Doreen Natukunda Opio on Art

#360Mentor is a continuation of the #40DayMentor series. In this episode, Robert Kabushenga (RK) speaks to Doreen Natukunda  (DN) on Art.

RK: Welcome on the #360mentor session. Thank you for agreeing to talk to us on things art.  Most of us just see the finished product but we don’t know what it takes to have this product done. But before we get there, we must get to know who is talking to us. First of all, I must ask you the question; were you born with a paint brush in your hand? What’s your journey that eventually led you to this passion of art?

DN: First of all, I am very pleased and humbled to be part of this. You cannot imagine how much I am very pleased to be hosted by you. I am glad to meet Tony too.

RK: You’re such a risk taker, you think being in Tony’s and my company is a good thing! You have very low standards my dear!

DN: I am very willing to take the risk. My name is Doreen Natukuda Opio. I have grown up with nicknames one of them is Kadowa which is also the business name. The other is Calabash.

RK: Where did you go to school?

DN: First of all, I was born in Nairobi, Kenya where my parents were teachers. At that time in the early 80s, there were many teachers from Uganda.

RK: I know what happened.  A lot of people were in exile and they took up teaching as their job. It was one way to lead a decent life.

So you are the people who drunk powdered milk when you were a child

DN: Yes. We had zesta, powdered milk and blue band.

RK: You used to eat bread with blue band?

DN: Yes.

RK: For us bread was a rumour in the 80s.

At what point in your life did you figure out that art is something you had an affinity for?

DN: What happened is that we finally left Nairobi and relocated to Uganda. We went down to Mbabara. I don’t know when I join the art world but I guess it’s a family thing maybe I picked from my mother. My brother is also into interior décor.  My dad was a total scientist and all that. He was a biology and chemistry teacher.

RK: I need to get back to your journey now. Which schools did you attend when you returned?

DN: When my parents came back here, they couldn’t manage with teaching. The pay was so little. They decided to join the business world. I went to Boma Primary School in Mbabara. I later joined Bweranyangyi Girls School for 6 years.

RK: Was Opio in Ntare?

DN: No. He appeared after campus.

RK: Hold. Let’s wait for that story.

DN: I went to Makerere University thereafter.

RK: What did you study there?

DN: Haa! I wish I was as focused then. A friend told me of a new course then called Environmental Management which was cool and trendy at the time. So I joined it.

RK: Just like that?

DN: Yes. Talk of peer pressure. When I reached there everything was so hard. I was coming from a background of History, Literature and Economics and there I was struggling with chemistry, and some physics and I was totally off. My father loved it, but I was struggling. I decided to switch courses. I joined Social Sciences. I didn’t like Social Sciences but it was the only available course.

RK: What did you major in?

DN: Social Administration.

RK: So you leave campus with our Social Sciences, where did you go?

DN: I went back home to Mbarara. My dad was running a booming business that we all grew up in. It was a house hold name in Mbarara. The business was called Jobe Fashions. We made school uniforms. We practically grew up in the business. Every holiday we would be in there doing finishing, buttoning or any available role. My dad was quite tough and strict. We were many girls. So he didn’t want the boys to come and confuse us.

RK: Wait. You’re glossing over some serious matters here.

DN: We just had one brother and we were four girls.

RK: Let’s not run away from this. So your dad sets up a tailoring business, so obviously the guy you’re saying was just a science teacher had a design element in him?

DN: My dad, I guess, living in Nairobi used to see the Indians go about their business. He also had a side hustle where he used to sell shirts after work. He was a biologist but a go getter. He wanted something bigger. My mum made the uniforms and my dad run the business.

RK: How was life like working in that business?

DN: He was just a tough guy. He didn’t like lazy people like the way we do things these days. Things like watching TV the whole day. He wanted you to be busy but not busy cleaning houses and all. He wanted us to work; to work and earn. When he got into business, he run with it.

RK: How long were you part of the business?

DN: It was like all my life. It is where we grew up from. We were never at home. You were either at school or at the shop.

RK: So you spent most of your time at the shop?

DN: Yes. We didn’t really get to tailor but we sold, did the finishing, ironed the uniforms and packed them. Everyone was always at the shop. Our dad was the first born so even our cousins were always at the shop working. We would all leave home in the morning and go back in the evening. That’s how we grew up. The business was known in Mbarara and it was a known family.

