Letaru Dralega is a mixed-media artist who helped establish the Afropocene Studio/Lab, a creative space in the Kampala suburb of Kabalagala that she shares with artists who, like her, are creating some of the most thoughtful artworks in Uganda today. Letaru, who was born in the UK in 1993, got her start as an artist with a 2017 residency at Kampala’s 32 Degrees East three years after graduating from Sciences Po in France. After the residency she returned to Sciences Po to earn her second degree in the same field: the social sciences.
Her education is key to her perspective as an artist because all her pieces, if they were not artworks, might as well have been scholarly essays on anything ranging from slavery to decolonization, from religious syncretism to meditation. Art, she told TWR, “is the visual side of the social sciences.” Thus her artistic practice is a continuation of her education.
For Letaru, artworks do not exist in a vacuum. She holds herself accountable by asking tough questions of her work, so that she emerges as a veritable laboratory artist. She speaks, for example, of the metaphysics of an image whose visceral textures speak to her, of the alchemizing of emotions, and even of the subversion of received narratives.
She is a warm and brilliant conversationalist, confident in her assertions and able to reach far in history for examples. The expansive studio in which she works is littered with books, interesting books, like the French artist Francoise Gilot’s memoir of her time with Picasso and a study of the American radical thinker Angela Davis. The books, by their presence, affirm the scholarly imperative of Letaru’s work as an artist.
This portfolio includes recent works as well as those Letaru created early in her career. A Chasing After the Wind is the title of the body of work she started creating during her residency at 32 Degrees East, when she was experimenting with the marbling technique first developed in Japan. It involves floating paints and inks on water and then placing paper to the greasy surface. The result, over which she has little control, is a print of unpredictable patterns and textures that sometimes recall space constellations, deep seas and other wonders of nature.
In her most recent work she mixes paints, oils and inks together and then, in the inverse motion of the marbling technique, applies the mixture to a surface. Whatever comes out she interprets thoughtfully; in a few pieces, for example, some forms are reminiscent of scars, of wounds as they heal, giving rise to deep questions about healing, about meditation, and about other conditions of existence.
“Now that I have established this technique of the mixed media, my question is how do I push this further?” she said. “How do I deepen my questioning around rupture and repair, wounding, colonial histories, the repercussions of slavery, the ongoing development of christianities that exist and the intersection of all of these things. So, now, it’s about how I elaborate this practice.”
This elaboration will involve even further experimentation with technique and form. She also is interested in sound art and installation, in writing, in curating, in all possible facets of artistic creation that can help her solve the intellectual queries at hand. “I am trying to figure out what needs to be approached from a curatorial perspective, from a writer’s perspective, from a visual arts perspective,” she said.
There is growing interest in Letaru’s work among academics and collectors, marking her as one to watch out for. Her work is held in collections at home and abroad, and early in 2023 she was commissioned by 32 Degrees East to make a limited-edition digital pigment print in commemoration of the opening of the first phase of the art centre. Titled A Beginning, the piece underscores the strength of her practice: the vibrant colors, the inter-galactical coherence, the textures that evoke alternative landscapes.