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From Uganda to Duluth: African artist shares a humble beginning to works on display

Ugandan artist Steveboyyi Makubuya describes one of his sketches featuring a giraffe and an elk. Makubuya is opening a show at AICHO with his art this week. Bob King / rking@duluthnews.com1 / 6
This drawing by Steveboyyi Makubuya uses colorful candy wrappers to create the clothing worn by the subjects. Bob King / rking@duluthnews.com2 / 6
This work on waxed cloth by Steveboyyi Makubuya is titled "Taking Beer for the Party." Bob King / rking@duluthnews.com3 / 6
This work created on waxed cloth by artist Steveboyyi Makubuya is titled "Successful from the Market." Bob King / rking@duluthnews.com4 / 6
Artist Steveboyyi Makubuya from Uganda explains how he created his artwork that will be on display starting this week at the AICHO Gallery. Bob King / rking@duluthnews.com5 / 6
Artist Steveboyyi Makubuya used colorful candy wrappers to create some of the features in this set of cards. Bob King / rking@duluthnews.com6 / 6

There was a time when Steveboyyi Makubuya just wanted an airplane to drop a loaf of bread from the sky. His home was a sack tied like a hammock between two jackfruit trees and food was scavenged by jumping the fence at the Uganda Christian University in Kampala.

"The birds were my friend, the wind was my enemy — and the rain was my real enemy," said Makubuya, an artist who is nearing the end of a four-month stay in Duluth.

While living on the streets, Makubuya didn't always have access to art supplies — but he could find brightly colored candy wrappers that he ripped to pieces and glued into the African scenes he paints. An exhibition of his work has its opening reception at 6:30 p.m. Saturday at Trepanier Hall and will be available for viewing through March 20.

From what Makubuya has been told: he was left on the streets of Kampala when he was about 9 months old, then taken to a children's home. He said he believes he is about 24, though his birth date of Oct. 12, 1992, is his own invention.

While at the children's home, Makubuya played soccer, learned English and was first recognized as having artistic ability. When he was about 17, the home closed and he ended up back on the streets of the largest city in Uganda, where, during the rainy season, 12 inches can fall in an hour. His soccer skills attracted attention and he ended up with a scholarship to play, study and live at the university. He said his needs at the time were less than any of that.

"The only thing I wanted was a food card," he said.

Making connections

Tim Turk of Two Harbors is a retired registered nurse who met Makubuya through mutual friends while on a mission trip to Nairobi in 2015. Makubuya had taken a bus from Uganda to meet the group and brought along some of his art, so he could have a show.

"I recognized that it was significant and unique," said Turk, a wood carver who ended up buying some of Makubuya's work and developing a friendship with him. "I just liked him. He was a lot of fun."

Turk said Makubuya talked a lot about coming to the United States, which the latter refers to as "the land of opportunity." Makubuya wanted to try to sell his art and make money, so he could help other young artists in Uganda.

His first attempt at a visa was denied. So was his second — until Makubuya slid a piece of art on cardstock across the table to show the U.S. Embassy official, he said.

"Welcome to America," he recalled the official saying before signing off on a two-year travel visa.

Within a week, Makubuya was en route for northern Minnesota.

"He sold everything he owned," Turk said. "He gave up the place where he was living and sold everything he could. He wanted to be here for Christmas. He has no family, no known relatives. It was really important for him to be here."

Makubuya landed in Minneapolis on Dec. 23, 2016, and had Christmas dinner with the Turk family. Other rites of passage followed, including a snowmobiling trip in a borrowed coat and goggles.

"He screamed for 10 miles," Turk said.

Attracting attention

In January, Turk and Makubuya went to CPL Imaging in Duluth for a consultation about having prints made and immediately caught the interest of Kelly McFaul-Solem and owner Jeff Frey, who ended up spending a chunk of the day learning about Makubuya and looking at the work.

"It's very dynamic," McFaul-Solem said of the art. "It's got really good movement to it. He captures the essence of who he is drawing, and he has stories about the colors that were used and the women carrying the babies — it all has a lot of meaning behind it, but it's very free form."

The company that scans artwork and film and makes giclee prints regularly works with artists who show at the galleries at AICHO, so McFaul-Solem called executive director Michelle LeBeau to tell her about Makubuya.

"They said 'You have to see this guy's work,' " LeBeau said. She agreed with the CPL crew.

"It's fabulous," she said.

Moira Villiard, cultural and arts programming coordinator at AICHO, said they regularly work with emerging artists who work in a traditional form that is different from northern Minnesota scenes. The goal is diversity.

"It can be risky to bring in new imagery," Villiard said.

Makubuya, who works under the name "Steveboyyi," captures traditional African scenes. In one scene, a giraffe tells a man to never lose hope. There are monkeys that steal food from baskets. A figure carries a pot on its head. Men sit in a circle and drink African beer from barrels.

Oftentimes there are idyllic family moments that Makubuya can only imagine. A woman carries a baby as she walks to the garden.

"I never experienced mommy's laugh," he said.

Makubuya has also been inspired by his new environment: one piece shows an elk standing next to a giraffe.

The artist is living at Duluth Bible Church, where he paints in a corner of a classroom and has enjoyed telling fantastical stories to the children of the church. He calls them "Steven stories" and one was about why zebras have stripes.

During a recent visit, Makubuya expressed awe at things happening around him — like cars stopping for pedestrians. That would never happen back home. And: "You have food," he said. "You have cars to drive. You have jobs."

In the past few months, Makubuya has had to routinely remind himself that this is all real: getting a visa and visiting the U.S., seeing snow for the first time, attending a meeting at AICHO where the logistics of his art show were discussed.

Everything is new for the artist who was known in Kampala as "Streetboy."

If you go

• What: Original artworks by Steveboyyi Makubuya

• When: Reception is 6:30 p.m. Saturday and includes live painting by Makubuya; Available for viewing through March 20.

• Where: Trepanier Hall, 202 W. Second St.

• Tickets: Free, open to the public