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There is little I can say about Canon that he would agree with

Posted by start 5 November 2017 One Comment
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by Alex L. Rogerson

 

I am your dear chaste whore, Marry Me!
I am the peacock, we are dancing, star-bright!
A friendly war.
I am the fictitious creature performing professional roles with pure haywire undertow.
I am uncharted territory. ‘Here be ethical monsters’.
I am the conductor, 9000 Amps, An ant in line, The hill is big.
Down by the river …
Honey. Anything. Acquire their heads! Why not?
2 barrels. Air! Gold! Vino!
110!

Over there! Over here! Now.
You choose! Yeah man!

Untitled by Canon Rumanzi

Canon should be described as an artist before a photographer. From both his art and being in his company it is undeniable that he is one of the most uncompromising people I have ever met. Attempting to present Canon has proven to be the most challenging part of a longer study on Kampala’s urban photographers and artists and I feel that it is necessary to disclaim the highly subjective nature of my attempts to do so.

When I asked his permission to include some of his photographs he told me to, ‘Send just some farmer money! Then do whatever the fuck you want. Because, would I impact you anyway?’ The demand for money is brazen yet his reference to it as ‘farmer money’ describes a critical awareness of the political, economic and social relations between the Western world and Africa. I would suggest that he sees futility in academia and an apathetic acknowledgement of my fascination with his art.

The Kenyan author and journalist Binyavanga Wainaina’s satirical article How to Write About Africa (2006) suggests that it is typical of Europeans and Americans to present ourselves as the heroes of the story when we endeavour to write about Africa while presenting renditions of stereotypical archetypes around us. If Canon is to be stereotyped then he embodies the stereotype of a person who cannot be categorised; a person whose mission is to rebel against the structures, categories and stereotypes of everything around him. The outrageous behaviour and social provocation that one might read in his art renders him as a kind of trickster; a common character in the long tradition of myths, epic tales and other central African narratives (Pype 2010). The trickster represents both the hero and the anti-hero, and is responsible for antisocial and destructive behaviour but also the subsequent restoration and continuation of moral order. Most discussions of tricksters in popular culture provide little historical or social context (Baker 1994, Sekoni 1993) or are concerned largely with fictional or mythological characters (Cosentino 1989, Pype 2010) yet Bob White’s analysis of the Congolese popular music icon, atalaku, shows how tricksterliness can exist in modern African culture and can use asocial behaviour to evoke new ways of understanding the world beyond what is possible with typical narrative convention (1999: 157).

There is little I can say about Canon that he would agree with. It is simply the nature of who he is and I do not purport to say anything objectively true about his personality or his artistic intentions. It is, like the essence of all ethnography, my interpretation and my pleasure to engage with him as a person and as an artist.

Canon never spoke about his parents or family and concerning his childhood I only know he was educated through a scholarship to one of the most esteemed and competitive schools in Uganda. His apartment consists of a single room with a bed and a computer on a desk. Apart from these two distinguishable features the rest is a chaotic amalgam of wires, digital hard drives, camera equipment, half-finished art projects and the utensils to make them with. He makes a little money from working on a number of archival projects with a Dutch academic but as far as I am concerned this was his only source of income until his recent accolades of having work exhibited in galleries, including the recent Kampala Art Biennale.

His artistic outputs are prolific and most of it is available to see on his Instagram, Facebook, Flickr[1] and Tumblr[2] accounts which are updated several times a day. This method of constructing an ongoing personal archive is characteristic of his intentional disassociation with the immediate world around him. Canon wants his art to be shared with society but does not feel that he needs to achieve a level of status and fame that would warrant somebody else to share it all for him. This exhibits self-reliance which is typical of the trickster’s ‘resourcefulness from a position of powerlessness’ (Beidelma 1980). A willingness to share such a huge portion of his creative outputs, including photographs, drawings, comic sketches and pages from his diary, is representative of the honesty and intensity of his personal character.

Plate 1: Abstract image of Kampala made by Canon and hosted on his website. (http://www.urbanunkindness.com/)

It is clear from Canon’s art that he has strong emotions and that his photography and drawings are always grasping at something conceptual or abstract, investigating the unspoken facets of human imagination that exist in the spaces between virtual and physical realities. He does so through a series of photographs that are heavily edited to produce a synthesis of local cultural demarcations which was displayed at Afriart Gallery’s exhibition titled The Unseen. This body of work can be described as a condensation of daily social life in the streets of Kampala. The notion of such condensation can be found in the way the background is edited into a panoramic or spherical shape, while the foreground consists of specific details that constitute the everydayness of people on the streets. Altogether, the photographs elicit a response that makes one consider the mundaneness of daily life while simultaneously bringing attention to the tiny specific details that one is often unconsciously exposed to in Kampala.

