Shifts in Ugandan Art: From a rooted symbolism to philosophy as world-view

Of such music, trumpets of independence blew. The new country born from the mother(land). And alas, everything that had bonded imagination, vision, individuality, and uniqueness was broken loose. Trumpets blaring sounds of freedom. I imagine xylophones, adungus, talking and royal drums making merry celebration on that very becoming moment in Uganda’s political history.

Written by Serubiri Moses


Independence Art

Uganda had its independence from Britain in 1962. The same year the Union Jack descended, a Ugandan flag soared on high mast. That same year, a sculptor named Gregory Maloba presented the independence monument (image top left), which stood about 10 feet into the sky. A mother with both hands raising a child while smiling in ululation opens its hands wide to the future. The mother hitherto existing in bondage, represented by large belt-like structures that tie the lower half of the statue, the new born unisex child breaking free and risen into the sky.

This was the meaning of Independence in the mind of an artist, Gregory Maloba, in the months leading to October 9th 1962. Since then, many Ugandan artists have openly used this symbol of a strong African mother in their art works, as a fitting and powerful statement.

Song of Lawino

Ugandan poet Okot p'Bitek (1931-1982)

In 1966’s Song of Lawino, Okot p’Bitek draws vivid images of one Clementine, new wife of Ocol, whose “lips are like a cat which has dipped it’s mouth in blood”. These words are given to a disgruntled Lawino, first wife of Ocol (a University graduate), and define arguments and differences between Acholi culture and that of the European colonialists.

Lawino’s husband does not want to discuss serious issues with Lawino because she never attended University. This makes her bitter. She is the heroin of the poem ’Song of Lawino’, originally written entirely in Acholi and later translated into the English. Whereas, Clementine is the antagonist of the piece, and she represents various agonies and antagonisms Africans had towards white colonial culture.

A new version of modern art

Clementine is modern, precisely because she is a hybrid of white colonial culture and African identity. Here, with the wave of globalization and the vast interrelationship that boasts a global identity, a new version of modern art has emerged. Modern in its interpretations of identity, as all art from the very beginning has done. In this same way, of innocent creation of art, many Ugandan artists today have developed an existentialist philosophy. These artists are decoding a form of consciousness that pertains to individual freedom.

These modern-thinking Ugandan artists are far removed from pan-Africanist philosophers and their symbolism, whether in the arts or on huge political crusades in the earlier part of the century in Universities around Africa.

Their art is not reactionary to colonialism. It is not resisting colonialism. They are artists not unified by pan-African ideologies of returning to African identity. And as I mentioned earlier, several young women today would identify quite well with Clementine, the seemingly modern woman character from Song of Lawino.

What unifies them is what is not unifying them; for example the absence of pan-Africanism or pan-Africanist politics. Its very absence has gradually established a certainty in today’s artists to awaken within themselves a consciousness. A consciousness that strives to define the individual.

Defining Modern Art today

I attempt here to draw out from ‘Modern’ its many meanings in the history of art within the social and political historical framework. In 1959, Dave Brubeck, a jazz pianist that was rooted deeply in classical music, produced a hit single that became No. 1 on the Billboard pop music charts. It was called ‘Take Five’, and featured a melodic improvisational phrase by Paul Desmond.

The marriage of unusual rhythmic patterns and jazz piano music proved modern. As a student of Bach’s fugues and earlier placing them in his music, Brubeck knew how to interlace these new influences collected on his tours in India, Pakistan and the Middle East with the intricate qualities of European classical music, thus creating a very possibly modern kind of American music.

During Belgian occupation in the Congo, colonial exploitation, legalized slavery, human sacrifice, fetishism and witchcraft were exploited by the French press (Gordon). In this way, African art began to influence European artists and thinkers living in Paris.

In reaction to the slavery and exploitation going on in the Congo, Picasso borrowed from the African masks that he saw, placing the elements of African art firmly in his work. He developed his cubist style from observing the wooden sculptures shipped in from the Congo. Picasso was named the sole authority to developing a modernist style of art.

Other artists were Henri Matisse and Braque who all together started a movement of abstract expressionism or the avant-garde.

Kampala Modernity?

The question of whether or not painters in Kampala today are creating modern art is rather transparent. We start by looking at how we have defined modern art so far in music, literature and fine art.

Firstly, modern art sprung from the desire to oppose a system of traditional symbolism or stylistic movements of art. And secondly, it borrowed freely from the origins of African art.

I have looked at the work of three artists whose work recently has being exhibited in Kampala; Edison Mugalu, Ismael Kateregga and Donald Wasswa, and I would like to offer the following observations:

Unlike the pan-African artists who used the woman, mother and child as symbols of freedom and breakthroughs in the African struggle for independence, these new artists are answering to something that is non-existent.

Perhaps what they are really asking is: Where is the unity?

This may be the focus of their work, which becomes more obvious when studying these artists’ paintings. One is struck by how imaginative they are. The paintings seem to stir your imagination, in seeing past just the sedentary politics of the day.

They seem to transcend the statements that politicians are making, and instead luring the viewer into a dreamscape. A certain space where one is free to explore ideas of what world am I in? Their questions tackle existentialist philosophies which point to questions one would ask the individual.

