That Eye The Sky: Uganda's renaissance

Posted: 05 Sep 2004

It's not surprising that people in the rest of the world have limited ideas about Africa. It's true that in a country like Uganda, decades of civil war and the devastation wrought by HIV/AIDS, have decimated both the population and the cultural life of the country. But there is so much more to it than that. The spirit of Uganda has survived, and so has the country's artistic community.

Situated on the east coast in the Great Lakes region of the African continent, life in Uganda revolves around the largest lake in the world, Lake Victoria. Long known as "the Pearl of Africa," Uganda's lush forests and hills teem with birds, and the lakes bristle with fish. Ugandans are primarily musical and verbal rather than visual people, and this makes sense if you just listen to the country - to the orchestra of bird calls early in the morning, the rains with their differing tempos falling on banana leaves and tin roofs, or rushing down the culverts by the side of the roads.

Ugandans love to make music and dance to tell their stories. Wood is plentiful, so drums, flutes, guitars, and shakers are made from many different hues, grains and textures. But physical adornment is not as public among the Buganda, one of the dominant ethnic groups in Uganda, as it is with other African ethnic groups. Traditionally women wore their hair short, and beads were worn around the waist, but under the clothes.

Sanaa Gateja, Barkcloth Collage #2

Masks, which most people associate with African art, aren't found here much either, despite the abundance of trees. Margaret Nagawa, known to Kampala's artistic community as "that small woman," is an artist, curator, and the recent outgoing Chair of the Uganda Artists' Association (UAA). She explains that the Buganda are very devout, "but they do not use physical items like dolls or masks as a means to worship their gods." "The gods we have are in the water, the lakes, the mountains, the trees, the animals," corroborates Jjuuko Hood, an energetic young painter who will graduate from Kampala University this year.

Like many other Ugandan artists, Jjuuko uses the recurring metaphor of fish throughout his work - the tails are curved to evoke the way the rooves of huts are supported and thatched, an architectural style which can be seen at the Kabakas' Tombs in Kasubi, one of the seven hills that make up what is historically known as "Old Kampala". The eyes of the fish are circles which also symbolise the settlement period of earlier times when people first set up their huts around the 'Kabaka' or king's residence to protect their leader.

Ugandans are great weavers. While their cloth, baskets and mats display no distinctive decorations, the various shapes of baskets used to catch different types of fish or animals, or to store grains, are quite fascinating.

And yet despite the lack of a strong pictorial tradition, the contemporary fine art scene in Uganda is booming right now, and it hasn't got anything to do with the ubiquitous banana-fibre crafts and voodoo masks mass-produced in China, which fill the tourist bags. Half of the forty-two artists selected to exhibit at the recent East Africa Biennale 2003 in Tanzania, came from Uganda, and the UAA boasts over 150 members in the Kampala area alone.

There are various reasons for this, which all pivot on the cultural equilibrium which peace makes possible. Most importantly in post Idid Amin Uganda, changes occurred in teaching insitutions throughout the 1990s, which laid the groundwork for the current bloom of visual art. In 1996 Makerere University, the "Harvard of East Africa", increased enrolment at its Margaret Trowell School of Industrial and Fine Arts from ten students per year, to seventy, chiefly by allowing students who were not on government scholarships to be admitted.

At that point President Yoweri Museveni had been in power for ten years, and the resultant political and economic stability encouraged students to study art who could not have done so in more turbulent times. Secondly, the older generation of professors who had survived the unstable times retired, allowing younger academics with their new and different styles to influence the students. Artists Annette Natocho (whose delicate watercolor paintings of flowers evoke Asian influences such as Sumi Japanese watercolour painting) and Consodyne Buzabo (who paints watercolor and acrylic birds and animals in bold and vibrant colours), were students in those first large classes, and remember the impact when their Professor, Richard Kabiito, encouraged them to paint what they saw, not what they thought he wanted, or what they'd been taught before.

"Previously art students stayed in the studios and painted abstracts or "culture" art. But these depictions of African women with baskets on their heads," says Natocho, "corresponded to the ideas Europeans wanted to believe, and therefore buy." "Because the students were painting what the professors wanted and not what was in their hearts, it wasn't very good," corroborates Buzabo, "Professor Kabiito took us to paint in the slums, on the shores of Lake Victoria, in forests, even to Mulago Hospital."

Landscape painter Jude Wasswa, was inspired by his professor, Allen Birabi, because he painted "landscapes I recognized", not the landscapes of textbooks featuring European art.

In 1993 Nkumba University started a full-fledged art department. The Michaelangelo School of Creative Art opened and even more people were able to study art. The Gallery Café also opened giving artists a different venue for showing their works. In 1995 Tulifanya Gallery opened in Kampala and started their annual "Young Discoveries" exhibitions.

Finally, the return of the artist Taga Nuwagaba from London in 1993 proved a turning point. Today Taga is Uganda's foremost wildlife painter; his paintings hang in Parliament and the fanciest game lodges as well as the country's new series of butterfly postal stamps. Young painters have been inspired by his professionalism. His distinctive, individual approach has given them the courage to find their own sense of style, rather than just copying their teachers.

