Ugandan janitor-turned-artist shares his art at UF


Published: Thursday, July 11, 2013 at 6:29 p.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, July 11, 2013 at 6:29 p.m.

Water trickles down a trench outside Mathias Tusiime's community in Uganda. But follow the stream and soon it stops.

Piles of plastic bottles impede proper flow, and the water doesn't get to where it needs to go.

Tusiime gathers these obstacles, and from those recycled plastics he will create sculptures — works of art that cry out to his community to practice sustainability and protect the environment.

But his work doesn't stop there. This week, a selection of Tusiime's vibrant paintings lined the walls of the University Gallery.

He watched as strangers gazed at his handcrafted images.

"I'm a self-trained artist," Tusiime said. "I want to share what I've learned with people."

Tusiime's story is a humble one. Just three weeks ago, his visitation visa to the U.S. was granted, and his trip to Gainesville was the first time he'd ever been on a plane.

Though his latest moments have been a whirlwind, Tusiime's arts career started more than a decade ago while working as a janitor at one of the oldest and most renowned art schools in East Africa, Uganda's Margaret Trowell School of Industrial and Fine Arts at Makerere University.

. . .

After hours, when only abandoned canvases and paint palettes manned the university's art studios, Tusiime's pastime turned into a passion.

When students left after finishing their projects, Tusiime gathered leftover materials — meager at first, but slowly they accumulated into useable supplies.

Canvases weren't easy to get, so Tusiime again turned to his environment.

He created canvases using grass, sugar cane husks and cornhusks, explaining that it was "not simple."

The steps took time, but when his canvases were ready, he slathered them with swirls of rich colors and electric hues.

In a vibrant sea of abstract strokes, piercing bright, white eyes anchor the humans he depicts. Layers of thick, goopy textures let patrons retrace Tusiime's artistic process.

As he continued to paint, he began selling his artwork within his community. The school's dean, Philip Kwesiga, soon took notice.

"He has such a passion to share his images," Kwesiga said.

In 1999, Kwesiga opted to display a selection of Tusiime's work at a staff showing for the university. The move formed a support system for Tusiime, and he slowly gained more fans.

"I encouraged him," Kwesiga said. "He would want to bring one piece of art to a show, and I would say, ‘Bring four.' "

Global patrons visited the school and admired his work, later purchasing his pieces and funding supplies for him to use in Uganda.

A father of five children, the help allowed him to support his family with his day job and feed his passion in his free time.

Tusiime began volunteering at hospitals and hosting community workshops, educating adults and children alike on the environment and encouraging them to practice sustainability.

. . .

Tusiime will spend about a month in the U.S. before returning home to Uganda. But his trip was planned on hope.

Because his visa was granted just three weeks ago, his plane tickets were purchased without knowing whether he could legally use them.

He had been denied a visa twice before, and Jill Sonke, director of the Center of Arts in Medicine at UF, said scheduling his show had been three years in the making.

Two weeks before his planned trip, he got the green light, and everyone involved was emotional.

"When he got his visa, he couldn't sleep for two days," Kwesiga said.

Sonke said Tusiime cried on the phone.

"I was so happy," Tusiime said. "So happy."

After his last week in Gainesville — in which he, Kwesiga and five other guests from Uganda are participating in this year's Arts in Healthcare Summer Intensive at UF — Tusiime and his guests will travel to Oakland, Calif., and later to Boston to continue showing his work.

There, Tusiime said he has other generous patrons willing to host him, for which he said he is thankful.

While in Gainesville, Tusiime's art will be displayed in the University Gallery until Tuesday.

From noon to 5 p.m. on the remaining weekdays, the public can view his collection. At 5:30 p.m. on Tuesday, patrons can pay $20 to take an exclusive grass-canvas-making course with Tusiime.

"He's an extraordinary artist," Sonke said. "His work itself is beautiful and powerful, but his story — who he is — is so valuable in the service of our field."

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