It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. It was the age of reason; it was the edge of insanity. It was a time of bliss, it was a time of pain. For Jak Katarikawe, it was simply a time of plenty.

He went full circle and then some.

Back then, there was a spring in his step, a gleam in his eye. When he smiled, the emotion was genuine. The parting of his lips gave a glimpse to the joy inside a man in his prime, an artist whose creativity and vision had opened doors to a parallel universe that even an imagination as wild as his could not visualize.

First class travel, champagne, the works…and as he wistfully told this writer in an interview:“Wanawake walikuwa wananipenda sana. Na mimi niliwarudishia mapenzi yote,” (Women used to love me a lot, and I loved them back).

Even after 25 years in Kenya his heavy Luganda drawl stubbornly clung to his tongue like a tick to a heifer’s tit. He still struggled to roll out Swahili words—tenses, punctuation and pronunciation the unfortunate casualties.

However, in his world, words were of little importance. He was fluent in a different language, a language where each letter was known by a colour, where diction was delivered in bold brush strokes and whole paragraphs came in the abstract.

His language was painting.

Each time he moved a brush across an empty canvas a new word came into existence. Each time he gently rubbed off a rough edge, a new entry was made in his dictionary.

I first met Jak at the Norfolk Apartments in 2009, a place he had called home ever since he set foot in Nairobi. From the well-manicured lawns, clean walkways and spotless corridors, the apartments have a certain image and clientele to maintain.

I first met Jak at the Norfolk Apartments in 2009, a place he had called home ever since he set foot in Nairobi. From the well-manicured lawns, clean walkways and spotless corridors, the apartments have a certain image and clientele to maintain.

The yellowing newspaper cuttings pasted on the walls of his apartment belied the fact that he had lived there for a while.

Although the fourth-floor apartment was light, the musty smell of paint clung to the air.

On the balcony the living and the dead existed side by side: a four-foot banana plant stood in one corner, and a stone and glass sculpture in the other like two gladiators.  Separating the two were layers of painted canvas on which sat a tray of ripe mangoes.

For Jak, that was simple beauty, art and home. There was nowhere else he would rather be.

“All my memories, good and bad, converge here, and most of my dreams have originated in the confines of these walls to claim a spot on one of my canvases,” he said.

Katarikawe, at the time 71, is one of East Africa’s most celebrated painters. While alive he exhibited in Holland, Germany, France, South America and numerous galleries on the mother continent. And all this was the result of his keen eye for the unseen.

He often said that whenever he looked at people, he always noticed something new, something different.

“Each blink opens up a new dimension to the same scene. There is something spiritual in all humans that an artist can see if he looks close enough,” he said. Thus, his paintings, he believed, showed the spiritual side of man and at the same time addressed social issues.

He painted deities only he could see. In one of his works, a god is being worshipped by a bevy of heaven-facing women.

Katarikawe did not start painting in his childhood.

He was not a prodigy and did not claim the fame that came with such a tag. A routine visit to church in his mid-20s unleashed the suppressed artist in him. This perhaps explained his unseen bond with the supernatural that always seemed to crop up in subsequent visits.

“I grew up in a village surrounded by beautiful hills that would be the envy of many landscape painters, but at that time I failed to see the beauty of what lay before my eyes. My mother used to decorate mud houses with coloured chalk, but I still did not see the beauty that lay in the colours,” he recalled.

Katarikawe grew up in Kigezi in western Uganda. His father was a blacksmith; his mother was a small-scale farmer. Just like most of his peers at that time, Katarikawe migrated from the village to Kampala. At 25, he got bored with being a fishmonger and became a bus driver.

This was before his chance meeting with ‘drawings.’

“One Sunday morning I went to church with a cousin and marveled at the murals and other paintings of Jesus and the Madonna that hung on the church walls. I asked him what those were and how they were made.”

“Art,” his cousin replied.

From then on, he started practising, at first using sticks on dirt. Those who saw his dirt drawings thought he was pretty good. “However, I thought nothing of it at that time,” he said.

