Beyond Tradition & Modernity: Contemporary Art in Uganda
By David Cecil
The twentieth century saw significant tensions between notions of ‘tradition’ and ‘modernity’ at the School of Industrial and Fine Art at Makerere University. Without a prior tradition of visual arts to draw from, Ugandan artists grappled with competing conceptions of national identity in the context of colonialism, Independence, civil war and the capitalist aftermath.
Tradition without precedent
“It is intriguing to speculate on the almost complete absence in Uganda, and in East Africa in general, of representational art which is so characteristic of the Bantu … The new and flourishing school of art at Makerere shows that its absence cannot be due to any innate capacity for, or aversion to, artistic expression”.
In his foreword to Margaret Trowell’s 1949 book on ‘Tribal Crafts in Uganda’ a European critic thus expressed a common bewilderment at the country’s apparent lack of artistic productivity, while reiterating the general adulation for Trowell’s efforts to stimulate Fine Arts at Makerere University.
In the late 1930s, Trowell took on the task of planting the alien seed of formal art education in Uganda’s soil, with patience and sympathy for her students. She saw them as having different perceptions of beauty and nature from those of Europeans. Behind this culturally relativist view lay a set of universalist and hierarchical suppositions that were typical of British colonial thinking of the time, particularly because the ‘natives’ did not understand how to make the most of their land, Europeans were justified in appropriating it and employing the indigenous inhabitants to exploit it. This liberal-imperialist ideology is reflected in the persistent view that Trowell herself was responsible for teaching the inhabitants of Uganda “to see the beauty of their own countryside” through the medium of paint, as one of her admirers notes it.
This implies that in order to fully appreciate the beauty of one’s surroundings, one must be taught to articulate it in a visual medium. Without a tradition of painting in the country, the development of such a visual aesthetic would require the intervention of Europeans. Margaret Trowell’s most successful protégés, such as the painter Sam Ntiro (1923-93), rendered the African landscape in a way that arguably reflected her aesthetic expectations of how Africans ought to paint. His oeuvre thus represents something of a dilemma for analysts of postcolonial art. We can see it as an authentic, nationalist expression of ‘what it is to be a Chagga’ or, more negatively, as perpetuating a retrogressive naivety in African painting. In the latter view, his uncritical depiction of idyllic, rural life does nothing to dispel the widespread racist perception of the African as an earth-bound peasant, associating “the colonised with the vegetative and the instinctual rather than the learned and the cultural”. Similarly, some of Ntiro’s contemporaries argued that his formal naivety placed him beneath ‘proper’, academic art practice and criticism. However, it cannot be denied that his painting reflects a view of Africa that many shared, and one which does not necessarily lack integrity, even if it is politically, as well as artistically, naïve.
The primitive, the modern, and the colonising structure
Trowell’s quest to seek out the true ‘Africanness’ in her students was not so peculiar for an expatriate European artist on the continent; it was merely ahead of its time. Workshops instituted and conducted by European mavericks and eccentrics began to spring up in Nigeria, Belgian Congo, South Rhodesia and elsewhere in Africa between the Second World War and Independence. These pioneers were from a generation of artists that had grown up in the shadow of ‘primitivism’, a movement championed by Picasso, Kandinsky and other avant-garde artists in Europe. This strain of artistic experimentation took inspiration from a variety of objects (typically masks and sculptures) that were being brought back from the colonies by traders, administrators, ethnographers and other emissaries of the metropole.
African culture was seen as closer to the beginnings of civilisation and thus naïve and pure, undeveloped and unspoiled. Kandinsky viewed ‘the primitive mentality’ as allowing access to ‘interior truths’ that were obscured by the corrupt materialism of modern life. This reflects a common view of traditional African artists as unconsciously channelling a genius that could be perceived by Western connoisseurs, and rarely imitated by trained artists.
