you and become better.
Is this your first kind of art book that you are putting out on market?
Yes, it is actually my first book.
So, where do we see Taga in the next five or ten years?
You see, [the first book] is called Totems of Uganda, Buganda edition. We want to do more editions. And I would like to call upon the other artists to come and join me so we can capture and document history of a given region. One time we should have an encyclopaedia.
Maybe in two or three years you will see another project with Nkore. Culture has no boundaries.
When I was writing this book, I needed someone else to do a bit of editing so I would like to thank Nathan Kiwere who is my co-writer and did the introduction of this book, Jonathan Kingdom, the author of Mammals of Africa, who did the review of this book and finally Davis Shepherd who critiqued the book.
If you were marooned on a desert island disc, who or what given chance, would you carry?
Definitely, I would go with my wife.
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Source : The Observer