If East Africa is a place where a thousand artists bloom, the scene in Uganda is truly exceptional. Tell me, where else in Africa, or in the world, can one find a more marked environment of academic excellence in visual art? A place where working artists brandish Bachelors, Masters or Doctorate degrees?
Key to this uncommon country affair is the Margaret Trowell School of Industrial & Fine Art founded in 1937 at the Makerere University, Kampala, Uganda. Margaret Trowell, expatriate alumnus of the London Slade School of Art, landed on the shores of Lake Victoria and launched an academic vision of modern art and industry in the colonial territory then billed as the Pearl of Africa. She helped shape an uncommon artistic culture in East African academe that resonates today.
Visual art as industry in the region is largely of paint work, batik and sculpture, with some beginnings in conceptual or performance art. Trowell was driven by her belief in Picasso's dictum that all children are born artist and that the challenge was how not to educate them out of it but to allow them to remain artistic as they grow. While western academic instruction tended to dampen, if not destroy, innate creativity, Trowell sought to reconcile modern technical strictures with the African's natural bent to produce great art that comes from deep within, inspired by and grounded in their spiritual or cultural ethos, she maintained.
Her legacy means Ugandan university trained artists are leaders in Afromodernism and African aesthetic, as an intellectual discourse and as means to rigorous inter-cultural art practices. Arguably, Ugandan artists tend to have more acumen in art entrepreneurship. This is a result of the "oversupply" of artists; graduates from the universities each year while the art buying market remained tiny. The artist, brandishinh his/her Bachelors, Masters or Doctorate degree, must find various creative ways to make a living. The luckier ones secure places in academia to teach art even if their true love is to make art. Others hold down day jobs while painting at night to assuage the creative beasts pounding in their chest and hollering to be let out and given form on canvas, paper or stone. Some use the family house or apartment as studio, gallery and showcase to sell art.
Fullbright Scholar and woodcut print artist Fred Kato Mutebi has exhibited in several African countries, Europe and the US. However, to make ends meet he lectures at Makerere on art and printmaking, conducts workshops and teach chemistry. No wonder while his work celebrates the beauty of his homeland it also carries messages on the fragility of the human condition. Finding common cause and solidarity there is a proliferation in art associations in the country, such as the Uganda Online Art Consortium, Art Aids Africa, the Kann Artists, Umoja Gallery Design Agenda. An innovative approach under the KLA ART collective seeks to periodically take art out of the studio to the ordinary folk in the street, market places, commercial centres and public transport stations. Used shipping containers filled with freshly made art are towed through urban streets, making stops at various locations where the public are encouraged to step into the mobile galleries to confront art – and to buy!
In Uganda the marriage between Cartesian techniques and traditional Africa idioms are most visible in the work of doctorate luminaries Kasule Maria Kizito, Venny Nakazibwe, George Kyeyune and Lilian Mary Nabulime, not forgetting the doyenne Theresa Musoke and the late Geoffrey Mukasa. Actually, the most exciting internationalist blend is found in the soft, colours-suffused lyricism of Mukasa, who meshes so splendidly his formative backgrounds of African, western and oriental ethos. John Yoga, another Makerere peer, was preeminent among the founders of Afromodernism in the 1970s. In fact, Yoga was the first to experiment in pure abstracts in East Africa, branding the style he evolved "Yogabstract." His seminal Portrait of a Goddess, Luwero Ghosts and the Plantation series, plus his ink on paper horror vacui renditions, are magisterial in their intricacies and pathos. Yoga's premature death in 1992, in the prime of his youth, robbed Africa of a potential maestro.
After the Musoke-Kizito-Mukasa-Yoga generation, there is a younger sub-group, those I call the "Young Turks," who are currently creating fast-paced urban life infused work. Anwar Nakibinge, Ssali Yusuf, Kaspa Byamugisha, Jjuko Hoods et al have successfully fused scholarly techniques and the use of mixed media with Africa's earthy tonalities and magical realism in their exuberant story telling. Byamugisha loves wildlife, a subject matter germane in the work of too many artists on the continent. However, Byamugisha's fauna and flora themed art is a splashy, almost tactile, cubist-fauvist place, refreshingly novel, very much his own. Constantly under pressure to sell art for survival, the Young Turks churn out heaps of mainly acrylic on paper work, from envelope-size to poster-size formats that sometimes look like conveyor belt or "factory" products. However, their low price makes them affordable to first time buyers among Uganda's nascent middle class, who otherwise wouldn't afford the price tag of large canvases in expensive oils. That's not to say Anwar, Ssali, Byamugisha et al don't create great art. They do, as attested by the big masterpieces displayed at Nairobi's famous Gallery Watatu, which unfortunately, has recently closed following the death of its owner.
The Great Lakes: Central Africa has been a place of man-made horrors in the last two decades especially: wars, massacres, genocide, mass displacements and countless roaming war orphans. Rwanda and Burundi sit squarely in the wake of the maelstrom and the traumatized population is hard at work trying to reconcile and to rebuild. Art, the creation of beauty, is among the tools being used to heal, empower and to project a hopeful future. There is hardly any significant contemporary art practice in Burundi, rather, in their post war era Burundians tend to privilege more the theatre and popular music. Their internationally acclaimed musicians tour the region and farther afield. It's the Rwandese environment that currently offers more in visual art.
Post genocide Rwanda has been a source of inspiration for a group of highly motivated young men who are determined to do their part in the physical and mental reconstruction of their country using the visual art. A pioneering figure in the movement is the youthful Collin Sekajugo, a Rwandese who grew up in exile in Uganda and Kenya, went back to Kigali after the 1994 genocide and started Ivuka (Rebirth) Arts Centre in 2007. A self taught artist, Sekajugo befriended dozens of street children from his neighbourhood, many of them war orphans. He gave them paper, crayons and watercolours and encouraged them to paint. The kids also learnt traditional song and dance repertoires and were soon touring the country and overseas. That was Sekajugo's way of contributing to a much-needed therapy for many among the traumatized young souls.
Today, Ivuka is a collective of several young artists. Sekajugo provides studio space and showroom in his rented house in a leafy residential area of the city. In style the artists tend to feed on each other, with their raw, edgy, mostly figurative creations in oils, ink or crayons. It's a fresh, joyful, soul lifting brand of art – quite apt for the country's traumatic history. Sekajugo himself had early success, especially, with his bosomy sensuous nudes, dissimulated in painterly, flowery rural settings. They are snatched off the easel by locals and expatriates alike – often before the oils dry. "Art in Rwanda is like a toddler. It's in a very early phase right now. You have to take it by the hand to let it grow", Sekajugo said recently. Ivuka Centre is a not to miss pit stop, even on a day's visit to Kigali.
Other art groups have sprung up in Kigali to follow Sekajugo's lead. Such is the INEMA Art Centre, started in 2010 by siblings Emmanuel Nkuranga and Innocent Nkurunziza. The Uburanga Art Studio was also started in 2010 by Jean Bosco Bakunzi, himself a war orphan. He says his mission is beauty personified – "to heal people mentally, emotionally, and spiritually." Uburanga provides studio space for a dozen artists under a collective whose motto is an "incubator of talent." The artists conduct weekly classes in schools and orphanages, teach children to make postcards and jewelry for sale. The proceeds are used to pay school fees, basic health care, and to offer some pocket money for the kids. And so, the "Land of a Thousand Hills" has added another sobriquet: "Land of a Thousand Artists."
Osei G Kofi, March 2014