Displays of War and Peace

Written by Kara Blackmore

Exhibitions in Uganda are generally designed to evoke a positive response from the viewer. Art galleries, cultural institutions and public art shows, all serve as reflections of the nation’s diverse beauty. Indeed the goal of a prolific artist, in this locale, is to sell their work, and consumers typically purchase pieces that they ‘like’. This art-for-sale relationship has been termed by Dominic Muwanguzi as the ‘survival syndrome’. 

On rare occasions in Uganda, an artist dares to challenge familiar representations of beauty. But, what happens when we display tragic, often horrific, experiences?  What happens when human interpretation cannot be purchased? How does a curator work with artists and researchers to display the ugly side of the nation’s history? This article seeks to examine — from a curatorial point of view — the key issues that arise when we use exhibitions as spaces to expose an often forgotten war.

Mural with graffiti of child soldier. Photo by Kara Blackmore.

In recent months, Kampala and Kitgum have hosted different exhibitions that focus on the civil conflict between the national government and Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army.  In Kampala, the Uganda Museum showcased site-based work that they have been developing at Aboke, Barlonyo, Lukodi, and Pabbo. In Kitgum, the Refugee Law Project (at the National Memory and Peace Documentation Centre) used samples from their vast collection to communicate the past and present realities of people who experienced the war. Both are representative of larger projects, and both shows opened with an audience of community members and distinguished international visitors. The Road to Reconciliation and Images of War and Peacemaking, respectively, reveal facets of the war that are unsettling for the viewer.

As curator of the Kitgum exhibit, I worked with a team to construct a delicate balance between the subject matter and the public viewer.  With such a dissonant subject to cover, it was important that we:

  1. Respected the people who experienced the war
  2. Represented the history and current realities in an authentic way
  3. Reflected the strength of the collection

Community Driven Narratives

To do this effectively, I have developed a technique called “community driven narratives”.  It is a process whereby community members articulate the essential parts of a story. Then, it is our job to devise creative ways of displaying individual and collective memories. Ideally this is done over a series of workshops, interviews and focus groups.

In the absence of anthropological fieldwork that usually serves for the basis of community driven narratives, our curatorial approach employed core researchers of the Refugee Law Project to guide the narrative construction. Their collections and predetermined narrative themes were combined to accommodate the audience.

What made this process particularly difficult was defining a narrative that could be understood by people across a vast spectrum, meaning multiple audiences. On one side are the people who know nothing of the war, on the other are people who would identify as “war-affected”.  We agreed unanimously that the war-affected community was our primary audience.

What kinds of materials should one use to depict over two decades of war and current efforts for peace? This curator says: Use what you have and collect what you need. Museum exhibitions entice their visitors because of their collections; sometimes this is an abundance of objects, other times it is a single rare item. RLP’s collection of newspaper articles, photographs, film archives and objects, craft an abundant physical and digital store. It is important to note that each core researcher within the organization has a particular area of focus and a medium that they collect.

Refugee Law Project’s Collection

One of the first and most precious components of their collection is Chris Dolan’s personal photographs from his fieldwork conducted in late 1990s. Collections donated by community members show: household objects used in acts of violence; personal effects belonging to those who were abducted; Acholi items used in the revival of cultural traditions, including reconciliation. Researcher Deo Komakech’s photographs of massacre sites transitions the narrative from war experiences to healing processes. Woven through the themes of War, Peace and Healing are newspaper articles that offer a printed multiplicity of voices through headlines, text and cartoon images.

To ensure this kind of story resonates with the intended audience it must be personal. We wanted the people who donated the objects to recognize their story. One way we did this was with quotes to tie together the threads of each theme. We also invite the viewer to touch the objects and photographs — turn them over, and read the text on the back. Ultimately, this exhibition is a gathering of testimonies, a space where the people affected by the conflict have a voice.

Memorial displays often leave people feeling emotional, and as the curator one needs to be careful not to incite conflict. To do this effectively — keeping in mind the primary audience is the local community — we fostered a conversation that avoided an explicit dissection of victim versus perpetrator.

Inputs and Reactions

At the end of the show, when the viewer is feeling their most exposed, we decided to follow a curatorial trend which invites people to interact with the subject matter. Just as the combatants had written letters to local chiefs requesting peace, the exhibition has a letterbox and chalkboard for people to express resonating thoughts and concerns.

The final pillar of success for Images of War and Peacemaking was to involve artists. In this case, young graffiti artists tagged the slab outside the building. On the final day they even invited youngsters, walking home from school, to get involved; one of whom etched on the wall a clay pot with limbs boiling out of it. Unbeknownst to the prepubescent boy, the NMPDC has been donated dozens of these pots as symbols of the conflict.

Further to this, the opening evening set the stage for dance and music. A traditional Acholi women’s group to danced alongside breakdancers; between them the wall and its fresh mural.

The reactions to the opening are fresh and hard-hitting. On the chalkboard people pledge messages to peace and one states that the exhibition is a “perfect reminder of the past”.

It seems that Uganda is ready, at least in Kitgum, to visualize their war-torn past, but it must be coupled with their peaceful efforts to rebuild. To curate one without the other would be a disservice to the experience.  We must remember, that if we are tasked to display that which many might not want to see, we must be prepared to engage personal perspectives.

Kara Blackmore is a Kampala-based anthropologist and museum curator.

2 thoughts on “Displays of War and Peace

  1. Very Interesting article and experience. I have often thought about what I want to paint. When I imagining what i would like to paint, I have to think… who would put this on their wall? Sometimes, not even me. But some of the worlds most famous artists have painted things like hell and death and loneliness. Those painting are in museums and in books, but yes, they would be hard to have on our walls. When you see graphic artwork on outdoor walls and streets, they can make a real impact on you. I think, thanks, thanks to the artist for expressing herself even though it’s not traditional beauty and will not be sold at a gallery or put into peoples’ living rooms. The artist sent a very effective message to us that may stay inside our hearts and minds for a long time.

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