The Gospel of Evolution through Sane’s Brush Strokes
“In the beginning was the spoon. The spoon became a form, and somehow, after a couple of billion years – under the right heat and density – the spoon evolved into a cell. Then into a human infant, which placed itself in a birth canal of sorts, and after another couple of billion years, became a human, who was born…”
Reviewed by Nathan Kiwere
This is the caption of a painting showcased in the ongoing exhibition by one of Uganda’s young crop of versatile – and now controversial – artists. Under the banner “The Gospel of Evolution”, Eria Nsubuga aka Sane confronts us with yet another of his characteristic oddball artistry. Although this time with profound philosophical undertones.
He presents both a visual and hypothetical paradox of two diametrically opposed notions; the gospel on the one hand and evolution on the other. To have a critical insight into Sane’s aesthetic and ideological idiosyncrasies, we must first dissect the key terms here. Then relate that to the visual representation in the showcase.
Evolutionary vs biblical history
Various evolutionary theorists have postulated that every organisms alive today share a common ancestor. Life forms, they argue, from spiders to monkeys belong to the same family tree. Even fungus merits an invitation to the family reunion. A simple way to think of evolution is ‘descent with modification’. Over many generations, organisms change into something different.
On the other hand, the gospel, according to the Bible, relates to the good news of salvation brought by Jesus Christ the saviour of mankind. It also insinuates something, such as an idea or principle, accepted as unquestionably true.
However, looking at Sane’s portrayal of these diverse ideas; do we actually observe with anticipation, a possible reunion of the two inverse sentiments? Or even an ironic depiction of the worlds apart that the two theories conjure?
The challenges of comparing the two beliefs
One evolution scholar has argued that you cannot compare and judge two descriptions of an event based on systems of knowledge that have no common denominator. The methods of scientific investigation and experimentation, the process of asking questions and challenging the answers, and the process of constructing falsifiable theories, are the fundamental tools of the scientific approach to acquiring knowledge about the world.
This is not the same process and rules of operation that biblical literalists use to argue the merits of the Creation story.
Be that as it may, we shall steer away from the cryptic controversies for the time being and examine the artistic merits of the works.
Different formats, different styles
We are struck by two features that define Sane’s approach; firstly, a combination of both large format murals and miniature paintings, and secondly, the application of two distinct stylistic expressions.
The large formats are mainly rendered in his trademark style of painting. Here, he is devoid of the conventional approaches of modern art. For instance, there is no principal of dominance. No focal point or golden section, that some artists regard as the ‘entry point’ into the artwork, which eventually leads the viewer’s eye to the rest of the scene.
This is the first form of ‘rebellion’ against the established norms that give us clues about the independent thinking that the artists has come to be known for.
A surreal scene of evolved man
An example of this is the painting ‘Chapter 13: Day Dreamers of Mabira’. Here we are confronted by a hodgepodge of nature and human figures placed randomly around the canvas. These are enmeshed in a convoluted web of green and yellow undergrowth that is so busy with activity.
He cleverly adds a description that reads: “The resilient forest acts as a forested backdrop for a surreal scene of evolved human and animal flight in space. People glide above the trees like birds and go to the most beautiful places imaginable.”
The insinuation of surrealism in this description perhaps betrays the artist’s continued satire, albeit in a rather concealed manner. His continuous reference to humans as “evolved man” and causing them to “glide above the trees like birds or monkeys” is very telling of the reminder to the ancient apes from which evolution alleges that we developed from.
Here, Sane treats the canvas with bold complimentary colours of red and green, with touches of yellow. A thing that only daring artists will attempt as majority will prefer to play it safe with analogous colour schemes. There is also a strong sense of rhythm as he repeatedly permeates the canvas with foliage to create an element of repetition.
Propagating the anti-evolution
‘Chapter 14: Overload in Mabira’ is the next controversial display of Sane’s artistry. It is similar to the one described above, except for the additional dramatic human elements therein.
