THE beauty about inspiration is that it feeds off who we are. Artists aren’t inspired by the same thing the same way; it’s personal experiences that they’ve gone through which trigger the inspiration into action.
For fine artist Patrick Seruwu, it’s his experiences of growing up surrounded by strong but hurt black women in Masuliita in Wakiso-a small village outside Kampala in Uganda. “There is this connection I have with women. I grew up with a single Mom and three sisters, it wasn’t easy growing up without a father. So I use to hustle with my Mom and sisters, moving up and down selling in the streets,” Seruwu tells me.
It’s a blistering hot summer’s day in Johannesburg, I’m sitting with the man in his work space at August House, room 102. I got to the studio with a tad bit of sweat, but had cooled down in Seruwu’s spacious working space, on the brown leather couch where we have the interview.
His work is appealingly dark and moves you to engage with the stories that Seruwu draws inspiration from. “My mother taught me how to plat women’s hair. Most of the customers were women and most of the people I worked with were women, so they use to talk a lot about their issues of abuse, so I could relate to that because of how I grew up.”
He witnessed the abuse of his mother, sisters and even neighbours back home in Uganda, so much so he couldn’t talk about it on record and the fear of bursting into tears. His current work is focused on women who were in toxic and abusive relationships, but are trying to move on from their past. He first sketches on the canvass and then uses acrylic paints, but he then washes the work with a brush damp from H2O, which he says represents tears of the victims of abuse.
“While doing my art, I try and recall my upbringing, the violence and what women go through. So right now, I relate to what women go through because there are thousands of women who’ve gone through all sorts of abuse, but people don’t know about it because most women keep quiet. I’m trying to bring out the images of women who are trying to recover from all sorts of violence, who wish everything could be washed away or who wish they never existed.”
Seruwu has been living in Joburg for about seven years now, after leaving Uganda to visit a friend here in South Africa for a few months. “When I came here, I saw people on the streets selling and I just told myself that I can also survive here, whatever the condition. I started twisting women’s hair on the street, because I learnt that from back home,” he tells me.
From doing people’s hair on a chair on the side of the road, Seruwu grew his business into a salon in the city. His small business was successful enough for the 32 year-old to buy himself a jalopy. It was through that car that Seruwu got closer to renowned artist and fellow Ugandan, Benon Lutaaya. “Whenever Benon needed to go somewhere, he would call me and I’d drop him off at an art gallery. I started attending exhibitions with him and after the shows, we’d come back here to the studio. I started to love art because I started to associate with artists, visiting their studios and galleries.”
In 2017, while unwinding with his girlfriend he decided to draw his partner on paper. “I started sketching her. It wasn’t a good sketch, but I tried. She appreciated it. I then went and showed it to Benon and he said ‘I see something in you, continue doing it'”. It is telling that his first ever attempt at art, was a drawing of a female.
He continued drawing on paper throughout the year of 2017, during his spare time away from the salon. After months of working on paper and encouragement from Benon, he then started working on canvass later that year.
He created a page on Facebook, of his work around the same time and immediately received positive responses from people. “I got a couple of invites to show my work at galleries, while someone on Facebook from Nigeria also wanted to buy my work. I got addicted to art, whenever I got time I would sketch or paint.”
His work has been part of a number of group exhibitions including the August House exhibition at Absa Art Gallery, Studio Space group show, Rosebank’s Lizamore & Associates and last year he got an invite from the Cape Town Art Fair.
He’s literally been practicing art for three years and his work has been among some of the country’s best works in the most prestigious art spaces. It’s not often that you meet an artist with such overnight success as Seruwu’s. The average artists will struggle for a couple of years to find their own signature and identity in their work and a few more years to get industry recognition. Seruwu understands that his friendship with Benon has richly helped him acquaint himself with influential people in the industry.
“It means a lot to me, it’s an honour to me. It is determination and working hard, focus and knowing where you want to be and what you want. First of all I never thought I’d be an artist, not even think that I could exhibit in a gallery, but I was determined to improve my technical skills,” Seruwu says.
He’s on the verge of joining a local art gallery as their resident artist, which he says will assist his development as an artist. Women are a mainstay in his work and says in future, he’d like to incorporate his connection to females’ hair to his work, similar to friend and fellow artist Lebohang Motaung.