The Special One: An Interview with Rose Kirumira
Three massive tree trunks are placed near the entrance of Rose Kirumira’s unfenced garden at Makerere Campus. They are raw material for creation. She has started to slice out the two huge slabs she is going to use as the founding elements of her next artwork.Editor Thomas Bjørnskau talks to sculptor Dr. Rose Kirumira (born 1962) about her reasons for creating unique objects out of local material. .
We stroll around her garden, inspecting the pieces before we sit down in her outdoor workshop. Rose speaks openly about her plans for the future artwork. What the final outcome might be. Who might purchase it. How it might be displayed. How it might be used.
”This wood is something I have wanted to make for a long time. But I needed the right kind of material. The right thickness and hardness. Now, I can’t stop thinking about the process. How to slice it, put it on the table, start designing it and accomplish the concepts I have envisioned.”
EDITOR: Is the process more fulfilling for you than the end product?
”Yes it is. I am very excited about this coming process. Bringing out the material, you know … it is almost as the wood talks to you. Then I try to envision how the piece will work out aesthetically. And I think about how to mix it with other media.
In this piece, I need to dig out holes, and then I am certain I will cover the holes with these big, beautiful copper plates. Furthermore, this piece of art also includes some balls, and then I imagine whether they should be stonelike or made from ceramics.”
The Aesthetics of Our Visual Culture
ED: What is the purpose behind this particular piece of art?
”I want to achieve the idea of showing people something they already know, but turned into something that looks a little skewed. Furthermore, it is about bringing out the aesthetic of what is contained in our visual culture and how it can be preserved.”
ED: Is there a general message in your art?
”In my true sense as a visual artist; I think it is about appreciating oneself and being in tune with ones thoughts and abilities, and not being afraid of expressing those thoughts in the best way possible. This is how I approach a piece of wood; imagining how I can turn it into one perfect, beautiful sculpture. An expression of a persons individuality. And in a way, I am giving the viewer me.”
Romancing the Beautiful Things
ED: What makes you special as an artist?
”I think it is a matter of being very romantic. I like to imagine beautiful things, and I like the perfection of a solid, three-dimensional sculpture. When you view my art, I hope you will appreciate how this one whole body of ideas comes to show, that you can feel the artists inner thoughts and ideas. And in a way, appreciate your own inner thoughts, your abilities and limitations.”
At this point in our conversation, Rose is presenting me some ideas which really open my eyes.
ED: I am thinking … every day we are exposed to so many objects, man-made or natural, that are really copies of each other – whether they are chairs, glasses or even trees and plants – whereas you are showing us something totally unique. Even though it may be perceived as a chair or a tree, it represents a true individual idea. A Special One. So, how do you capture this originality?
”When I am walking around and seeing something, I store it as an idea for a future art piece. Whether it is a visual or emotional input, I think about it and ask: ’Is this an idea that can live in one of my pieces?’ Later, I am seperating these memories, throwing away, rejecting but still loving all these daily impulses.”
Inspired by Daily Life
ED: And inspiration comes primarily from…?
”It is hard to pinpoint. It comes from things happening around me. Daily life inspires me a lot. But then again; there are some constants that I need … I hold on to the mediums I am using. Carving wood. Using clay. And my cultural roots – the Ugandan visual culture – becomes a constant too. I base myself on my visual culture to express my anger, my satisfaction and my joy.”
ED: What do you do if you lack inspiration?
”I go back into history. To my portfolio of unfinished woorks. Ideas that never happened or something I wanted to do, but didn’t finish.” Rose is pointing to a large piece of wod at the table in her outdoor workplace. ”These days I have cleared the space in my workshop. Then I often find myself bringing out a piece I’ve had many attempts at. I look at it and say: ’Well. What can I do with you? Now, it’s your turn again.’ And if it doesn’t spark anything, I put it back and move forward. But sometimes going backwards.”
The Card Maker and the Room Decorator
ED: Tell me a little about when you discovered your interests and talents for art and sculpture?
”When I was in Primary, I loved making cards. Greeting cards. Birthday cards. I used to design them by combining little things and putting them in layers, cutting images from magazines … actually, I was the Card Person in school. I wasn’t good in mathematics or anything else, but I was good at making things.
In Secondary, I became the Room Decorator, designing rooms for functions and school parties. And these two expressions are really both three-dimensional, even the cards had physical depth and layers. Somehow, I can’t think two-dimensional only.”
Rose shows me some of her recent artwork, framed portraits with masks made from some sort of a metal plate taken from a car engine, framed in woodsticks glued onto bits of wallpaper.
”This is my attempt to think like a painter. You know, I have tried so many times, but I always end up adding different items to give the physical kind of depth.”
Rose laughs heartily about her expressional fixations and I study the image of the parts of an engine transformed into a face, nicely framed inside western cafe-style woodsticks.
