Contemplating the Early Years Exhibition, Moving Past Propaganda: A Critical Review
In this essay I review The Early Years: Paintings from the Collection, 1960s-Mid 1980. I place it in Uganda’s history since 1958. In the process I revise some of the positions taken by its organisers; while I question others. I demonstrate and argue that a contemplation of the wider context of Uganda’s social, economic and political history, which is embodied in some of the works on show, reveals not simply a failed past, but also a pathetic presence and an uncertain political future.
By Angelo Kakande [F. J]
First: The Show, its Themes and Symbols
On April 14th 2011, The Makerere Art Gallery hosted The Early Years: Paintings from the Collection, 1960s-Mid 1980 (The Early Years hereinafter). The paintings attested to the major themes which students explored in the period 1961-1986; they showed a diversity of subject matter, attention to detail and degrees of skill.
We see Andrew Kiwanuka’s Two Women (1961) which depicts two subjects located in a private place with no clear line of communication between them or with the beholder. The painting is devoid of the emotion we see in Fatumah Abdullah’s Untitled (early 1960s); it lacks the skill, personality and character in Sanka Balthazar’s Mademoiselle Thereza (1962-65) and Tugume’s Portrait of a Man (1982).
The exhibition helps us to appreciate the fact that similar symbols have been put to different (and contrasting) usages as artists reflect on the different moments in Uganda’s rugged postcolonial history. For example, the religious symbolism in Ali Hussein Darwish’s God is Great (1960s), Kefa Ssempangi’s Open Tomb (1960s), Peter Binaka’s Expulsion (1960s), Peter Mulindwa’s Uganda Martyrs (1968) and Eli Kyeyune’s Buganda Martyrs (1960s) served a strictly religious role in the 1960s.
This symbolism, however, gained new meaning from the 1970s until the mid-1980s when in it were invested messages which spoke of untold anguish, terror, brutality and dehumanisation, as seen in Mukasa’s Growl of the Temple (1977).
It can also be inferred from the exhibition that the settled communities and community life seen in Berlington Kauda’s Village Wedding and Henry Tayali’s Village Bar was totally disrupted in the 1970s and early 1980s. This is because the orderly political dialogue and sane leadership seen in Kasapo’s Political Meeting (1960s) had broken down. Terror loomed as we see in Muwonge Kyazze’s Self-portrait (1985) and Misfortune (1985).
Death, which in the 1960s was an effect of natural causes and the rare accidents seen in Mubitana’s Disaster (1963), became the hallmark of government and governance at the time Sakwa and Okaulo did their untitled paintings in 1982 and 1986 respectively.
Thus, as Katrin Peters-Klaphake rightly explains, the works on display were rooted in the historical and social context of their ‘time’ although their meanings, and implications, have a wider import since they allow us to learn about the history and development of the arts (and art education) as well as about the ‘history of the country [Uganda] and the region’.
The starting point of key events
Though the organisers of the exhibition must be commended, still there are issues that must be raised. For example, at the back of the catalogue we are presented with a timeline ‘1958-1986’ as the ‘chronology of key events’ that have defined the contours of Uganda’s history which is visualised in the artworks on display.
Arguably, 1986 was chosen because of the NRM’s ascendance to power and the reforms it introduced (and I will come back to this later). However, 1958 was probably chosen basing on an incorrect record and for the wrong reasons.
Nineteen fifty-eight was a particularly difficult year for the Art School, whose problems hinged on the choice of ideological and pedagogical directions. Trowell, who founded the Art School in 1937, retired in 1958, leaving behind an administrative vacuum.
The big question was: How does one fill her shoes? Should there be continuity or change?
Trowell hoped her trusted student, Sam Ntiro, was the best man to lead the school and ensure continuity. She handed the leadership over to him. And yet Ntiro was not highly regarded by his African colleague, Gregory Maloba (Trowell’s first student), and the students who wanted a total break with the Trowellian past. Such change was promised by Cecil Todd.