The return of other artists from exile in Europe like Nagawa, who earned a Masters' degree in Fine Art Administration and Curatorship from Goldsmiths College in London, has consolidated Taga's influence. "When I came back from London I wanted to share what I'd learned," Taga recalls. "I'd met European artists who were making a living from their art in a market that is very difficult to get into, and I saw how they did it. You know, when an accountant buys a house and a car, it's considered normal. When an artist can buy a bicycle, now that's a story!"

Portrait painter Joseph Mugisha, a lecturer at Nkumba University and Secretary of the UAA, concurs. "Taga really woke a lot of us up who'd been sleeping before," he says. "Before Taga no one was doing watercolours. When he showed he could sell them, people realized there was a market." But Taga did more than paint using different mediums; he has been instrumental in helping Ugandan artists to recognize themselves as a community and to work together.

"I told them the government has no programs to help us," the forty year old Taga says, "so we have to help each other if we are going to survive."

In 1996 the first Uganda National Artists Workshop was held, organized by Ugandan artists who had attended similar workshops in other African countries, and modelled after the Triangle Workshops held in New York and London in the early 1980's. The purpose of this and subsequent workshops was to encourage and facilitate cooperation among the artists, as well as expose them to the international art scene. It also resulted in the development of an artists' center, Ngoma International Artists Studios, to foster these goals. Ngoma, partially funded by the British Council, the Commonwealth Fund, The Triangle Arts Fund, and the Ford Foundation, provides free studio space for artists and hosts international artists for residential workshops.

In 2001 Taga joined forces with Nagawa to revitalize the UAA and to sensitise younger Ugandan artists to being organized, focused, and working together. "We really need fellowship," says Nagawa. "Most people don't appreciate what we do. 'Nice painting, like the colors' they'll say, but they don't think about going home with that painting. Family opinion is very important in our culture, and our families wonder what we are doing and why. They don't get it."

Ronex Ahimbisibwe, a soft spoken young artist from Mbarara in the southwestern part of Uganda is the first in his family to go to university. He says he's been inspired by pictures of western Tanzanian rock paintings he's seen in books. " When I told my father I wanted to study art he couldn't understand why I needed to go to university to become a sign painter. 'Where's the respect in that? Why don't you study law or medicine?' my father said to me."

Ronex graduated in 2001 from Makerere University and now makes his living as an artist. "There was such division and animosity in the artistic community," recalls Nagawa, describing a culture in posttraumatic shock. "No one showed their work to each other, no one shared information, they didn't even know each other. It's so hard to make a living here in general, let alone in art, that people didn't trust each other. They were afraid of being copied. That's when we started the meetings, which at first were monthly. They really took off and the younger artists decided to meet weekly. That's why we started the UAA Resource Centre at Nommo Gallery. We wanted to expose artists through reading and the Internet to work they might not otherwise see."

The UAA's openhearted approach has worked. Paul Ssendagire is a young printmaker who recently won top prize in the graphic art division of the 2003 Olympic Art and Sport Competition for Uganda. He's taught many fellow artists how to make wood cut prints. "We are forming a movement to give printmaking to the people," he says enthusiastically. "We improvise if we have difficulties finding materials."

Activities like these, and the recent election of an art educator, Lydia Mugambi, as Chairperson of the UAA, ensure that art practice in Uganda is really jumping. Sculptor Henry Ssegah, himself only twenty-four years old, says "we want to encourage the young ones, to give them confidence to keep making art."

The increased availability of many types of materials has also made it easier for the young artists to find their own style. "In the past, if you couldn't find oil paints, you couldn't paint," explains Nagawa." Makerere University's art school was based on the Slade School in England. Students weren't taught how to make brushes or how to use other materials to paint, the way they are in, say, Japan."

After one of Jjuuko 's professors encouraged him to try painting with "anything, even earth", experimentation became a reflex. Ronex, who came to painting from printmaking, uses rollers rather than brushes.

Expats too, have played an integral part in the rebirth of fine art in Uganda by giving local artists an international market and Taga says this, in addition to the growing economy, has also encouraged Ugandans to begin collecting art. "In the 1980s it was about food and shelter," says Taga. "A house was good if the roof wasn't leaking and the door was firm. Now Ugandans are building new houses and realizing the walls are blank. If we convince them of the importance of art, and if the economy continues to grow, then their children will buy art."

The UAA works closely with the Alliance Francaise which hosts "Artist of the Month" exhibitions. The Ugandan German Cultural Society hosts a monthly "Art Night", regular exhibitions, and recently sent two UAA members, Eria 'Sane' Nsumuga and Henry 'Mzili' Mujunga, to Germany as "Art Ambassadors" for six weeks. Sane's work has been called "rich, vibrant, and appealing" by the New Vision, Uganda's leading daily newspaper. He works with acrylic, watercolour, and ink applied to different surfaces such as paper, bark cloth and canvas. His most recent work, sent to Berlin, is full of bright, almost neon, greens, yellows, pinks and blues calling to mind the brightly coloured plastic brooms, brushes, buckets and basins sold from the back of bicycles here.

