The FLAG Art Foundation’s Spotlight exhibition series includes new or never-before-exhibited artworks accompanied by commissioned pieces of writing. In its third iteration, the Spotlight features Ian Mwesiga’s Breakfast on the Road, 2021, with a text by art critic Dr. Darla Migan, PhD.
“Home Grown Ground: On Ian Mwesiga’s ‘Breakfast On the Road,’ 2021”
By Dr. Darla Migan, PhD
The painter Ian Mwesiga intercedes on ideas of representation in contemporary visual culture through his syncretical play on literal and figurative meaning-making. In Breakfast on the Road, 2021, the artist takes inspiration from small pleasures, while happily crisscrossing cultural diasporas and art historical borders.
The femme figure seen reclining at the vertical top upper quarter of the painting is seated as if she were in her own living room surrounded by her closest friends. With bare feet, her legs are resting slightly open on what looks like a roll of vinyl flooring (an excellent price-conscious alternative to parquet seen everywhere from the suburbs of Atlanta to Kampala). She is comfortably seated with her back and torso turned away from the viewer, wearing a tan colored tank under a gauzy white fishnet top, and blue-denim mini skirt. Her casual style feels familiar, a reminder of my own adolescence, with hot grease pressed or chemically straightened hair. She is smiling so deeply that I can almost hear her say: “Yes, indeed, I’m having my breakfast on the road because I’m free to enjoy this fine morning any way I please!” The viewer may even find themselves enjoying smiling back, and hopefully not for the first or last time, at a dark-hued figure.
In the bottom left appears the painted shadow of another figure. We might imagine this figure is holding a smartphone or small camera (given the angles of the elbows). But we only see the indication of this second human figure by way of an absence. In fact, the majority of Mwesiga’s Breakfast on the Road is preoccupied not with a figure, but with a most unusual ground. The effect of the pebbly grey-black gravel road which takes up over nearly three-quarters of the canvas is achieved through the clear presence of hypnotically divided and softly rounded geometric forest greens, navy-black, creamy-pink, and maroon daubs-becoming-spheres (rather than the highly blended optical illusions of the slightly later nineteenth century pointillist technique). The pair of solid and broken yellow road lines cutting across the lower vertical of the canvas give the viewer the only compass to orient the picture plane. But then this ground is, again, dramatically interrupted by a painted puddle reflecting treetop branches and a stop sign. An upside-down stop sign—perhaps the only universal symbol available—is painted from the perspective of the sky reflected in the puddle to the right. A surrealist logic abounds, and I feel a lovingly open reference to the great Méret Oppenheim’s Object, 1936, which has kept me enthralled, truly excited by what art can do, since I first encountered it. With an emboldened glee, I feel empowered to shout in a chorus with both Oppenheim and Mwesiga: Who can stop us?!
How ought we to organize ourselves from the cues of this absent intersection in which a self-composed figure imbibes at her leisure? Here the painter’s inspiration directly celebrates the brilliant Congolese artist and late curator Kiripi Katembo. Gone too soon, the founder of the Kinshasa-based Yango Biennial chimerically raised the everyday worlds of people moving through the street into scenes of stunning cinematographic beauty sourced from the sky’s reflections in puddles.
When you think of the painter’s hometown of Kampala, do you already know which side of the road Ugandans drive on? In Breakfast on the Road, we meet at an intersection of history enjoining the near past of a quotidian moment to ways of seeing inspired by makers across time, space and mediums—each contemplating destiny as much as the day ahead. Breakfast on the Road claims the pleasing hope of a bright morning that starts with the perfect cup of cappuccino. Given the increased interest in the artwork of and artists on a continent which continues to dismantle or simply deal with the colonial past of others, Mwesiga’s painting provokes the question: Why do we not even think to ask about the daily routines and small pleasures enjoyed from the ground where he is?