Free Expression by Mzili: Desperate Art

The enslavement of the African has persisted despite his desire for the liberties of capitalism. The oppressor and his kindred have continued to spread their greedy tentacles to engulf any outcrops of resistance. We cannot breathe the fresh air of liberty because the clever chameleon changes its spot like the dreaded HIV/Aids.

Written by Henry Mzili Mujunga

These sound like chants straight out of the communist manifesto, but they are simply the lamentations of a hopeless artist whose every move forward has been checked by disparaging stereotypes.

One would be quick to assume that art is the last frontier of resistance to this form of suppression and dominance. After all, it is what really defines a people’s existence.

Ugandan visual artist Henry Mzili Mujunga

However, when one beholds his kindred producing meaningless pieces of decoration for the flippant and their disguised agents, one cannot help but confirm, albeit fearfully, that the African artist has provided the ever-changing chameleon yet another spot in its coat of many colours.

As an ardent agent of meaningless labour, this writer has continued to explore the gist of “creativity without creating” under the guise of abstract expressionism

(A monkey see monkey do affair). Every time I have thought about a new way of doing Art, I have ended up evoking the spirit of a dead European Artist!

The dilemma is too deep to plug. To define art from my tribal perspective is next to impossible. I have not come across a verb in my language accurately defining my profession as an artist. All strings that I try to tie between Art practice in the West and my Kiganda experience are loosened by the fact that art, as we practice it today, is irrelevant and redundant to my people.

In fact quite often my work has been referred to as Volongoto, a derogatory Luganda word meaning something mixed up and meaningless.

The oppressor has allegedly evolved modern art through all its fundament facets single-handedly without acknowledging the contribution from Africa and Oceania.

I know of an artist from Mozambique popularly known as the Picasso of Africa.

Oh yes!

I also know a young man from South Africa (originally from Kenya) who has carved himself a niche as the van Gogh of Africa!

How I wish someone would start calling me names too! May be then I would get to show in the popular Art galleries and museums in Europe and America.

Recently I received a most exciting article from Senegalese critic, Iba Ndiaye Diadji, in which he was feeling around for the root cause of the lack of acceptance of the African artist by his host community. He seemed to put the blame squarely on the Artists. He rightly observed that we were producing art for the west.

I for one see no problem in this as long as the market for this type of art exists. One cannot afford to ignore the monetary factor in the art business. Besides the west have the proper institutions for propagating, marketing and showing this type of art.

One cannot produce art for the starving African unless it is in the quest of filling his (the African’s) tummy and is offered free of charge!

As such any attempt at making festivals and major shows of African art on the continent, such as the Dakar Biennale and in the Diaspora, will continue to mainly draw attention from Western collectors, experts and art lovers. The ordinary African is too busy scratching for a living to indulge in such flippancy.

In the midst of all this agony there must surely be an escape route.

Ndiaye seems to recommend a pro people, humanitarian type of art as the only way to interest African audiences. He sights musicians such as Youssou N’Dour and Manu Dibango, and the entire African fashion industry as a good example of achieving this.

But I would like to point out the number of contemporary artists working in Kampala who are producing work that is filled with African symbolisms, they still are ignored by the affluent middle class who opt for Western photographs of horses in the meadow and chimpanzees seated on toilets as a major source of décor for their mansions.

One cannot ignore the reciprocation of world culture that occurred at the turn of the 20th century. Picasso stole African abstraction and Africa stole classical realism!

Today’s artist must see himself as a pioneering missionary for art, willing to lay down his life and reputation as well as millet for it. There is a need for us to invent terms to describe Western art concepts such as gallery, private view, abstract art (Volongoto?) and so on in our local dialects.

We must “civilize” — to borrow Diadji’s pun — African audiences to appreciate the custodian role that art plays for its society. We would know next to nothing about early man if he had not drawn on the walls of his dwellings.

It must also be emphasized that the utilitarian objects, such as baskets, mats and pots heather to referred to as crafts are indeed what constitute the bulk of art from the African continent and as such ought to be embraced by all art schools on the continent.