This fetish for the supposedly unsophisticated quality of traditional African art was fed back into twentieth century Africa by European artists who went there to teach. Despite their progressive values, this ‘primitivist’ prejudice represents the aesthetic dimension of perhaps the most vital dividing strategy in the colonisation of Africa: the opposition between ‘tradition’ and ‘modernity’. From the colonising structure – “the domination of physical space, the reformation of natives’ minds, and the integration of local economic histories into the Western perspective”– emerges a “dichotomising system”, entailing a great number of paradigmatic oppositions: “traditional vs. modern; oral vs. written and printed; agrarian and customary communities vs. urban and industrialised civilisation; subsistence economies vs. highly productive economies”. According to this imperialist, evolutionary view of history, colonisation, and today various development strategies, seek to transform ‘the traditional’ into ‘the modern’.
‘The reformation of natives’ minds’, according to this evolutionary paradigm, was practised in the well-meaning attempts by Margaret Trowell to introduce Fine Arts to Uganda. However, this was a distinctly reactionary reformation. Her refusal to expose her students to European modernism in Art reflected the widespread view that Africans were as inescapably bound to tradition as they were to the land. The colonial relations of production in Uganda mainly involved black Africans working as agricultural labourers for foreign employers. Naïve paintings, such as those of Sam Ntiro, can thus be seen as enduring symbols of the relative progressiveness of the Protectorate’s masters, freezing African art in an idyllic, mythical past. As McEvilley argues, the ahistorical imposed identity of conquered peoples was demonstrated by their unchanging nature, reflected in their naïve art as an “eternal or Edenic stasis negating the dynamic onrush of events among Historical peoples”. They, like their representations, were treated as natural, not cultured, objects. Trowell’s conservative distrust of modernism arguably performed a similar, imperialist function.
Selective appropriation: Medievalism and Maloba
However, to press this point risks reinforcing the dichotomy of ‘tradition’ and ‘modernity’ and denying artists the capacity for selective appropriation from each of these cultural palettes. Indeed, the history of Makerere art school shows that the students were not only capable of thinking outside the traditional/modern paradigms of their European teachers, but that the teachers themselves were not uniform in their approach. While many of Trowell’s successors encouraged students to look at twentieth-century art from Europe, Jonathan Kingdon used reproductions of Medieval masters Hieronymus Bosch, Grunewald and Peter Brueghel as teaching aids. The resulting fusion of apocalyptic allegory, contemporary social commentary and local mythology is both artistically satisfying and politically engaged. Humans and animals are depicted engaging in dizzying dances of lust and violence, while symbols of Christianity vie with local gods, and the eye is led around the pictures through a multiplicity of metaphors and parables.
The painting, Women’s Burden by Rebecca Bisaso (Fig.4), is a commentary on the plight of women in a time of AIDS and post-war poverty. Men queue hopefully before a Mother Nature figure who holds money in one hand and points with the other hand to a skeleton leering over a pair of sleeping lovers. Birds fornicate in her branches and in the yard in front of two housewives who perform domestic chores. The painting is perhaps formally ‘traditional’ in style, but it is forcefully and disturbingly contemporary in its allegorical representations of capitalism, sexism and HIV.
Denying that the Makerere students were passive followers of whichever bias their teachers happened to have, Kingdon asserts that the students “saw European or outside influences as just one further area of discovery, a tool in the analysis of representation”. Debate centred on how to “Africanise civil society in the context of modern realities” and whether or not Fine Art was too frivolous a subject for the university. The idea that Sam Ntiro’s naïve rural paintings were unprogressive was met with the argument that taking inspiration from the European avant-garde was derivative. The dilemma was a familiar one at the time: how could Uganda become an independent, modern nation when the only working model for modernity seemed to come from the former European colonisers?
Spanning the years of this tradition vs. modernity debate at Makerere was the oeuvre and tenure of the sculptor Gregory Maloba, born a year before Sam Ntiro in Kenya, 1922. Maloba’s absorption of influences is selective and wide-ranging, rather than being directly derived from a particular source. Aged 19, he produced the allegory, Death (1940) that alluded figuratively to a Baganda household god, while expressly acknowledging the influence of British sculptor Joseph Epstein. His mid-period saw a series of rough-worked ceramic busts of peasants and dignitaries – masterful, modernist portraiture of distinctly African subjects; and in his most famous statue, Independence (1962), a towering, tree-like mother raises aloft a jubilant baby. Africa moves through European intervention to a future born-again. In the words of Kyeyune: “While Uganda embraces the imperatives of modern living and grows to new heights, it should do so while still rooted in its past”.
