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Atugonza’s Human Nature

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Artist draws on the symbiotic relationship between humans and the natural work to create a starling new body of work

ART | DOMINIC MUWANGUZI | There’s so much going on in Richard Atugonza’s life as an artist and individual; from a sky rocketing art career evident in his participation in high profile exhibitions like 1-54 Contemporary African Art Fair London and New York in the recent past, a commission for two large scale sculptures by Abu Dhabi Art Beyond in 2021, to now his debut solo show at Afriart gallery. Within this high tide of achievement is the sharp contrast of life’s challenges which have occasionally knocked at the door of his personal life. To come to terms with this life’s reality; where success and challenges almost happen in equal measures and strangely at the same time as a manifestation of human existence; the artist finds refugee in making art. His new body of work aptly titled Human Nature navigates how human beings partake of life challenges and sometime successes within the context of finding inspiration in the natural world.

In this artistic exploration, the artist exploits the subject of the spider and its cobweb as a metaphor for his subject matter in the work. The idea to work with this minute, predatory animal species was motivated by his regular visit to carpentry workshops where he collects saw dust as a material for his art. Here as an artist with an incisive eye he would observe and become fascinated by the large cobwebs on the ceiling, walls and pillars of the workshop built from the discarded saw dust emitted from the process of timber milling. The spider’s workmanship seem to underscore the symbiotic relationship between animals and humans where the former finds human habitats conducive to inhabit. Within the scope of symbiotic living where each party benefits or contributes to the others existence, the spider helps to keep away the insects that would have fed on the wood thereby implicitly contributing to preservation of the timber in the work space. On the other hand, the workshop becomes a permanent abode for the spider; relieving it of the burden to live in open spaces.

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The interrelation between humans and nature (spider) seen in the workspace setting, is replicated in Atugonza’s life size installations. The installations dangling from the ceiling like chandeliers and others taking comfort in the different corners of the gallery space, are experimental in design reminding us of the act of construction which involves a lot of experimentation. Nonetheless, with these installations the viewer gets a feeling of navigating life’s highs and lows palpable with the way the artist arduously and meticulously works with saw dust to produce the installations. It is obvious that through hardwork and patience one can overcome life’s struggles but also at the same time create a successful career trajectory for themselves.

The sculpture portraits exhibited alongside the installation artwork are a brilliant juxtaposition which offer a quiet but breathtaking continuation of the story the artist has created. The two bodies of work are the same; each piece of art telling a single story but woven into one big story. For example, Brothers 2023 may convey the message of two brothers (blood related or not) who are huddled up together because of life’s struggles. In the process of contemplating life’s challenges, they find solace in playing Ludo; a popular board- game today among many adult males living in city suburbs like Kamwokya, Bukoto, Nakulabye and Nateete, or Emerging 2023 which seem to portray the act of emerging from trials and tribulations of life – in this portrait depicted by the ropes covered with saw-dust. With these starling figurines created from saw-dust, charcoal and dried grass the artist pays homage to the daily struggles of living encountered by people in his immediate surrounding. Here it goes without saying that most of his models are women because according to the artist they’re easily accessible to him.

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Human Nature, Richard Atugonza, Installation View 1, Courtesy of Afriart Gallery

“When I am working, it is the women who come to me and ask question about what I am doing. Sometimes I may eaves drop on their conversations which often involve going through life’s challenges,” says the artist.

Richard Atugonza’s debut solo show goes beyond demonstrating an artist who has grown to greater height within a short period of time. It is an exhibition where lessons are learned about humanity’s inextricable entanglement with the natural world that surrounds us. The artist’s technique to position himself in the middle of this introspective encounter provides fervent and honest emotions that draw in the viewer leading to deeper conversations about the art on display.

The exhibition is showing at Afriart gallery located on 7th Street Industrial Area next to Wild Coffee. It opened on 13th January and runs until 9th March 2024. The exhibition is curated by Lara Buchmann

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