For African artist, small is beautiful

Nuwa Wamala Nnyanzi has a quick answer for most things. But press him on the size of his family, and he hesitates. ``I can't be sure. Let me see . . . OK, let me count.'' There is a pause punctuated with a laugh, as brothers and sisters are ticked off on his graceful artist's fingers.

``I don't know if I would recognize the grown-up ones if I passed them on the street. When I went back home recently, I met two I had never seen before. And there may be another that I missed. That would make it 18.''

Another laugh. ``That shows you how ridiculous the whole situation is.''

Certainly Mr. Nnyanzi will not be visiting the excesses of his father on his one child -- an energetic two-year-old son. Since fleeing his native Uganda in 1978, he has laid claim to a dual-purpose reputation. He is widely known as a batik artist of undisputed talent. He is also a champion of family planning, in a country whose traditions do not smile on such activity.

Nnyanzi's conviction that small is beautiful on the homefront is rooted in a childhood during which he watched his father, a laboratory assistant, try to provide for an ever-increasing number of offspring. His father's first attachments were with Nnyanzi's mother, a midwife and nurse; then two other partners, neither one of whom Nnyanzi's father married.

In most of black Africa, begetting children out of wedlock carries no social stigma. Afterward, his father acquired two wives who between them had 14, or perhaps 15, children.

``It's ironic, because my father is in the medical profession. He ought to have known better.

``Originally big families were OK in our society. For example, my paternal grandfather was a chief and could afford it. At least he educated all his children. He had a big farm and managed to leave them land.''

Nnyanzi, the second eldest living son, deems his father's tea plantation too small to be divided into 18 plots.

The tribulations of his fragmented family life still vivid, Nnyanzi turned to his skills as a batik artist to awaken the public conscience on a continent where an unbridled population explosion poses a greater threat to living standards than any drought or famine. Batik is a method of dyeing designs on cloth by coating the portions where the design is to appear -- thus the portions not to be dyed -- with removable wax.

In his adopted home of Kenya, for instance, the nearly 4 percent population growth rate is the world's highest.

Throughout his work, he weaves threads of concern for the subservient status of women and the consequences of unplanned families. Each one tells a story that ranges from the poignant to the wryly humorous. Some of his batiks are cartoonlike. But, much of his latter work is finely stylized. Sharp, angular lines accentuate the exhaustion of women, bent double under heavy loads of firewood. Whorled circles evoke tenderness in portraits of a woman breast-feeding a baby, and in a soulful portrait of a man embracing a small boy. The caption on the latter reads, ``Fathers, too, can be motherly.''

This, among many of his other works, deliberately challenges the male-oriented values of traditional African society.

``I thought I was painting what I liked to paint,'' says Nnyanzi. ``But later I realized that most of my pictures reflected what I had lived through. Women of my mother's generation were always pregnant, always working.''

If his devotion to small families is founded in experience, his artistic career is not. The self-taught Nnyanzi arrived in Kenya at the age of 26, a penniless refugee with an uncertain future.

After leaving a Ugandan school at the age of 19, he joined the medical corps in Uganda's Army. He was in charge of the medical stores until 1977 when a ``misunderstanding'' cropped up with his superior officers.

Implicated in a plot to overthrow the infamous dictator Idi Amin, Nnyanzi was warned that he was the target of a hit squad. It was good enough reason to desert. After hiding in the bush for several months, he escaped across the border.

In Nairobi, he teamed up with another refugee. Untutored in art, the two chose to support themselves by making batiks, an assembly-line genre that is hawked in the streets to tourists.

Initial attempts were fumbling.

``We had no idea how they were made, and we didn't have the money to get someone to teach us,'' he explains.

``The only technical thing we knew was that if you put wax on a piece of cloth, the dye doesn't penetrate. It took us three or four months to figure out how to do it. One batik would take about a week. Even then we'd often mess it up. That's why I came up with a style that's quite different. I didn't have any rules to follow.''

Unfettered by the complicated principles of batik making, in which cloth is ``painted'' with wax and submerged in baths of dye in successive layers, Nnyanzi blends his dyes and allows them to seep under the wax. The result is moody pictures with earthy, subtle, and varied tones. Working alone from a tiny, four-room apartment where he lives with wife, Esther, and son, Kyamu, Nnyanzi currently sells as much as he produces.

But he has not always been in demand. Initially, he was warned against violating the traditional family structure. The warnings fell on barren ground.

Resistance to birth control is still strong in Kenya, where the number of children per family averages eight. Kenyan men, reared in a society where the male is paramount, have been slow to respond to the notion of sensitivity toward the needs of mothers and children. Women have recently won the right to some inheritances, but a marriage bill that would entitle the female partner to a share of the estate after divorce has been regularly stopped by an almost entirely male parliament.

In 1980, Nnyanzi did five batiks with a family-planning theme. Though the topic was sensitive, by the following year he had produced more than 30. Then, in 1983, his work was noticed by the Family Planning International Association, the overseas division of the Planned Parenthood Federation in the United States. FPIA agreed to sponsor a show, a longtime objective that Nnyanzi had been unable to fulfill for lack of funds.

The show was held at the end of 1984 and was called ``Just Too Many.'' The timely exhibit coincided with the launch of a government campaign to promote smaller families, thus indirectly sanctioning his work.

A succession of exhibitions followed, including one at the United Nations Women's Decade Conference in Nairobi and another sponsored by the PPF in Seattle, Washington where he and his work were well received.

Nnyanzi was surprised by his American success, marked by good sales. ``I thought I was doing something only within the African context, but it shows that these problems are the same everywhere.''

Nnyanzi sees his work as an extension of Africa's tradition of passing on wisdom through proverbs and stories. But he realizes his influence on public opinion is limited by the size of his audience.

``I want to reach more people through Christmas cards, posters, and calendars,'' he says.

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