Soon, after escaping the monotony of village life, he was doing well as a bus driver, a job that allowed him to interact with many Kampala socialites. One evening he met a group of painters who introduced him to brushes and pigment.

From then on, his fingernails never retained their original colour, and his hands never stopped painting.

And he had large hands.

The pinkie, and ring fingers almost always had large rings that seem to be part of his anatomy. 

The hands were never too far off from his tattered but favoured apron. It was not clear to me whether the cloth was discoloured from the paint or from non-washing.

His work has been compared to that of artistic legends Marc Chagall and Henri Matisse. But when told of the uncanny resemblance of their work to his, he said:

“They saw my paintings and painted like me.”

When told that the two had died years before he first held a paint brush, Jak’s face betrayed no emotion; “We must have dreamt the same dreams then,” was his nonchalant answer.

Often during my visits to his Norfolk apartment and later to his Forest Road home, someone in one of the other rooms would let out a dry cough, then a groan, followed by a moan.

“That is my son,” he said of the groans once. “Thugs attacked him when he was going home to Kayole. They wanted to kill him.”

The pain in his eyes was evident. Were it not for the taboo associated with an African man letting his tears run free, his would have added to the eclectic mix on his apron.

In the other room was his wife. During another visit, she had shut herself in. Katarikawe’s last years were not smooth. Arguments about money created some sort of invisible wedge between him and his wife.

The son from Kayole was from a previous marriage. Another son had been sent to the nearby shops for drinks. He, too, was from a different marriage.

“I had children with seven women. Those are the ones that I know of,” Katarikawe said of his offspring. He confessed a certain weakness for women.

“They are an inspiration, a challenge, a mystery. Man is curious. You see where the two connect?”

Back in Uganda when the public transport business was not doing well he started looking for employment and landed a driver’s job with an old acquaintance, a Professor Cook.

With time, the boot of Professor Cook’s car eventually became a safe haven for his paintings. But one day the professor discovered the paintings in the boot and got very mad at the painter.

Katarikawe thought he’d be fired. But, as it turned out, the Professor was only mad because he had kept the paintings from him.

A few weeks later, Professor Cook took him to an art competition at one of the few galleries in Kampala. The painting was of the famed British foursome, The Beatles. His painting won third place, and he sold it for USh6,000.

“I couldn’t believe it. My monthly salary was around USh40. I took the money and handed my employer the keys to his car,” he recalled.

At his prime, his paintings fetched much more than the Ush6000.

He came to Nairobi in 1982 “to tap into the then vibrant art scene, got hooked. Only death took him out of the city and back to Kigezi where he was buried on 28th October 2018. Just a week after a relative had found him unconscious in his Forest Road flat. At the time, Katarikawe was living alone, his wife had already relocated back home to Uganda.

But even as his last days were fast approaching, he never let go of hope. Believing there lay room for one last hurrah that would perhaps take him off the life of misery years of going without a sale, or coming up with a piece had subjected him to.

Sunsets are the most beautiful things an artist can immortalise. And seeing as I am in my sunset years, I believe the best of me is yet to come,” he said, adding that he was inspired by dreams.


But the worst was creeping in as well. His right knee was slowly giving way. His walk became hesitant, and although he was still coherent, his speech at times broke down mid-sentence as the years wore on.

But the artist in him still pushed Katarikawe to see the unseen and give colour to the colourless. He was on a plateau, riding out the last of the kinetic energy provided by the wave of excitement, adventure and discovery that washed him onto Nairobi’s shores.

Age determined that his brow became a playground for wrinkles – fully developed ones that ran from the right all the way to the left, and others that appeared smack in the middle of his wide forehead. One could not tell where they began or ended. They just appeared from under his crocheted hood.

He looked his age; he talked it, too, with the wisdom that only numerous dusks and dawns brings.

But when he entered his workshop where the kitchen once was, the years rose from him, and his attitude changed. His eyes become lighter, his mood merrier. One could almost see the grand old man salivate at the prospect an empty canvas bore.

In those moments he was the Jak Katarikawe of old: Virile, certain, visionary, energetic. He got lost in deep conversation, exchanging incomprehensible words with the characters he was bringing to life on canvas.

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