During the celebrations of his 29th coronation anniversary on Sunday last week, Kabaka Mutebi II unveiled paintings of 31 former Kings of Buganda, from Kabaka Kintu to Ssuuna II. These portraits depict the Kings of Buganda, who existed between 1200 and 1856 at a time when there were no cameras or paintings, which means there were no pictures showing what they looked like.
It took seven years for Wasswa Lumu and Simon Peter Bwanika to come up with these portraits. URN spoke to Bwanika to find out how they were able to come up with the portraits with the clear features of the kings. Bwanika, 32, is an artist with a bachelor’s degree in industrial arts and design from Kyambogo University and a resident of Kireka.
For the past 11 years, he has painted portraits and pictures from his workshop, SPM Arts Uganda, which he operates with Wasswa Lumu. He speaks with a smile beaming across his cheeks and sits with the posture of one who has some achievements to his name.
There are several paintings of individuals and animals carefully arranged in his workshop. Bwanika says that to be chosen for the task, his colleague Lumu had taken a mosaic portrait of the Kabaka made of banana fibres to the Kingdom Minister of Research, Sylvia Mazzi. When Katikkiro Mayiga saw the portrait, he was impressed and called Lumu to tell him about the kingdom’s plan to paint portraits of the kings whose images did not exist.
Lumu agreed to do the work, and he and Bwanika embarked on the task. To start the work, the artists had to do research on the descriptions of the former kings. Bwanika says they had to read books that talked about the physical appearances of the kings of Buganda. They were advised to read the book titled “Abateregga Ku Namulondo ye Buganda,” written by J.S. Kasirye.
The book offered details on the face of Kabaka Kyabaggu and little information about the countenances of the other kings. After painting Kabaka Kyabaggu, they took the work to a committee at Bulange Mengo, which appreciated their work. Now, there seemed to be no way forward as there were no books detailing the appearances of the other kings.
They were stuck on what to do until Minister Mazzi advised them to visit the different royal tombs of the former kings. Here they met the custodians of the tombs, descended from the King’s lineages. These gave the artists the information they knew about the looks of the kings, which they added to the information from the books and drawn sketches.
According to Bwanika, they were able to get clear descriptions of the faces of some of the kings from their descendants at their tombs. For example, at Kaliiti, where Kabaka Kikulwe’s tombs were.
They then took these sketches to 3 different committees at Bulange Mengo who approved them, and thus the artists added colour to the sketches and took the portraits to the committees for approval. Each sketch was presented for approval to all the 3 committees, starting with that led by Mr. Nsubuga, who is a researcher for the kingdom; then that led by Mr. Kyewalabye Male, who took over the Ministry of Research from Sylvia Mazzi; and the final one chaired by the Katikkiro, Charles Peter Mayiga.
The painting was done from the workshop at Banda with utmost secrecy, as the kingdom didn’t want the project to be known to the public before being unveiled by the Kabaka Mutebi. Due to the secrecy of the work, once paintings were done, they were hidden and captions were put on later, away from the workshop.
The work took 7 years due to research, with a single portrait taking between 4 and 5 months. Bwanika explains that they would get a single feature of a king described and draw it, then research for more features until a clear sketch was drawn.
He says with Kabaka Kintu that no one knew anything about what he looked like and no book had a description of his facial features. All that was written about Kintu was that he was a fierce warrior, so the artists had to construct a portrait of what a warrior looked like in the 1200s, and that’s how they came up with his sketch.
When it comes to Kabaka Mutebi I, whose portrait clearly looks like the reigning Kabaka, Bwanika says that the custodians of the tomb of Mutebi I described what they knew of him, and the result is the portrait that depicts him closely resembling his reigning descendant.
After all the portraits were completed and approved by the Katikkiro, the painters and the portraits were presented before Kabaka Mutebi at his palace in Banda. Bwanika says when they took the portraits to the Kabaka, he offered technical advice on form and anatomy and ordered them to change some aspects of the looks of the kings by drawing marks on the pictures indicating what should be changed.
On how he felt after completing the task, Bwanika says he felt so excited, elated, and different, having done work that was supervised by the Kabaka himself. On showcasing the paintings at the palace, he says the Kabaka sent him a messenger with an appreciation that the work was good and was what he, Kabaka Mutebi, expected.
He says that the entire project was done without payment but with facilitation in terms of transport to do research at the tombs. He says they did not work for money but for a legacy that will go down in history.
Bwanika adds that he has received positive feedback from the public and has got over 78 new clients who want him to paint their portraits after seeing the work he did on the kings. He says descendants of some of these kings have confirmed to him that the portraits are a clear representation of the exact looks of their forefathers.
Katikkiro Mayiga said the idea to paint the former kings was conceived in 2015 and presented to the King, who approved it. The painting kicked off the following year and was completed in July 2022. The Katikkiro said that once the work was completed, it was presented to the Kabaka’s Cabinet and then to the Kabaka, who approved it before unveiling it on his 29th Coronation anniversary.