Michele Lesko: Benon, what would you say were your artistic influences growing up?
Benon Lutaaya: Of course I would say but only if you will pay up for it (laughs). Well, truth is, growing up as a child, deep in the rural, impoverished Uganda, I had nothing to do with exposure to art, art books, artists, museums or galleries. And neither did I know they existed. What I do remember as a child though, is admiration for my elder brother’s colored pencil, cartoon-like pictures. They made me feel like, yeah; "I bet I could do that too." But even then, I don’t remember ever thinking to myself, "yeah, I want to be an artist."
ML: According to your profile, your work is influenced by your autobiographical life experiences. Would you mind sharing a bit about that?
BL: Sure. This is somewhat a very long one, but I promise you I will keep it as simple and short as possible so as not to bore you to death (laughs). Prior to becoming the artist you are talking to now, a lot happened that shaped my thinking, my overall outlook on life and who I am today -beside my work as an artist. Firstly, I spent my early life, eighteen months to ten years of age, living a rural life with my late grandma. From age ten, influenced by other kids, I left her to pursue a life of my own. Between when I was ten until when I was about nineteen, it must have been the toughest period of my life. But I would be lying to say to you that I noticed it at the time. I was a very innocent, shy kid with a big heart. I lived with no home, no family, completely nothing. Yet, on top of that, I had to find a way to attain education. I was too small that my Grandma often remarked; without education, I was doomed to be a nobody in life. It stuck with me all through my hardest of times. I tried my best to attain education. I went through the worst and smallest of schools. It's a very very long story, but I will cut it short as I promised.
ML: I’m curious, how did you then develop interest in art?
BL: Previously, I had no interest at all. At heart, I was passionately business, all through and through. I only took up art when I was about to finish high school. I had many theory subjects and one day I decided to drop one and replace it with art, basically because I thought it would allow me to excel more in others as it required no reading. I began to love and enjoy it though. But I didn’t contemplate doing it as a career until, in my very last year at high school, upon reading a 1910 classic book, ‘The Science of Getting Rich,’ I thought it could be a career. Surprisingly, its not a book about art. Because of it, I became obsessed with art so that I gave it more and more time, so much so that my peers thought I would fail other subjects for my university entry exams. In the end, I passed them highly and scooped myself a really competitive three year undergraduate scholarship for a BFA with Education. I joined university convinced I was an artist.
ML: You started creating art professionally not very long ago. Will you tell us what allowed you to express your artistic vision through these portraits so brilliantly?
BL: You can safely say it's precisely four years since I started to professionally practise. It has been a very long and troubled road, much as it seems a shorter period of time to many. Determination, hard work, patience, and perseverance kept me afloat. I created work and destroyed it all the time because it couldn't do what I wanted. I kept believing, fighting, learning, being innovative and subsequently improving my technical and conceptual skills. I trusted myself and stopped asking so many questions. I found my own answers as I went through the process. All I had, and in abundance, was unshakable faith, a greater sense of self belief, and motivation to keep trying. For me, it's always a case of “if there's someone else who has done it, so can I.” Talking of this, I’m reminded of a few friends who threw in the towel, while I hung in there through all the downs. In my case, it was like jumping into a sea for a fancied destination. I’m NOT very good at swimming, neither do I really know the exact challenges I will encounter, except that quitting or drowning were never an option.
ML: Not terribly professional on my end, but I must say the collage, “Ashamed to Be Happy,” brought tears. This moment was not due, as one would assume, to the child's eyes or the portrait title but occurred in and around the bit of lacing that resembles a wound being closed. That point in the work is so raw. What pushes into your mind's eye as you place the pieces in a collage this way?
BL: With my work it all comes down to two things, Michele. Honesty and humility. At the core of my mind, I’m always visually exploring what I know. Stuff I have experienced for a very long period of time. My paintings aim to capture and render that interior world; the innermost essence of the mind of my beings, passing through memories, emotions, feelings, relationships and personal story. Since these are mostly younger personalities, the sense of uncertainty, ambiguity and hopelessness, revealed around them naturally breeds a longing for protection which deeply resonates with the viewer. I suppose that’s why you say ‘‘Ashamed to be Happy’” brought tears. Sometimes, technically, during the creative process, certain things naturally happen because subconsciously my mind is always in that state of being & feeling as well as striving toward revealing the communicative value and strength of the medium I opt to use to express myself.