RK: Can I ask; which family was this? You might find that a lot of people know you

DN: People knew the business name more. I don’t know whether they knew my father. Everyone called him JOBE. JOBE was a combination of Johnson and Beth, my mother. My father’s name was Mr Kanyabubare.

RK: After campus, did you go back to working at the shop?

DN: My dad didn’t want me to lag around. He wanted me to look for jobs while at home. Unfortunately, he was beginning to get sick but also my elder sister was already working in a bank but for some reason dad picked on me. He wanted me to stay there and work. Even when I tried to apply for jobs, he convinced me to work. He told me of the advantage of doing business and all. He kind of held me there.

I am the second child. I remember when I was finished school, I wanted a graduation party as grand as that of my sister. But he was not buying the idea. He instead suggested that since I loved art, I could use the money intended for the graduation to start a business.

RK: I couldn’t agree more.

DN: He didn’t really give me like a choice. I wanted a party but I went with his idea. I used the would-be graduation money to start up a shop in Mbarara town. I called the business calabash. Calabash is my nickname as well. Growing up, I was a round short small person and quite noisy. One day my aunt said “she’s like a small calabash” and that is how the name stuck.

RK: What business did you set up?

DN: It was an art shop. I used to get material from Nairobi. I remember the first time; I didn’t know I had to declare my goods after loading them on a bus. I was thrown off the bus at the border with my merchandise. Dad encouraged me to go to the African markets in Nairobi to see what I could buy for my business. I was selling crafts mainly but I also included other things. It was also a famous business. I don’t know whether people here know it. Everybody knew calabash. It was that shop that people knew they would find those little nice art pieces. As I did that, I also run my dad’s business.

RK: And then Opio turns up…

DN: Opio is also the former headmistress of Mary Hill High School.

RK: It all adds up now! So where did he find you?

DN: Opio came to my shop. And there was a picture of me there which I just put. I thought it looked good. He wanted to know who the owner of the shop was. He is a bold character. I was never at the shop. There was an attendant. So he followed me to my father’s shop under the pretext that he wanted some particular kind of sandals.

I wasn’t there when he came but he found my father. When I came back dad told me of a client of mine who had come looking for me. So I followed up and that’s how we met.

RK: I like Opio. He is a sharp man.

Let me ask you something you told me about earlier that I also found to be very strange and fascinating at the same time. You told me, you get most of your creative ideas when you are in the toilet, tell me about that theory.

DN: I am sure the ladies here can attest to this. When you have three children, boys at that, you can only breathe in your bathroom. Even your bedroom is not your sanctuary. It’s only the bathroom that the children can respect. I picked up the habit and it stuck. Sometimes I just go there.

RK: So your sanctuary is the toilet…

DN: Please can you call it the bathroom?

RK: No. I imagine you with your hand on your chin looking down and thinking. What do you mean by thinking?

DN: The things I create come from the surroundings. For example, right now, I am in my bedroom and I am looking at a beautiful picture of myself. I made it specifically for Mr Opio not to forget how beautiful I am. So, it is the colours, things that you can see, the paintings. I can’t put a finger to how an artist’s mind works but yeah it’s something like that.

RK: I am fascinated by all of this. For me, right now, I am seeing a tree. How does it comethat for you, for example when you see a tree, you see more than a tree? What does it take to be like that?

DN: As you are speaking now, you are looking at a tree. It has branches, leaves and roots. One of my pieces says our families grow into different branches but we remain as one. So when I look at a tree, I am thinking of a family. The stability of a family. The roots down are the things that hold us together, let’s say children are going out to study. To meet new people. That’s how art comes about. You don’t just look at something as is.

RK: So you look beyond the objects that you are seeing.

DN: Yes.

RK: How do you arrive at the message you want to use to send your art? How do you make this message fit in this picture?

DN: Art is interesting. We are different. Some people like me are very talkative while others are not. I would like to create a piece that talks to everybody. Everyone should be able to derive their own meaning from an art piece. It should not be a one off. Art is supposed to intrigue and interest you at the same time. 

RK: The art piece of yours I love the most is of a woman with an afro of butterflies, what is that about?

