Different But One 16: A Story without End
Different But One, sixteen years in existence, was an inspiring art exhibition at the Institute of Heritage Conservation and Restoration (formerly known as the Makerere University Art Gallery) that showcased the current work of Makerere Art Faculty.
By Maria Alawua
When I attended this exhibit of artists from the Margaret Trowell School of Industrial and Fine Arts, I felt I was watching a “jumping the broom” wedding ceremony. Like newlyweds, or couples renewing their vows, I believe that the Makerere University dons are renewing their commitment to their art, renewing their passionate devotion to their creative calling.
Historical “broom-jumpers”: Passion and its results in past artists
While recovering from an attack of appendicitis, Henri Matisse (1869-1954), a practicing lawyer and the son of a middle-class family, became intrigued by the art works of his time. He later abandoned his law practice and became the innovative founder of the brief Fauve Movement – a movement that was characterized by the non-naturalistic use of colours and radically distorting pictoral space.
Frank Lloyd Wright (1867 -1959) was an American architect. Frank Lloyd Wright did not complete his degree but went on to become America’s most outstanding architect of all time.
Wright believed in designing structures that were in harmony with humanity and its environment, a philosophy he called “organic architecture.” This philosophy was best exemplified in his design for Fallingwater (1935), a design that has been called “the best all-time work of American Architecture” by the American Institute of Architects.
Like the Matisse and Wright, innovators and culture-changers of their time, the Different But One exhibit, revealed the works of Uganda’s current innovators and culture-changers.
Ugandan Broom-Jumpers: Artists committed to their art-making
Any one can develop an “eye” for art. As for me I live art. No wonder, appreciation for art is second nature to me. This “selective” taste is developed over time. Often I feel inclined to identify with the subject and read the story in a composition. The desire to read a composition may, at times, be associated with my own life’s experiences.
Choosing to write about an artwork may, for me, also be attributed to its sheer visual impact. Unique colour, textural and other tangible aesthetic qualities, that are emotionally provocative, are among the reasons why I am attracted to one work of art over another. Art works have a “thing” about them that draw me to get involved with it. It is called perception.
The art pieces described below have these qualties.
Jacob Odama–Two portraits, two intertwined destinies
Included in the Different But One 16 Exhibition, are the portraits of two presidents that have made an indelible mark on the political landscape of Uganda. Jacob Odama’s finished portraits reveal his commitment to using art as a means to encourage political reflection and conversation.
The first portrait is of Idi Amin Dada, probably the most notorious of all Africa’s post-independence dictators, who declared himself life president and decorated himself with medals that included among others ‘Conqueror of the British Empire’. The second portrait is of Dr. Apolo Milton Obote who served as Prime Minister of Uganda from 1962 to 1966, then President of Uganda from 1966 to 1971 and from 1980 to 1985.
It is ironic that the portraits of two of Uganda’s most influential people, whose political destinies were intertwined, hang with such defined sobriety, side by side. In actuality, their turbulent political and military careers crossed paths more than once. And despite the enduring nature of these portraits, their mortal destinies ended in exile and death, Amin in 2003 and Obote in 2005.
The smile in Idi Amin Dada’s portrait belies the potent and violent power that he held over Uganda. In contrast, the defiant and arrogant look on Dr Apollo Milton Obote’s portrait reveals his determination– how against all odds, the son of a Lango chief, became the first Prime Minister of the Republic of Uganda.
Though both men are now no more, the consequences of the decisions they made while in – what I consider is – the most enviable seat of power continue to affect Ugandans’ lives today.
Dr. Maria Kizito Kasule: A man transforming lives through art
Another Ugandan artist who has given his life to the creative act is Dr. Maria Kizito Kasule. He had to overcome formidable challenges, sometimes at the hands of his own father, to pursue his dream of becoming an artist.
Words have meaning and when they lean on each other, they build a message. Paintings, however abstract or simple, have meaning; they tell a story, even if it is disguised under features that are not immediately recognizable.
By virtue of its position, near the entrance of the gallery, Kizito’s painting draws attention to itself. A meandering linear textured pattern set against a background of pale blue leaves; one wonders what this painting is all about. This is a piece that suggests more than it speaks. Even if it had been placed elsewhere, the painting would still visibly have stood out.
Kizito has always been willing to explore different techniques, styles and subject matter. This painting represents Dr. Maria Kizito Kasule at his best. A brief chat with the artist gave me an opportunity to better understand the painting:
This concept, developed over a period of several years, grew into a series of paintings. It is about conception … just as his unborn child grew in her mother’s womb – a gift of life given by the creator – so did his idea for this intriguing painting.
Using a simple, abstract modernist approach, Dr. Maria Kizito Kasule frees the composition from any resemblance to the seed that brings forth life. Meandering linear movements are what represent the sperms, the source of human life. It is a simple but profound visual interpretation about conception.
In this composition, line is as equally important as colour. Line assumes a repetitive and meandering quality and its rhythmic movement is sensual complemented by the hushed background colours.
He executes the composition by applying very few pale colours. Blotches of red become part of the rhythmic linear movements. There is absolute control of tonal harmony that defines the whole composition. The patterned surface stabilizes and balances all the curves.
Finally, the use of the palette knife and application of thick paint creates a textural effect that guarantees the viewer will be drawn into this abstract piece about conception.
