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Monday, March 30, 2009

Painting women is his speciality

In the world of Ugandan painter, Yusuf Ssali, the woman is everything, writes Dennis D. Muhumuza

It’s the first impression I got on finding paintings of all kinds of women colouring the walls of his studio in Nakulabye.

“Many have told me I’m obsessed with women,” he admits with a smile. “It’s true I like painting women. The beauty, tenderness and loveliness of women; their expressions, the stories they tell and the activities they do – these are things from which I draw most of my inspiration as an artist.”

“At the university, most of my academic projects were on women, so I could draw them half-naked or nude,” he says, adding quickly however, that he’s no pervert. True to his word, no painting of his, at least on display, has the temperament or look of someone that evokes immoral thoughts.

I got the feeling that the tricky but very bright decorations in most of his paintings do help in some way to enhance the action therein: a child on the back, women in motion, laughing or dancing, all fall in between realism and abstract, creating some suspense.

It’s achievable, says Ssali, because he has learned much from participating in international joint exhibitions in Los Angeles, Brussels, Netherlands, France, Tanzania, and Kenya, as well at Nommo Gallery.

He also confesses to spending a bulk of his time studying human anatomy, saying it’s mandatory for any artist dealing in figures: “You have to know how the bones move, and if someone turns a certain way, how the body reacts. ”

Ssali’s journey as an artist began taking shape in secondary school, where he took to art eagerly, and in his long vacation, started earning from it by designing signposts and wall-painting.

He pursued it further at Makerere University, where, he says he became the first student to hold an exhibition. For his pains, he got a commission from Coca-cola for a painting entitled Uganda, which he says sold at Shs15.4m. That was in 2005.

During the Independence Day exhibition at Nommo Gallery last year, Ssali’s painting was, about the irony and absurdity of commemorating independence when in actual sense, according to the artist, we have never fully become free.

The painting shows two cocks: white and black; the former which represents the colonial master is free, and the black cock which symbolises Africa, has its beak padlocked.

Ssali’s most famous painting however, is called Ancient Period, about the customs and traditions of the Buganda Kingdom. It shows tongues of fire, a spear, and a face of a woman decorated with collage on bark cloth.

“Although Ssali has not yet painted the Ugandan equivalent of the Mona Lisa by Italian Renaissance painter Leonardo da Vinci, he works on, believing thus: “One day someone will come and say, ‘I’ve been missing this kind of art in Uganda and I’m glad I’ve found it!’

--Sunday Monitor, March 29, 2009