Ugandan artist Jak Katarikawe was a legend

Friday October 26 2018

Jak Katarikawe, one of East Africa's pioneer and most accomplished artists died in Nairobi on October 19, 2018. PHOTO | NMG


Jak Katarikawe, one of East Africa's pioneer and most accomplished artists died in Nairobi on October 19.

Jak was a legend in the region's art circles and inspired younger artists with both his talent and financial success. He was among the first East African artists whose work sold for hundreds of thousands of shillings a piece.

In his prime, he was known as the "African [Marc] Chagall" after the 20th century modern artist who, like Katarikawe, created colourful, whimsical artworks that always had an enchanting narrative.

Katarikawe was born in western Uganda in 1938 and did not have formal training in fine art. He was a natural talent, probably something he got from his artistic mother.

He said in interviews that the stained glass windows of the local church where he grew up taught him the value of translucent colours and the power of art as a storytelling tool.

Katarikawe’s big break came when he got a job as a driver for a Makerere University lecturer who recognised his talent and introduced him to Prof Sam Ntiru — the head of Makerere’s Art Department — for mentorship.


He moved to Kenya in the early 1970s and a few years later his work was in such high demand that he exhibited at the Paa ya Paa Gallery, Gallery Watatu and the French Cultural Centre in Nairobi.

Katarikawe was already established when the late Ruth Schaffner bought Gallery Watatu in 1985 and quickly took him under her wing. She soon became his mentor, mother-figure and financial manager.

She exhibited and sold Katarikawe's art worldwide, but following her death in 1996, he was heartbroken and never recovered.

Katarikawe will primarily be remembered for the luminous artworks he created between the mid-1970s and mid-90s.

But to his friends, he’ll forever be the gentle-spirited man whose skill in visual storytelling is sublime.

Tributes and messages of condolences to his family and friends have been pouring in on social media art spaces as friends and admirers celebrate his life and work.