Melancholy Exhibition, probes the pain of introspection and the joy of self-knowledge
By Gloria Kiconco
Walking into Makerere Art Gallery to view Ian Mwesiga’s Melancholy, I meet his painting “I am Only Human” (2015), directly across from the door. It is a destabilizing image that is fragile and haunting, depicting a pale human figure, with a shadow flickering against the dark background. The figure is tense and quivering.
I was here the day before, on the eve of the opening, interviewing Mwesiga in the silence of the gallery about his work. I walk away from the ‘human’ and peruse his other paintings, reflecting on our conversation from the day before.
While he was a student at the Margaret Trowell School of Industrial and Fine Arts, Mwesiga was very technical, a perfectionist with the human figure, an impressionist in his style. Like many young artists, he felt compelled to mimic the dominating commercial art found in galleries around Kampala. But his work betrayed restlessness.
“All the time, whenever I would go to paint, there was this thing in me. I think the energy in the paintings would show there is some bit of soul-searching,” he said to me, drawing back his arms behind his head in a thoughtful pose. There it was. The spirit of Melancholy.
It was during his residency at 32° East Ugandan Arts Trust in 2014 that Mwesiga was able to dive into himself. He rebelled against his technical tendency. He explored with his senses, covering his eyes and touching his face and painting what he felt, creating a more honest image than the one his trained eye could produce.
I felt this process was parallel to the internal destruction of identity and beliefs that accompanies true introspection. With every question, you draw back to another more basic, more devastating question. From “who do I want to be?” to “who am I anyway?” This kind of questioning leaves you at the edge of a very dangerous precipice and you know it will be a painful fall, but you do it anyway.
Mwesiga jumped into soul-searching, but he could not question the self without beginning to question the society around him. This thinking was reflected in his solo exhibition at AKA gallery (2014) where he depicted semi-nude female bodies in response to society’s attempts to police the female body through the mini-skirt bill.
The female body remains his most prominent subject in Melancholy, but it serves to introduce greater questions. His painting “Perpetual Nihilism” (2014) depicts three, mostly nude, women in the foreground, looking directly at the viewer. To their left is an apathetic onlooker and to the right a priest of the Catholic Church, his back symbolically turned away from the scene.
The scenes probe viewers to question the role of the church in establishing the morality of society. But it goes beyond that. “It Is Finished…” (2015), depicts a nude woman cast in the role of Jesus at crucifixion. This painting gives birth to a riot of reflections about who decides what is good, bad, and right. What is it to be right, anyway?
The point is to continue asking and probing. It is out of this searching that both painter and viewer experience cathartic joy. Mwesiga, happily recounts how effortless it was to create his Introspection series which portray nude women in moments of agony and sadness. One viewer points to “Introspection II” as her favourite piece because of its sorrow.
As Mwesiga explained it, “At the end of the day, all this becomes exciting [art]work, but out of melancholy is the joy of sadness.”
After touring the exhibition, I finish again where I started, at the painting, “I Am Only Human”. I realise that experiencing the pain of introspection leaves you fragile; but every bit of knowledge gained about the self, secures you. It is the highest pursuit, even if that knowledge is simply an admission of your weakness and humanity.
Ian Mwesiga’s solo exhibition Melancholy will be showing at the Makerere Art Gallery until July 4, 2015.
The Author is a poet and Arts Writer, contributing regularly to Startjournal.org