Magazine article New African

Nnyanzi the Master

Magazine article New African

Nnyanzi the Master

Article excerpt

Nuwa Wamala Nnyanzi, the Ugandan artist, is an undisputed master of batik in East Africa. He has just been celebrating 25 years of his illustrious career. Curtis Abraham went to see him in Kampala.


Nuwa Wamala Nnyanzi's day begins with a prayer. Today the celebrated Ugandan artist prays for the good health of his gallery assistant Sylvia Ndagire and for me just recovering from flu. He prays for the deceased, the sick, his business, family and neighbours. His artistic talent, he says, is by God's grace. So the Almighty cannot be ignored.

Yet, curiously, religious imagery does not feature prominently in his art. In fact, looking around his small but cosy studio at the National Theatre Arts and Craft Village in Kampala, the capital, there are only two works displayed that have been inspired by his profound belief in Christianity--these include "Shouldering Our Burdens", a print of Jesus Christ bearing the cross and another one "Awakening" where the colourfully robed figures of the 12 disciples in various poses are receiving the spirit of Jesus as flames above their heads. There is also little in his personal background to suggest a profound influence of faith except for his receiving a Certificate T III in interpreting the Bible for Church Ministry which he received from Kenya's Daystar International Institute in 1980.

Nnyanzi's gallery is full of wooden and metal sculptures, oil paintings, original batiks on cotton and other materials, woodcut and batik prints. The majority are his creations, but he actively and unselfishly promotes the work of his fellow Ugandan artists, including established ones like Fred Mutebi and upcoming talent such as Michael Kibuuka and Dick Muliika.

Nnyanzi is an undisputed master of the batik in East Africa. However, the batik is not an indigenous African art form. The word batik (or embatik) is of Indonesian origin. It means "wax writing" or "wax painting". However, the exact origin of the batik art form is uncertain, although there is consensus that it originated somewhere on the Asian continent.


Looking into his past, there is little that would suggest Nnyanzi's future lay in art. He, himself is a descendant of Baganda chiefs, among whom was his great grandfather Paulo Nsubuga Bakunga, who participated in the making of the 1900 agreement that laid the foundation for the creation of the modern-day Uganda. His paternal grandfather, Kesi Mukasa Bagandanswa, was among the first Ugandans to visit the UK as a reward for his swift grasp of the English language at the beginning of the 20th century.

Nnyanzi's late father served in the colonial Kings African Rifles. He was a lab assistant who would once take a blood sample from the Lion of Juddah, the Ethiopian Emperor Haile Salassie while stationed in the former Abyssinia.

Nnyanzi's mother was also in the medical profession as a nurse and midwife. She was selected and encouraged to pursue that profession by Sir Tito Winyi IV, the late Omukama of Bunyoro.

So it seemed only natural that Nnyanzi would similarly follow in the footsteps of his parents. In 1972, he enlisted in the Uganda Medical Corps and trained on the job as a medical stores assistant. Two years on, he was promoted to second-in-charge of the medical stores in the Uganda General Military Hospital at Mbuya in Kampala, but it is here where his troubles with the authorities began.

Nnyanzi was a member of the Uganda People's Army. He and 34 other young men, mainly from Buganda, had been recruited into the military in 1972 by one Brigadier Dr. Bogere. These were royalists who held the conviction that the defence of the kingdom should be modernised.

It was at this time that Idi Amin's regime suspected Brig Bogere and his new recruits of subversive activities. The group was disbanded. Some of them went into exile while others joined Amin's army.

Nnyanzi himself was arrested and received vile treatment at the hands of Amin's men who kicked and gun-butted him. …

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