Ham Mukasa Archive Meets Contemporary Visual Art

By: Dominic Muwanguzi
The archive of late Ham Mukasa (1871-1956) is being engaged as fodder for contemporary visual arts. History in Progress and 32º East have partnered to share the archive through the creative inspiration of artists. The Ham Mukasa Archive is a collection of personal journals, family photographs, illustrations and, most importantly for this article: a list describing the images that Ham Mukasa wished to include in his book Simudda Nyuma.

Who was Ham Mukasa?

Ham  Mukasa came from a  humble background in Buganda and had  no access to formal education. Similar to other boys of his time, he served at the palace of Kabaka (King) Mwanga. There, he learn how to read and write Kiswahili and English under the guidance of the Anglican Missionaries who had come into Buganda in 1878. Later he became a Christian convert (Protestant) and denounced his traditional religious beliefs.

He had developed an insatiable appetite for reading and writing and was able to produce three books under the title Simudda Nyuma, translated in English as “Forward Ever, Backward Never.” The books chronicle the reign of three Kings of Buganda: Muteesa I, Mwanga and Daudi Chwa.

Bridging the gap between the traditional and contemporary visual arts

Artists have been called to interpret a list of images Mukasa wished to include in his book Simudda Nyuma.

The archival list gives vivid descriptions to images that tell of historical, social and political aspects of the Buganda Kingdom during his era. According to the list, the images are of the kings’ subjects paying royalty to their kings; people placating the spirits through traditional celebrations; admonishment of rebellious subjects to the kingdom by royal guards and the relationships between the Baganda and the colonial masters.

The archive has been digitised by History in Progress, re-worked and translated into English to make it palatable for artist to work with. This approach of turning document into art is not a first in the contemporary arts. Archive Fever: Use of the Document in Contemporary Arts is an example of how an archive has been interpreted in the contemporary visual arts with  success. Okwui  Enwezor, curator of the Exhibition, used photography to interpret the contents of the document and consequently created dialogue with his intended audience. However, in the context of Enwezor’s prognosis he excludes the role of the archivist. This is not the case for the Ham Mukasa Archive project.

The Ham Mukasa Archive project has at least two core archivists, those who keep the original and History in Progress who has transformed it through translation and made it immortal through digital replication. In this way, the archivist has become part of the final artwork, meaning the artists sees a computerised version of the list rather than the original paper document. The future appropriation of this archive proves that the archive is never closed. It is, in fact, open and reworked by contemporary visual artists.

Visual presentation of the artwork

This conceptual approach gives freedom to the artist(s) working with the document to experiment with any media and technique they choose. A safer archival engagement would be through photography or film as justified in the exhibition Archive Fever.

The Ham Mukasa Archive collaboration invites up to three artists  who will be in residency for three months. They will be availed the opportunity to work with photography, illustrations, paintings, video art and any other traditional and nontraditional medium to interpret what they read from the document. The purpose for this artistic journey is to allow experimentation and innovation which are core objectives in the contemporary visual arts.


32º East as a venue for interpreting the Ham Mukasa archive

To enable the process, 32º East offers working studios and a resource centre with literature on contemporary arts. In addition, the art space is a free and independent place for development. This is important for the fact that it removes the individual subjectivity of personal studios, giving the project a cultural and academic  legacy that can be used in different forums both locally and internationally.

The final artwork will be exhibited in Kampala and the Netherlands. There will also be exposure in the form of profiles and reviews for the artist(s) working on the Ham Mukasa Archive project.

This artistic pursuit of interpreting an archive through the contemporary visual arts evokes the importance of engaging traditional art forms and patterns into contemporary arts. The Ham Mukasa archive symbolises our rich traditional heritage which can be preserved through art. The final interpretation of this archive aims to stand as a promotional push towards the idea of indigenous expressionism.

Read more on the History in Progress blog: http://www.hipuganda.org/blog/ekifananyi-images-described-by-ham-mukasa/