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History and Analysis of Teresa Musoke's Painting "Birds"

Updated on December 5, 2014

Idi Amin


Let Me Introduce You to Idi Amin

The painting Birds is an acrylic on canvas by one of Africa's most influential and successful artists, Teresa Musoke. She is considered one of the most recognized and influential semi-abstract painters in Uganda.[1] Birds is currently not located within any museum, although it has made appearances in numerous galleries and art exhibits. Teresa holds this piece very close to her heart, as it contains a personal message of sorrow and displays her emotions during a difficult time in her life. Her painting Birds is a response to the pain of her native land.[2]

Teresa Musoke's native country, Uganda, experienced a lot of hardships during a period when a man by the name of Idi Amin was president. Although describing these difficult occurrences as hardships for the Ugandan people is an understatement. It does not even come close to testifying as to what actually happened in Uganda and the emotional tole that these people experienced during Idi Amen's time in office. As president of Uganda from 1971 to 1979, Idi Amin became well known for his terrible violations of human rights.

He caused the collapse of Uganda's economy and he also caused a major social disorganization as the Ugandans panicked and rebelled against one another. Idi Amin is remembered best as the tyrant of Uganda who was responsible for a reign filled with mass killings and disorder.[3] Ruling by authority, Idi was one of the first dictators in Uganda to unleash mass killings as a way to fight back against the rebellion and internal opposition within Uganda.

During his eight years as president, Idi Amen was held responsible for the deaths of as many as 500,000 of Ugandans. 100,000 or more Ugandans were exiled and thousands of others were trapped within prisons and underground torture chambers. By the time Idi was overthrown, annual inflation in Uganda was 200 percent and the national debt was $320 million. Most plantations were overgrown, factories were shut down and shop shelves were empty.[4]


The Beginning of Teresa Musoke

After Idi Amen resigned and fled Uganda, the country was still a mess and left to pick up the pieces and start again. Teresa Musoke's artwork became a domination of the fear, violence and despair raised by the bloodshed in her country. She first started to paint in a moment of expansion of the artistic exploration and expression in Uganda. Teresa studied at Makerere University and after completing her degree she went to the Royal College of Art in London where she further enriches her creativity and developed her technical skills.

After leaving London she moved to Nairobi, Kenya and lived there until the rebellion in Uganda settled down. It was in Nairobi, Kenya that Teresa started a long and distinguishing career as one of East Africa's foremost professional painter and print-maker. In 1965, she became the first African woman artist to have a solo show. She is known for her expressive portrayals of African wildlife through which she captures and expresses feelings.[5]




Interpretation of the Acrylic Painting

The colors in the painting, Birds, are neutral consisting of black, white and grays. The background has what looks to be a combination of grays with a bluish tone mixed in with it. The color white has been added in to the background as well. It looks like the white was applied with a sponge or dabbed with a frayed paintbrush to give a light, transparent effect. This effect makes it seem as though the white is supposed to be fog or clouds. Overall these background colors give the viewer an image of what looks to be like a sky that is gray and cloudy.

At the very bottom of the canvas one will notice a thin, beige, rectangular shape that extends horizontally from one end of the painting to the other. It appears as through this would represent a barren land of simply dirt or sand. It is vacant and empty with nothing growing from it and no one occupying it. The most noticeable and distinguishing feature of this painting are of course, the dark figures and shapes that occupy the apparent sky in the middle of the canvas.

Given the title of the painting and the appearance of these figures, one might assume that these are indeed abstraction of birds. There are seven birds and four of them look like they are touching. They are black with shades of navy blue mixed in and the lines defining these birds are sharp and jagged.

Overall, the scene that has been set up in this painting is not a pleasant one. The colors, tones, values and abstraction of the birds create an unsettling mood within the viewer. Theresa Musoke is most likely commenting on her feelings of the situation in Uganda. Neutral colors do not create any warmth or happiness within this piece and the gray skies give a gloomy feeling. The emptiness in the painting might be symbolic of a failing economy or a country that has nothing.