It is, as Benjamin says, the camera’s ability to ‘[introduce] us to unconscious optics as does psychoanalysis to unconscious impulses’ (1969 [1936]: 30). Writing in 1936, Benjamin drew a distinction between the painter and the photographer: ‘the painter maintains in his work a natural distance from reality, the cameraman penetrates deeply into its web’ (25) yet Canon’s images as a final product have both qualities of the painter and cameraman. With photographs as his palette and digital software as his canvas, the series gives us a view that is paradoxically distant from reality and further engrained in it than a casual observer is permitted. It captures the invisible aspects of urban life that anthropologists and ethnographers attempt to discuss as de Boeck describes it: ‘a space of the sudden, the unforeseen, the unexpected and fleeting moment’ (2007: 82).

Plate 2: Abstract image of Kampala made by Canon and hosted on his website. (http://www.urbanunkindness.com/)

His panoptical examination of daily life extends to virtual reality as well as the physical. The notion of internet scams and poorly constructed advertisements which act as lures to them are a feature of the digital realities that much of the world’s population inhabit. Canon represents his subjective experience of these virtual phenomena in similarly condensed digitally edited images, using key words or phrases typically found in such hoax advertisements to make fun of their absurdity. He calls it ‘CON ART! “It’s not a scam”’ and his own description found alongside the images appears in his stream-of-consciousness styled blurb.

‘“It’s in the voice crying, Sheep! But oh dear, Wolves wanna share your bed, they promise to be tender… Wolves…” “GIVE ME MONEY” “Exactly! That! 97 Problems but the truths aint … You and 2 good situations? Hallelujah!” “Oh My! Love-bots!” “Chinese rip offs are … well, consider this, “VAGUE MAGAZINE” Damn!” “The post-human philosophers agree, It’s all OK! It’s what it is. Proceed.” A slightly intoxicated man in a grey mask. “A life such as implied by Clifford Joseph Harris Jr. rap music, Oh, Hi, Hello!?” A pseudo-serious guy. “Is the grace of God without cost!?” Identity Withheld. Sometimes, I get crazy phone calls telling me i have won like a Car, and that i should proceed to ‘come claim it…’, and I politely hum and hang up…’

Plate 3: Abstract image of the collection CON ART “It’s not a scam’ made by Canon and shared from his Facebook page. (https://www.facebook.com/UrbanUnkindness)

Using mannequins as the personified subjects, they mimic the apparent fictitiousness of the supposed previous winners of such scams while unnatural, negated colour schemes allude to a hyperbolic cyber-reality in which the digital subject inhabits. He told me that making this art about the constant virtual bombardment was, ‘like satisfying lust. I subsequently became blind to the stuff.’ Thus, he admits that his creation of the images is his way of coping with the breakdown of moral order and the impersonality of everyday life. Canon is regaining moral order within his own emotional subjectivity by reinventing the impersonal space with mimicry and hyperbole. The art takes images and phrases that the urban subject is commonly exposed to and disrupts them so that he might regain intentional control over the omnipresent and undesirable internet con advertisements.

Plate 4: Abstract image of the collection CON ART “It’s not a scam’ made by Canon and shared from his Facebook page. (https://www.facebook.com/UrbanUnkindness)

In other bodies of work Canon interacts in the political sphere. He participates a hazardous photographic terrain that seeks to expose the realities of power structures but does so in a way that moves beyond mere reportage and exists beyond the socio-political context of Uganda and Africa. He finds distress in the ways that people present themselves, criticising the appearance of a virtuous outward identity despite the inherent human quality of self-preservation. One collection of photographs which he shared on Instagram with the tag: #politicianeyes (let me help you lead you) which was subsequently exhibited at a gallery, involved a number of photographs depicting posters of politicians found pasted around the city.

The images are subversive in the way they invite the viewer to question the sincerity of government figures and their aspirants by forcing us to gaze into their eyes, a feature that is commonly thought to offer insight into the unspoken truths of an individual’s personality. The posters are affected by dirt and weariness from the turbulence of urban daily activity, which suggests a disengagement between the political elite and life as it exists for the majority of the city’s population. Elitism is further discussed by the quip: ‘let me help you lead you’ by a satirical reference to the imbalance of power between the ruling class and the rest of the population’s supposed inability to self-organise. While these images out of context can be read as a direct attack on a political sphere that relates directly to Uganda, the theme of corruption extends itself to human nature as a whole when we examine other works in which Canon presents himself as a figure central to the art.

Plate 5: Image from the collection #politicianeyes made by Canon and shared on his Instagram. (https://www.instagram.com/crumanzi/)

Plate 6: Image from the collection #politicianeyes made by Canon and shared on his Instagram. (https://www.instagram.com/crumanzi/)

His latest exhibition at the Kampala Art Biennale was titled This is My Resumé, and much like the #politicianeyes series it is an exploration in the outward projection of benign intention contrasted with the unspoken realities of personal motivations. The conflation of sexual and violent imagery attached to a figure that is half-horse and half-human depicts an animalistic individual whose sexual desires may have destructive consequence. Here, Canon is creating an abstraction of himself that represents the basic desires which standards of public morality force individuals to suppress and is a reflection of the paradoxes of his inner ethical subjectivity.