In 1959 Ntiro lost the headship to Todd, who hoped that Uganda’s artists would play a new, and largely global, role. He thus introduced courses in art history which expanded the students’ world view. In the view of Elimo Njau (another former student of Trowell’s) this change was dangerous. It produced elitist artists who paid allegiance to the ivory tower and looked to the West for everything, including art materials. Such artists could not emancipate their impoverished rural compatriots.
Now, the exhibition says nothing about these issues which directly, or indirectly, shaped all the participating artists. Instead it is submitted in the catalogue that the year 1958 was important because Uganda was given ‘internal self-government’.
For the record, this is not entirely correct. Some Ugandans were elected to the Legislative Council in October 1958. However the colonial Governor was still in control. In 1959 Wild produced the Report of the Constitutional Committee, 1959, which drew up the framework for self-rule. It was rejected. By this time illiterate, charismatic, self-styled prophets, such as Omumbaale Kigaanira, would receive bigger audiences than the elite politicians who were in disarray and unprepared to lead the marginalised peasantry hungry for freedom, leadership and emancipation.
The statesmanship which Musaazi had shown in 1952 had waned by 1958, creating a vacuum which two years later Milton Obote filled through manipulation and deceit, before becoming Prime Minister in 1962. Obote was assisted by Abu Mayanja, who in 1959 was busy ‘crossing the Rubicon’, rejecting what he perceived as ‘reactionary elements’ in the Kabaka’s government (at Mengo) who, in his words, were blocking the quest for self-government.
Mayanja returned to Mengo to forge a dangerous marriage of convenience between Mengo’s Kabaka Yekka and Milton Obote’s Uganda Peoples Congress. This marriage collapsed in 1966, plunging Uganda into the anarchy seen in the paintings on display. It must also be mentioned that Mayanja was harsh in his criticism. In fact the Kabaka’s government, just like other traditional kingdoms, was not just a reactionary, static entity intent on returning the country to the eighteenth century. It was raising serious questions about the relationship between the kingdoms (which British colonialism had preserved) and Uganda, the emerging independent state.
These questions still haunt us today since they lie at the heart of the much-hated Traditional and Leaders Bill 2011 which was recently signed into law. The same questions threatened the late colonial state. They provoked strong legal arguments in two court cases – The Katikiro of Buganda v Attorney General of Uganda (1959) and Daudi Ndibarema and Others v Enganzi of Ankole and Others (1960) – which, among others, have shaped Uganda’s constitution, constitutional history and constitutionalism.
Put simply, here was no self-rule in 1958. Self-rule was realised in March 1961, and not 1962 as indicated in the catalogue, when Benedicto Kiwanuka emerged to lead the Democratic Party and received the instruments of government as Chief Minister.
Then the Propaganda…
It is clear from the catalogue that the strategy behind the exhibition pandered to varied degrees of the mainstream view informed by anti-Amin and anti-Obote propaganda. For example, Charles Mukiibi painted his Dispensary which was exhibited in The Early Years. The artist captures a receding space. To the right we see a naked child sitting, in an erect pose, on a table. There is no medical equipment in sight at all. Instead we see a creature which, given its long tail, could be identified as a monkey, nursing the child. It has replaced the mother, who turns her back towards the artist’s audience and her child. With her hand on the head, she is probably crying or thinking about what to do next as she walks about in a tiled space. Thus the painting represents an inadequate maternal (and child) care system.
However, issues of maternal care took centre stage in government policy under what Prime Minister Milton Obote identified as the ‘great need for maternity care’. As Amanda Tumusiime (2010) rightly observes, Obote’s first government intervened and halved the rate of maternal and child mortality before Amin Dada overthrew it in 1971. This side of history is not highlighted in the catalogue. It should have been for purposes of objectivity. Put another way, the curatorial strategy was stuck in a well-trodden path; it asserted a well-rehearsed view that Milton Obote and Amin Dada contributed nothing to Uganda.
