Ian Mwesiga, Tales Of A Moonlight Boy, 2022

I allow myself to see

An interview with Ian Mwesiga


Ian Mwesiga is a painter who lives and works in Kampala, Uganda. In his work, the artist often portrays figures in surreal environments based on his bountiful imagination. The landscapes in these paintings are familiar, but depicted in a way that makes them dreamlike and even otherworldly: a contrast is achieved through the artist’s skilful manipulation of proportion and the setting of everyday objects. Ismail Einashe talked to Mwesiga on the occasion of his first major institutional solo exhibition in the United States, Beyond the Edge of the World, at the FLAG Art Foundation in New York. Mwesiga’s collection consists of 11 beautifully crafted oil paintings created between 2021 and 2023. With a captivating magnetism, the works embrace the allure, imagination, and potential of the great unknown. The exhibition takes its title from Haruki Murakami’s 2002 book Kafka on the Shore, and as both the author and artist convey, the edge of the world is a space where emptiness and substance merge, where past and future exist in a continuous, infinite loop. 

Interview by Ismail Einashe

Ismail Einashe I saw your brilliant exhibition in New York this morning. How does Murakami’s novel resonate with the themes and concepts explored in your exhibition?

Ian Mwesiga My work resonates around the unknown world, the horizon of what is known, and how that seamlessly becomes the same. The concept of Murakami’s novel resonates with how my work is an expression of how I want people to see and relate to my world. The thin line between what I think I know or what I think I don’t know, and then merging those two worlds, creates my imagination. Working to expand my vision as a creator is what I’m interested in.

IE Could you elaborate on how your work merges your imagination with everyday surroundings and how this process influences the creation of your paintings?

IW I allow myself to see, to look, and then make sense of what I see. That in itself means that there are many points of reference which come from my environment – from what I see every day, from what I get exposed to – but that becomes an interior experience shaped by exterior experience. It’s a response to my emotional reaction towards what I see. I wonder if I can put it like that. Those experiences are eventually expressed on canvas or any other medium, whether in drawing or anything else that takes shape.

IE The figures in your paintings often appear to be situated in a parallel dimension, suggesting a sense of isolation. Could you discuss the symbolism and meaning behind this recurring theme in your work?

IW For me, the work is only successful when I feel that it’s isolated. That sense of isolation itself speaks volumes in terms of that spiritual connection with the work. It speaks to how I feel that my world should be, and so literally, for me, this is the window into who I am as a person. These are more of the layers I keep peeling off my gaze on the world. It is a snapshot of what I want, of how my mind sees the world. I believe that everyone looks at the world differently. But somehow, I think for me, this is the choice of focus; this is why I choose to zoom on that lens to say, look, this is what I am saying; this is how I see things. This is what my world is all about.

Ian Mwesiga, Man And His Shadow, 2023. Detail. Courtesy Of Mariane Ibrahim
Ian Mwesiga, The Basketball Player III, 2022. HR. Courtesy Of Mariane Ibrahim

IE One striking aspect of your exhibition is the consistent use of blue in your paintings. How does this colour contribute to the overall atmosphere and emotions conveyed in your work?

IW Blue gives me a sort of infinite feeling and allows me a limitless vision. It has a misty, non-apparent, and fluid form. I also like blue because it’s a soft and calm colour. I use layers of colour to create all these mystical worlds that I would experience differently with, say, a hot red or yellow colour. In terms of visual feeling, I don’t think those colours give you the same feeling as blue would. Blue, for me, is a soft way to get into my interior world. And really, this is at the back of my mind, what is from within my belly that I want to push out and see on canvas. And usually, that’s the satisfaction I get when I finish a painting, and I look at it, and the exact feeling I wanted is mapped out onto a surface. 

IE Your paintings often feature surreal environments paired with familiar landscapes. How do you approach the juxtaposition of the bizarre and the mundane in your compositions?

IW The idea is not to understand the exact direction of the painting. And that’s very powerful because I set out not to create something logical, something with a given sense of exactness, or with a definition, one may say, because the line of thought or the pattern of thought is really random and vague. For me, that’s the quality I want to see in my work because it should be vague, not specific, and not speak to something that is known. Contradictions are also very important to me because they begin to pose questions. It begins to situate the work in the actual form that I want. I don’t intend to create something that speaks to specificity and something already known, something that you would say, ’Oh, this is what this is’ or ’the artist is trying to do this’. I think, for me, the agenda is always to create all these diverse environments that, up to a point, have no connection. I think the more disconnections, the better. And that’s usually the intention, for example, in my painting “The Basketball Player III” (2022), the player is running across the fields. What does it mean? Who says that basketball is a game that has to be played on a basketball court? How about if basketball can be played anywhere and everywhere? That, for me, is the freedom of imagination; that’s what imagination is all about. Imagination is crazy and beautiful.

IE Can you elaborate on your creative process and how everyday experiences or visual elements influence your work?

IW I see something random that appears in a certain way or colour. That’s the entry point into a painting for me. It could be anything—a picture or anything visual that sparks my imagination. I’m on the streets, and then I see someone looking in a particular direction that can spark an idea and allow me to see something in a certain way. These random, unexpected experiences are my entry points. For example, some moments pass by very quickly, such as a scene from a TV show; sometimes, you have no time to record anything. But what stays with you is the memory of the colour or the image, which you develop into a concept, and then you blow it up to something tangible, something that is seen. For example, I often develop the figures in my paintings through a mishmash process of mixing portraits of different people, which could include the heads and arms of different people. Eventually, this creates a single figure. This is an interesting way to look at portraiture. Is a portrait mere representation? Having so many characters in a single figure creates a whole different conversation about what portraiture can do. 

IE Your observation about portraiture is intriguing. I would love to hear a little more about how it connects with portraying Black figures in your paintings, considering that throughout history, portraiture has mostly showcased white subjects. 

IW You know, I’ve had to grapple with this because of this renaissance in Black portraiture being produced from Africa and outside the continent; it’s interesting to hear and listen to views of what people think about all this sort of creation happening. But you know, I usually ask a very simple question. Because when I go to museums in Paris or something, sometimes I ask a very good, stupid question when I look at all these paintings with portraits in them: do you think all these artists were being asked about their choices to paint white figures? Sometimes, the simple answer to myself is that these are the environments they were exposed to, and these are experiences of their time. The same is true for me. These paintings I’m producing may make a little more sense after I’m dead, maybe. I want to represent my time of existing as a human being on this planet, and as someone who is producing art during my time, I am contributing to a larger conversation on our human existence. That gets me excited, and I’m happy to be part of it. ◉

All paintings by Ian Mwesiga. From top, “Tales of a Moonlight Boy” (2022); detail from “Man and His Shadow” (2023); “The Basketball Player III” (2022); “Swimmer and Man Standing by the Pool” (2023). All courtesy of Mariane Ibrahim. 

Beyond the Edge of the World is at the FLAG Art Foundation, New York, until May 4. 


Ian Mwesiga, Swimmer And Man Standing By The Pool, 2023. Courtesy Of Mariane Ibrahim. Install HR