ML: Earlier work is boldly colored & later work more subdued, yet both push forward an emotive energy that comes across as empathy. In what way do you consciously or subconsciously choose to use color?
BL: I believe the changes in my work are linked to different cultural and artistic influences, as well as the natural progression of growth I have experienced as an artist. The idiom or the core of my subject matter has, however, remained intact. All that’s changing is the mode of expression. With my earlier work, as much as I was aiming to develop my own technical, artistic identity, the environment I was in had a deep influence, especially in terms of color. Look at most artworks from East Africa in general, & they are boldly colored and bright. When I moved to South Africa in January 2011, courtesy of a residency programme award to live & work at the Bag Factory, everything changed. The South African art environment was so huge and visually rich in comparison to where I was coming from that it certainly diversified my creative thinking and process, leading to the differences you notice in my work today.
ML: I'm quite drawn to the more abstract sensibility in your latest work. These portraits, whether acrylic on newspaper or collage on canvas, actively resonate or sound an internal bell with respect to not only the child portrayed but the child within. “Broken” and “Broken Dreams” allow both the literal view of a face coming apart & the emptiness of negative space. Can you speak to the shift your work takes when this negative space enters the field?
BL: Ha, I would prefer to dodge this one. It's too heavy for my intellect. Hopefully, I don't come across as sounding ostentatious, if I say it doesn't get any much tougher or taste much sweeter than this (laughs). And, because I love to stretch meaning, I will perhaps put a different slant on how it rings to me and answer it that way (laughs). The technique as reflected in 'Broken' or 'Broken Dreams,' I believe is a perfect example of what happens, when you're obsessed with the desire to improve, to become better. You push yourself hard, you test the limits of your skills, and, in the end, stuff you never planned happens. This is one of them. The technique was prompted by my deep, creative aspiration to see more of my work with less. To find a way to be more playful, and more meaningful with seemingly less effort and minimal use of the medium. This is where the idea or possibility of the emptiness of the negative space weds the positive and enters the field to merge into one whole. From a technical perspective, every fragmentation, every scattered gestural mark outside the literal view of a face coming apart, suggests a discovery of unexpected value, and heavily adds to the whole picture, since it acts as a vehicle to link the form and composition together. Conceptually, the abstract imagery within all my paintings represent the act of survival, while the text, often obscure, stresses questions of identity.
ML: The quality achieved, using the palette knife, maintains a continuity with many aspects of your collage portraits. Is there an intentional force at work in the structure that is part of the message?
BL: How I work is such a beautiful complexity. It's kinda cyclic in nature. My painting is overly influenced by my collage technique, yet, when I’m collaging, I’m trying to achieve what I think I could do with paint. When I’m painting, I mix colors on papers. When a paper surface is full of color, I get a new one and mix on it. It goes on and on like that. These are found news and magazine papers, most of which I pick from the street bins as I stroll through the streets of Johannesburg city. In the end, papers, from which I mixed color, accumulate in my studio with different color schemes, tones, paint strokes, marks and texture. They act as my palette in the process of creating paper collage artworks. In a way, I suffer from no waste of resources. The other aspect of my work is that everyone looking at my acrylic paintings gets this feeling that it's the palette knife that was used to create them. No, it's plastic telephone cards I pick up on streets and other found stuff. It's all about recycling and adding relevance to the conceptual message of my work.
ML: What pulled me into your work is the way in which the children are not represented as mere victims but as wholly human folk with a complexity that cannot be discounted because they are children. How did your impulse to portray children in this way arise?
BL: I wish there was a way I could just pull out the actual workings of my mind and lay it open for you. Unfortunately, with words, it's hard for me particularly since the English language isn’t something I can proudly stand up and say I’m really good at (laughs). Some stuff in my work has developed over time both instinctively and intuitively.
ML: Would you say that the art dictates what is produced or that the experience dictates?
BL: Experience to a greater extent, but it's sometimes a combination of both.
ML: I do understand that the first year of practice as a professional artist was in Uganda in 2010. You actually didn’t roll yourself out to hit the art scene there. Why was that?
BL: Well, I did go out but not as I should have. That was basically because I didn’t think I was good enough. Remember, at the university all I did were landscape artworks. I only discovered that the relevancy of my art studies would be more satisfying and of immense value to me, if I explored my own identity and life experiences. And the best visual metaphor to achieve that was through Portrait painting. It wasn’t easy, starting to practise drawing and later on painting human faces. I wanted to become good first, before I hit the market.