Ifee Francis-Xavier: Nature’s last breath
Some of the largest trees and creeping vines start as tiny seeds. As they grow, nature reveals the different shades of colour that unfold as nature passes through its seasons. The colours transform as nature does; the colour of leaves transform as plants bud and blossom into brilliant greens, then fade into golden yellows and browns as they fall away to wither and die.
Ifee Francis Xavier’s painting ‘Human Nature’, done in watercolour, makes an explicit statement. Humans and the natural flora are susceptible to the forces of nature. Born from a seed, both man and nature grow, reach the pinnacle of their lives, then eventually wither and die.
The purplish colours of the leaves, destroyed by insects, remind the viewer of the futile struggles of man and nature.
Rebeka Uziel and Philip Kwesiga: Fantasy is more beautiful than reality
Found nowhere in the world, this landscape is indeed the figment of one’s futuristic, imaginative world – a world where bright colours, according to Rebeka, are symbolic of “a sense of abundance, happiness, joy and a great light”.
Rebeka Uziel and Kwesiga Phillip’s non-descriptive landscape is indescribable, full of whimsy and fantasty, a futuristic, imaginative world where anything is possible.
Viewing this composition, which was created with different materials, one experiences a mixed sense of euphoria and positive energy from the brilliant bright, saturated colours.
Godfrey Banadda: Rewriting the Biblical Fall of Man as seen through the ‘Serpent of Eden’
Godfrey Banadda, as an individual, can be as unfathomable as some of his most unconventional and eccentric paintings. Even as Banadda explains his pictures, he “invents” or “redefines” reality in order to convey his mental and visual experiences.
Expressing a new visual vocabulary through “Serpent of Eden”, Godfrey Banadda has attained a sense of pleasure and self-satisfaction, similar to what he feels when he “invents” or “redefines” a word.
My knowledge and exposure to a modest collection of contemporary Ugandan artists’ paintings did not prepare me for what I encountered in Godfrey Banadda’s painting. Undoubtedly, Godfrey Banadda adeptly shows that he has the strength of mind and mastery to create something extraordinary out of the ordinary.
Whereas Shakespeare uses words to evoke emotions, Godfrey Banadda uses colour, form, shape and texture to cause reflective awareness about the temptation of Eve by the serpent.
The seated figure dominates, from top to bottom, the entire left portion of the canvas. Her nude body has a complexion so surreal that it appears as if it is a fusion of all the colours of the rainbow. Her hair is idealized and rendered in the form of tree branches laden with all kinds of fruits like pineapples, apples, mangoes, oranges etc.
What appears to be an inseparable extension of her very being is a snakelike form that winds its way into the background and whose movement is slow and measured. Your eyes are entranced as they follow the meandering snakelike tail in precisely alternating curves that finally disappear into a thin curvy line into the horizon. The entire composition pulses with energy.
This is Eve, forever intertwined with the serpent, and the fruit-laden tree of the knowledge of good and evil, from which the creator forbade them to eat. And amidst all the chaos of this backdrop, Eve is holding a pink rose flower, a symbol of love.
The moment Eve ate of the forbidden fruit, it was as if women became the forbearers of transgression and imminent doom for humanity. Since time immemorial, there have been numerous ways in which women are either rightly or wrongly represented and perceived–as symbols, icons or immortals. They have also been portrayed in styles ranging from Realism to Abstractionism.
Whether in sculptural forms or in paintings, women have been portrayed as liberated or enslaved; beautiful or grotesque; sensual or repulsive; fragile or formidable and also as tender and motherly. Think of any of the following: ‘Liberty leading the people’ by Eugene Delacroix; ‘The Gleaners’ by Jean-Francois Millet; ‘The Kitchen Maid’ by Jan Vermeer; ‘Ballet Rehearsal’ by Edgar Degas, ‘Luncheon on the Grass’ by Eduard Manet; ‘Whistler’s Mother’ by James Abbott McNeill Whistler; ‘The Potato Eaters’ by Vincent Van Gogh; ‘The Ecstasy of St. Teresa’ by Gian Lorenzo Bernini; and ‘The Third-Class Carriage’ by Honoré Daumier. And now we must add to the list: ‘The Serpent of Eden’ by Godfrey Banadda.
Challenges and achievements
One of the main challenges with Different But One is curatorial. The theme for the coming exhibition is given to the dons by Rebeka Uziel at the end of each Don’s exhibition. It is expected that the Dons would have executed art works in various media based on that theme given the fact that they have a whole year within which to do so.
By the time the curator comes in early March or late February the challenges are experienced when the call for submission of art works is raised including accompanying articles. We experience now that the number of Dons participating in this annual exhibition is fewer than when they first began.
Despite the challenges the Dons plus the curator have persevered for the past 16 years, an achievement in itself. Let us hope this will suffice.
We were built to evolve, meant to change. Artists’ in their use of materials, techniques and styles evolve; change is inevitable, but past experiences must be cherished.
Different But One, for the last fifteen years, has provided artists a platform for visual artistic expressions that are increasingly dynamic and provocative. This annual event has also given artists the chance to continually keep their talent alive.
This year’s Different But One had a visual exuberance to me which led me to compare it to the “jumping the broom” ceremony; a joyful entry into a new life together as artists—male and female, old and young, modern and figurative, abstract and narrative. We, the viewers, are participants of the renewed energy and commitment of Makerere Faculty’s vision and fine arts.
Let us celebrate the 16th anniversary of Different But One, being mindful to judge each piece and each artist by the integrity of the work.
Maria Alawua is an Art Historian, working as a lecturer at the Margaret Trowell School of Industrial and Fine Arts, Makerere University.