ART | DOMINIC MUWANGUZI | Artist Henry Mzili Mujunga fits the description of an intellectual. From the time I have known him; which is close to two decades now; his conversations have always been intellectually nuanced. Even for light conversations like the weather or the Kampala traffic jam, he has a knack to turn the subject onto its head to incite questions that lead to more questioning. The result is an animated debate that critiques human weaknesses or strengths, but also provides valuable information for the listener. Unfortunately, if you are not well read, you may find him a bit boring or cocky, but this is Mzili- a pseudonym he adopted in high school after presenting a landmark essay on Mzilikazi (1799-1868), the hero ancestor and King of the Ndebele Kingdom, in pre-colonial South Africa.
This philosophical facet of the artist is clearly portrayed in his art. His paintings are imbued with a myriad of ideas which evoke the thought process of this audience. Though he’s inspired by his immediate surroundings and personal experiences, his artistic ploy to construct his imagery with innuendos doesn’t only portray an artist who’s deeply knowledgeable about the topic his navigating, but equally is intent to draw attention to his work.
“I may paint my subjects wearing a Samurai suit or a Papal robe. On other occasions my subject may have a pierced nose with a ruby when in actual sense they don’t wear it in real life,” he says and continues, “my intention is to skew the mind of the viewer to a particular thought pattern.”
The notion of working with his audience in mind, seemingly is a ruse to escape from the mundane reality of everyday living. As a self -confessed lover of philosophy and psychology, Mzili seems to be wary of living a life that is predictable. With the demand to satisfy the desires and interest of an ever-changing audience within a globalized world setting, he’s prompted to create the extraordinary. Yet the first audience for his work, is himself because he’s an ever-evolving individual.
“My work is a reflection of who I am. This is why I get a lot of satisfaction when I finish working on a particular piece. I feel like I am not a failure in life after all. But this feeling of accomplishment is resigned to subject that are personal to me and not any other theme,” he observes.
A recurrent theme in his work are the women who he claims to have a soft spot for in his life. Firstly, because he’s a man and is therefore naturally attracted to the opposite gender. Secondly, because of his mother but also importantly because of their double- edged sword character. “Women can be soft and tough at the same time and they can skillfully hide this quality,” he remarks. Nonetheless, within the context of the latter, one can discern Mzili’s natural philosophical and sometimes ambiguous inclination to life which in this case is represented by the identity of the woman.
The ambiguity of the woman certainly fascinates him a lot that he chooses her as an imagery to tackle issues that are intimate to him. Mzili’s work explores subjects of human strength, empathy and heroism which not only define our everyday living but also expose the deepest personality of the artist. While Mzili naturally emerges as an intelligent and almost snobbish- typical of his Buddonian upbring- he’s an empathetic and nonchalant man who loves a dose of sarcasm here and here. This clash of two personalities in one individual seem to reverberate his allusion to the double- edged character of the woman and her ability to be tough and soft at the same time. The iconic image of two women involved in fist fight while laughing, is a classic representation of this vague identity of women. However, it also speaks to the self- conflict that underlie his psyche on many life issues including the conversation on women empowerment and emancipation in contemporary society.
Through such figurative representation, Mzili equally delves into the subject of identity making that is regular among many Ugandans. It is common to see Ugandans use their houses, cars, clothes, smart phones and titles as a means to express themselves in the community they live in. More so, such objects are often times perceived as an effective tool to communicate if one has made it in life or not. As such, through the technique of associating his subjects with these objects, the artist is mimicking the processes of identity- making that dominates his countrymen’s social lifestyle. Nonetheless, Mzili doesn’t shy away from the fact he’s an accomplice to this societal norm. As a manifestation to this, he paints his self -portrait in the artwork to illustrate how the subject is intimate to his personality as an individual and artist. This technique underscores his sentimental approach to art rooted in the indigenous expressionism movement.
So, what is indigenous expression? According to Mzili the term refers to original expression. The artist uses their intuition, learned practices and childhood memories sub-consciously to create art. Conversely, the artist says that indigenous expressionism is not afraid of subjectivity or biasness. This philosophy, underscores how passionate the artist is to his work and the topics he’s tackling at any given time. Equally, it justifies the recurrent trend in his artistic practice where he’s inconsistent on canvas and therefore his work is ever evolving.
“I love to express myself anyway I want regardless of how people perceive me. I don’t really care about people’s opinion because I am a creative person and full of ideas. These ideas influence me not to be static,” he says.
These autobiographical paintings communicate the artist’s inner self and their past and present. The artist paints what is intimate to him or things he’s struggling with from a day-to-day basis. Yet in all this, he emphasizes his spiritual and sexual persona that facilitate the strong emotions in his work. Therefore, his work is not only about a burst of ideas on canvas but a soulful encounter that grips both the viewers’ gaze and soul.