Thirty Years of Bananas
Also, by 1992, when Alex Mukulu staged his Thirty Years of Bananas at the National Theatre, it had become clear that the NRM group was not a bunch of angels after all. As Phares Mutibwa (1992) put it, Uganda remained a ‘story of unfulfilled hopes’. In spite of the widely publicised ‘fundamental change’, there have been glaring failures which have fused the thin line separating the NRM with the past regimes. As Aili Mari Tripp (2010) has theorised, currently Uganda is led by a ‘hybrid regime’ – hybrid in the sense that it is both dictatorial although it regularly organises elections.
These are the contexts (and debate) which shaped the political space in which The Early Years was mounted. And yet George Kyeyune argues that the history of suppression, subjugation and anger, inscribed in the images, lasted only for the 15 years of political turbulence; it ended in 1986. Since 1986 Uganda has enjoyed undisturbed tranquillity which has inspired a new local genre nurtured by, among other things, a ‘political stability that we are experiencing today…’.
How could we peak of stability when the gallery in which The Early Years was hosted has gaping holes in its shattered glass panes? The gallery was attacked by unhappy students on 15 April 2011, a day after the official launch of the The Early Years. The Makerere strike came one day before a violent strike at Kyambogo University on 16 April 2011. It was four days after students in Bubare Secondary School in Kabale rioted, on 11 April 2011, and one of them was shot dead. It was three days after a school was destroyed in Rukungiri district owing to student riots.
Rukungiri district is the home district of Warren Kiiza Besigye, leader of the Forum for Democratic Change. During the early-eighties, and until 1999, Besigye was a member to Uganda’s armed forces. He however retired to become a leading opponent and critic of the NRM.
On 14 April 2011 Besigye vowed to walk to his place of work. This was part of the walk-to-work campaign which activists launched to challenge the legitimacy of the ruling party and its failure to address political and economic ‘injustices’. In response to these protests, security forces brutalised and killed many people; others are still languishing in jail with or without trial. Another response to the riots is a plan to revise the constitution and remove the presumption of innocence which is a fundamental right inscribed in Chapter Four of the 1995 Constitution of Uganda.
Highlighting these issues confirms that the exhibition was cast against a backdrop of instability characterised by a continued use of violence to resolve political differences. The gallery, just like many other properties that have been damaged during the anti-NRM riots since 1989, was a vulnerable site on which anger and vengeance could be unloaded by an angry population held hostage by a militarised government shielded from criticism by a trigger-happy military machine. The catalogue should have raised some of these issues.
The Early Years reconstructs Uganda’s tumultuous socio-political history. However, some of the positions taken by its organisers can (and must) be challenged. Teasing out these issues highlights interesting details which stretch into a complex backdrop against which The Early Years was mounted between 14 April 2011 and 22 May 2011. It allows us to look beyond official propaganda and begin to see a continuous pattern of misrule which has characterised Uganda since independence.
Nakazibwe persuades us to use the exhibition as a point of departure and contemplate Uganda’s political history. I agree. I add that as we do that we must take stock of the historical imbalances as well as the social and political injustices that have characterised our postcolonial history and accept that ‘Uganda is still trying to figure out her social, economic and political path…’
As we trace this path we must deliberately ‘undo the monopoly of political power that is exercised only by political actors.’
Makerere Art Gallery. 2011. The Early Years: Paintings from the Collection, 1960s-Mid 1980s;14 April-22 May 2011.
Mutibwa, Phares. Uganda since Independence: A Story of Unfulfilled Hopes. Kampala: Fountain Publishers, 1992.
Oloka-Onyango, J. ‘Uganda Today: What Needs Undoing?’, Presentation at the Inter-Religious Council of Uganda (IRCU) Post-Election 2011 Conference; Kampala, 27 April 2011.
Tripp, Aili Mari. 2010. Museveni’s Uganda: Paradoxes of Power in a Hybrid Regime. Boulder: Lynne Rienner Publishers.
Tumusiime, Amanda. 2010. Art and Gender: Imag[in]ing the New Woman in Contemporary Ugandan Art. Pretoria: University of South Africa. Draft thesis, Dlitt et Phil, p.161.
Dr. Angelo Kakande has researched extensively on contemporary Ugandan art and the connection to politics. He is currently the Head of the Department of Design at MTSIFA.