In one of the scenes, a traffic policeman waves down a creaking old truck laden with cows. The rather comic abstraction here is wrought in a manner similar to a comic strip cartoon of a newspaper daily. The constable with his alien-like facial expression raises his hand to stop the errant traders, who clearly have broken the law by loading their truck above the required weight.
Whereas this is a common quandary on most Ugandan roads, the setting of Mabira Forest – as opposed to a town setting – should be quite suspect of the artist’s intention as far as propagating his anti-evolution rhetoric is concerned.
Again we see monkeys in one corner, merrymaking and doing their usual acrobatics on thin tree branches in menacing fashion. There is a fierce battle for space between hot hues of red and the green ‘coolants’ of branches. This leaves perhaps to reflect the ideological combat between the two opposite issues.
Using spoons to disregard the evolution theory
Chapter 2 is about the ‘Spoon Evolution’ which is hinted on in the opening paragraph of this story. Referring to it also as “The Unseen Hand”, Sane brings to the fore the futility – in his opinion – of the evolution theory.
He reasons that many of the accounts of science – as far as the creation of the world is concerned – are not only completely untenable, but also fundamentally flawed. The sheer complexity of nature, according to him, cannot simply be relegated to shallow deceptions of scientists, some of whose theories totally defy meaning.
This is why he contemptuously employs the spoon evolution metaphor to express the vainness of the theory.
There are many other paintings on display whose titles include; Head Dancers, Thistle Heads, Yes We Did (in reference to Obama) Herd Mentality, Freedom Dance, and Woman Thou Shalt Sit Down. In the last-mentioned painting, he depicts the prolonged struggle by womankind to be liberated from male dominance.
Part ways with the masses
A closer interaction with Eria ‘SANE’ Nsubuga brings to the fore an artist that is ostensibly bored with convention. He is so disenchanted by the status quo of art in Uganda. For that reason, he has made up his mind to part ways with ‘mainstreamism’ and find his own niche.
“For a long time I have felt that the small community that patronises our art, usually constituting diplomats, expatriates and tourists, is not sustainable,” he remarked. “They have set for us a standard fomular to use in order to satisfy their appetites. I have increasingly grown disillusioned with this state of affairs, and I have decided now to express my opinion.”
And ‘part ways’ with the masses of artists he has indeed. Sane appears ready to take his visual expression to a whole new direction, premised on his own terms, even with the risk of losing all his ‘dedicated’ customers.
Attempting to bridge the cleft between science and gospel
Most importantly, Sane is determined to incorporate his Christian faith in his art. This avowed incorporation of his faith, it appears, includes fighting the lies that contravene his pious convictions.
In this wise, he seems to subscribe to the philosophy of Intelligent design (ID) that has incessantly found its way in many discussions. ID argues that many features found in living organisms are so complex, that they must have been planned by an intelligent designer.
A cornerstone of the argument is ‘irreducible complexity’; some multi-faceted features simply could not have evolved by chance, and the removal of one part would collapse the whole system.
In 1999, William Dembski wrote in Intelligent Design: The Bridge Between Science and Theology: “Any view of the sciences that leaves Christ out of the picture must be seen as fundamentally deficient.” The conceptual soundness of a scientific theory cannot be maintained apart from Christ.
Is it then possible that Sane, whose devout Christian credentials are well documented, attempts to bridge the long-standing cleft between science and the gospel using the powerful medium of art?
If not, then his signature expressions will likely continue to raise more questions than we may ever answer.
What is not doubtable, however, is that love him or hate him, Sane’s brand of brush strokes remains among the few that continue to exude a stunning medley of independence, cerebral and artistic radiance.
Nathan Kiwere is a cultural activist, artist, writer, broadcaster and Program Manager of Amakula Kampala Cultural Foundation.
Startjournal.org would like to point out that this review was written at a time when artwork from one of the exhibition rooms were taken down.