In March of this year, I found myself for the first time in Uganda, the pearl of Africa. It was my first time venturing to the eastern region of the Continent, but unlike most foreign debutantes of the beautiful, sunny nation, I wasn’t there to backpack through one of its many stunning forests, or to go gorilla trekking, nor to even go on an epic safari tour.
My mission was single-minded and urgent, to meet and learn about the incredible story of a young contemporary artist raised on the streets of Kampala, whose work blew me away when I first encountered it.
Ronald Mugabe, or Mugabe Ronald, as he goes by in Uganda, as is the custom there, is warm, mild-mannered and easy-going when I meet him for the first time at my apartment complex in Kampala, where myself and videographer Danny Wonders are staying. He embraces both of us like old friends, and before we know it, we have struck a great rapport and bond as we converse on subjects as diverse as his favorite football team, Manchester United, to the food, culture and nightlife of the city.
But it is his personal story that intrigues us most, and why we have both traveled thousands of miles to meet the artist, alongside, of course, to see his masterly works of art in person. Ronald, an orphan, whose mother died when he was still an infant, and whose siblings have all sadly passed, too, spent many years of his childhood and adolescence homeless, living in the streets of Kampala, having to fend for himself using his wits, creativity and instinct for survival.
As Ronald recounted to us how he grew up, and the harsh surroundings and conditions in which he become accustomed to, I could not help but feel a sense of disbelief at how someone could endure so much hardship, pain and trauma, from such a young age, and yet still remain upbeat, optimistic and full of life as he was. It was a key lesson in the value of perspective, made even more pronounced when Ronald kindly showed us around the inner-city slums of Kampala where he was raised, and we were struck by how despite the poor circumstances of its inhabitants, everyone we encountered, was smiling, laughing or just getting on with their daily lives, work and hustle.
His life story informs his hauntingly beautiful art: deep blue- black muses, with dreadlock hairstyles, that speak to the artist’s love of both his African heritage, as well as notions of freedom, rebellion and self-love. Ronald often paints his friends, and relays to us how when living in the streets, it was the bonds of friendship, love and companionship that allowed him to survive and make it out. After many years homeless, Ronald was discovered and supported by an international NGO with a mandate to support street kids and orphans, resulting in him finally having a stable place to call home, but more significantly, the chance to pursue a formal education, previously denied to him, as well as to explore his natural creative talent in drawing, and later painting.
Ronald paints with an undeniable hunger and passion that results in layers of texture, boldness and depth to his striking portraits. Having turned his life around, and avoided becoming just another statistic, the artist pursued his art career in earnest after receiving a diploma from one of the nation’s most-esteemed art schools, Michelangelo College of Creative Arts, a huge feat considering his earlier pursuit of education almost ended as soon as it began after his mother’s tragic death.
After touring the artist’s outdoor studio, where, like many old masters such as Van Gogh, he paints plein-air, I was enamored by his work, a compelling fusion of aesthetic beauty and technique, underpinned by moving narrative and motifs.
I asked the artist candidly, how he was able to turn his pain to power and his trauma to triumph. He paused for a moment before responding, “Even when I was homeless, I was never hopeless.”
A profound statement, by a profound artist that inspired the concept behind his first international solo exhibition, ‘Homeless Not Hopeless’ at The Coningsby Gallery in London’s prestigious West End.
Ronald Mugabe’s arresting pieces will be on show at the Homeless Not Hopeless solo exhibition between 1 May - 7 May 2022
The Coningsby Gallery
30 Tottenham Street
London W1T 4RJ
Raphael K. Dapaah Art Contributor Polo Lifestyles 2022