Abstracting the Human Condition
In the words of Maya Angelou, “There is no agony like bearing an untold story inside of you.” For Ugandan born artist Benon Lutaaya, this could not be more true. He carries the legacy of a country torn by civil war and brutal dictatorships, and his work speaks to the deep suffering of his people.
Based in Johannesburg, Lutaaya has had great success, and is best known for his provocative, contemporary paper collage portraiture paintings. His style is a curious fusion of both abstract and realist elements in somewhat of a Cubist tradition, inviting the viewer to new and exciting perspectives. One piece in particular grabs me: a child-like form gazes upwards, eyes shut as if in a painful nightmare of remembrance; dark shapes gather and break; his very essence seems to be challenged as it fragments and floats out into a world beyond his understanding. The piece is called Broken Dreams, and I can feel the anguish of the child on the canvas – it is profoundly moving.
Although Lutaaya was never a direct victim of the strife in Uganda, he gives expression to its after-effects. “Uganda has a sad history of violence and strife. But to be truly honest with you, I have never directly experienced this violence. I would say I am more a victim of the ugly socio-economic scars born in the wake of this sad history. This plays a big part in my work,” he explains.
He draws on his own experiences to create, making his work both social commentary and autobiography. Many of his pieces convey life growing up in Uganda and his experience as an immigrant in South Africa. “These experiences are not only about suffering, they are also about the triumph of the human spirit,” he emphasises.
Lutaaya grew up in Uganda living with his grandmother. “[She taught me] that education is a very important element of life, that I should work hard, believe in myself, and above all, that I should never, ever give up. These lessons are more valuable to me than my entire university education.”
He came to South Africa on invitation after being awarded an international artist residency by the Bag Factory Artists’ Studios in Johannesburg. “It took me seven days to arrive here because I could not afford an air ticket,” he explains. Far from the poor boy he once was, Lutaaya has had immense success. He has clients from far and wide, and his heart is as big as his personality. He has donated more than R400,000 to various South African children’s charities and other worthy social causes in the last three years alone, and he has no plans of stopping. In fact, despite his many artistic accomplishments, he considers this his biggest achievement. “In a long list of so many fantastic things that have happened to me because of what I do as an artist, what I consider to be my greatest achievement is being able to use my creative work to impact the lives of others in a great way,” he says.
I ask him about his work, and what he felt when he sold his first piece of art. A look of complete elation washes over his face as he tells me about Vulnerable Girl, a piece he sold nearly six years ago. “It was my first successful artwork, and the first time I was exposed to the public’s scrutiny. It was bought by a tourist from Denmark for about R200. You have no idea how that made me feel, I was over the moon! Five years down the road, and my artwork now sells for tens of thousands and hundreds of thousands of rands, but I have never felt as thrilled as I did that day when I sold Vulnerable Girl. That sale convinced me that what I was doing could actually support me financially, and I could pursue a career as an artist.”
It was a career path Lutaaya always knew he wanted to follow, even if he was unsure of its financial viability, and talks about his conviction in his calling during his teen years. “I knew exactly who I wanted to be in life: an artist. Despite growing up with no exposure to art books, artists, museums, or galleries, the moment I was introduced to it, I just felt that was it. I knew it would give me the freedom to work for myself, and challenge me,” he explains.
Yet his path to success was not without its challenges. When he started out in Johannesburg in 2011, he had nothing: no job, no income, no food, no family, and no shelter. “The good thing about me was that nothing had ever come easy for me. Perhaps that gave me an advantage. You need to be really convinced, with a steely, unwavering self-belief and determination that you will make it through to the very top no matter what, to be an artist.”
His work explores issues relating to identity, social adversity, and the frailty of life hijacked by fear and abandonment. It is also about displacement and placement, something he sees as a universal, rather than an African issue. “I always aim to communicate the complexity of human conditions and issues pertaining to influences in our society today in an effort to encourage deeper reflection and awareness.”
Despite pouring so much of himself into what he creates, Lutaaya is yet to find his favourite piece, saying it is still to be created. “I do see and feel it in my head, but let’s wait and see what comes,” he laughs. “There is something unique that I love about each one of my artworks, which is why it is so difficult to choose a favourite. I am a perpetual student of my own work. Each work inspires new perspectives and new possibilities for my artistic creation.”
Spirited, determined, and full of passion, Lutaaya is definitely one to watch. His humility in the face of success is endearing, and he has an infectious zest for life despite his often sombre subject matter. There are great things still to come from this artist.
“I have grown both as a person and an artist in South Africa. The community has been amazing to me and to my work, and everywhere, everyone makes me feel accepted and loved. I feel absolutely at home. Sooner, hopefully, rather than later, I will be formally recognised as a South African… watch this space! I am also truly proud to be African, and aspire to be one of its top representatives in the international visual arts arena. I’ll be taking on London this October, New York in the spring of 2016, and France in the summer of the same year, so there are big things ahead!” I do not doubt him for a minute.
Text: Dominique du Plessis
du Plessis, Dominique (2015) Abstracting the Human Condition. SLOW Lounge Magazine. [Online] 16. Pg 22-24 < http://www.freemagazines.co.za/magazines/SLOWEdition16/slowedition16.html#22>