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An eye for the finer things in life

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Originally Published: February 7, 2009

The yellowing newspaper cuttings pasted on the walls of the apartment attest to the fact that the current occupant has lived there for the past 20 years.

Though well-lit, the smell of paint clings to the air in the house on the fourth floor of the Norfolk Apartments building in Nairobi.

At the balcony are the dead and the living: a four-foot banana plant sits on one corner, and a stone and glass sculpture on the other. In between the banana and the sculpture are layers of painted canvas where a tray filled with ripe mangoes sits. For the tenant, Jack Katarikawe, this is simple beauty, art and home. There is nowhere else he would rather be.

“All my memories, whether good or bad, converge here, and most of my dreams have originated in the confines of these walls to claim a spot in one of my canvases,” he says.

Celebrated painters

Mr Katarikawe, 69, has become one of East Africa’s most celebrated painters. He says whenever he looks at someone or people, he always notices something different.

“Each blink opens up a new dimension to the same scene. There is something spiritual in all humans that an artist can see if he looks close enough,” he says. Thus, his paintings, he believes, show the spiritual side of man that at the same time portray a social issue.

Beside him is “Family Planning” an oil on canvas painting that he says not only shows the spiritual wars that the subjects fight but also family planning, something close to his heart. He believes the world can only accommodate and feed so many people.

Katarikawe did not start painting in his childhood like most artists. It was a visit to church in his mid-20s that unleashed the artist in him.

“I grew up in a village surrounded by beautiful hills that would be the envy of many landscape painters, but at that time I failed to see the beauty of that lay before my eyes. My mother used to decorate mud houses with coloured chalk, but I still didn’t see the beauty that lay in the colours,” he says.

Mr Katarikawe grew up in Kigezi in western Uganda. His father was a blacksmith and his mother a small-scale farmer. Just like a majority of his peers at that time, Katarikawe migrated from the village to Kampala.

At 25, he got bored with the work he was doing as a fishmonger and became a bus driver. This was before his chance meeting with “drawings.”

“One Sunday morning I went to church with a cousin and marvelled at the murals and other paintings of Jesus and the Madonna that hung on the church walls. I asked him what those were and how they were made.” Art, his cousin said.

“From then on, I started practising, at first using sticks on dirt. Those who saw my dirt drawings thought I was pretty good. However, I thought nothing of it at that time,” he says.

He was doing well as a bus driver, a career that enabled him to interact with many Kampala socialites. One evening he met a group of painters who introduced him to paint and brushes.

“From then on, my hands have never stopped painting,” he says. When he discovered that his business was not doing well he started looking for employment, landing a driver’s job with an old acquaintance, Professor Cook.

“The boot of his car eventually became the safe for my paintings.” One day, Prof Cook discovered the paintings in the boot and got very mad at the painter.

“I thought he was going to fire me. But, as it turned out, he was only mad because I had kept the paintings from him,” the artist recalls.

A few weeks later, Professor Cook took him to an art competition at one of the few galleries in Kampala. A music fan, he chose to do a painting of the British rock sensation, The Beatles. He emerged third but sold the painting for USh6,000.

“I couldn’t believe it. My monthly salary was around USh40. I took the money and handed my employer the keys to his car,” he recalls. He says his paintings now bring him much more money than his first sale.

“I have lived off my art for almost half a century. I would be lying if I say I have got nothing out of it,” he says.

He came to Nairobi in 1982 “to tap into the then vibrant art scene, got hooked, and have never left since.”

“Sunsets are the most beautiful things an artist can immortalise. Although I am in my sunset years, I believe the best of me is yet to come,” he says, adding that he is inspired by dreams.

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