Sketching a Civilisation: Graphic records of unfinished ideas
“People say, ‘We are all the same’ — this is not true. I experience the world differently because I am female and because I am dark-skinned.” -Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie talking to a Guardian columnist about her new novel, Americanah.
Written by Ishta Nandi
Until last week the only thing post-modernism seemed to have given me, a Generation Y’er, was the often resigned conclusion, “After all, we’re all the same, deep down.”
Then I went to an exhibition of drawings and photographs by Rumanzi Canon and photographs by Andrea Stultiens at the Makerere Art Gallery titled Sketching a Civilisation. I had first heard of these two artists from the online photo archive they created, History in Progress Uganda, which features pictures from and about Uganda as old as circa 1878.
Images tell us where we are and what we’re doing, they show us us. Kind of like the technology that helped me find my way to the Sketching a Civilisation opening after I got lost within Makerere University main campus. An app I downloaded between the main gate and the library — impatient as I were to explore what the past was like, what people looked like back then, what Canon thought of how people look today.
Although, why none of the 10-plus students I asked for directions knew where the Gallery was might also be worth exploration, perhaps in the grander schema of quality education for posterity’s overtly imaged minds.
What is this guy saying?
I entered when Andrea was talking about how she came to Uganda to visit and ended up staying to curate old photos starting with one man’s private collection (one Mr. Kaddu Wasswa, who was also in attendance). Her calm, gentle voice divulged none of the obsessive drive it obviously took for her to put together such a remarkable collection.
Or maybe I failed to pick up on it because my concentration was marred by the huge drawing of AK-47s and a bloody sword protruding from what looked like a red-rimmed eye in between two spread thighs.
I was drawn to it. What is this guy saying? What does he mean? Is this some FGM thing? I hate when people feel like they have to choose a cause and they choose FGM. I hope there aren’t more. There weren’t though.
Examining the other Canon drawings surrounding it, I saw an armless woman made of blue lines sitting in what looked like a wave of her own blood. She had no discernible facial expression, so it must have been the way she sat — back arched slightly forward, hips turned away from the viewer while she faced us — that gave me the impression she had just been caught in a private moment.
My stare was intruding, and it made me look away for a second, before pulling out my phone to snap a picture because, how else was I going to tell people about the drawing I had seen which felt shy when people looked at it, and how if it had been for sale and I’d have bought it to hang above my toilet?
Life and work depicted 100 yrs ago
“I hate the way these pictures portray blacks,” one girl was telling her companion, a fellow MUK student.
Andrea had printed a book called The Baganda at Home which The Religious Tract Society first published back in 1908. Subtitled With 100 Pictures of Life and Work in Uganda, it had pictures from all over Uganda, Kenya and Congo of indigenous people interacting with colonialists, traders and missionaries. Dressing like them, learning from them, hunting with them, working for them, eating with them, showing off for them and posing for them.
I couldn’t help it, “What do you hate about it?”
“It just makes me feel uuuaarrrrh,” she visibly shuddered.
I wanted to tell her that maybe her feelings had nothing to do with what the lens portrayed. That perhaps pictures reflect the context in which they are viewed, more than the subjects they substantiate.
But then I thought of Canon’s drawings and couldn’t. If pictures make us reflect on us, then the discomfort I felt looking at how Canon drew weaponry-fused female genitalia might mean something like I am bitter about all the people my sexuality has ever hurt.
The pictures from the first decade of the 20th century though? I loved! I scanned the faces of Masai warriors from over a thousand years ago for some synchronistic signifier of their descendants beyond dress. I physically felt the overbearing presence of a Kabaka in his regalia; these were their gifts to me.
I wanted to meet these people’s great-great-great-grandchildren and tell them about their ancestors; how they lived and what they believed and of their pride and their infamy, and my disillusionment when I met them, in a picture, and they told me about it all with their eyes.
Sense of belonging
The spectacle of costumes and our rejection of the narrative of subservient Africans — these help us belong.
The Sketching a Civilisation images are about more than belonging though. Andrea and Canon use their lenses and imaginations to capture hundreds of strangers, objects and situations. Showcasing the desires, the loss, the dreams, and the deepest longings of people unfamiliar to you, or maybe some that are?
Andrea had printed out two volumes of all the pictures that couldn’t fit on the walls, and I saw some kids I thought I recognized in one of them. Reading the caption, it was them, it had to be. All grown up, but it was them. Remembering them, and who I had been when I knew them, was emotional for me, and I told Andrea I knew the kids in some of her pictures. She remembered photographing them.
“It’s always interesting to me how a picture can say different things to different people, depending on who is looking at it,” she told me.
Your other half is gone
Also on display was a man holding up a picture of his family taken in the 1930s. Everyone in that picture is dead now except for him. He was born a twin, but his twin brother had passed away shortly after it was taken. His parents, auntie, uncle and cousin had eventually followed.
I looked at the woman holding her little baby knowing he wouldn’t make it into adulthood, and the otherwise commonplace domestic sight was ghastly. Your other half is gone. You are alone and your other half is gone. I thought of the survivor, Fred Mutebi, and suddenly felt ashamed of myself for being so moved by this infant’s death and yet there were genocide memorials going on all around me (on the internet) which I hadn’t given this consideration.
Why should I feel worse over one stranger’s untimely and unnatural death than another’s?
Well, if one was under orchestrated and completely preventable circumstances, then perhaps the more people who are made to feel that it is bad or wrong, the less chance there is that it will happen again?
Images make the pain of death real; pictures of survivors holding up pictures of victims force a confluence between the two and the event that forever split them into the identifiers ‘survivor’ and ‘victim.’
Abusive drawings again
I was examining a drawing of what looked like someone bending over to hands holding up money when Anita, a first year art student, introduced herself to me and proceeded to tell me, “I don’t like this guy’s drawings.”
“What do you mean?”
“Look at them, they’re so rude.”
I smiled, “Yeah, I found the one at the entrance offensive too, the one with the guns? Personally, I think maybe he hates women?”
She nodded, “Yeah. Like this Congolese painter we learned about in class, he used to paint women’s bodies in not very nice ways. People who study his work say he also didn’t like women.”
When I finally found Canon, I asked him what he thought of people finding his drawings abusive, or offensive. He laughed.
“You know, when I did those drawings, I think it was out of audacity. I wanted to talk like I knew everything, from A to Z, yet in reality maybe I only knew A up to C? Maybe to shock people, maybe because I believed I understood more about the world, but it was really audacity. Now, though, I’ve moved on from that, from recognizable figures. At the moment I’m experimenting with shapes and colors.”
I almost burst out laughing, but didn’t want to hurt his sensibilities, so I smiled instead, realizing that sketching is just that … sketching.
Graphic records of unfinished ideas
Civilisations claim to be immutable, grandly set in stone and inescapable, but those pictures colonialists took of how they saw Uganda and these people Andrea’s and Canon’s cameras showed me, are graphic records of unfinished ideas.
The very images themselves are still under construction — as rapidly as a freehand drawing — because each time someone sees one, s/he will add something, omit another thing, and form a memory that they will continue to work on in their minds.
This is how we are all not the same. We don’t even see the same thing when looking at the same picture.
Ishta Nandi is a communications professional from Kampala. She enjoys going to art events and writing about them.