Perfecting the Images
ED: It seems here that there is one defining element in the picture, that you even repeat in the other portraits here. Are you often looking for the one key attribute that will define your piece?
”Well, there is something that has to come out very well. I accidentally came over this metal plate and then I wanted to copy this mask-like image. But it is more about perfection, I think. For instance these coffeesticks framing the face, they need to be exactly ten by ten centimeters. If I see they’re not right, I’m not going to use them. Everything has to be kind of perfect. So I measure my sculptures. Having said that, accidents happen, and there are limitations. I accept those limitations.”
ED: When working in three dimensions, what do you start with?
”I see shapes, mostly. Shapes existing in space. And then I move around a lot, visually, to imagine if I want the shapes to be emphasized or not, or if I want them to close off the space in any way.”
A Travelling Artist
Rose Kirumira is definitely one of Uganda’s most known artists abroad. Her willingness to live and work abroad has really been defining her artistic career. The hunger for exposure to other cultures and inspiring visual artists has brought her to Zambia, Botswana, California, the Netherlands, Canada, China, Sweden and Denmark. Her message to fellow artists is unambiguous.
”Go out, meet other artists, talk to them and discuss art. Think of yourself as explorers. You will love moving to new places and exploring different cultures. Don’t think about money; how expensive is it really to go on a bus to Tanzania. Just use the money from one art piece sold in an exhibition.
My first trips to Zambia in 1995 and Botswana the year after made me realize that it is actually possible. Then I went to California as a Fulbright Scholar in 1998, and that confirmed it. Get a network, and stick to the network.”
ED: Have these trips made you more aware of your own identity? Your cultural roots?
”During these stays I certainly understood myself and appreciated myself better. I also realized that although we are different culture, there are many similarities. There are always similar concepts. For instance, there is an Ugandan equivalent of the western violin. It looks different, but it is the same in a way.
This question is very valid for me, because I always study the local visual material culture, and try to understand the people who own a certain culture. And then, compare it to my own visual material culture, that I use a lot in my art.”
ED: How did you experience your first encounter with western culture, being a Fulbright Scholar in the US?
”In the beginning it was a culture clash, mainly because the students I was teaching were really computer literate and knew a lot about how to use technology. I realized I couldn’t match these skills, so I had to rethink my teaching approach. Then I got out all things that were African and Ugandan; my baskets, my own design based on Ugandan visual culture, my stories and everything around our crafts. And then I used those as the basis for design. I told the students: ’These are the designs – now use whatever technique that are available to you’. In that way, I was learning from them and they were learning from me.”
ED: And then you went to Amsterdam on a artists in residence-programme?
Yes. That was a new experience for me. Challenging in a way. This time the stay was about me and my work. And I got there with my chisel – which turned out to be useless – and I got this studio, indoor, which felt a bit strange, quite limited compared to the kind of working space I was used to. And I wanted to work and bank a lot, but bumped into neighbours the next day that were curious about the activities in my studio.
But it was an interesting time and place, though, to see the original Dutch masters in their own surroundings, those heavy concepts, heavy colours. You could really feel the heavyness.”
ED: Denmark is also important for you?
”Yes. I visit Denmark regularly. I am part of this artist community, and every second year I go to different places in Denmark. Always as a sculptor. This is were I make my biggest wood sculptures. And it is always a fixed period of time. I have two months, access to wood, to tools and to other sculptors. We meet, exchange ideas, and the outcome is huge, wooden sculptures.”
ED: I know you have made some sculptures on commission, one being Mother Uganda for UNDP, what do you think of working for hire?
”Well, it is like daily bread. It is interesting in a way, because it is a commission, you have to do some research, design a model and specifications. But it is a little bit frustrating also. It is not the ideal job. The ideal job would be if somebody came to my studio and said ’this is a good artwork, would you mind putting something like this in this space?’ I would love that, because it will acknowledge the concepts and ideas in my work and recognize me as an artist 100%.”
Believe in your Beautiful Ideas
ED: You have promoted the idea of moving and being exposed to other culture, any other messages to young and upcoming artists at the end of this interview?
”When I am lecturing at Makerere, I feel that a lot of the students have beautiful ideas, but they are really not aware of the fact that they have these great ideas. So I will always tell them to be confident, believe in themselves and their ideas.
Another thing is to be creative. One student wanted to use bottle caps in her work, but didn’t know where to get all the caps. So I told her ’use your mind, give street children 1000 shilling to collect boxes of caps.”
Rose Kirumira’s latest piece of art is a sculpture currently showing at the ’Different But One’-exhibition at Makerere Art Gallery, the yearly exhibit that shows the work of Makerere’s academical staff. In this video Rose explains her motives for creating this particular artwork.