NOT EVERY VISUAL artist would be willing to admit the disheartening sense of dead ends and near misses that comes of muddling through ideas, before they get to submit an ‘offering’ to the world. It’s an admission of humanity and frailty in a world fraught with quick fixes, sensationalism, barbs and negativity. Ugandan-born artist, Benon Lutaaya, was. That sense of vulnerability was so central to his work ethic and his thinking. On April 19, he succumbed to brain cancer. He was 34.
Lutaaya’s story is about the kind of meteorological rise to prominence that you find in fiction. By 2015, he was on top of his game and the recipient of numerous awards and acknowledgements, not only for the visual wisdom and freshness in his works, but also for his entrepreneurial spirit and his ability to simply be the face of young Africa. The year 2015 saw him crowned the Face of African youth foundation; the recipient of the Ambassadorial young award for the Adler Entrepreneurship Award in Germany; the young impact award in visual art for the Arts and Culture Trust, to name but a few.
But he didn’t start this way. Material need forced him to rethink his approach to artmaking, and often the shards and crumbs of paper which he repurposed in his work were things that he had foraged from other people’s dust bins.
Born in 1985 in Uganda, Lutaaya read for his bachelors degree in Fine Art at Kampala University with a major in Education. In 2010 he had developed the artistic muscle and the confidence to go professional in his work and in the following year, he was the recipient of the international residency award hosted by the Bag Factory in Newtown.
And the proverbial die was cast. He fell in love with the country, its people, its dynamics, its will to reinvent itself. Between 2011 and 2019, he received many awards, but he also made many donations, including more than R1-million to children’s charities in the country. He also co-sponsored the Reinhold Cassirer Award, established to support young artists.
In 2016, he founded the August House-based Project Space in central Johannesburg. It was born out of 2010’s National Research statistical data published by the department of arts and culture, which had found that only 12% of women make a living from art. With the idea to empower women to be artists without fear or shame was the mandate of non-profit cultural organisation Project Space, of which Lutaaya was the executive chair. Some 50 emerging, mid-career and established artist called the space, which spilled over into the Victoria Yards, in Lorentzville, home.
Boasting work in major collections, Lutaaya’s approach to his work was fearless and experimental. His love affair with his material which explored the underbelly of his subject matter from the inside out, had a momentum and an instinct of its own. Teetering between an abstract and a perceptual approach, Lutaaya’s work emulated that notion of catching a spark of life in its interstices and crafting it and blowing on it until it developed energy of its own.
Lizamore & Associates Gallery in Rosebank was the first gallery in Johannesburg to offer him a solo exhibition, recognising his enormous potential and the unbridled beauty of those ‘muddlings’ of his. A humble man and a sincere one, Lutaaya remained with the gallery until his untimely death. This month, the gallery hosts an exhibition entitled Eulogy: A Tribute to Benon Lutaaya, from June 13 until June 29, comprising work by Lutaaya himself as well as his close friends in the visual arts world.
Lutaaya lost his father when he was just five years old. He was raised by his grandparents. His mother died in 2007. He was buried in his hometown in Kampala and leaves two sisters, his partner in South Africa, Dzunani, and two sons: five year old Benz Lutaaya (in South Africa) and four-year-old Benon Lutaaya in Germany, as well as his extended family, and the heartbroken global visual arts community.