DN: My grandmother used to say that women have a special seat in heaven because they have already seen it all on earth. I sort of agree with her.  A woman’s mind is full of many things.  I can only speak of a woman’s mind because I’m one. I look at a woman as being a girl, a mother, a society figure, being a mentor.  Out of a woman’s mind comes many things. Hope, joy, laughter… society expects a lot from a woman. I guess God designed us that way so we could be the people we are. Those butterflies depict an open mind. Let your mind be open to possibilities. To hope. It’s so refreshing to look at those butterflies. We need to make our minds free. Free to think and be. And free to mitigate these things that take control of our lives.

RK: This type of art is interactive. Why do you say it is interactive?

DN: Starting out, I was into the text art. But with business, you keep diversifying according to your client’s needs. At first I thought words up was boring until I put up one in the house and my son would always want to read it.

RK: I remember that word art. When I was much younger, Christian homes used to have that statement of Christ is the head of this house, the silent listener to every conversation… Every shop had that other one of for credit, you have to come tomorrow.

DN: With word art, you have to sort yourself out. The art speaks to you.

RK: Tell us, the way you do your pieces, is less of the pop art, how do you come up with your pieces?

DN: In my earlier interaction, I had said I do creative art. I can’t paint but I am very good at putting things together. That has always been my niche. Not only in art but also in organising like weddings. I put these materials together. I found I could paste the materials on wood.

RK: How does art soothe stress?

DN: That’s why I said art is interesting. One art piece is different to different people.

RK: What you are telling us is that we can have different interpretations of the same art piece?

DN: Yes. But I have another type of art I make. It’s basically images. I buy a magnificent image online and I put them on board. Some have nature, some animals. Others have vintage cars.

RK: You should get Otoa one of roasting meat.

DN: I have one of a bike. I think it makes guys powerful and manly.

RK: I know one girl who is crazy about bikes, she is called Anita Komukama, and you should send her that image.

DN: Anita, I’m coming for you. I didn’t post it but I take time to choose good images which I work on. Art speaks differently.

RK: You told me you work from home, how do you balance work and the boys?

DN: I can’t say I manage. I juggle. The kids have their time and I find a way to handle them. It’s hectic but I appreciate it a lot. I have been able to raise my children and do my art comfortably. My son who is 9, has learnt that when clients come, you say hello to them and give them a bottle of water. I feel like my father’s lessons are paying off. Work is work.

RK: Is any of them interested in art?

DN: The elder boy has a lot of words. He always wants to see what and how I am doing the things. They always come along. I don’t know whether any of them is interested. You know children, you never know until you know.

RK: You said something about wedding businesses, is that something you do as well?

DN: Many people have asked me to do something for their weddings but for reason I haven’t. But I have worked with decorators. I used to do it a lot before I got so serious with my art work.

RK: What about the interior décor business?

DN: Like I told you before, my brother is into interior décor as a major business. He is doing very well. He has been doing it like for about 10 years. When I left Mbarara, I thought I would join him but then I went into motherhood. I didn’t get into the décor business as I had thought. I sold off my calabash business. It had become too far to manage. So I sold it off but at peanuts because it was not doing well at that time. Then I thought I would do something here but then the child took all my attention. I was not into business for like 3 years.

RK: What pushed you to come back into the art after the three years?

DN: I kept doing all sorts things. I did beads, bracelets, wall hangings and a number of things. The problem with us creative people is that you can get lost in doing a lot of things. So you have to focus on one thing. I just found a lady doing them, then I also started. One time I was at Watoto Church and there were children singing. They were wearing African art. An idea came up. I thought I would create a wall hanging with words and African print on it. The following day on Monday, I went to the market and bought the materials. And it worked out. That was the beginning of wall art. But I was working from home and didn’t have a shop. And you can only so many people. It was not breaking even. And as you know life, in between there, I had some financial problems, my husband’s job etc. I had to do something that was making money. At one point I was selling stickers. I used to sell them in bulk. I used to kutembeya (hawk) them.

RK: Eh! Even you?

DN: Yes. At first I used to kutembeya in my vitz car then I lost it. Then I started kutembeya on my feet. And I have always had a good eye. I would go to town and buy things I would be sure people would buy. Then I would put them in my racksack and I would go and kutembeya

RK: Did that make you money?

