Lost in art, alien in our world

By Serubri Moses


“The kind of art I do is very successful as far as Western concepts are concerned. But the people I want to speak to through my work, the Ugandan people on the streets, do not understand it.” – Henry Mzili 

The dilemma

The normal person in Kampala doesn’t care for modern contemporary art. The words ‘contemporary’ and ‘modern’ are so rare, in fact, that they are hardly used, except in a superficial or futuristic conversation by development activists. Day to day conversations in Uganda – an African country in the developing world – have more to do with ‘development’ or earning the statistical two-dollars-a-day than with ‘modernism’ or ‘contemporary’ aesthetics. Modern art, modern music, modern dance, modern architecture; these are mostly meaningless terms for the normal person on Kampala streets. To adapt to their world, the Ugandan modern or contemporary artist is forced to address how to survive beyond these statistics; forced to find alternatives to modern or contemporary artistic practice.

Glorifying a dead past

The contemporary artist’s need for familiarity with the Ugandan on the streets is neglected by theorists of contemporary African art. Such theoretical texts fail to bridge the gap between the artist’s work and their target audience. Instead, contemporary African art theorists offer political narratives and ideologies such as African Nationalism, which remain obscure even after half a century.

A Useful Dream: photography as a metaphor of freedom and self-esteem, the essay written by renown curator of African contemporary photography, Simon Njami, glorifies a dead past that is no longer the reality of the Ugandan on the streets. In an attempt to describe current challenges facing artists, Njami wonders “How to translate this world into the reality of an image? How to turn chaos into an organized and balanced whole?” I wonder how the focus on organizing the chaotic reality solves the problem of the artist’s in Kampala? How do these questions provoke the artist’s need to become familiar with their chosen audience? More than half the work selected for Visionary Africa: Art at Work (2012) – the exhibition defended by A Useful Dream -was indeed from a nostalgic past, particularly Kenyan photojournalist Mohamed Amin‘s 1971 inaugural portrait of President Idi Amin which overshadowed the rest of the exhibition.

The schizophrenic identity

Mzili proposes that the contemporary artist’s identity has been fully defined by European modernism and contemporary aesthetics. The actual measure of the influence of European art on the identity of the Ugandan contemporary artist is difficult to estimate. However, what is discernible is the existential dilemma of the artist: the conflict that comes out of a strong influence foreign academia while living in a developing African country, causing a form of schizophrenia in how the artist identifies themselves and in how they inhabit their world. In order to speak to their audience ‘on the streets’, the artist is challenged in their own conventions of artistic practice (usually cultivated within the academic realm) which potentially stagnate this process.

While A Useful Dream may have addressed the collective African identity of the artist, successfully referencing African Nationalism – a theory popular in several African countries in the last forty years – the established theories do not clearly show the challenge of the artist to inhabit the ‘streets’ or to speak with the person there. While the media praised the exhibition for telling a collective African story, I wonder how that macro African story addresses the micro issue of the Ugandan contemporary artist’s inability to speak to their audience on Nasser, Nkrumah or Ben Kiwanuka streets?

“The challenge facing Africa’s contemporary artists. The question of this We – their central concern, incidentally – is a mystery that seems destined to be endless. Tangled in the twofold trap of the local and global, African artists today have to invent a hybrid being that can respond to the grievances of the two groups, the local and the global, simultaneously. For contemporaneity is necessarily universal.” -Njami (A Useful Dream)

This theory – in its dichotomies of  local and global – appears too simplistic to expound on the challenge of the contemporary artist’s failure to communicate with the person on the streets, because it neglects the initial problem of identity in understanding a collective. Before attempting to hybridize that identity, the theorist passes it off as “a mystery that seems destined to be endless.” What about looking at it critically? Why do they not seriously consider the crisis of identity?

An internal fear of the self

Ugandan arts critic, David Kaiza, expounds more on this crisis of identity by paying careful attention to its effects on the We that confuse the theorist: “I am talking about a crisis of self-definition, if you like, a spiritual crisis spanning a century in which the cosmological roof over our heads has collapsed. It is a span of time in which not only others have consistently told us that we are nothing, but we too have come to believe, if not believe, then live as though we are nothing.”

This crisis of self-definition not only confronts the contemporary Ugandan artist but also affects their place in the world. It is their place in the world that David Kaiza refers to as “others have consistently told us that we are nothing,” and “we too have come to believe, if not believe, live as though we are nothing.” While this theory again does not offer solutions to the problem of the artist’s failure to reach their target audience on the streets, it addresses  the complexity of inhabiting their world. Kaiza teaches us that the artist is part of a We that suffers from low self-esteem; stipulates that the artist is part of a belief system that promotes an internal fear of the self.

Theory insensitive to needs

Over the last two decades specific diaspora curators (and theorists) of contemporary African art have become preoccupied with nationalism. Academic minds have tried to explain the internal-external dislocation experienced by the artist. However, the theoretical and thick the arguments do not address this fundamental ‘street’ or self problem. Susan Sontag in Against Interpretation explains that: “None of us can ever retrieve that innocence before all theory when art knew no need to justify itself, when one did not ask of a work of art what it said because one knew (or thought one knew) what it did. From now to the end of consciousness, we are stuck with the task of defending art. Indeed, we have an obligation to overthrow any means of defending and justifying art which becomes particularly obtuse or onerous or insensitive to contemporary needs and practice.”

Serubri Moses is a writer, musician and photographer. He currently works for Start Journal.

3 thoughts on “Lost in art, alien in our world

  1. It is a good opinion which must be listened to but let me be permitted to state as follows:
    One, I want to reiterate Margaret’s question (but not necessarily the answer she proposes) by making reference to a work which Paul Gauguin painted in 1897-98. Gauguin’s work has such an interesting title which sums up Margaret’s question, viz: D’ou venons-nous? Que sommes-nous? Ou allons-nous? Literally translated, the title means this: Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going? Gauguin seems to suggest that these questions must be posed and answered in succession. I agree.

    Two, I am not sure I agree with the author’s deployment of the terms “contemporary”, “modern” and “modernism” into one (whatever that one is). Whereas most people on Kampala’s streets (and I guess this is what the author means with his “normal person in Kampala”) embrace modern things as part of their contemporary lifestyles –and that many have mobile phones confirms my point – they may not necessarily have to embrace modernism. Taking this as my point of departure, I take exception to the following statement: “The words ‘contemporary’ and ‘modern’ are so rare, in fact, that they are hardly used, except in a superficial or futuristic conversation by development activists.” The author does not provide evidence for it; I doubt if he/she can find any using his “normal person in Kampala”. How could one believe that “[m]odern art, modern music, modern dance, modern architecture; these are mostly meaningless terms for the normal person on Kampala streets”? Does this statement help us understand why Kampala has arcades? Has the author found out why it is worth for Boby Wine, Jose Chameleon, Moze Radion & Weasel, etc to use such names and to sing the way they sing? Why is kandongokamu, for example, not part of the menu at Ange Noire Discotheque, Club Silk, etc? Answering these, and related, questions may cast a long shadow of doubt on part of the author’s thesis.

    I rest my case.

  2. Well written. People always talk about the functionality of art but never question the relevance, or functionality of criticism that does not answer questions about the man on the street in art.

  3. Thanks for touching this touchy issue, but how shall we forge a future if we are not in touch with our history? How have we come to be who we are today, making art that seeks the ordinary person on the street when we are no longer ordinary? There may be a need to shed some baggage in order to reconnect with who we are and perhaps create our desired identity.

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