Posted to the web April 1, 2002
While plain glass makes a church into an ordinary hall, stained glass makes you feel you are in a sacred place and in the presence of God, its creators tell DAVID MUSOKE A young Dutch Catholic missionary who came to Uganda in the 1930s to "evangelise the natives" soon found that the way to their souls let through their aesthetic senses - and so introduced the 'other-worldly' beauty of stained glass to East Africa.
Brother Joseph van Heeswick, a self-trained artist and technologist, is today remembered not for saving souls but for setting up the famous Nsambya Stained Glass Workshop in Kampala in 1936.
Brother Heeswick managed the workshop single-handedly. "It was like his personal business, although he was doing it under the umbrella of the Catholic Church," Mathias Muwonge Kyazze, the design consultant who now runs the workshop, told The EastAfrican. "The church was the only client for his stained glass windows, which were fitted in churches and cathedrals."
Before his death three years ago, the Dutch missionary had bequeathed his workshop to the Kampala Archdiocese of the Catholic Church. Long before that, the church authorities had realised that Heeswick's health was deteriorating and in 1987 recruited two Ugandan fine art graduates to study under him and succeed him after his death. One of them was Kyazze.
Kyazze and his fellow apprentice, John Bosco Ssenyonga, studied under Heeswick for almost three years before they took over the running of the workshop.
Says Kyazze, "We had undergraduate degrees in fine art from Makerere University's School of Fine Art and Design. But the creating stained glass works requires a whole different set of technical skills. Heeswick was a disciplined and strict man who took his work very seriously. He gave us a very good foundation."
The Nsambya Stained Glass Workshop imports its raw materials, mainly glass and chemicals, from Germany, France and the Netherlands. The two artists have spent more than three years designing and installing stained glass murals at the new Rugarama Cathedral in southwest Uganda. One of the biggest contracts they have so far undertaken is for the glass artworks installed at St James Church, Bbiina, near Kampala.
Until recently, the Anglican Church of Uganda did not approve of stained glass, but it has now changed its attitude and is one of their biggest clients. They have also repaired stained glass works at the Mother Africa Temple of the Bahai Faith, near Kampala. Besides Uganda, they also receive orders from Kenya and Rwanda.
Ssenyonga says that, while their work has so far been church-oriented, they want to diversify their designs to suit pubs, restaurants and homes.
Nevertheless, the duo say they are religious artists whose belief in Jesus Christ guides their creations. "Ordinary glass makes a church look like an ordinary hall. The stained glass makes one feel that he or she is in a sacred place and in the presence of God," they say.
"This is because glass is mysterious; unlike with ordinary painting or photographs, the light reflected through the artwork floods you. You will also never see stained glass art works in the same way twice. The images depend on the intensity of light," adds Kyazze.
The two artists are also working to make their stained glass more African by introducing cultural symbols like the drum in their artworks and depicting Jesus and the Virgin Mary wearing local costumes like a gomasi and kanzu.
Born in Mitala Maria in Mpigi District on November 24,1961, Kyazze's both parents were peasant farmers. He studied fine art as his first degree at Makerere University where he specialised in painting and graphic design. He went to Gaddard and Gibbs Glass Studio, in London, for a brief apprenticeship in stained glass design. The studio is the leading stained glass designer in Europe. On his return, he went to the state-run Uganda Management Institute where he completed a post graduate diploma in business management and studied how to improve marketability of stained glass works in Uganda.
He later returned to Makerere University's School of Fine Art and Design and undertook a master's degree in stained glass design. He is currently pursuing a master's degree at UMI in mangement and the challenges of art design.
Kyazze is married with four children. His counterpart, Mr. John Bosco Ssenyonga, was born in 1965 in Masaka District. His mother was a teacher and father a local administrator. On completion of his fine art degree at Makerere University's School of Fine Art in painting and sculpture, he also proceeded to Goddard and Gibbs studio in London for a brief apprenticeship in stained glass artwork.
©Copyright 2002, The East African (Nairobi, Africa)