Great Achievements by Makerere Ceramists
Ceramics is a cultural tradition with millennia of history, and the ceramics show that opened on November 4th at the Makerere University Art gallery was about breaking old barriers and pushing back new ones. Combined with a flair for suspension, it was bolder and even more exciting than the last ceramics exhibition at the same venue.
By Sophie Alal
“Feats of Ugandan Pottery” brought together the Makerere University trained Mpindi Ronald, Ssekibaala Andrew, Bukenya Tony, Omadi Michael, and Balaba Edward, with local artisan Bukenya Paul and Bomboka Henry – who is a student at St. Lawrence University – also joining in.
The pieces on display were as rich and varied as the exhibitors. The struggle between old forms and new ones, of traditional and contemporary influences in creating art was very apparent from the moment of stepping inside. Another important element was the multidisciplinary approach taken in producing the works on display.
This would have pleased Okot p’Bitek whose lament about his Alma Mater in Artist, The Ruler was: “Let it not in years to come be said that Makerere, once one of the leading institutions on the continent, has become a school where intellect and scholarship are being choked”.
The exhibition was a visual commentary on Ugandan society’s spiritual, political and cultural landscape. The artifacts were also testament to transformations taking place in the ceramics industry in the field of sculpture, vessels, and wall pieces.
Dissatisfaction with the current regime
Bukenya Tony’s work provokes discussion about a regime that has steadily corroded its own legitimacy. His driving theme is discontent, and his art speaks graphically about the things that he is most unhappy about.
In John Dewey’s Intelligence in the Modern World, the chapter on Art, Philosophy, and Morals is a warning insight into how far any society can sustain itself based on prevailing circumstances. He says: “It is by a sense of possibilities opening before us that we become aware of constrictions that hem us in and of burdens that oppress.”
Bukenya’s ‘Wrinkles of the Regime’ criticizes the incredible shortcomings of the current government. Here, the artist bears witness to the suffering amidst galloping corruption and poor safety standards. Texts carved on the outer surface of the piece which read “Ugandans are thieves”, “PATRIOTIC??”, “Rape”, “Defilement”, “Road Carnage” and “HIV/AIDS Global Fund” provide examples of discontent.
For one who was born and raised in Uganda, these sentiments are authoritative in bringing attention to the disgruntlement that feeds violent protests. Political and social critique is evident in his art in a number of assemblages that he has exhibited over the years. His other creations also delve into the traditional and the spiritual expressions.
Mixing various elements from nature
Balaba Edward’s impressive pieces are Olubengo and an untitled installation which is a multisensory composition, and what sets it apart from all others is movement. The essence of his work is innovation through mixing various elements from nature.
He has always been fascinated by marine life forms, and their seemingly effortless movement while in their habitat. Following this fascination, he transformed his idea of the jellyfish into an airborne installation which was hung from lengths of nylon line.
“Lichen and jellyfish, how could I represent them?” says Balaba. “I wanted to place it on the wall, but that would deter the full expression of hanging. Risky presentation is exciting.”
Olubengo plays with ideas about what is public and on display, and whether what is private deserves to be hidden. “You’ve got a big load when somebody says that they’ve put the Olubengo on your head. But I wanted to create something beautiful, something that you can put on your table and admire,” he explains.
The sculpture is a heavy millstone, with a depression in the middle, held up by variety of breast shapes standing on their nipples. Some breasts are young and pert, whereas others are sapped of strength and hang limp. The four breasts attest to the passage of time, and the symbolism of being weighed down by chores.
The making of the Olubengo
Two slabs of clay were rolled out and joined at the ends when the pieces lost some moisture, they were then carved and shaped. The white decorations are derived from kaolin, which is sourced from Bombo or Mbale. Whereas the embellished mill stone is on top, the bottom is unseen and as such it communicates the silent burden of care. The insides are hollow and the breasts are holding up the structure.
Essentially in Buganda, the Olubengo rests firmly on the woman since grinding millet is a feminine occupation.
Olubengo is one of the heaviest works on display, and when lightly tapped makes a hollow ring that is pleasant to hear. An inconsistent application led to blotches of colour running into each other. The red runs into the white and black and blurred lines, nevertheless the piece still retained an organic feel to it.
The technique involved blocking where a resist is applied on the surface of the pottery then smoked in a pit. The resist which is a semisolid mixture of sand and grog disintegrates upon contact with water. Any that sticks was simply scraped off to reveal the pattern beneath.
The smoking process
After the first firing, the reddish browns are more prominent, then smoking is done. A resist of clay, sand and grog is then applied to protect the colours that are to be retained. Smoking is a controlled process with wood shavings and saw dust in limited oxygen. It produces plumes of carbon dioxide which gives blackware its distinctive colour.