From this perspective, Ugandan art clearly has an art history of its own, one which turns on competing conceptions of national identity. For example, while Margaret Trowell was sceptical about Maloba’s eclectic appropriation of European influences, Maloba himself criticised Trowell’s favourite, Sam Ntiro, for his naïve “responses to European desires for ‘primitive’ Africans”. Meanwhile, for all its optimism, Maloba’s Independence celebrated a colonially-constructed state that was far from independent and united in reality. In the heat of the Cold War and Middle-eastern crisis, as each leader attempted to force their vision of a post-colonial Uganda onto a divided and resistant population, the country descended into brutal conflict.
Blood is the manure of the plant we call Genius
Throughout the 1970 and ‘80s, during years of state terror and conflict which claimed the lives of hundreds of thousands of people, artists continued to work. The earlier pictures they produced are a testament to their heightened aspirations of Idi Amin’s infectious nationalism. As artist Fabian Mpagi Kamulu said: “In spite of the political oppression, we, the ordinary people of Uganda retained a dynamism”. Amin commissioned works from visual artists working at Makerere, indicating his astute understanding of the importance of the symbolic (i.e. cultural and non-rational) basis of his authority. Meanwhile, the non-commissioned output of visual artists went largely uncensored, as the authorities believed the media of painting and sculpture were “less direct and attracted less attention. People were less suspicious of art”.
French philosopher Joseph de Maistre once said: “Blood is the manure of the plant we call Genius”. The pressure of intense conflict and social transformation produced an extraordinary flourishing in Ugandan arts, as artists struggled to convey what was going on around them. In an age before television and while literacy levels were relatively low, Milton Obote and Idi Amin recognised the propaganda value of visual arts and became its most generous sponsors in Uganda’s history. Today, in the absence of such committed state funding, contemporary artists have struggled to even survive, leave alone make an impact on the national consciousness.
Life after Makerere
Kampala-based contemporary artist and curator Daudi Karungi claims that many Ugandan artists today occupy a liminal position, between international art and local tradition. This is an especially uncertain position in the case of Uganda. In the absence of a pre-European tradition of visual arts in Uganda, the most authentic tradition of art that contemporary Ugandan artists can draw on is the twentieth century art of Makerere University, with all its attendant post-colonial dilemmas.
For Daudi Karungi, this has led to a lack of formal adventurousness and a tendency towards repetitive imitation. He expressed strong reservations about formal training at Makerere. Much of the art produced by its students was simply pretty, romantic or formulaic. He remarked, “You go to college, develop your style and then simply knock out 100 of these on commission – that’s not really art…” Notably, his most contemptuous dismissal was of bland, Cubist-style painting that he saw too much of in Uganda, and that was “derivative, typical Makerere; you can feel the art history lesson coming out of the canvas”.
Far from Makerere, Karungi’s work has successfully sold on the foreign market, with exhibitions in the USA, Europe and other parts of Africa. Internationally, Uganda is no longer defined in continental surveys by its absence of art, but is recognised for its bold graphics, colourful expressionism and use of natural materials, as in the work of Xenson, Juuko Hoods, Fred Mutebi, David Kibuuka and others. The east African elites are starting to buy into these developments, although most would sooner spend the money on a new Mercedes Benz or a smart-phone. As an artist friend in Nairobi put it, “you can’t drive a painting down Kenyatta Avenue”.
Nonetheless, Karungi has successfully built up his Afriart Gallery in Kampala over the last decade, while participating in the budding contemporary arts scene at emerging venues such as 32º East. Across the city, such spaces are testing newwaters and gradually making their independent presence felt, operating without the support of government funding or the anxiety of Makerere’s postcolonial dilemmas. Although struggling in an economically uncertain environment, perhaps this cosmopolitan, networked creativity is what Ugandan Independence now looks like.
