Beyond the Controversy

Testament to the strength and innovation of Uganda’s artistic community, the Controversial Art Exhibition at Kampala’s Afriart Gallery sought to challenge traditional perceptions of African art.

Henry Mzili Mujunga’s catalogue text, Finding the Controversy, offers an insight into the premises of this exhibition.  Here he boldly exclaims that the work of “the true heroes of Ugandan art” could be found in this small, yet adventurous display.

And he was right.

Reviewed by Eleanor Bradshaw
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Included was the work of artists such as Ronex Ahimbisibwe, David Kigozi, Jude Kateete, Daudi Karungi, Edison Mugalu, Collin Ssekajugo and Mzili himself, to name a few.

Despite its title, it was claimed that this exhibition did not intend to cause controversy.  However, the art works included came together to produce a multifaceted social commentary.  Discussions regarding the recent political tensions, humanitarian issues and explorations of the self and sexuality ran as a complex dialogue throughout the pieces on show.  As a visitor to Kampala, the most striking and therefore the most controversial act in this exhibition was the innovative and unexpected use of troubling subject matter and iconography.

Kateete’s defiant act

Jude Kateete’s Clitordectomy or Female Genital Mutilation was a powerful example of art embedded with a political and social agenda.  This mode of expression is something that seems to have been sidelined in the past.  Reproductions of traditional motifs tend to dominate many art galleries, created specifically for the market and exportation out of Uganda.

Kateete’s Mattise-esuqe painting was a poignant statement for a male artist.  Standing united with the women of Uganda who are subjected to such mutilation, was a defiant act. From a stylistic point of view, this work stood as a marked departure from Kateete’s better-known and more commercial paintings.

Jude Kateete: Clitordectomy or Female Genital Mutilation (Acrylic on canvas 96 x 178 cm)

Karungi’s dynamic synergi between the sexes

The role of women was a significant aspect of this exhibition.  The display of feminine strength was unique, and different greatly from the more traditional representations of women found in other commercial exhibition spaces in and around Kampala. Daudi Karungi’s series of images that use the body as a canvas were intriguing examples of the use of women as subject matter.

Here, he employed light and dark to create swaths of emotion in action.  Hide your private parts, Sit down, shut up and look beautiful (marriage) and Lets change our skin colour and match to freedom, intrinsically spoke to the female viewer, while quietly imploring for the attention of the male.  Daudi’s work managed to create a dynamic synergy between the sexes, removing the usual subservient positioning of the woman, making her strong and defiant.

Daudi Karungi: Sit down, shut up and look beautiful (marriage)
Photograph with body paint on human skin (detail)

Kerango’s Saviour

The political engagement of the artists in this exhibition was as evidence as the armed police on the streets of Kampala.  The recent electoral violence in Uganda seemed to be present in the consciousness of the audience and was vocalised through the works of many of the artists.  The most effective of at documenting this discontentment was Ro Kerango’s self explanatory painting, Saviour.  When viewing this depiction of a president come martyr, one was taken over by a superficial amusement which lead to a quiet and powerful discomfort.

Experimental materials

The innovative use of materials by artists such as Henry Mujunga, Ronex Ahimbisibwe and Dr Lilian Nabulime acted as points of contemplation that intersected the exhibition.  The works of these artists straddled the divide between painting and sculpture, actively encouraging the viewer to challenge their perception that art in Uganda is usually more traditional in nature.  A new confidence in experimentation is emerging and is something that should be encouraged.

A more complex comprehension of materials and surfaces can be seen in Ronex’s Don’t hate me ‘coz am beautiful. A wondrously constructed interaction between object and viewer, this piece promoted active participation and questioning; what does it mean to be beautiful?

Ronex Ahimbisibwe: Don’t hate me 'cos am beautiful
Mixed media (entire work)

Mujunga’s Genome, a self-portrait, was another exploration of the self.  Here, Mujunga personally uncovers what it means to be him.  Through its sculptural quality his work invites the viewer to do the same.  His use of traditional barkcloth pouches, which housed his DNA, was a poignant ode to the history of a material that is inherently Ugandan and was a touching reminder of the past in a contemporary exhibition.

Henry Mzili Mujunga: Genome  (Mixed media)

Nabulime’s self-exploration

One of the most challenging pieces in this exhibition was the work of Dr Lilian Nabulime.  One of the few female artists included, her sculpture Human Sacrifice was designed to challenge and contests the role of the victim.  Mounted on a glass-topped table, her construction of wood, clay, ropes and nails forced the viewers to look within themselves and join the fight against human sacrifice.

The warning professed here was that without sympathising and thus alienating those that are victimised, you, in turn, become sacrificed.  The honesty embedded in this self-exploration was uncomfortable.  Something that is not easy to face, something that Nabulime enforces upon the viewer.

Dr Lilian Nabulime: Human Sacrifice
Wood, clay, mirror, ropes and nails (detail)

Sekajugo raises national concerns

During this exhibition, we have questioned traditions, politics, ourselves.  Collin Sekajugo thrusts us into the future. His sculpture Fetcher at Lake Kyoga evokes the work of Benin based artist Romuald Hazoume and raises national concerns of the fair distribution of wealth from future oil production in Uganda.

This one work, whether consciously or not, places the exhibition on an international scale, as oil consumption and distribution of wealth becomes increasingly a worldwide consideration.

Collin Sekajugo: Fetcher at Lake Kyoga. Jerry cans (detail)

As previously mentioned, I am not a resident of Kampala.  I am simply an appreciator of Ugandan art.  For me, this exhibition was a uniquely personal experience that sought to challenge my expectations of art production in Uganda.  There has long been an established practice of exporting art from the country to other parts of the world, namely Europe and the US.  This has been a situation that many artists have been acutely aware of and raises some difficult questions regarding the globalisation of the African art market.

However, with its expert curation this exhibition felt like an intimate glance into the private, challenging and provocative work of artists based in Kampala and I hope that this is treasured. This glimpse into the private consciousness of artists is what made this exhibition truly controversial.

Eleanor Bradshow is currently a curator of contemporary collections at the British Museum, Eleanor Bradshaw has curated a range of exhibitions and is active in promoting contemporary acquisitions within museum based institutions.  Eleanor is also in the process of completing a Masters Degree in Curation of Contemporary Art at the Royal College of Art in London.  Here, she is carrying out detailed research into the contemporary art scene in Kampala.

Discuss the Controversial Art Exhibition vol:002 would hereby like to invite all readers and visitors of this year’s Controversial Art Exhibition to comment on the artworks.

2 thoughts on “Beyond the Controversy

  1. Great analysis…. hoping the show is still on at AfriArt! Really appreciated your exploration of different pieces and your commentary on the role of Ugandan art within Uganda, and for what it teaches us as viewers and partakers of different cultures.

    Abby Bartels

  2. Thank you, Eleanor, for this insight into Africian art, of which know very little but this snippet has tickled my taste buds and I shall seek it out more in future in order to widen this new horizon. Thank you, once again.

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