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Ian Mwesiga – Melancholy

June 23, 2015

The Subtle Joy of Sadness

Besides my other numerous circle of acquaintances I have one more intimate confidant – my melancholy. In the midst of my joy, in the midst of my work, she waves to me, calls me to one side, even though physically I stay put. My melancholy is the most faithful mistress I have known, what wonder, then, that I love her in return.
Søren Kierkegaard[i]

The working title of this exhibition of recent paintings by Ian Mwesiga was The Way of the Cross in reference to his exploration of religion and its impact on values and rules in society triggered by recent political developments in Uganda like the so called mini-skirt bill for example. Mwesiga grappled with questions about the role of the church in moral education and the relevance of faith in people’s lives. His paintings “Because We Are Cheerful Givers”, “Perpetual Nihilism” (both 2014), “Crucify her!”, and “It’s Finished…” (both 2015) are speaking examples of this. In the course of the working process Mwesiga shifted the focus of his reflections towards introspective interrogations and the emotion of melancholy, a similarly yet very differently contested subject. This is vividly reflected in the cycle “Saint of Vengeance” (2015) that breathes a specific tension between the semantic of the biblical title and the visually intense portraits.

The title-giving theme Melancholy opens up a space for far reaching contextualization. Five centuries ago in 1514, the German renaissance painter and print maker Albrecht Dürer created his famous engraving “Melencolia I”, one of the most analyzed and interpreted artworks in art history. The cultural history of the term melancholy reaches back to pre-modern medicine and the theory of the four temperaments, which in a healthy person are believed to be in balance. Concepts of melancholy have played important roles in art and literature from at times encompassing fashionable notions of intellectual or artistic genius to being considered pathological in Freudian psychoanalysis at the beginning of the 20th century. Another prominent example for the theme in visual arts is Edvard Munch’s group of paintings all entitled “Melancholy” (1890s) depicting variations of a thoughtful man at a shore. This series strongly evokes a notion of (self-) reflection.

Edward Munch, Melancholy, 1894 - 96, oil on canvas, 81 cm x 100,5 cm

Edvard Munch, Melancholy, 1894-96, oil on canvas, 81 x 100,5 cm

In their essay on “Melancholy as an Aesthetic Emotion” (2003) Brady/Haapala differentiate melancholy from its clinical counterpart depression in pointing out that melancholy has a strong reflective and thoughtful aspect making it productive and even kind of painfully pleasant at times.[ii] Mwesiga’s paintings can be seen in this sense; they are concerned with melancholy as a social commentary and aesthetic approach, whereby the aspects of reflection and a subtle joy leading to creative productivity are of great relevance. He chose a melancholic perspective in opposition to the especially in contemporary Ugandan painting widespread prevalence of cheerful picturesque motives and colors. Mwesiga himself started off quite jolly as a student; in bright colors and with skilful stroke he banned scenes of daily urban life on canvas. But he soon defected from the beautifying images towards the ambitious endeavor to create a body of work that redefines the language of painting as a mode of expression. His interest in being an artist is driven by the will to make a statement.

Katrin Peters-Klaphake
Curator, Makerere Art Gallery

[i] Søren Kierkegaard, “Diapsalmata,” in Either/Or, Penguin, 1992, p. 44.

[ii] Brady, Emily and Haapala, Arto. (2003). Melancholy as an Aesthetic Emotion, in: Contemporary Aesthetics, Vol. 1

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