PAIN, suffering and triumph. Or is it suffering, pain and then triumph? Benon Lutaaya mulls over which order the words should be in to sum up his life so far. He’s only 27 and at such a high point in life right now that perhaps the pain and suffering are behind him.
Ugandan-born Lutaaya is making his name in SA’s art world, with his first solo exhibition opening last month. He is a slight, unassuming man, seeming so shy and quiet that I suspect speaking to him is going to be difficult. He starts with a few sentences he has clearly practised before: "Each one of my art works is the fruit of a struggle, much like my life."
But as he talks about his work, his past, his aspirations and ambitions, he speaks more rapidly and grows more animated. Later, he admits that talking doesn’t come easily.
"I have been a loner for a long time and when I got to Johannesburg I realised I needed to talk." I look at him askance. We expect artists to have some temperamental quirks, but self-imposed silence seems rather extreme.
"I couldn’t talk," he says. "When I’m writing I’m good but when I’m talking it’s another story. It was something I had to teach myself." He has learned well; his words keep flowing.
We’re sitting on the stairs inside a vast room where there are no chairs. Around us, the space is being transformed into a gallery. Paintings are unwrapped and hung and spotlights tested ready for opening night. This is the new home of Ithuba Art Gallery and the Ithuba Art Fund, which gave Lutaaya the cash to take the steps that finally got him noticed. The fund was set up when inner-city property developer Citiq decided its social responsibility money should support emerging artists.
"Citiq wanted to get more involved in the arts and have a pictorial record of how the city is changing," says curator Lavendhri Arumugam. She was hired to head the initiative to identify emerging artists, fund their work, help to develop their careers and promote them in its gallery. Until last month, it was a very mobile organisation, mainly based on Arumugam’s laptop. Then Citiq saw the potential of the warehouse in Juta Street in Braamfontein and offered it to them as a gallery.
Artists who want funding must present a proposal saying what they need and why, and can be financed for six months. "Some people just apply for material costs, others need funds to sustain them and pay for their studio," says Arumugam. "We judge their proposal on how feasible it is. The quality of their work is definitely factored in and their ability to run a project, because we want to help people who can help themselves." The fund is hardly bottomless at R200,000, but Lutaaya needed only R20,000 to kick-start his career.
Arumugam says she has never seen anybody work like he does: "He’s in his studio all the time. He took this opportunity and grabbed it to do what he wanted to do, which was learn to paint and develop his skills. His style has really matured over the past few months and it’s amazing to see how much more confident he is."
The present exhibition for Ithuba artists features work from six people. Lutaaya is not included as he was a beneficiary a year ago, but his first solo exhibition is being held at Room, another gallery in Juta Street. Arumugam hopes the shows will attract gallery owners seeking fresh work, and corporate funders, who could buy art for their offices or donate money so Ithuba can support more artists. Business and Arts SA has already stepped in to help fund the work.
Lutaaya’s story is a moving tale of resilience against dreadful difficulties. He was abandoned by his mother as a baby and raised by his grandmother, a teacher in a small village. She enrolled him in school, but at 10 he left for Kampala to live on the streets: "The need for food isn’t a problem. I’m not someone who eats a lot and I’m used to going without food." He used money he earned from odd jobs to pay to attend an under-resourced school and, through hard work, ended up top of his class. That earned him a bursary and another year in school.
Then a sympathetic aunt enrolled him in high school, and he passed his A-levels with the support of a teacher and self-help books. That won him a scholarship to study art at university.
He graduated without a job, and collected materials and paper from rubbish tips so he could continue producing art in the form of collages.
By then he had seen an advert offering foreign artists a three-month bursary to study at the Bag Factory Artists’ Studio in Johannesburg, and he created a portfolio to apply.
"I’d go around the streets looking for paper because I couldn’t afford paint. I was in tears in my small space trying to create work that could get me out of there."
Lutaaya won and arrived in SA in 2010. When the three months were up, he knew he wasn’t going home, as there was no home to go to. He persuaded the Bag Factory to let him stay a couple more months, and just as his time was up, the Ithuba grant arrived.
Of the emerging artists Ithuba funded last year, Lutaaya was the most disadvantaged, yet a year later he believes he is ahead of anyone his age in terms of technical improvement and income, after selling all seven pieces the money let him produce.
"I played with materials just to try to learn, knowing at the end if I didn’t have any money at least I’d have the experience. But the project was successful and I sold all my artwork for R110,000."
He has spent the past few months ensconced in his studio. "I’m very self-demanding of the best possible. The scary thing is I feel I’m just 30% of what I could be, so the simple interpretation is to work really hard to improve."
He often blends collage and paint and his subject is usually portraits. Each painting helps him to confront his past, so I ask how he can paint a portrait of another person that reflects himself. He is not trying to produce a physically accurate portrait — a camera can do that better, he says: "I’m not showing you, but how I feel about you. Don’t expect me to represent you, but expect something inspired by you, in your image. So you love it more because I’ll show a new reality about you."
Oddly, he refuses to tout his work to galleries, thinking they will come to him if he is good enough. That sounds short-sighted, perhaps born from a fear of rejection as he still harbours a niggling doubt about whether he is good enough.
Arumugam urges him to show his work to more people, but concedes that Johannesburg’s art world may be small enough to get him noticed by word of mouth.
"Artists often don’t know the first thing about promoting themselves and it’s the people who have that drive who become successful," she says. Now, Ithuba Art Fund is likely to help them to achieve that.
• The Ithuba Art Gallery is in Anchor House, 100 Juta Street, Braamfontein, Johannesburg, www.artsithuba.co.za.