A woman with many artistic hats: An interview with Margaret Nagawa
Margaret Nagawa has had many roles and responsibilities participating in Uganda’s fine art world. She has been a student of fine art, a maker of fine arts, a curator, a teacher, a promoter, and a collector of fine arts. And now again, a student of fine arts!
Margaret currently lives in Ethiopia but is working on her PhD from Makerere, writing her dissertation on ‘Visual Arts Dissemination and Cultural Translation in East Africa’.
Margarat Nagawa is interviewed by Abigail Bartels for startjournal.org.
For the sake of this interview, I wanted to hear her thoughts on her personal journey as an artist and her perspective on being a professional within Uganda’s art community.
The personal journey
When did you first know that you loved expressing yourself through visual arts?
I have an early memory of my big sister, Grace Nassali, my younger brother, Paul Ssegawa, and myself melting crayons on a window sill of our home in Gulu in the mid 1970s. It was magical seeing those trails of colour dripping on the white wall. That image has stayed with me always and perhaps it is a pointer to my interest in art, even though in and of itself, it was not a direct image or object making session.
Who was most influential to you in your formative years in regards to artistic expression?
As children our parents encouraged self-expression. We were surrounded by books when growing up. When finances were limited in the 1980s after the Amin war, we were encouraged to read aloud articles in newspapers. We made extra pocket money by creating dance performances in our living room as well as simple artworks.
I pleased myself by making my own doll clothes and my sister built houses and cities for our make believe worlds. My brother made many objects to use around our miniature cities. Giving us the freedom to play with mud, needles, tins, newsprint, fabric off-cuts and allowing us to be spontaneous and questioning – was a great gift from our parents, the late Emmanuel William Ssali and Mrs. Salome Namuleme Ssali.
Can you name three of your favorite Ugandan artists and why you love their work?
Oh! This is a hard one. I have so many favorites for varying reasons! Could I go beyond this limit of individuals and look at this through qualities I admire?
I admire the skill, the time, the research and the discipline Taga Nuwagaba invests in his paintings. In exploring the social structure of Ugandans through the totems he is creating awareness, contributing to nature preservation while making art accessible to ordinary people. (In this same issue of startjournal.org, you can learn about Taga’s artwork and how he approaches the making of art).
For tenacity, Francis Xavier Nnaggenda, Joseph Ntensibe, Paulo Akiiki, Gen. Elly Tumwine and Nuwa Wamala Nnyanzi are exemplary. They have explored their media of choice be it wood, metal or paint over a long period of time while keeping the ideas in their work up to date and relevant to the times.
Daudi Karungi on the other hand who has braved many venue changes, has grown from representing mainly fellow young artists to broadening online into Start magazine as well as working with established artists like George Kyeyune through his gallery AfriArt in Kamwokya. This extension of discussions from the physical into the digital is a great leap in Uganda’s art exposure.
In Uganda today there is a movement towards forming artists’ groups. This form of collaborations is admirable, as it shows that artists are not waiting “to be discovered”, but are finding solutions to their common problems like studio and exhibition space, relevance of their art to society and cross border collaborations. Notable examples are Njovu Arts, Kann artists, The Art and Design Consortium Consultants that designed Uganda’s new currency, Weaverbird art camps, In-Movement – art for social change working with disadvantaged children in Kangansa area, and Let Art Talk, who work with communities in Gulu and Masaka.
For versatility and experimentation, we have artists filled with energy, bursting with ideas and enthusiasm. Kizito Maria Kasule, who is a painter and installation artist as well as running an art school in Namulanda, Entebbe road, is exemplary. The ideas in his work often presented social ills and celebrations in a new light.
Samson Ssenkaaba (Xenson) with his performance work that blends poetry, video, fashion, hip-hop and painting always has something new to offer. Photographer Erik Rwakooma and Ronex Ahimbisibwe who share a home studio, are very versatile, blending photography, painting, and welding which result in provocative artworks.
Sarah Nakisanze, Sanaa Gateja and Maria Naita are admirable for their attention to the needs of others through skills transfer in their artistic practice. They all operate workshop-type studios where they teach and employ people, especially women.
Sanaa has trained women over the years in making paper beads since the late 1980s based in Kaseese, long before beads were a fashionable product in Kampala. He has a group of women who have their own cooperative society, who work at his studio in Lubowa. He is currently exhibiting in The Global Africa Project at the Museum of Arts and Design in New York. (Sanaa Gateja has been interviewed for startjournal.org, read about his story here.)
In the process of making art, can you identify what makes you feel that a piece is successful?
At the core, my pieces are an internal, personal conversation. But my pieces do also become a conversation with viewers as well.
I made a painting in my eclectic approach on bark cloth mounted on canvas with a collage of a cityscape. It was large, dramatic and bold, but it wasn’t really saying what I wanted it to say – Kampala steeped in rich red soil and covered in a thin layer of dust.
My friend Tania Lazeb saw in it a floating ferry … and it has become a running joke that we refer to as ‘the floating city’.
If you had no financial consideration in the world, what type of art-making experience would you love to have?
Wow! The thing dreams are made of! It would be exciting to blend the media of film, architecture and fine arts. The scale, technology, spatial, collaborative as well as the time-based features of film and architecture would be an enriching factor to add to art practice.
Hmm! This dream may come true someday…
The professional career
What elements of your education and career have been motivated by a practical need to “provide” for yourself and your family?
Growing up in Uganda, the emphasis from parents and teachers is often on training for a profession so that one can be able to provide for themselves as an independent member of society. I am no exception to this. However, when choosing what to study at university level, all I wanted was fine arts.