Fred Mutebi, currently a Fulbright lecturer in Tennessee, USA, recently sold four unframed wood cut prints in New York for $500 each, twice the going rate for his work in Kampala. "Mutebi is a good example of an artist who uses the techniques he was taught at Makerere," writes Rose-Marie Rychner, in her book 'Uganda: The Cultural Landscape', "at the same time choosing an independent and free style of expressing his artistic vision."

But if there is anything that marks a work of art as specifically "Ugandan" it is the use of bark cloth, especially in the making of collages. Henry 'Mzili' Mujunga is an art scholar, painter and printmaker who has travelled extensively throughout Africa. He is also the newly elected UAA Vice Chairperson. His most recent exhibition at the Alliance Francaise included collages on barkcloth. "The use of bark cloth has been critiqued by some as being unsophisticated and degenerative to Western art practise," he says. "But we are hoping that using it in very inventive ways will create a distinctively Ugandan identity for our art."

The painter and jewellery maker Sanaa Gateja has been using and experimenting with bark cloth for over twenty-five years. Last year he exhibited his "experiments" at the Uganda Museum and at Afriart, combining paint and beads on bark cloth to create beautiful abstract patterns. Writing about Sanaa's work for the New Vision's Art Scene, Nathan Kiwere described one landscape titled "My Home Village" as "a visual narrative of the undulating relief of his homeland which is characterised by beautiful mountains and valleys and the natural vegetation."

Sane and Ivan Yakuze have also merged Western techniques with the instinctive search for indigenous expression, by using bark cloth for collages. But bark cloth aside, "the contemporary fine art we're seeing in Kampala now," observes expat artist

Carol Jenkins, "has expanded beyond Uganda, or even Africa. You can say 'that's a wood cut by Mutebi' or 'that's an oil by Taga', but you can't say 'that's a piece of work by a Ugandan.' In fact, if you saw the work of many of these artists hanging in a New York gallery you wouldn't even be able to say, 'that's been done by an African'". Mzili wouldn't say this was necessarily a positive development. "The challenge for the Ugandan artist today," he insists, "is to come up with a purely Ugandan way of manipulating material."

Nevertheless, the international market is opening up. "We had a tough time convincing galleries in New York and London that we're a serious fine art gallery," says Karen Downing of Tulifanya Gallery, now one of the most respected galleries in Kampala. "But they finally believe we have fine art in Uganda that's not made from banana fibre."

Bark Cloth

A soft fabric-like material made of bark stripped from the mutuba tree (Ficus Natalensis), bark cloth is reddish brown, the exact color of Ugandan earth after the frequent rains. Bark cloth was first made in Uganda in the twelfth century when the Kabaka Kimera (or King) of Buganda ordered his people to start producing it and using it for clothes. It is not known if the cloth was invented in Uganda or if the idea was introduced from elsewhere. Bark cloth is also made in Java and in other islands of the eastern Indian Ocean. The tree from which the bark is stripped in Java is commonly found in Uganda. One of the many uses of bark cloth is for storinghealers' medicines in talismen.

Active Galleries

Afriart Gallery (also Afri Art Gallery) was founded by Daudi Karungi in December 2002 "to promote art in Uganda with a focus on young artists like Jjuuko and Damba." These two artists, both still university students, were part of an Afriart exhibition in February, 2004.

Jjuuko's work at Gallery Afriart was so well received he was invited to have a solo exhibit of acrylics on bark cloth there in April, 2004.

Another new gallery, Aidchild's Equation Gallery, opened in October 2003. Nagawa, its artistic director, says 30% of art sales go to help orphan children living with HIV/AIDS and UAA members have conducted art workshops with the children.

Index Mashariki and Musono Circle are two groups of energetic artists who've formed "cooperatives" to support each other and do volunteer work to promote art to the general public. Index Mashariki, consisting of 'Sane', 'Mzili', and Ronex Ahimbisibwe, along with Paulo Akiiki, Rosa Achola, Grace Akello and Enoch Mukiibi, is working with Aidchild's Equation Gallery to conduct workshops for children living with HIV/AIDS. Ssendagire and Hood along with Aidchild's Equation Gallery to conduct workshops for children living with HIV/AIDS.

Ssendagire and Hood along with artists Henry 'Ssegah' Ssegamwenge and Stella Atal, and photographer Tibasiima Abdallah make up Musono Circle which recently conducted week long workshops for children at an orphanage school.

There are many Ugandan artists experiencing success in the Western art markets. Tulifanya Gallery's owner Maria Fisher was at The Affordable Art Fair in London in March where she represented sculptor Maria Naita whose work was one of fifty, out of 500 plus artists exhibited, judged by the public as the best of the show. After London, Fisher and the art of Mzili, Sane, Hood, David Kigozi, and Dr. Kizito Maria Kasule went to Berlin for exhibition and sale in April.

Web resource:

Image: Barkcloth Collage #2, Sanaa Gateja, 2004, acrylic, raffia, paper beads on barkcloth, 210cm x 75cm. Courtesy of Margaret Nagawa. Homepage: detail only.

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Issue 38