The local artists must also integrate these ancient crafts and skills into their production processes. Weaving has become an integral part of the curriculum at Makerere School of Fine Art in Uganda. Similarly, the Ugandan artist Sanaa Gateja, who uses sewing and stitching in his bark cloth paintings, is a prime example of innovative ‘Africanization’ in art.

Finally, African artists must struggle to establish and control the infrastructure necessary for marketing, showing and preserving their art if it is to be appreciated by future generations. One cannot rely on the corrupt African political system to address this refined and urgent need.

Henry Mzili Mujunga dreams most of the time about art (visions of grandeur?). He insists that African art forms the gist of modern art and as such ought to be at the fore front of things. Henry is an eclectic artist who enjoys painting, printmaking, and conceptual art. His art has been exhibited extensively throughout Africa, Asia, and Europe. He is the co-founder of the Kampala Arts Trust and the Start Journal of Arts and Culture.

2 thoughts on “Free Expression by Mzili: Desperate Art

  1. At the end of April this year, I attended an exhibition in Utrecht called “De Ontmoeting” – De Addy Beukema/ Frans Bosman impressive collection of East African art (Abusharia’s, Gateja’s, Kateregga’s, Kigozi’s, Naita’s, Ndema’s e.t.c) were placed alongside local Dutch names.
    I wrote an article for Start Journal about this show but decided not to post it.
    What Addy and Frans are trying to do for East African Art in Europe is a great thing to see first hand. They have persevered even when they face strong opposition from the Elites in Europe.
    However good their collection is, it faces difficulty being accepted by the European Elites as serious Art …because of Provenance !!
    My personal observation :
    Art is big, big business.
    By accepting newcomers (African modern) into the party, this dilutes the Art investment scene. It is like a new currency coming out of nowhere to rival the dollar or Euro.
    Yes, it is possible, but for acceptance, the Elites have to have the new value product in their portfolio first.(Why should we make something we do not own or control very valuable ?)
    By putting a high value on African Modern, what guarantees does a Serious Collector have that supply is controlled. Most current artists have an exhibition every month! They are too visible! Even so, most artists can be bribed to reproduce an art work. Not that there is anything wrong with this. Some People like and crave visibility.
    Scarcity is key for a collector, that is why serious collectors will pay millions of dollars for a 15th century mask from Benin.
    In 2008, British artist Damien Hirst made 200 million US$ at a Sotheby’s auction by putting so much work out there in the public. Well, he saturated the market, He will have to wait till 2018 to make serious money again.
    If you were to choose, would you drink a bottle of Prosecco every day or a vintage Dom Perignon once a year? Most important is to be happy with your decision 🙂

  2. This is a very interesting article Henry. It touches on issues that i have always tried to evoke in my writing as an art Journalist and now critic/ activist.
    I strongly agree your endorsement of Ndiaye’s opinion that African must be civilized to start appreciating what is truely theirs. My heart always sinks when i think of the amount of art that has been shipped to the west in the last century and now.
    I attended an exhibition which was celebrating the old and present of Ugandan art and loo, what was exhibited from the past was a handful of poorly kept ( coated with dust) from the archives in Makerere!
    More sadly is the incident at the State House in Entebbe where paintings bought during the Obote regime where literally trashed during the renovation that preceded the Chogm meet in Kampala in 2007!
    The idea of conservation of African art seems to tally with the idea of documentation. This is very crucial and this is the more reason Startjournal will always be one of the most brilliant ideas to come out from a group of Artists.
    We need more such creative initiatives.
    I will briefly comment on your idea of being misunderstood as an artist. Sometimes as artist we try so hard to be understood by our audience. if we are not, we are feel disappointed and ths dumpens pour spirit to create.
    I believe the Picassos, Leoardo de vinci of this world never obsessed about being understood or misunderstood. Their ambition was to put forward their philosophies about life, and that was it.
    Today Mzili’s sole ambition should be to share his philosophies (its good that you are a dreamer) to his audience. The rest should be the worries of that audience….

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