My father was very encouraging even though there was no artist role-model that I knew to emulate. Anywhere we went with any form of art – churches, restaurants, hotels, books – we would get into a discussion about it. As a child, I was always collecting objects, drawing, painting, making little sculptures from anthill soil, generally experimenting as kids do. I guess my path in the arts was carved early on before I even knew how to spell ‘career’.
While on one level many artists would love to just have funding or make enough from their work to be independent of other roles, I often feel the different roles may also add insight and perspective to the artist’s work. Have you found that some of your other roles in the arts actually informed your pieces or gave you ideas for art works? Can you share a specific example?
I enjoy wearing a multitude of artistic hats. As an artist, the freedom to be and do what you want is wonderful. But we also sometimes need to educate people about what we do or respond to what people want.
When I saw a disconnect between artists and their potential audiences, I took a curatorial MA program at Goldsmiths in London so I could better understand and perhaps bridge this gap. Operating as an independent curator gives me the freedom to design my own interventions while still making art.
I ran a Saturday Children’s art class at our home in Makindye with sculptor Henry Segah. This arose out of a need to see my kids exposed to more three dimension art making as well as exposure to indigenous art forms like the rich pottery tradition. We had children in the neighbourhood attend these classes and it was so successful. My work at this time featured a lot of cut and paste techniques as well as a bold application of colour and collaboration with the children on artworks.
One specific example is Our Garden, 2007, acrylics on canvas (collection Tania and Mick Farmer). Children like to work on large formats. I primed a large canvas, put it on the floor in my studio, and let the kids go wild with colour. We had a cassava-resist on cotton collage in the centre of the canvas from which the rest of the composition emanated. It’s bright, it is alive – the energy and enthusiasm of the children pulsate on that canvas.
Teaching at the art school in Makerere University was challenging and exciting too. The big student numbers leave a lecturer unsatisfied because you cannot give the attention they need. However, exposing the students to the art scene in Kampala as well as discussing art works and having artists in Kampala give presentations to them was very eye-opening.
Students are confident yet timid at times. They want so much to be big, to leave a positive mark on society. In discussion on artists’ careers with professionals like Taga Nuwagaba, we explore all these aspirations. As a teacher you feed this into the teaching. Conversations with my former students like Mustapha Semugenze who has created creative minds, a Facebook discussion forum, continue through social networks online.
Based on your various opportunities as student and teacher, do you feel the education system in Uganda is developing positively towards more freedom of expression? If yes or no, what do you think are some of the contributing factors?
The education system is straining at the seams. It is bulging with large student numbers yet the teachers are limited. Artistic expression is very much valued in the 3 – 6 year olds. But when primary school starts, most schools focus more on literacy and numeracy than creativity. This is a sad phenomenon.
A society that devalues and stifles creativity among the young ends up creating robotic citizens. Alongside the sciences, which are the favored subjects today, art, music, literature, drama, architecture, dance need to be encouraged as they add to the vitality and further progress of humankind. An exertion of intelligence and humility to create a fusion of creativity, spirituality, old traditions and new technologies would mitigate the political, economic and moral violence in our society today.
However, there are a few gems like teacher Milli Muhima in Ambrosoli International School, ceramic artist and secondary school teacher Tonny Kawooya, and Dr. Rose Kirumira at Makerere University for whom creativity is a fundamental part of teaching and learning any subject. (Rose Kirumira was interviewed in Startjournal.org Issue 007). Students trained by such exemplary individuals are our hope for the future.
But for a wider freedom of expression, there need to be educational policies focusing on the respect for creative input and artistic traditions in the form of iconic individuals, images and objects from local and international history spanning the periods of pre-colonial, colonial, independence and the present nation state in the wider frame of a globalized world.
A current day example is Sarah Nakisanze who uses barkcloth, an indigenous fabric in the great Lakes region and experiments with organic and industrial dyes. To create a broader impact, these artistic explorations need to be incorporated into school curricula for both intellectual and experiential enrichment.
What “practical” or “professional” role (besides making art), have you enjoyed most and why?
The capacity to be able to move from one role to another or embody multiple roles at once is exciting. There are phases where I feel that a part of my work is neglected and that knocks me out of balance. Moving to Ethiopia was very exciting at the start, but soon felt empty and I was searching inward for a new identity.
I now have a studio to work, I am exploring local materials like the thin hand-woven cotton and soft sheepskin leather and I am a student researching and writing on art, which is an extension of my curatorial interests. The direct contact with students in an art school setting is missing at the moment but it will resurface in the future. The Kampala Art Studio tour will resume in July when I am there, otherwise it will soon resurface as an online forum. Each of my roles feeds another and I am happy with the fluidity of it.
In much of your education you’ve pursued an interest in the bigger art picture (curating, marketing, art-promotion, art-education). How are you hoping to use your experience as an artist and a member of the art community to promote the arts in Uganda and beyond?
Understanding the production and consumption of the arts is crucial to getting beyond the art objects themselves. I start many artistic activities in form of conversations. Dialogue with artists, architects, galleries, audiences, educational institutions, students and with myself are pivotal to creating artworks, exhibitions, art tours, course outlines and essays.
As an active member of the Uganda art community I hope to stimulate interest in making and consuming art and perhaps a systematic use of art objects and ideas in education. My husband and I collect art and books on a small scale, which to us are significant testaments of the times and places we live. These are important creative outputs that in the future we hope to publish and disseminate in varied ways for broader viewership.
Part of my keen interest in doctoral studies is to dialogue with other artists, curators and arts organizers in varied forms, in order to enable more exhibitions, publishing, inter-institutional collaborations, and overt artistic activities to enable these varied facets of the art community to make themselves heard. I do what I do because I believe in it, I am passionate about it and I am willing to learn more.
Abigail Bartels is a freelance writer living in Kampala.