Arnold Birungi is one of Uganda’s most prolific artists. His work is in high demand by both galleries and individual collectors. What makes Birungi’s artwork so distinct and appealing is its relatable subject matter. Whether it’s a rural scene or a city scene, or a landscape scene, Birungi tries to show the diverse experiences in Uganda. His painting, Pushing On, is a perfect illustration of his talent; it is at once a snapshot of individual striving and at the same time a commentary on the collective experience of earning a livelihood. His body of work is a testimony to the love he feels toward his community; he draws images of ordinary Ugandan life, which embody themes such as perseverance, discipline and joy. In our interview, Birungi discusses his journey as an artist; he talks about the spark that pushed him into painting, and his experience producing art on the continent.
Lydia: Can you tell us about your journey to becoming an artist, when did you know you wanted to become an artist? What did you do to make that goal a reality?
Arnold Birungi: Well, Art, I should say is something inborn. Right from childhood signs are there for one to tell. I started art when I was still very young, drawing picture of shoes, motorcycles, and drawing magazine models on the wall. I would not go unpunished for spoiling the neat walls. Since the common medium at that time was charcoal [I would make] a nice drawing on the ground and would guard them ruthlessly from being spoilt by nature or my peers. It goes on that fellow students would bring their schoolbooks so that I draw their favorite picture on their book covers. Sometimes that came at a cost. To me, that was a journey to becoming what I am today. Education being a means to polish what was already there; this meant attaining a degree in fine art.
Lydia: Two of my favorite pieces are Pushing On and Games We Played, can you speak on these particular pieces? What inspired you to do these works—individually, and in general, how do you decide what to paint? Do you find some subjects are more comfortable than others?
Arnold Birungi: Pushing On, [represents life. Sometimes] life comes with a lot of experiences and stories. The painting ‘Pushing on’ is one of them. Life is good, bad, and sometimes fair. It comes with happiness, challenges, and frustrations, how you react matters so much. The smart will always take the day. Pushing on is for the determined who aim to achieve better. In art, as a case, each painting is special and is always a challenge to make a better one [if] given a chance. When I look back, it brings back memories of what I have gone through to where I am today. It is about positive thinking and allowing room for new challenges.
Games We Played is about childhood memories of good times and what we learn from them. There was a lot of patience exhibited waiting for your turn to play, which is a key element as one grows in real life. Making a painting or thinking about making one is at times associated with a story you have heard, life experience or [an] instantaneous [idea]. On the other hand, the innocence and adventure that comes along is a factor that can shape or define one’s destiny.
Lydia: In many of your art pieces, you use acrylics and watercolor on canvas or paper, why are these materials appealing for you as an artist?
Arnold Birungi: I use watercolor and acrylics in my art. Watercolors are a challenge and keep one on his toes. It’s a medium that is spontaneous and requires special attention and a quick mind. It is also, the only medium that requires you to make good mistakes or you lose a painting. Acrylics have an advantage of [drying quickly]; like watercolors it commands a fast mind.
Lydia: As an artist based in Uganda; can you speak about your experience producing art on the continent? (What are the pros/cons)
Arnold Birungi: Visual Art and artists in Uganda command respect and appreciation. To a large extent, art has been used as a tool to transform, educate and record events, and to preserve and protect the culture and the environment. But art is silent when it comes to active politics of the day. [The pros are] consumption and value of art over the years has been steadily increasing, thanks to technology and social media. I now can sell a painting to a client across the globe than relying on studio or gallery clientele. This easy access, however, comes with its dark side of duplication and copying.
Lydia: Who are some of the artists that have inspired you?
Arnold Birungi: Over the past, 20 or so years, technology has made it easy for artists to interact, share, and discuss ideas. Just a click and one is live in artist’s studio looking at how a painting is done. But the person who has mentored and inspired me is Taga Nuwagaba. He opened my eye, opened my door to the world of art, He literally held my hand and dipped it in paint and showed me how it is done on canvas. He showed me the right direction. I owe it to him.
Lydia: Lastly, what else would you like to add or to let people know?
Arnold Birungi: Art is a silent force that outlives events and stories that never die or fade. Art is immortal, that’s why it will always be restored and conserved!
Interviewed by Lydia Kakwera Levy.