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Margaret Nagawa,

sculptor, painter,
curator, arts organizer,

Margaret Nagawa, 2001, with her daughter.

Born in Kampala, Uganda, Margaret studied visual arts at the Kampala School of Fine Arts. For the next few years she made sculpture and batik work and curated some exhibitions in Kampala then moved to London in 1998 to pursue a Masters in Curation at Goldsmiths College. She returned to Uganda, where she currently lives, in 2001.

This image is copyrighted
Batik by Margaret Nagawa, 1995.
I studied Fine Arts in Kampala at the Makerere University art school from 1990 to 1993. I majored in painting and sculpture and by the time I graduated, I was artist-in-residence at The Gallery Cafe in Kampala. This gallery was run by two Canadian Bahá´ís, Sylvia Walters and Karyn (Robarts) Wilson for about 7 years. They were very good at art presentation and had business acumen. They both had prior experience in running businesses. In 1993 after travelling around East Africa for a year, they decided to start this gallery.

At the time the only places for showing art were the Nommo, the national art gallery, the University Gallery, Nnyanzi Art Studio and Gallery run by artist Nuwa Nnyanzi and the Sheraton Hotel.
The Sheraton was also the only place you could buy a decent cup of coffee, so they decided that Kampala needed art and good coffee! Even if Uganda is a major coffee farming country, Ugandans drink tea rather than coffee.

So this cafe-art gallery was a special attraction to the expatriate community. Many Ugandans had their first exhibition in this gallery.

As a resident artist, I used the studio and accommodation on the gallery premises. I also received a small salary during my residency. This role gradually evolved and overlapped into managerial duties. In all I worked for the Gallery Café as resident artist/gallery manager for four years. My responsibilities also included travel which I enjoyed very much. I travelled to Zimbabwe, Tanzania and Kenya to bring back crafts and artworks which were sold in the gallery along with coffee.

Batik on cloth
by Margaret Nagawa.

The Most Holy Leaf, 1994,
detail of a ceramic sculpture.

At first I worked with oils, watercolours, charcoal and concrete. Later in 1994 I got interested in a batik technique that Thomas Chindingo, a Zimbabwean artist was using. He was using cassava paste instead of wax with remarkable results; painting and dying the fabric along the way. I worked together with Chindingo for ten days at my Gallery Café studio, then I took it from there. I apply the cassava porridge with a nozzle (such as a squeeze bottle), then dry this in the sun and use fabric paints (not dye). I found that starch, such as maize and rice flour works just as well. Once it is dry I then stretch the material which creates very fine cracks and then soak and scrape the starch off the material. At this sage the work can be dyed or left as is.

In 1997 I moved to London to persue a Master's degree at Goldsmith's College, University of London in Fine Art Administration and Curatorship. The intensive one year programme was composed of 22 students, most from outside of the U.K. We learnt how to manage the arts based on the myriad London approaches. We were also required to work on two independent projects. For one of mine I chose to create a joint UK-Uganda exhibition. The hardest part was communication with the Ugandan artists, since only one was a fulltime artist and unlike now, no one had access to email.

I had worked with this group of artists before, where we pooled our resources for exhibiting, and getting materials and studios. The exhibition working title was "War and Peace". Since it didn't attract interest in the UK, so I changed it to involve Kenyan and Ugandan artists; titled it Smiles and Shudders; perspectives on war and peace and mounted it at the Ugandan Museum in Kampala in 1998. It was accompanied by a public discussion with special presentations on the war and peace theme. I observed that many Ugandans despite having lived years of terror didn't want to deal with the sad aspects of life. They preferred to discuss ways to achieve lasting peace. The artists too did not portray sad images as it was in the Ugandan art of the 1980s, rather they expressed mostly happier aspects of everyday life. The Uganda Museum is basically ethnographic. Ugandans visit it in family groups on the weekends and as school groups during the week, with a few scholars and tourists too. I chose the museum as a venue with a view that many Ugandans would see the exhibition, and they did!
I returned to London to work with the October Gallery in Central London. Elisabeth Lalouschek was the Artistic Director and I was her assistant. I learnt a lot from her. The gallery shows contemporary art from Africa, Asia as well as Europe, where the focus is more on transvangarde work. Some work shown was not by the art-school trained, such as a show of Peruvian artists who were also healers. Here the show looked at how this related to their artistic practice. Most of our clients were people who had travelled to some of these countries or had a personal interest in collecting, say, work by Australian Aboriginal artists.

Sky Princess, 1995, batik on cloth
by Margaret Nagawa.

In early 1999 I got married and when we started a family in 2000 I chose to stay at home and take care of our baby as well as get back to making art. I have since experienced the hardships in the dual existence of parenting and practicing art. Returning to Uganda in mid 2001 meant that I had my family's help with raising our daughter so that in November 2001 I was able to attend an international arts symposium in Tokyo and Osaka, Japan. I was one of eleven African art practitioners invited by the Japan Foundation (Japan's principle agent for cultural exchange) to meet with our Japanese counterparts to devise ways of future collaboration through discussing reviewing the representation of African Art and Cultures; and attended "Yokohama 2001" (a exhibition involving over one hundred artists in site specific work - I was invited at the recommendation of the October Gallery. This was very memorable and a great opportunity to meet other African arts professionals that I had only heard about and read their writings. We are now constantly meeting on the internet.

I travelled to Nigeria in May 2002 working with the Nigerian team I met in Japan of Krydz Ikwuemesi, Ayo Adewunmi and Gerry Buhari all of the Pan African Circle of Artists. This was to attend a conference in Enugu on the status, role and working condition of the artist in Africa. In November I participated in the Africa Heritage 2002 exhibition they organised in Lagos. This working relationship within Africa promises a different direction in the arts, as opposed to the more common Africa and the West relationship.

Currently I am Chairman for the Uganda Artists Association a two year elected position that I have held since February 2002. We are based in Kampala and have got some interesting events like a weekly art meet with intellectual and practical discussions as well as workshops and video and slide shows at the Nommo gallery. We also have an Artist of the Month programme with the Alliance Francaise de Kampala. The current major project we are embarking on is the setting up of an arts resource centre with an IT component that we will collaborate with Carla van Beers of The association can be reached at and I can be contacted at

  • Photograph: The Batik Lesson, Arts Dialogue, February 2000
  • Illustration: Batik, Arts Dialogue, September 1999
  • Letter: Arts Dialogue, June 1999
  • Artist Profile: Arts Dialogue, March 1996

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