Fas Fas is a gallery and hangout in Kiswa that bears testimony to the power of constructive rebellion, as in the case of Ronex Ahimbisibwe who is one of Uganda’s most prolific artists.
I spent some time in the company of this man whose soft voice over the phone doesn’t prepare you for his personality. Accompanied by sounds of nails being banged into various surfaces and pieces of wood being sawed into whatever artistic shapes the workers had in mind, we chatted about Art, God and love.
I started by asking him how he defines himself as a person. This was not a great icebreaker. He stared into the middle distance and said, “An artist. I’m an artist.” All right then. On to question two-about his creative process.
Ronex likes to work at night. Like a vampire, he dislikes sunlight and says daytime is distracting for any artist. As long as the sun is in the sky, life will get in the way in the form of friends, phone calls, visitors and drama. But at night, he says, he can work single mindedly and let his imagination go wherever it wants.
The top of the table that we’re sitting at is actually a painting which has been transformed into a table top. Because of the disinterest that Ugandans show towards things that they cannot put to practical use, Ronex has decided to turn his art into things that you have need for on a daily basis like furniture and clothes. Why anybody would want to bring such beauty down to a level where it may not even be appreciated? He answers, “Art is to be shared. Exclusivity for what? Everybody should take what they can from it. Art is a part of me. It’s like, if I was ugly, would I hide my face?”
A good day for him is not something he can define. Sometimes, he says, he won’t get anything solid done but he’ll have experimented and learnt something. Other times, he’ll be in the frame of mind to create until exhaustion makes him drop away from his project. When things really jam, he stretches his canvass “so that when I have a burning idea, I don’t have to run around panicking. By the way if you saw me in my studio, you would think I’m mad. I get so hyper.”
Where do you live?
Over the last 10 years, I’ve revolved around Makerere University. I used to live in Kikumi Kikumi but now I have a studio in Kikoni.
Does your environment influence your art? What will happen when you become rich?
“I’m a man who likes simple life. Like this, I see a lot of things. That’s why I don’t have a car. Ok sometimes I leave this place very late and wish I could get home easily, but really there are some places that a car cannot go. Jams, the taxi park, Kisenyi, there’s a lot of inspiration in chaos. I always say artists should be broke. Although I don’t really believe that. There’s no fun in being broke.”
Has the appreciation and reception of art among Ugandans changed over the last 10 years?
No. First of all people don’t appreciate the creative process. You put a tag on a painting, they complain. Have you ever heard a person complain about a lawyer’s fees?
As far as appreciation is concerned, artists create a need. If you create something beautiful and somebody appreciates, then their need for more beauty is triggered. It would help if the government stepped in. We hear people being encouraged to do sciences but the only thing Uganda can really transport is her culture. And how? Through art. You hear of Kira EV but how many of those parts were really invented from scratch, in Uganda? Who cannot assemble a car?
I wanted to build a small museum of barkcloth. I love barkcloth. Of course I needed funds but people didn’t want to know. What does a Munyankore want with bark cloth? Art needs to be freed from pettiness.
You’re proficient in so many media. Is there one that you’re particularly interested in?
Variety is the spice of life. Each of them has capabilities and weaknesses. Through experimentation, I challenge myself. You can have one idea and execute it in many media, which makes your work more varied. Work in one and you risk repeating yourself.
What inspired FAS FAS?
I cannot stress the importance of space for budding artists enough. This is meant to be a receptive place for artists and appreciators to meet. Actually the name Fas Fas is from the way wheelbarrow pushers ask for the road to be cleared. I’m trying to make “local” cool.
Do you create best when you’re happy or when you’re angry?
I try to find inspiration in every situation. Am I going to be angry all the time?
Do you feel the need to educate through art?
Once in awhile. We artists use a lot of symbolism. But sometimes people don’t get your message. Art is personal. How I perceive something is not the way others might.
The titles of your pieces are interesting; Catch me if you can, Worth a twist…maybe. How do you come up with them?
Sometimes I’ll have the idea as I’m starting, but other times I use the titles of songs I like.
Where do you find your material?
Sometimes I buy, I recycle; I’m a lover of recycling.
What did you study and has it featured in your work?
I did Fine Art at MUK. No, it doesn’t really feature, but I did learn the basics. Education is a springboard. No one can teach you art, but it’s good to know the history, and principles.
How’s your family’s attitude towards your career?
I was a disappointment to them. Being the first born with the first degree in my clan, they wanted me to be a doctor or something. But things have changed. I have educated all my siblings. That’s why I’m broke.
How do artists protect their work?
I have sued thrice and gotten paid. Transami, Gapco, they used my work without my permission. With this innocent face and proper facts, I was able to win in court.
Telling the truth is always easier than telling a lie. I wanted to sue Elly Tumwine for taking my work for Chogm and never paying but the other artists refused to join me.
Is Ronex your birth name?
My parents were Gs (gangsters-loosely translating into ‘cool’). Actually, my aunt named me Lenox but my parents couldn’t pronounce it so Ronex is what appeared on the birth certificate.
What triggered art in you? When did you realize you were good?
Good? We all improve. I’m still growing. Every time I work, I learn something new. I started around S3 during my frees. Also, loneliness. I used to help my parents in the shop, so I learnt to be alone. Crowds confuse me.
You’ve explored the female form but not the male one. Why?
Women have perfected beauty. Rhythm, form. They’re fun to draw. There’s nothing exciting on a man. Men are blocks. I insist that the male form is exquisite and he says, “We’re looking at things through different lenses.”
The conversation switches to homosexuality and he says, “Some things just won’t catch on in Africa. I have failed to see what to find beautiful on a man. That’s why I think homosexuality is the highest form of love. If a man can connect so deeply with another that they feel they can engage in so much…contact? That’s the highest form of love.”
What do you do to relax?
I used to dance. Go to ange noir. But now I’m too busy for that.
Are you religious?
No. There are many things I don’t believe in and God is one of them. My family was too religious.
In hard times, my dad would have more money to put into church than in the home. I ask you. If God created the earth with all its riches, what does he need your paper for? God doesn’t need you.
They used to beat me to go to church. I wonder what kind of God would support that. Also, I didn’t ask to be here, on this earth. I had no say in the matter. So whether God likes it or not, I’ll be in heaven if it is there.
Are you seeing anybody?
No. I have (and here he chuckles) friends. Many friends.
No. Friends. Love is an unnatural thing. You can’t have any control over it. If the girl decides to sleep around, she will. Why waste your time worrying about that?
What’s your philosophy on love?
I like the word Like. Not love. Love comes with jealousy which is the most stupid emotion ever. People say, “You’ve cheated on me” cheated on you? With my body? Where do you come in?
Most people get into relationships because they fear being alone. People don’t value marriage and it pisses me off! If you decide to make that commitment, it should be for life. That’s why you don’t see many female artists. They cannot balance family with art. Art consumes you.