Living Things

Portfolio by Leonard Kateete/Introduction by TWR

Not many in Uganda’s art community know how Leonard Kateete came to be an émigré artist in Kenya. In fact, to be precise, not many are familiar with his work. This is not the way it should be, because Kateete, who is 73, may be the most important Ugandan artist you’ve never heard of. Earlier in 2024, a retrospective of his work was put on at Makerere University art gallery. The show, titled “My Heritage,” was Kateete’s first solo exhibition in the country where he was born and grew up, a belated but welcome effort to highlight the work of an artist whose oeuvre is distinguished by its determination to wrestle with a big question of our time: how to preserve African tradition in a fast-changing world.

Kateete is renowned in the region for his work in sculpture and stain-glass mosaic but this portfolio focuses on his canvases. His work as a painter would best be described as portraiture, but the term isn’t good enough. The portraits he makes, usually of people in tribal regalia, are not merely images of his models; these are descriptions of life itself, infused with details so astounding that one can’t merely point to one painting and say, Look, that’s a portrait of a Somali Couple. Unless one hasn’t taken a close look at how Kateete renders his models’ limbs, that would be the missing the point. It can seem as though the enlarged feet are the centre of gravity, the parts into which clarity is gathered, the lifeblood of the image if it could stand on its own. The point, therefore, is not that Kateete makes striking images of living things; his paintings are living things in and of themselves, and the artist achieves this feat without guile. This construct of existence, as it were, is arguably Kateete’s significant contribution as an artist, in addition to his lifelong effort to spark a conversation about the future of African tradition as more people “discard what makes them connected to their heritage.” Kateete told TWR that he feels fortunate that the Catholic Church in Kenya, which has given him multiple commissions, prefers realist works “that are understood by ordinary people.” 

Kateete was born in 1951 near his hometown of Kayabwe in central Uganda. He was educated in schools not far away until he enrolled at Namilyango College, where he completed his O Level. There was a two-year gap of no formal education before he joined the art school at Makerere University in 1973, becoming classmates with students who had high school certificates and graduating in 1977 with a degree in fine art. His entry into art school was one step in a series of fateful events in his coming-of-age story. While he had been briefly out of school, he had made a banana-mosaic portrait of President Idi Amin, whom the young man later met with the help of Princess Elizabeth Bagaya of Tooro. Impressed with his work, Bagaya, then a diplomat of some standing, arranged a meeting with Amin, who was presented with his portrait. A photograph from the scene in the president’s office was published in the local press, bestowing on Kateete a measure of celebrity; later, a top government official in Amin’s government wrote Kateete a recommendation letter for admission to Makerere University, guaranteeing a place if he passed special exams. And, through a group known as Associated Creative Designers, he was commissioned to make a concrete statue of Amin at a private lakeside resort near Munyonyo. Unfortunately for Kateete, this remote association with Amin later became the reason for his troubles after the dictator’s ouster in 1979. At the time, having earned a post-graduate diploma in art education from Makerere University, he was teaching art at Old Kampala Secondary School. When Kateete heard one day that unknown militants had visited his father, accusing the family of having been Amin’s collaborators, he knew it was time to leave. He settled in Kenya in 1980.

The Nairobi-based National Museum of Kenya has collected many of Kateete’s paintings, and others have been acquired by private collectors. In 1990, “to celebrate Nelson Mandela’s freedom,” Kateete made an oil painting of Madiba that, like Amin’s portrait, he was somehow able to present to the great South African when he visited Nairobi later that year. (That portrait has long been displayed in Mandela’s old home in Soweto.) Soon after, beginning with the iconic portraits of Samburu and Rendille couples, Kateete began making the oil paintings upon which his legacy will stand. These days, because turpentine inflames his throat, Kateete has abandoned oil in favor of acrylic paint. The work is still great. The 2023 acrylic painting titled “Totem Tree” is, to the untrained eye, simply the portrait of a tree. But look closely, dear reader, and see the life the artist gives it. ▪ 

Somali Couple 1996 oil on canvas 127 x 76 cm
Kamba 1995 oil on canvas 127 x 76 cm
Lugbara Couple 2023 acrylic on canvas 90 x 58 cm
Burji 2022 acrylic on canvas 120 x 90 cm
Rendille 1991 oil on canvas 127 x 76 cm
Samburu 1991 oil on canvas 127 x 76 cm
Chonyi 1996 oil on canvas 127 x 76 cm
Sukuma Couple 1996 oil on canvas 56 x 42 cm
Swahili Couple 1996 oil on canvas 120 x 90 cm
Chupa na Ndebe 1994 oil on canvas 120 x 69 cm
Girl Playing in the Desert Sand 2022 acrylic on canvas 90 x 56 cm
Totem Tree 2023 acrylic on canvas 90 x 60 cm
Somali Couple, 1996, oil on canvas, 127 x 76 cm
Kamba, 1995, oil on canvas, 127 x 76 cm
Lugbara Couple, 2023, acrylic on canvas, 90 x 58 cm
Burji, 2022, acrylic on canvas, 120 x 90 cm
Rendille, 1991, oil on canvas, 127 x 76 cm
Samburu, 1991, oil on canvas, 127 x 76 cm
Chonyi, 1996, oil on canvas, 127 x 76 cm
Sukuma Couple, 1996, oil on canvas, 56 x 42 cm
Swahili Couple, 1996, oil on canvas, 120 x 90 cm
Chupa na Ndebe, 1994, oil on canvas, 120 x 69 cm
Girl Playing in the Desert Sand, 2022, acrylic on canvas, 90 x 56 cm
Totem Tree, 2023, acrylic on canvas 90 x 60 cm
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