Wazo 10: Xenson tells his story

On April 2nd 2013, the guest speaker for Wazo 10 was conceptual and visual artist, musician, filmmaker and poet, Ssenkaaba Samson, who goes by the name Xenson. In his introduction the moderator, David Kaiza, described Xenson as someone whose varied work in fashion, music, poetry and the visual arts has exponentially expanded what we call art and the art space in Uganda.

Written by Farida N. Bagalaaliwo

Throughout the talk the audience was able to discover what this meant. The evening started with Xenson talking about his life and work and ended with a viewing of two of his short films, Kakoko and Creation Lab, followed by an interesting Q&A-session.

This Wazo talk was different; it was less of a discussion or paper presentation, it was instead a journey — and at times a fairly intimate journey into the landscape of the artist Xenson. David Kaiza was not so much moderator as he was a guide, leading Xenson to a particular point and inviting the artist to open up that space to the audience.

Xenson talking at Wazo, Kampala 2013.

What’s in a name

The journey began with the question of name or what the moderator, insightfully, referred to as the artist’s “nom de guerre”. Xenson described his name as coming from the idea of the X factor, that is, trying to find the X factor in whatever work one does.

The name also drew on the idea of “Zen” inspired by the concept of harmony, even influenced by his mother’s vegetarianism; of trying to find the balance in the natural world. In Xenson’s view art is an attempt to create balance in the world.

The “zen” idea is further connected to the Zenji Empire and to Zinjanthropus. Zinja, he told us, was part of his nomenclature inspired by the idea of the Zinjanthropus as the first storyteller and a “man” whose survival probably required a multiplicity of skills.

The name is a philosophy and a concept, and it embodies the varieties of this artist’s frame of reference and his curiousness about the world he inhabits. The themes that kept recurring throughout the evening were: multiplicity, balance, an exploration of our many selves and the many ways we experience our lives and communities, and finally looking to the origins and essence of things to find meaning.

Xenson. Photo by Stuart Williams, with courtesy of KLA ART 012.

In answering a question on why he does so many different things, Xenson drew his explanation from the perspective of maintaining a child’s willingness to try a variety of things without the sense of restriction that comes with adulthood. This perspective is anchored by a refusal by the artist to accept the boundaries of career, education, expectation etc. that are set upon us in adulthood.

Soul searching

One of the most interesting and in many ways moving parts of the evening was when Xenson spoke about how he came to be an artist.

He spoke of his interest in art as a student at Kibuli Secondary School and of how somewhere along the way he forgot about his love of art, only to be later reminded of this passion by a former schoolmate when he was in Senior Five. He recollected the sense of shock at realizing how he had forgotten this aspect of himself and the process of soul-searching that took him to the Director of Studies office to ask to adjust his science “A” level course to include art. He recounted the struggle with the administration to make this change and the worry about what his mother would say, but he knew (beyond any doubt) that he needed to make a return to art.

The struggle continued to Makerere University, where after one year he gave up his civil engineering course to join the art department, eliciting shock and personal disappointment from his Tanzanian professor who tried to dissuade him from the perceived folly of turning from engineering to art. While it was more difficult to change course at university, he eventually managed to do so with the considerable support of an art lecturer called Mr. Kyeyune. This gentleman took Xenson under his wing and nurtured him and his eventual transition to the art department.

Although this change was clearly pivotal, Xenson described art school as boring. While that particular experience of art school was not unique to him, it intimated the restlessness of spirit that perhaps propels him to keep finding new avenues to explore the world through his art.

One of the criticisms he expressed of the art in Uganda is that it is all so “external”. As he described it, people are creating art with both eyes open, that is, they are focused on the external rather than the internal.

This observation stemmed from a discussion of his logo, which depicts one closed eye and one open eye. This, he said, reflected his philosophy as a person and as an artist of looking both outward and inward. He asserted that art is about drawing truths from within and recreating those truths outside. And this also spoke to his philosophy of balance, which threaded the evening’s discussions.

