Felix Magima: Just the eyes
Felix Magima confronts two important, though rarely addressed, subjects in his recent exhibition at the AKA Gallery; women and religion. As his artworks speak, they often wade into taboo territories, therefore observing a new place, rarely approached by visual artists in Uganda.
Reviewed by Serubiri Moses
Magima is a self-taught Kenyan-Ugandan artist who has lived half his life on each side of the border, being born in Kisumu (Western Kenya) and growing up and studying in Kampala. Both these worlds inform his work. So far, he has exhibited his art in Dar es Salaam, Nairobi, Kampala, Zanzibar, South Africa and several other cities both home and abroad.
Often, as Ugandan painters make a move from batik art and back to the canvas, they bring with them the visual language of batik. Batik art, which is a decorative, wax-resist dying technique originated in Java (Indonesia), has been quite widespread in Uganda.
Such an art form is also rooted in the caricature and parody of the recent decades, which have seen visual artists struggle with representing their commentary due to a fear of the governments in place.
This voice has come to translate into a very interesting—although sometimes childish-looking—visual language which dominates the batik form, characterized by two-dimensional human figures, animals, and the very stereotypical African village and “African sunset”.
Fortunately, Magima avoids these clichés and opts to reinvent the style to suit his commentary, such that the exhibition feels both familiar and alien. His way of painting is extremely poetic, as are his depictions of color and the different light settings.
It all has the emotional impact of poetry.
Sometimes the colors are washed across; sometimes paint is creating terrain or textural illusions; sometimes colors are warm and placed side by side; other times contrast is high and intense; and sometimes yellow is painted alone against a white background.
This commentary, harsh in its reality, is what essentially stands out before the viewer, creating a visual monologue far more interesting than the 2D depictions of African sunsets or the sub-Saharan savanna.
Magima’s view on women and religion
The women in the painting The Fallen Cross are seen as prisoners of the Arab traditional women’s cloth, known as hijab. They are grouped together, each in full black except for “just the eyes.”
When I ask Magima about this curious comment, he tells me that in Zanzibar he came across several of these young women covered from head to toe in jet-black, and he asked them whether they enjoyed—or were proud even—to be dressed like this. To his chagrin, they replied that they only did it to please their parents and to keep the custom.
So in the artist’s eyes these women appeared as prisoners of customary culture and perhaps even of their own families. In Uganda, this dialogue is rarely observed.
Nonetheless, it has become popular in the Middle East that the recently emerged young, Arab female elite has started to challenge the norms of what is normally accepted as stereotypes of Arabic women.
In Qatar, the Arab female author Amal Al-Malki said, on speaking to Al Jazeera, that the Arab Spring has only highlighted the continuing “second-class citizenship” of women in the region:
“We have no voice. We have no visibility… And I am telling you, this is why women’s rights should be institutionalized. It should not be held hostage at the hand of political leaderships who can change in a second, right? Governments should be held responsible for treating men and women equally.”
Evidence of patriarchal struggles in the Muslim community in Uganda is the heated division between supporters of the two Muslim leaders, Kayongo and Mubajje, which recently has aroused public demonstrations and violence. As you watch the events unfold, you tend to ask why there are no women involved. Muslim women are so deadly silent during such a pivotal moment in the history of Islam in Uganda.
Magima on women’s sexuality
Magima did not have any idea about the term ‘corrective rape’ when it came up during our interview. We had initially talked about the role of women in society, to which he gave an interesting anecdote:
“One time I was dating this (Norwegian) girl, and she said that she didn’t want to have children. And I had to ask myself what now? Maybe I need to find a way out of this (relationship)!”
This anecdote is depicted in one of his paintings featuring two women; one is bold and leaning over the other one who is shy. They are two women, depicted significantly poetically. The painting is so beautiful despite the painter’s feelings towards his failed relationship with the Norwegian girl.
I ask Magima whether he ended his relationship after that response, and if he ever doubted his decision—even a little? “Yes, I had to (stop it) … but I compromised for about four months,” he tells me without batting an eyelash.
Indeed, there are several women in Uganda that do not want to have children, whether they are Tanzanian, Ugandan or Norwegian. But the fact that some women are playing this role of not wanting to produce, is somewhat disturbing to Magima.
He explains me that he felt like burying his head in the sand after that incident, like an ostrich, but instead he chose to paint it out:
“I was trying to imagine a woman proposing to a fellow woman. She has to send out this message; “will you marry me?” And then the other woman is looking down. Very shy. But at the end of the day, she will say yes.”
There is perhaps no sadness in this gesture, but ever being a symbolist painter, Magima adds a moon that is half black and half yellow. This is where his criticism comes in. He is implying that where there is life, there is also death.
When I introduce the term corrective rape, in which men—often in the military—force lesbian women to have intercourse for the purpose of changing the woman’s sexual preference, Magima was fresh with realization, saying it was a completely new idea to him.
Nevertheless, he respected the woman saying that’s a feeling that only the person feels, and presented this very poetically.
The Church as a business
“The murder of this man will never be completely and perfectly avenged until from Rome shall be swept every vestige of priest and pope, until over the shapeless ruin of St. Peter’s, the crumbled Vatican and the fallen cross, shall rise a monument to Bruno, — the thinker, philosopher, philanthropist, atheist, martyr.”
In describing the death of Giordano Bruno, the writer Robert Green Ingersoll coined the phrase, ‘the fallen cross’ in 1881.
As it has been more than 100 years since, it is notable that the phrase has travelled. It would not ordinarily be used in such a context as Kampala today, where there are so many churches and mosques everywhere you turn, but when looking for the perfect title for his painting Magima thought hard to recall this phrase.
Observing the blatant manipulation going on in the churches of today, Magima uses credit cards and coins on doorways and crucifixes to symbolize this commercialization. He visions a kind of apocalyptic view of this scene, and his dark reds and sombre black rooms reflect this.
Churches can at times be seen as dark houses filled with blood red corners. The muslim women covered in black with “just the eyes” showing struck me as such a dark world view. Magima sees all this going on, and out of the lack to comprehend it, he paints it.
The commentary is very vivid and valuable to the dialogue we should be having about the several forms of enslavement going on in our city.
Should we want freedom? Should we heed the call of freethinker Giordano Bruno to go out into the fields to gather flowers and mingle with fellow men?
All this is given a voice in Felix Magima’s new paintings, calling for freedom from this commercial and religious abuse.
There are no small messages here in Magima’s work. He is an artist with an immense and considerable voice.
Even though technically his work brings to mind clichés from the era of batik in Ugandan art, his bold stance on taboo subjects like lesbianism and male patriarchy make him essential to the development of the visual arts in this country.
His commentary is of immense relevance to an ongoing dialogue of cultural identity, the commercialization of the church, and the confrontation of religio-patriarchal societes in the world.
Serubiri Moses has been published in The New Vision reviewing live music. As a poet, he is featured on the pan African website, Badilisha Poetry Exchange.