Plate 7: Canvas titled Man is Quite Something for the 2016 Kampala Art Biennale. Image courtesy of Martha Kuzungu. (https://kazungumartha.wordpress.com/2016/09/25/an-impersonal-voice-from-a-megaphone-a-look-at-the-selected-body-of-art-work-by-ugandan-artist-canon-griffin-r/)

‘Well, there is no money for me in the night, and I want to make money: lots of it. To get a better place, a Nissan pickup, and be a big shot artist, and be able to watch as much porn as possible, eat lots of steak… And in the night, I don’t find any answers there. Only others making money… And tik-tok …’

I do not doubt that Canon’s answer is serious, but it lies in stark contrast to the sorts of criticisms that he tries to convey through his work. It seems that his art is often a criticism of his own uncontrollable desires that are shared by all members of consumerist society: wealth, status and sex. Indeed, much of his work highlights themes of public personality and the way in which humanity recognises its consequences and destructive qualities but the necessity of their existence.

‘I admit I am a kind of mal-adjusted human that is lucky enough to find the arts as my “voice!” I used to think of murdering people, of how to live omnipotently forever… I might be fully pacified now. Sometimes, it helps to settle for the satisfaction of the imagination, just the ideas, instead of clinging to the precarious romance of material reality.’

As I have said previously, Canon’s art and photography are centred on challenging the social and structural normalities of urban life in Uganda. He draws our focus to the way people hope to present benign personalities and succinct morally developed selves yet always implying a darker undercurrent of selfish motivations and inescapable desires that he observes in himself and the humanity around him. It is difficult to understand a motive, or indeed an agenda, other than his own sardonic admission of wanting to become rich. He exists within a liminal frame between his persona as an artist and the truth of his subjectivity, using art to manoeuvre the often contradictory nature of being human. Existing as an individual who is both real and imagined is a common characteristic of a trickster (Makarius 1993) and this elusive existence is conducted in a way that balances anarchic glibness with sincere distress.

Appearing in a huge amount of narratives across the globe, tricksters are ‘inherently related to the social group that narrates their stories’ (Pype 2010) and in Canon’s case it is both the subjective experience of Kampala and the universal quality of being human that narrates his. Through both his art and his personality, he exists as an embodiment of the chaotic nature of Kampala’s urban landscape, and has fashioned himself this way perhaps as a unique coping mechanism. With an exceptional and extensive knowledge of global histories, philosophies, politics, art and literature, Canon is able to transcend the social position afforded to him as an adolescent subject in Kampala. With this vantage he interrogates the problems of universal human nature and uses his art to reconcile his own personal and emotional distresses, unabashedly sharing it with a global audience through social media.

Works Cited:

Baker, M. 1994. The rabbit as trickster.” In Journal of Popular Culture. 28, pp. 149-158

Beidelman, T. 1980. “The moral imagination of the Kaguru: Some thoughts on tricksters. Translation and comparative analysis.” In American Ethnologist. 7, pp. 27-42

Benjamin, W. 1969 [1936]. The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction. London: Penguin Books LTD

Cosentino, D. 1989. “Midnight charters: Musa Wo and Mende myths of chaos.” In Creativity of Power: Cosmology and Action in African Societies. (eds.) W. Arens and Ivan Karp. Washington DC: Smithsonial Institution

De Boeck, F. 2007: 82. “Postcolonial subjectivities in Kinshasha: Reflections on Pentecostal Churches.” In Manchester ’99: Visions and Voices. 27-31 October

Makarius, L. 1993. “The myth of the trickster: the necessary breaker of taboos.” In Mythical trickster figures: Contours, contexts, and criticisms. (eds.) W. J. Hynes and William G. Doty. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press

Pype, K. 2010. “Of fools and false pastors: Tricksters in Kinshasa’s television fiction.” In Visual Anthropology. 23, 2, pp. 115-135

Pype, K. 2010. “Of fools and false pastors: Tricksters in Kinshasa’s television fiction.” In Visual Anthropology. 23, 2, pp. 115-135

Sekoni, R. 1993. Folk Poetics: A Sociosemiotic Study of Yoruba Trickster Tales. Westport: Greenwood

Wainaina, B. In Granta. 92. Available online at: https://granta.com/how-to-write-about-africa/

White, B. 1999 “Modernity’s trickster: ‘dipping’ and ‘throwing’ in Congolese popular dance.” In Research in African Literatures. 30, 4, pp. 156–175

 

[1] Flickr is a popular image and video hosting website for users to share and embed images. It is often used as a resource for photo researchers.

[2] Tumblr is a micro-blogging and social networking website which allows users to post multimedia and other content as well as follow and adapt other users’ posts.

One Comment »

  • Matt Kayem said:

    Well written…I love Canon and his art

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