Xenson was encouraged by Mr. Kaiza to speak of the concepts and ideas that inspired one of the pieces in his 2012 fashion show called “Futuristic Past”, a piece in which three models wore one dress made of reeds.

The concept, Xenson said, was inspired by the idea of female friendship, where women share clothes and yet have marked struggles in their relationships with each other. From this grew the question, “if people can share dresses why can’t they wear one dress?” ­— hence the models in one dress.

The dress then became a metaphor for Africa, the concept of our continental aspirations and struggles experienced both as unity and as bondage. The reeds in the dress symbolized the idea of the fence that protects a village or homestead uniting people and yet at the same time encaging those who might want to leave. The audience was intrigued by these illuminations on this particular work and the philosophy behind the show itself.

Design by Xenson (c) 2011. Photo by Thomas Bjørnskau, startjournal.

The artist as storyteller

David Kaiza at the beginning of the talk described Xenson’s work as surprising, in the best sense, and as we listened to Xenson and watched the two short films, this aspect of not just the art but the artist himself was self-evident.

At one point in the evening Xenson reflected on how our society limits the questions we can ask, the implication being that the fear of asking questions has a correlating impact on the art that is produced.

Why, he responded to an audience member, ask only about the influence of Christianity on my work and not the influence of the Ugandan history that preceded Christianity?

Indicative of the relaxed and revealing nature of the evening he joked that if he questioned the existence of God there might be a riot in his family, and then mused that many artists were probably non-believers because they considered themselves “creators” in their own right. This last remark, innocuously stated, elicited some nervous laughter from the audience and though they did not respond to it, I’m sure some of those present recognized the questions that it asked of them.

There was a sense of privilege and intimacy as the audience listened to Xenson. The artist as storyteller, resisting definition yet interested in reconstructing his experience and sharing it with the community present at The Hub, in Kamwokya, that April evening. At some points he would retreat and say he could not explain everything, it would be too complicated and even impossible, and the audience understood and respected his retreat.

It was, however, patently clear that it had become important for Xenson not just to tell his story but also to share it with us. This point was emphasized when he spoke of how valuable it was to have been interviewed by David Kaiza in 2003 before the opening of one of his art shows. He spoke of how important it is for the consumers and critics of the arts to look beyond the surface of things, and how valuable that is, not just for the society, but for the artists as well.

He expressed frustration at how our consumption and experience of art still painfully resides on the surface, and that the media propagates this insubstantial regard for the arts through its own tepid commentary on the arts and arts industry in Uganda.

And he spoke of how Chameleon’s music is loved but so few know what inspires him, why he sings the songs he does or why he sings them the way he does.

Front cover of Xenson’s latest album ‘VILLANGUAGE’, released 2013.

The coming together

Listening to Xenson speak about his work and his life, it became clear how important it is for us to hear the artist’s story. By sharing (if not baring) his soul, we begun to glean a little understanding of the man behind the art and as a result gained a deeper appreciation of his work and the contexts in which that art is created and its relationship to us.

How often does the consuming public get to interact and listen to an artist tell his/her story in Uganda? Indeed how often do we hear the artist’s story anywhere in Uganda? These questions are just as important as the questions about critical assessment of art in Uganda and the quality of the work being produced.

Reflecting on the small gathering at Wazo 10 that April night brought to my mind a passage from Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart:

A man who calls his kinsmen to a feast does not do so to save them from starving. They all have food in their own homes. When we gather together in the moonlit village ground it is not because of the moon. Every man can see it in his own compound. We come together because it is good for kinsmen to do so.

The evening ended with Xenson as poet, and he treated the audience to a recital of performance poetry in English and Luganda. It was delivered with verve and confidence that the audience truly appreciated. And fittingly it was about the affirmation of the artist’s self and the insistence on being allowed to define one’s experience, to tell one’s truth and the story of one’s home.


Farida N. Bagalaaliwo is a freelance writer living in Kampala, Uganda.

Images from WAZO Talking Arts provided by courtesy of WAZO.

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