Tackling Texts 2014 – Sessions 1 & 2

Review By Moses Serubiri on Nudity at Tackling Texts

On 19 February 2014, a meeting of artists, art lecturers, students and arts managers convened at the Makerere Art Gallery for the year’s first Tackling Texts, a forum to engage African art theory. The text to be tackled was Part I of Angelo Kakande’s essay, Nudity: Is it Artistic Expression and Free Speech?, as published in START Journal. Kadande argues the concept of nudity through various lenses: nudity as the right to free speech; nudity as art; nudity as pornography; nudity as public opinion and nudity as stated in Ugandan law. In the author’s own words, “I engage the right to free speech, art, pornography, public opinion, and policy.”

Positioned as moderator, I selected the Anti-Pornography Bill as published in The Uganda Gazette (2011), to make nudity more familiar when compared to Kakande’s language. The audience, of 20, responded immediately to both Kakande’s essay and the legal issues surrounding it. Violet Nantume read from the published bill to illustrate how it unclearly defined nudity is as a form of pornography, implicating all forms of cultural and media production that contains “sexual” body parts. This definition provoked the initial question, asked by Peter Genza, “What is morality?”

Kakande showed apprehension with the vagueness of a definition for morality by a core elite seeking to oppress the lower classes through legislation. He noted how nudity occurs naturally in the traditional or rural Ugandan context, among the Karimojong, or the Bagisu. This on-the-ground context sparked off an inquiry on the meaning of nudity in the context of African art.

After an hour of debate, a number of audience members voiced their concerns on the case of nudity. Robinah Nansubuga, concerned by the law’s implication on artistic practice, suggested that, “We must create awareness amongst artists on how the law will affect them.” An art student at Margaret Trowell School of Fine Art questioned the aesthetics of the nude figure in functional or ceremonial African sculpture, like the Congolese fertility dolls, saying “The nude can be ugly.” Curator and manager of Makerere Art Gallery, Mukyala Hasifa, was concerned with the exemption of the law in hospitals: “What about all those people being stripped naked by medical doctors in the wards at Mulago?” she asked.

The  author’s argument, noting the weakness in a lack of clear distinction between nudity and pornography. These observations were made on selections of work, notably, Sistine Chapel by Samuel Kakaire made for the 2000 Nommo Gallery exhibition entitled Nude 2000. How this particular work breaches the law on pornography is ambiguous, thus illustrated when Kakande says that aritsts’ “visual productions have slipped between pornography and nudity, political comment and aesthetics”. At the core of it all is a challenge to the state in implementing such an ambiguous law.

On 19 March Tackling Texts resumed for Part II. There was a notable shift from the previous meeting as the focus was on critiquing the artworks shown in Nude 2000 and Nude 2001. He writes “There were few male and child nudes on the show. The majority of artists captured a feminine, young “sharp-breasted”, sexually appealing nude [woman)]”.

Sharp-breasted women captured the audience; some times offending them and other times provoking curiosity. “Why did Nude 2000 and Nude 2001 showcase mostly male artists? What is the intention of the artist who paints nudes?” and “Why the female, and not the male, nude?” It is apparent from the Nude 2000 catalogue that the conceptual point was more about demystifying or liberating the human body against negative backlashes lead by religious conservatism, rather than focusing on gender balances.

Ian Mwesigwa, who recently exhibited abstract nudes at the AKA gallery, counters this ideology and shocked the audience when he revealed that, “The only way a man can engage with a woman is through (their) sexuality”. The artist effectively added context through their statements on the male perspective and gaze on the female body, proving even in subtext, art can easily become pornography.

Many of the participants were surprised by the ‘mystery’ of the male nude. The already controversial Mwesigwa mentioned how ‘useless’ the male nude was; and the artist Tindi said, “If you made an exhibition of 20 paintings with 18 male nudes and 2 female nudes, everyone would gravitate to the female nudes.” Tindi claims in this an inherent power of the female nude, seemingly a Western classical art orientation of the female body as muse and divine embodiment.

Photographer Papa Shabaani said he was scared of photographing masculine nudity because he would be called gay. His confession highlighted a vulnerability within the artist to social patriarchal structures that brought back the memory of the startlingly intimate and engaging male nude ‘David’ by Michelangelo.

The group of tacklers, thus, pondered about the intentions of the artist who paints nudes. Kakande answers their plight in the text: “The artist, as a witness, can change position from seeing nudity as art to seeing nudity as pornography.”