Wasswa’s zen-like space

Artwork by Donald Wasswa, (c) 2011.

The landscapes in Donald Wasswa’s paintings require one to become completely deplete of preconceived notions of what authentic African art might be. None of the questions that pan-Africanists were asking are answered. Therefore, it is not the same feeling you get when looking at for instance Batiks by Nuwa Nyanzi.

Instead, you are charged with the sight of movement and stillness simultaneously. The landscape is a dreamscape. The use of space strikes me as zen-like and orderly with everything in its place. The landscapes evoke a peacefulness of its own, a stillness of its own.

( has previously reviewed Donald Wasswa’s exhibition, read the review here.)

Kateregga’s romantic cityscapes

Artwork by Ismael Kateregga, (c) 2011.

The cityscapes in Ismael Kateregga’s paintings ask the crucial question of whose city is this? When walking through downtown Kampala, what you see is sometimes foreign.

Do you claim this identity? Is this your city?

The flux of people, the sense of large numbers of people in between sky and earth simply is a daring statement on how the artist perceives the people of Kampala. In many ways, the representation is romantic.

Seeing the artwork, you may choose to either relate or isolate oneself from the city. If you are more likely to isolate oneself, the experience becomes even more interesting, because just then, you realize that you have the choice to either be a part of the city or not.

Mugalu’s flow of acitivity

Artwork by Edison Mugalu, (c) 2011.

In the latest series by Edison Mugalu, the artist portrays the city of Zanzibar. He is even more drawn to feelings and colors than to actual subjects, something which all these three artists share.

The feeling of water is apparent. The people always seem to be moving in one direction, whether on bicycles or in hijabs. Sometimes the subject is lonely in a cul-de-sac, but again in regard to feelings, I would say this artist was feeling lonely.

There is also a sense of musicality; rhythm and flow of activity. There is a world that is known and yet perhaps unknown. It is a philosophical question on whether to exist in a world that is like a fleeting dream.

(Read about Edison Mugalu’s life and career in this interview in


I would like to thank Mathias Muwonge Kyazze, a Fine Art lecturer at Makerere University, who enlightened me on the symbolism of pan-Africanism in the arts and its meaning. I would also like to thank Ojakol Omerio, a poet from The Lantern Meet, whose poetry verified many of the symbols in these painters’ works.


– Ethel Gordon; The Connection of African Art and Early European Contemporary Art.

Serubiri Moses is a published writer who enjoys philosophical debates on jazz, classical music and the history of African art. He is currently a freelance writer who in addition, plays 2nd Violin in the Kampala Symphony Orchestra.


5 thoughts on “Shifts in Ugandan Art: From a rooted symbolism to philosophy as world-view

  1. Cinderella, glad you have been moved to learn a bit of history in this article. I absolutely agree with you on Kateregga’s cityscapes. He certainly is a thoughtful artist, and I really appreciate how his thought process translates into imagery on canvas.

  2. Thank you for this article Moses. I am in a no way knowledgable in pan-africanism of the arts or indeed its meaning but rather a keen observer and knowledge sponge. So this has been an interesting lesson and perspective on some of the history. I particularly appreciated the three pieces you’ve listed, especially Kategerra’s cityscapes – very evocative. Thanks again for a great article.

  3. I like your reading of the three paintings, and Mugalu’s flow of activity is simply beautiful (i wanna buy it!). And while you’ve got a well-written article here… I can’t help but react a little to what I sense to be a trivializing, or ma…ybe devaluing of pan-African thematic interests… against your overvaluing of “modern art”. Even though you mention briefly the somewhat complicated and problematic relationship between European modern art and ideas about Africa (and African art… as primordial, primitive, and in rebellion to the western world’s industrialization period)… I think you still somehow celebrate or maybe depict modernity (as defined outside of the African context) as some sort of aspiration for contemporary artists. When I…. as insanely in love with the ideals of the 60s… as ineffective as they may have been… wouldn’t necessarily cosign such a worldview. And I understand that you’ve written the article in a way that you could argue, observes current trends rather than advocates particular styles…. but i still strongly sense your stance. Thanks for writing this! Me likey

  4. Thanks Kampire.

    I think the sense of being indifferent to Politics is a masquerade. Many artists are actually, I feel trying actively to engage society with their own politics of what world they want to live in. The main difficulty with looking as far back as 1960’s is that the 70’s and 80’s overwhelm that time period, and it becomes muddled and lost. I think that the terms of trade in politics have been rehashed to the point of overusage and artists today are finding new ways to define their country and their surroundings through developing an artistic language more complex than was initially the bold clear as a bell movement of the 1960’s Independence art.

  5. Great Article Moses.

    One thing that stands out to me is that Independence art was political by default. Artists at the time felt a responsibility to make comment on Uganda’s political situation, and those that supported and disseminated art (at the time the government was the biggest supporter) consciously chose art that would inspire and uplift our fledgling nation.

    Today Ugandan artists have the freedom to be apolitical in their work if they so choose. Is this a good thing? That’s another discussion, one worth having. It could be argued that our current government does not value or support our cultural institutions the way the government of the ’60s did. In addition political art today is likely to be in opposition to the government, whereas in the ’60s it might have been to a larger extent mutually supportive.

    Anyhoo, those are my immediate thoughts

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