The Lubare and The Boat: Alexander MacKay’s Spirit Rises at Deveron Arts
I am prepared to go anywhere, provided it be forward.
There are moments in life when we’re reminded just how small the world is. On the weekend of June 14-15, two contrasting cultures came together under the umbrella of art to celebrate the life and times of Scottish explorer and missionary Alexander MacKay, who devoted his life to journeying through Uganda. Ugandan artists Sanaa Gateja, Xenson, and art curator Violet Nantume joined forces with Deveron Arts in Rhynie, Scotland, for a two-day event filled with creative activities centred on cultural integration, and investigating the life and times of MacKay.
Boldly led by director Claudia Zeiske, the talented team behind Deveron Arts provides the town of Huntly (and surrounding area) with its collaborative, creative compass. This organisation supports pushing the boundaries of arts practices with an emphasis on community-based, socially engaged efforts. Deveron Arts has recently been playing host to Sana Gateja and Xenson as Artists in Residence. The fiery Zeiske first met Sana Gateja during her time at 32° EastUgandan Arts Trust in September 2013. In that space, the seed of inspiration was first planted to explore the thread between the Rhynie native, MacKay, and his passionate connection to Uganda.
Created during Gateja’s recent residency at Deveron Arts, The Lubare and The Boat: Afro-Caledonian festival offered everything from traditional Scottish dancing (a céilidh); local food cooked by artist collective Rhynie Woman; an exhibition by Gateja, and fashion show by Xenson; paper-bead making workshops; a stunning hike up Tap o’ Noth; and a MacKay-themed church service. The upbeat event concluded thoughtfully with an insightful lecture by National Museums of Scotland’s Dr. Sara Worden, whose extensive, object-led research provided a fresh lens through which to view the man of the hour.
MacKay as Intrepid Explorer
Who exactly was Alexander MacKay? Born in Rhynie, Aberdeenshire in 1849, MacKay followed in his fellow Scotsman Dr. Livingstone’s more famous shadow with his own fervent yearn to explore Africa. While Dr. Livingstone’s story — and “I presume” celebrity — remains well-known to this day, MacKay’s missionary legacy has failed to gain similar traction. Needless to say, though he’s relatively unknown to present-day Scots, MacKay’s impact continues to linger in many Ugandan hearts.
Venturing into the Unknown
Fascinated by Dr. Livingstone’s adventures, along with an innate passion for maps and exploration, the young doctor set out for Uganda in 1877. Far from an easy trek, it took two years to reach his intended destination: buoyed by his trusted boat (The Daisy), and carting a cumbersome printing machine, he attempted — and failed, numerous times — to sail up rivers into uncharted territory. At times traveling overland, he and his followers were tasked with clearing roads where there were none before. All the while, bouts of life-threatening malaria forced MacKay back to Zanzibar for treatment, requiring him to start the journey all over again.
Foreseeing the importance of documentation, MacKay recorded the trips through painting and photography. As such, his entourage included both photographer and painter, as well as local people to help him navigate the terrain, and crew the boat. This raises questions as to the nature of the relationship between the white missionary explorer and the local networks he maintained throughout his repeated expeditions. Whether MacKay could be considered to have had slaves creates a harsh contrast to his typical revered status in Ugandan culture. Nonetheless, it is worth contemplating, even if it’s impossible to draw an objective conclusion at this point.
A Heartfelt Walk with Sanaa Gateja
Claiming the most epic part of the weekend was the Spirit Walk up Tap o’ North, the “site of the second highest hillfortin Scotland.” Climbing to the peak through wind and rain whilst carrying a large, handmade cross, Gateja took on the role of re-imagining MacKay’s exploratory journey as he led our group (comprised of local community members, artists, and Deveron Arts supporters) up the hill. Culminating in a march around the hillfort’s remains, and surprise appearance by Xenson emerging from a hillside cave, the Spirit Walk paid homage to MacKay’s adventuresome spirit, while raising awareness in his hometown about his missionary work.
Xenson’s Avant-garde Critique
Offering a more critical viewpoint of the Scottish explorer was Xenson’s street-side fashion show. The musician, artist, and fashion designer usually keeps mum about the intent behind his work, preferring to let audiences interpret it for themselves. Known for making socio-political statements with his designs, this was no exception. He used textiles and other media brought over from Uganda to create an urban runway with models who were constricted by wooden bars protruding from structured fabric, walking almost cattle-like. The designs appeared to speak to themes of constraint, ownership, and control; possibly alluding to MacKay’s relationship with his local followers during his expeditions in Uganda.
Xenson’s Fashion Show
If an attendee hadn’t a clue as to whom Alexander MacKay was before the weekend’s events, they were sure to come away with both a greater understanding and peaked interest in the role MacKay played in building up the layered relationship between Scotland and Uganda. It will be worth watching these two contemporary arts organisations — Deveron Arts and 32° East, respectively — to see what new journeys they continue to embark upon in years to come.
Marking the start of future collaborations between artists, the weekend exemplifies the increasingly small world in which we live — one that MacKay himself would have relished. Perhaps a world where connections are easily formed through travel; where our natural propensity for exploring and understanding new cultures is encouraged; and where our stories are passed down through the language of art, inspiring others to forge their own way into unknown?
Kimberly Bryant is a travelling writer, photographer and art critic.
Images © Kimberly L. Bryant.