They only appear in the town centre in the evenings. During the day, they are hard at work moulding all manner of objects using a mixture of clay and cement. In Gulu town, they are simply known as “the boys who sell animals” — teenagers who sell animal sculptures on the streets to make a living.
“No one taught me any art. I taught myself,” said Joseph Komagum, 17, one of the many boys who make and sell sculptures.
We bumped into Komagum on a bright and sunny Sunday afternoon in Kirombe, a suburb of Gulu town, where most of the boys reside. We found him seated on the veranda of a mud and wattle hut, moulding an antelope.
“I can make five of these in a day,” he told me as he fixed ears, made of folded plastic carpet, onto the sculpture and bound them with glue.
“I make all types of animals and birds. But usually I make what people like to buy most,” he said.
Last year, Komagum, who was already in secondary school, dropped out because his parents could not afford the tuition fees. But he hopes to go back to school next year after making enough money from selling his works.
“Art is now my main job. I get 70,000 shillings (about $30) per week. Everything I make gets bought,’’ said Komagum, whose name in Acholi, the language spoken in the area, means “I am lucky.”
As we spoke, he was busy smoothening his sculptures with a spoon.
Komagum says he sells his works between 6 p.m. and 9 p.m. every day because that is the time when people are “relaxing in hotels, bars and restaurants.”
On any given evening the young boys can be found out on the streets, trying to woo potential customers into buying their works, which include birds, animals and even trees. Many of the boys are school dropouts but some are still in school.
Professional artist, Sarah Aol, who runs an art business in Gulu, Sarai Art and Design, says the budding young artists are talented but they need to be exposed to other artists to improve on their work.
“They should be exposed by visiting art galleries or through an art critic guiding them,” said Aol. “If they do that, they will be able to do more and better their work.”
Aol points out that some of the sculptures made by the boys lack “fine finishing” and “elements like colour perspective,” which is when colours used on a sculpture are not in harmony with each other.
Artist Sarah Aol shows her painting based on the conflict in northern Uganda. Stephen Okello.
In her workshop and art gallery, Aol has various pieces. Most of her art deals with the subjects of conflict, including the two-decade-long conflict in northern Uganda that ended in 2006, HIV/Aids and peace.
But is there business for art works in Gulu?
“The art market is growing very, very slowly. I can say that about 99 percent of my artwork is bought by foreigners,” said Aol.
It’s a different story for the sculpture boys who say whatever they make gets bought. But perhaps that’s because their sculptures are not as expensive as the art pieces in Aol’s shop, where some pieces go for as much as $150 — an amount most locals are unwilling to spend, at least not on art. The “animal boys,” meanwhile, sell their works for as little as $2, a price most locals can afford.
Main image: Joseph Komagum painting one of his sculptures. Stephen Okello.
This article forms part of Urban Africa’s urban reporting series. For more on Gulu:
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