ML: I also note that the past three years of your practice were in South Africa. In 2011, one could acquire the biggest piece of your art for an equivalent of around US $200. Two years down the road in 2013, one would acquire a Benon Lutaaya painting for between US $2,500 and US $10,000. That’s a phenomenal increase, Benon. How did that happen? How have you been able to establish yourself so quickly? Can you tell us about that?
BL: You’re right about this. But I will tell you, I didn’t notice it until late 2013. That’s not to say it has been easy. I’m not sure people know that right after my residence programme, in April 2011, I had no home, no money, no income, no food, completely nothing and was living in a foreign country. Looking back, that life stinks. I could write a novel on it. But I will tell you, my only precious life possession and hope was my art inside of me, and what I believed I could do with it to find my way in life. That, I could trade for nothing else.
It's difficult to narrate to you how I have gotten my prices to the levels where they are today. It's another long conversation or possibly a one day workshop (laughs). But I will summarise it for you. From the onset, I knew that there’s not a single art gallery or individual that could get me into the art market except myself. So, I designed my own marketing strategy. It worked and still does. If we had time, I could share that to the smallest details. I never accumulate work in my studio. I guess I possess one of the longest lists of clients on a waiting list, waiting for more than a year. Both locally and internationally. Galleries became aware of me by the end of 2012. And I have never officially signed up with any. I can never get finished with this conversation.
ML: What advice would you give an aspiring or practicing young upcoming artist?
BL: Michele, I have a whole bunch to say to them. But I will try to be minimal. As an aspiring artist, if you know you’re not 120% convinced that without art you have no career or no future, don’t you bother to pursue it full time. Try something else. Period. Of course, I realise this could sound like a very skewed and personal view, but I would argue it has some justification. You need sufficient levels of perseverance and natural-born nous because doing visual art, full-time as a career, is one of the sternest tests you could ever experience. The kind of attitude and hunger you adopt assume titanic importance. Growing up in not so pleasant circumstances gave me an advantage. They did mold me into having the strength necessary to cope with any situations. Being talented is good. Personally, I don't know a thing about talent, except you do your very level best to develop it. I believe I'm an average lot. But I do understand that hard work and focus could get you somewhere. Keep trying, hold on, and always, always, always believe in yourself, because if you don't, then who will? So keep your head high, keep your chin up, and most importantly, research, dare to dream big and be innovative.
ML: Would you tell us about your working life -does your art pay the bills or are you professionally engaged elsewhere?
BL: My work routines are a bit abnormal. In short, my work is my life. It's spiritual to me. I live it. I breathe it. I spend about 85% of my time around my work. I work seven days a week. And the strangest bit? I’m not one to produce many paintings. I have never had a solo show that had more than eight paintings. Does my art pay the bills? Yes, it does. So much so that I can contribute back to the community. I feel privileged to have grown-up without. For those of us who grew up struggling, we understand the importance a little help can give. I have donated over US $22,000 to various not-for-profit children’s charity organisations in South Africa and arts organisations in the past two years alone.
Personally, from an individual perspective, the highest form of success resulting from any struggle to the top, has got to bear social significance for it to truly hold any meaning. For me, it is not enough to be successful if that success does not have a positive social impact. I once read somewhere that giving back to the society that gave you life is likened to a tree that sheds leaves that nurture the soil that gave it life but also allows for other trees to grow.
ML: And, finally, in what direction is the work taking you as an artist?
BL: Normally, it's the Psychics, Stockbrokers or Weather-forecasters who are good at predicting the future (laughs). Well, to be really honest with you, in a career sense, I have always been on a train that has high expectations. And that’s just not about to change. I'm not content with where I am right now. I know I’m good, but I can be better. You see, sometimes we are flattered by the averageness of our contemporaries, so there’s no resting on my laurels. There is still a long way to go and, no doubt, many more hiccups to overcome, but there are tentative signs that I may just be about to burst on to the international stage with a bang! To start with, my work will be featured at the African Art Fair in London this year (2014). Who knows, from there maybe I will sneak into New York (Laughs). I’m working on the website for my foundation, ‘Benon Lutaaya Foundation,’ which formally started to operate in Uganda this year. It's for the young, underprivileged kids from my home, rural district where I grew up. Stuff is happening.