From life of hopelessness, art gives Okello a livelihood

By Irene Best Nyapendi
One of the reasons Reagan Okello loves art is it gives him the latitude to express himself beyond what the eyes and cameras can see. By doing so, Okello is able to tell a story that is different and  “complete.”

Take, for instance, one of the pieces with an imposing presence in Okello’s art gallery. The piece depicts eight people dancing in a nightclub. On a closer look, some of the people have animal heads in place of human heads. This is one example, Okello argues, that art has an edge over the human eye and the camera. No camera could ever capture people with animal heads. 

So, what is the story behind the animal heads’ art piece?

Okello's art gallery that doubles as his sitting room
Okello’s art gallery that doubles as his sitting room

Okello says ordinarily, during the day, the actions of many people is something close to purity, which would be represented by white color. However, after nightfall, the same people assume different behavior, which is why each of the people in the art piece is painted wearing a colorful outfit. And because some people partake of intoxicants at night, they become less able to control what they do or say. To Okello, such people then begin to behave like animals. And that is the reason he put animal heads on some of the people. 

Currently a final-year student of Bachelor of Industrial Fine Art at Uganda Christian University (UCU), Okello says his dream is to offer a unique service to his clients once he fully joins the world of work. He says he would like to share with his client the passion, the peace and the fulfillment he gets while engrossed in his work. His dream is to offer a service where clients pay him to guide them through the process of drawing, so that they can recreate the same image he would have drawn for them. This way, he argues, clients can also experience the joy and the satisfaction that comes with drawing.

To refine his craft, Okello usually tries out painting using different styles, materials at his disposal and techniques. His love for painting and work with ceramics has endeared Okello to the community at UCU and beyond. 

Okello painting an art piece
Okello painting an art piece

In March last year, Okello participated in an international visual art competition for tertiary institution students from Uganda and the Nigerian community in Uganda and Nigeria.

A cross-cultural competition was held with the theme “My Impression of Nigeria, My Impression of Uganda.” Ugandan students focused on “My Impression of Nigeria.” while Nigerian participants produced artwork based on the theme, “My Impression of Uganda.”

In the competition, Okello was 22nd out of over 300 competitors from Uganda and received a certificate and drawing materials as a reward.

Currently, Okello devotes his Saturdays to teaching children how to draw and paint.

“It’s these children that I hope to employ in my art gallery in the future,” Okello said. “I want to set up the biggest art gallery in Uganda.” 

From the sale of his art pieces, Okello uses half of the proceeds to support his single mother who brews alcohol for a living. He lost his father in 2007.

Amidst the challenges of struggling to contend with a life with a peasant mother unable to afford his tuition fees, Okello was on the verge of giving up on education at a young age. However, the turning point came when Watoto, an organization that brings hope and healing to vulnerable women and children in Uganda and South Sudan, offered Okello support for his education. He also was given support for basic needs of life. 

Okello says art allows him to tell a “complete” story.
Okello says art allows him to tell a “complete” story.

“Watoto became my new family,” he said. “It was there that I found a sense of belonging and discovered my passion for art.”

Initially, Okello did not take art as a serious discipline. In fact, in A’level, his mind was on pursuing physics as a subject, even though he struggled to comprehend the subject matter. Upon discussing his academic struggles with his mentor, Marvin Ayebare, Okello was advised to drop physics and replace it with art. Okello hesitated, but he eventually gave in. 

As he stepped into the art class, Okello was amazed by the stunning artwork displayed on the walls. He felt unsure of his own abilities and wondered if he could ever create anything as beautiful. After years of sitting in the art class, Okello’s abilities started to match those of the artists whose works were pinned on the wall at the time he joined the class. For instance, some of his art pieces which were his final year project in A’level fetched him money. His first payment for one of the pieces was sh200,000 (about $52). When he received this payment, Okello says he resolved not to drop art. As such, making a decision for his university course became easy.