This is temporary/seasonal decoration because it is non-permanent and can be subjected to additional firing to produce the desired effects. Whereas the high temperatures in the kiln have a reducing effect leading to brilliant colours, pit smoking can also surprise.
Grog is pottery that has been fired and then ground up into fine powder or coarse particles depending on the use required of it. Also referred to as firesand or chamotte, it’s high percentage of silica and alumina, which – when mixed with water – attach to the surface of clay to protect previously applied patterns in fired clay, or act as decoration for unfired clay.
Reduction leads carbon dioxide formation, which creates dark shades while oxidation creates lighter affects on the surfaces, including the reddish browns which are a result of metallic ions reacting in a kiln with a rich supply of oxygen and very high temperatures.
When the clay is not yet bone dry, or still leather hard it is able to receive decorations. These can be transferred onto the surface using a limited number of ways, one of which involves pressing and rubbing organic matter and dyes directly onto the surface.
Any nose is good as long as it can smell and breathe
Two masks hung on the wall to the left side of the entrance were curiously titled “Tafakubulungi bwannyindo ng’essa”, loosely translated as “don’t get hung up on the beauties of a nose”. The subtext being that any nose is as good as long as it can smell and breathe.
On the left is a round faced, mostly black mask with flared, white nostrils, while on the right is a thin faced mask with a raised, white bridge. In local parlance the previous one is referred to as having “a frog sit on the face”, while the latter is more refined and more desirable to have.
Except in times of unrest. In September 2009, political tension between the government of Uganda and the kingdom of Buganda revealed a mess of ethnic tensions that had been steadily fomenting.
Prevailing stereotypes that those with “sharp long noses” were the oppressors of Buganda kingdom led many to steer clear of the streets. It was hardly reported that in those three days the shape and size of one’s nose was a key determinant in whether or not one got assaulted by the mobs on the streets of Kampala.
Integrating local forms and Japanese techniques
Mpindi’s gift lies in harmonising diametrically opposed expressions, like the Ganda bowls that were thrown using Japanese clay and glazed using traditional Japanese techniques. By integrating local forms and Japanese techniques he has managed to create simple elegant pieces, and his creations are an allegory of embracing change. Change becomes an acceptable reality, as long as one embraces the positive gifts of another society in order to enrich one’s own.
His perspective is that the preservation of traditional forms is uncertain. If forms have ossified and left no potential for growth, then it becomes increasingly difficult for such art to be relevant. This outlook reinforces the idea that in time all things that cannot adapt to change will be gradually be lost.
Traditional themes like wildlife and oralities
28 years old Omadi Michael creates modern works that draw inspiration from traditional forms but are not closely attached to them. Traditional themes like wildlife and oralities make up most of his work. When he created ‘Namunswa’, his first idea was based on the fish motif, but midway through completion, he decided that the voluptuous queen ant was better suited to what he had in mind.
A link to previous generations of potters
Bukenya Paul from Kibombiro, Busega which is found on Masaka road, comes from a long line of potters. This area has historically been home to the royal potters of the Kabaka of Buganda.
In 2004 he was a beneficiary of an AICAD (African Initiative for Capacity Development) project, that envisioned collaboration among trained artists in various disciplines and local artisans. The aim was to improve on their skills, productivity and attaching more value to their handiwork.
Bukenya’s position was critical to the success of the project because he became the link to previous generations of potters whose unique methods have been in use for generations.
Bukenya’s vessels are hand-formed and finished in a bonfire. These consist mainly of pots for practical daily uses like cooking (obusaka), storing water, warming poultry houses, storing dry provisions and bowls for serving and eating.
Marrying beauty and function
Ideas about identity and creating new meanings from what has always been with us are very palpable in Bomboka’s creations. Fetish pots get bound together and begin to resemble small tea pots.
On the whole, the exhibition succeeded in showing how local traditions could be refined and offered up to a broader audience as an eloquent expression of culture.
The absence of ladies
Most of the exhibitors were trained at Makerere University, save for Bomboka, who is a student at the St. Lawrence University, and a local potter.
The only downside was the absence of ladies, and when asked whether this was accidental or intended, Balaba answered: “We had two ladies, but one got pregnant and could not continue working. The other lady had some difficulties and could not come to the studio as often as she had to. So by the time of the exhibition her creations were not yet ready.”
Pottery may seem a quaint and sweet art form, but the amount of care and skill lavished in the production of any one piece is often staggering. It is especially amazing when an elemental change transforms grey mushy mud into things of beauty.
Hopefully, there will still be new adherents pushing back the boundaries of expression in a medium as flexible as clay.
The exhibition “Feats of Ugandan Pottery” is showing at Makerere Art Gallery until November 26th.
Sophie Alal is a freelance journalist and a baker.