DN: It did. It put food on the table. It got me connected to people. It got me tired and darker than I am. It taught me a few life lessons. It was satisfying to make Ugx 50,000 and be able to buy food for Ugx 20,000 and go home happily.

RK: How is the situation now?

DN: The situation now is that things have quite improved because of social media. I’m now a total mutembeyi on social media. I never thought it would be possible. Covid came with some benefits too. We never knew we could do this.

Previously, my husband used to travel a lot. He was a briefcase guy. Ever since covid, he has sat down. He now works from home. And as you heard us at the beginning of this call, he is the manager and social media person. I am still trying to catch up on that. We joined social media with a bang first with Facebook, then Instagram and now twitter.

RK: So now you’re bale to push out stuff and sell it?

DN: Yes. My client base has widened. I am now selling out of the country. 

RK: Remind me to connect you to Amos, Tio and Barungi.

DN: Thank you, I will remind you.

RK: I am moved by the fact that you are trying. You are making sure that you put food on the table and I think that is very honourable and decent and if I can help you through your work that would be excellent.

Comrade Otoa: Beyond social media, how would you advise people to get their work out there.

DN: What I have realised, in order to be able to make use of social media adequately, you should be able to take very good pictures that depict the real art work that you do. Then be able to speak for it. For example, my husband has been a great helper. He is not a calm guy in a good way.

RK: It’s called the vibe.

DN: Yes. He keeps you on your toes. He now got a good iPhone to take good pics

RK: As someone who has been in the media space, you need to take it up.

DN: Thanks. I will tell him. My friend Methia and Esther Mirembe have been helping out. We have been exposed. After we had joined Instagram, we were hosted by Edwin Musiime on the Property Show. We have friends like Solomon Sserwanjja. He is our friend and supports art. He bought an art piece which he went on to review on his social media platforms and many people called back asking for it. We now call that piece, Solomon Serwanjja. I really encourage people to use social media. Have good pictures, it is the way to go.

RK: I would like to take you back to that art piece of the hammer, what inspired you to make it?

DN: I thought it would be intriguing for a dad to own a hammer that has words. I thought that if a man got a hammer with an appreciation message to it like Dad thank you for building my world. I guess, if I were a dad, that is one gift from which I would derive a lot of pleasure. People loved it. And it’s a real hammer. It was intriguing and people loved it.

Naava: What drives Doreen? What influences you to make the pieces you do?

DN: It’s the vibe. Sometimes it’s what is going on in my mind. Sometimes, I imagine what’s going on in people’s minds. For example, the piece of the hammer, I just imagined what a child would like their father to feel. Like said earlier, I think God is the greatest artist. I can look at a flower and …

RK: See how he made me?

DN: I keep telling people; imagine if we were all dark and talkative, imagine how boring the world would be. Look at all the beautiful creations God has made. Sometimes you look at a flower, some parts are yellow, and others are pink. I can’t point to the exact thing which makes me create but it is all about letting your mind wander. You put yourself in the shoes of the person you imagine is going to take the piece.

Mary Apolot: Do you have plans of establishing an art gallery? Do you have plans of inspiring young people?


Chaz Mugasa: When the market demands go beyond you, how do you go about it?


Brian Kanzira: How have you transitioned from the informal to the formal art management space?


Anita: What pushed you out of your comfort zone?

Peninah: How would you encourage young people on where art can intersect with other disciplines?

George Mubiru: How did you get that motivation of moving away from home to start doing your business?

RK: In addition to George’s question, Covid has caused so many changes in people’s lives, how would you advise people in such circumstances?

DN: Covid has really affected many people. I think we should be like China; use our own stuff. Start where you are with what you have. Make something. Also study your market. For example, if you are staying in a neighbourhood, make mandazi and supply them. Find ways to empower yourself to grow.

My serious break through started in the lockdown. People were home and they realised they needed to change a few things in their homes. So I marketed myself in that line. The opportunity started there. I also help people do makeovers in their homes. Let us motivate ourselves to think outside the box.

RN: You have been through the ups and downs, to you what are those personal lessons you would like to leave with us?

DN: My dad always encouraged me to do production. He said if you do something, you control the outcome.

RK: Thank you Doreen for having the courage to share with us your experiences. Thank Mr Opio. I truly appreciate you spending time with us today.

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