Regardless, Birds is a painting that is definitely open for interpretation, but it can be agreed that this piece does not convey anything related to joy or celebration. Within this piece, shadowy gray, brown and black shapes emerge from a bluish background and come together into images of twisted, long-legged birds. These creatures do not seem to be simply metaphors for death or hope, but rather a direct evocation of fear and despair.[6]


The Use of Black and Lingering Darkness

When it comes to the color black in art, there are a variety of symbolism and meanings associated with its use and almost all of them have negative connotations. That is because humankind instinctively fear the darkness, and anything that lurks in the night. Black also represents another great fear, being underground with no light to see. Because of these two associations, death, depression and fear are all part of the color black.[7] The color black is also used to represent death and mourning. In some cases it is also associated with Hell or evil.[8] In a different way, black also represents space, specifically outer space and infinite space. There is a mystery to things that can not be defined or seen and the color black often associates anything with those mysterious qualities.[9]

In a way Teresa may have been commenting on her own confusion as to why Uganda was experiencing such a troubling time as there is a sense of loss and helplessness within the painting. With these combined interpretations of the color black, one can see how and why Teresa Musoke chose the color for her birds. Birds that are black such as, ravens, crows and black carrion birds, and that are depicted in art are regarded as indications of death. As previously mentioned, one will notice white clouds or fog surrounding the birds. In the East, the color used for death and mourning is white. It is also the color used for surrender.[10] In conclusion, these colors are symbolic of grief, sorrow, death, mourning and destruction.

Given the colors used for the birds and around them, along with the variety of meanings and symbolism they contain, one would agree that these abstracted black birds portray a strong message. Not only that, but the birds take up a majority of the canvas and are contained within the middle of the painting. Although, it is not just the placement of the birds that lead the viewer to look at them. The repetition in the lines and shape of the birds creates a balance and rhythm.

The way they are placed, especially with some of them touching, creates a movement within the piece. This also guide the viewers eyes through the arrangement of the birds. All of these qualities combined put emphasis on them and makes them the focal point to the piece. On a side note, some might assume that the way the birds move through the piece and look towards the ground, that they could be vultures. Vultures are scavenger birds which feed off dead things.[11] This is yet another aspect to symbolize the mass killings and death that occurred in Uganda.


In Conclusion

Political unrest following Uganda's independence in the 1970s and 1980s brought back figurative narrative, as opposed to non figurative abstraction. Figurative narrative was important to create and communicate political and social statements. Many of Uganda's artists were exiled and fled to Kenya, South, Africa, the United States and Europe, where they absorbed visual elements from the new environments and incorporated them into their work with mediums, styles and color palettes that often remained faithful to their Uganda experience.

Restored political and economic stability, during the late 1980s, gave an opportunity to such artists like Teresa Musoke.[12] Her themes are politically potent and personal. She is the only black woman artist from East Africa to receive widespread international recognition. Teresa is best known for her use of animal themes. She expresses her rhythmic movements in harmony with nature. She considers animal synonymous with the quest for human freedom.[13] Her painting, Birds, is a testament to the suffering in Uganda and the pursuit for humans to live a peaceful life, free from torment and destruction. Today's Uganda's artists bring through their work awareness of their homeland's unique colors, cultures, people and art.[14]



[1] Uganda News. (Uganda; UGPulse, 19 December 2005): online, Internet, 5 November 2011. Available:

[2] Monica Blackmun Visona, Robin Poyer, Herbert M. Cole and Suzanne Preston Blier. A History of Art in Africa 2nd ed. (Upper Saddle River, NJ; Prentice Hall, 2008): 462

[3] Encyclopedia of World Biography. (Advameg Inc, 2011): online, Internet, 1 November 2011. Available:

[4] The Age: Business, World and Breaking News of Melbourne, Australia. (Melbourne, Australia; The Age Company Ltd., 17 August 2003): online, Internet, 1 November 2011. Available:

[5] Sabrina Puppin-Lerch. Contemporary African Women Artists: Commentaries on Everyday Life in Art (Cincinnati, OH; Union Institute and University, 2007) 84-85

[6] Monica Blackmun Visona, Robin Poyer, Herbert M. Cole and Suzanne Preston Blier. A History of Art in Africa 2nd ed. (Upper Saddle River, NJ; Prentice Hall, 2008): 462

[7] Empty Easel. (Online Art Magazine Empty Easel, 1 June 2007): online, Internet, 1 November 2011. Available:

[8] Painting. (New York; New York Times, 2011): online, Internet, 1 November 2011, Available:

[9] Empty Easel. (Online Art Magazine Empty Easel, 1 June 2007): online, Internet, 1 November 2011. Available:

[10] Painting. (New York; New York Times, 2011): online, Internet, 1 November 2011, Available:

[11] Painting. (New York; New York Times, 2011): online, Internet, 1 November 2011, Available:

[12] Sabrina Puppin-Lerch. Contemporary African Women Artists: Commentaries on Everyday Life in Art (Cincinnati, OH; Union Institute and University, 2007) 84-85

[13] Douglas Emerson Blandy and Kristen G. Congdon. Pluralistic Approaches to Art Criticism. (Bowling Green, OH; Bowling Green State University. 1991):13

[14] Sabrina Puppin-Lerch. Contemporary African Women Artists: Commentaries on Everyday Life in Art (Cincinnati, OH; Union Institute and University, 2007) 84-85


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