From the start, Uganda’s contemporary visual arts were defined by the absence of their own ‘authentic’ tradition. Throughout the early twentieth century, Makerere University’s European directors sought either to stimulate a latent African-ness of their own imagining in the students, or to push them into the future via an exposure to foreign experiments in representation. In the troubled period following Independence, the years of dictatorship and war seemed to stimulate artistic productivity, through state-funding and a critical response to the social problems of the time. The most notable and exciting products of the twentieth century involved selective appropriations from Europe and Africa, without enslaving themselves to either an imagined tradition or a borrowed modernity.
The current generation of visual artists are struggling in an increasingly commercialised Uganda whose wealth rarely trickles down to the galleries. Makerere is still the largest and most influential centre for art education in East Africa, but since the value of its formal training is in doubt, it now stands more as a symbol of the compromised beginnings of contemporary art in Uganda than the matrix for tomorrow’s artists. Meanwhile, the decline to zero in government funding for the arts sector has made a career as a visual artist unrealistic for all but a few. The struggle now is not one between competing conceptions of tradition and modernity, so much as a fight for recognition in the international markets and for the attentions of the emerging Ugandan middle class. Here lies the future, if only these elites could be distracted from regarding their own reflections in the sparkling windows of Garden City shopping mall.
 Braunholtz, H.J. 1949 – Foreword to Tribal Crafts of Uganda, Trowell & Wachsman (Oxford UP 1953), pp. vi-vii
 Macpherson, Margaret 2000– ‘Makerere: The place of the early Sunrise’ in Uganda: The Cultural Landscape, Breitinger ed. (Fountain), pp.24
 Shohat, E. & Stam, R. – Unthinking Eurocentrism: Multiculturalism and the Media (Routledge, 1995), pp. 139
 Kyeyune, George 2008 – ‘Pioneer Makerere Masters’ in Art in Eastern Africa, Arnold ed. (Mkuki Na Nyota), pp. 140
 Mudimbe, V.Y. 1994 – The Idea of Africa (Indiana UP), pp. 154-59; Deliss, Clémentine 1995 – ‘7 + 7 = 1: Seven Stories, seven stages, one exhibition’ in Seven stories about modern art in Africa, Clémentine Deliss ed. (Whitechapel Art Gallery), pp. 16-18
 Mudimbe 1994, 56; Rhodes, Colin 1994 – Primitivism and Modern Art (Thames & Hudson), pp. 144
 Steiner, Christopher 1994 – African Art in Transit (Cambridge UP), pp. 9
 Mudimbe, V.Y. 1988 – The Invention of Africa: Gnosis, Philosophy, and the Order of
Knowledge (Indiana UP), pp. 2-4
 Kyeyune 2008
 McEvilley, Thomas 1992 – ‘The Selfhood of the Other’, in Art & Otherness: Crisis in Cultural Identity (Documentext), pp. 87
 Kingdon, Jonathan 1995 – ‘Makerere Art School, Kampala’ in Seven stories about modern art in Africa, Clémentine Deliss ed. (Whitechapel Art Gallery), pp. 281
 Kingdon, cited by Deliss 1995, 23
 Kyeyune 2008, 138 & 143
 Ibid, 137
 Ibid, 140
 Cited Deliss 1995, 274
 Ssengendo, Pilkington 1995 – Interview with Wanjiku Nyachae in Seven stories about modern art in Africa, Clémentine Deliss ed. (Whitechapel Art Gallery), pp. 276
 Nnaggenda, Francis 1995 – Interview with Nyachae in Seven stories about modern art in Africa, Clémentine Deliss ed. (Whitechapel Art Gallery), pp. 272
 De Maistre, Joseph 1797 – ‘Reflections on France’ in Political Ideologies: A Reader, Festenstein & Kenny eds. (Oxford 2005), pp. 132
 Ssengendo, Pilkington 1995
 Quotes from interview with Daudi Karungi, Kampala 2009