Inspired by Western Modern Art

By Dominic Muwanguzi

The influence of western modern art on modern and contemporary art in Uganda can be traced back to the early years of  art education at Makerere University. Mrs.  Margaret Trowell, who is so much credited with setting up formal art teaching at the college then,  propagated an aesthetic technique in teaching the subject to her students. Her emphasis was to encourage her students to use traditional art forms like craft in their drawing class. Hence, she was nurturing artists who were free of a western model of learning that emphasized art conventions.

Margaret Trowell’s focus on African art styles

Elsbeth Joyce Court, in her article, Margaret Trowell And The Development Of Art Education In East Africa, published by National Art Education Association, writes, “Thus, the problem facing Mrs. Trowell was to design an appropriate curriculum which would both encourage the development of an authentic contemporary art and extend the practice of existing crafts. Unlike many expatriate experts, she knew that the imposition of western techniques would only promote a derivative art style”.

In this regard, the exhibitions she mounted for students in this era (1938-1945) both in London and the Uganda Museum – where she served as honorary curator – were exceptional. They showcased the stylized approach to art by African art students something the expatriate community had not seen before anywhere.

Romare Bearden's Christ at Golgotha
Romare Bearden’s painting of Christ at Golgotha

Preparing students for a British degree

This stylized or emotional approach to art teaching changed as soon as Mrs. Trowell left during the post world war era in 1958. The new administrators of the school under Cecil Todd instead rooted for a technique that would prepare students for a University of London degree. This meant that art students began to study to pass exams to be enrolled in a University of oversees. This process involved reading about European art Masters in the curriculum.

Studying Matisse, Picasso and Van Gogh consequently affected the students output. Gregory Maloba’s wood carving on the subject of death that he titled, Death, imbued the western component of art like depth and form. The hardwood sculpture measuring about 3ft high is of a solid impassive figure, crushing the writhing little man beneath his giant hands with an expression almost of pity on the Budha-like face.

Mukasa vs Picasso

Since then, Western modern art has continuously seeped into the work of modern and contemporary artists. Geoffrey Mukasa (RIP), a graduate from  Lucknow University India  is revered as an accomplished artist. Mukasa was so much influence by Pablo Picasso’s cubist style of painting that involved dismantling of objects on canvas and re-arranging them. Mukasa adopted also the Mask motif that pervades many of Picasso’s paintings and drawings we see today.

Celebration Godfre yMukasa
Geoffrey Mukasa’s modernist painting, Celebration

This resemblance in style and technique is invoked in painting like Celebration where Mukasa emphasized the representation of natural forms- the human figure and artificial objects in this case-as geometric shapes seen from several angles. He evoked also the mask in the human figures in the painting. This approach, injected it with an intelligent artistic quality. It is only an artist who has made research and study on Picasso that can come up with such a timeless composition.

Celebration also conjures the aspect of linking traditional art forms to the modern and contemporary art forms. The painting’s composition of two nubile women dancing the traditional Gganda dance with the company of   two male drums (Ngalabi) being drummed by two lads evokes the traditional Buganda culture where Mukasa belonged to. This painting captures the mood of festivities in many Buganda households.

Indigenous Expressionists

Henry Mzili Mujunga’s paintings of Head and Eria Sane Nsubuga’s painting of Christ at Golgotha are similarly influenced by the West. Mzili a conceptual and indigenous Expressionist artist mounted an exhibition of Dick Head and Scatter Heads at Afriart gallery in April 2014.  The concept of working with the Head as a subject matter reminded many art critics to Oliver Cromwell’s drawings of the head on spikes that were a metaphor to the authoritarian nature of the aristocrats.

The Dick heads and Scatter heads according to Mzili are a figurative representation of the West’s notorious attitude to the continent’s problems. While attempting to solve our problems in form of advancing aid, the West imposes totalitarian laws in form of trade restrictions and promoting cultural imperialism. On the other hand, he derides African regimes for their rubber stamp legislations that allow such social ills to go on uncheck.

Dick Head image by Henry Mzili Mujunga
Dick Head image by Henry Mzili Mujunga

What constitutes African art?

While these artists are able to reach the audiences they intend to reach, what is the reaction to this artistic trend by the artist and public?

Gregory Maloba’s artistic skill based on the knowledge  of Western modern art history led to his being commissioned to sculpt the Uganda Independence monument that was launched in 1962 marking the end of colonial rule in Uganda.  The image, concrete in nature is of an imposing female figure holding out a newly born child to the world.

The sculpture is symbolic to a new Uganda that is ready to face the world. The concrete figure has since been a subject of intellectual and political discourse among many Ugandans. It is a symbol of pride and identity for both the government and its citizen because of its connation of the past, present and future.

In his essay, ‘Reflections on the Head’, Samson Xenson Ssenkaaba interpreted Mzili’s Head exhibition as an allusion to the question of identity, strength and relevance of the African in an increasingly globalized village.

“They remind me of images of negritude by the black painters of the 70s who were conscious commentators on social ills such as racism, segregation and police brutality at the same time highlighting African American pride,” Xenson wrote.

The eclectic artist went on to evoke the intellectual and aesthetic value of the Head as “deeply rooted and inspired by the masks which have a historical, cultural and spiritual significance in ancestral African traditions.”

According to the artist, the work also evoked elements of solitude and abandonment brought about by the cliché of what constitutes African art by Art world gate keepers. These seem to be oblivious to Africa’s contribution to the global art world discourse.

“Referring to the work of others shows an awareness of self and others”

Eria Sane Nsubuga an academic at Christian University Mukono in the department of Fine Arts, says that referring to the work of others shows an awareness of self and others. “It is therefore natural given the residual western political and educational set up for African artists to refer to the work of the European masters that we saw in the Art History books. Incidentally those same books as a matter of design more than accident, said nothing about our own indigenous art.” he quotes in his essay, ‘Dead men tell no tales’.

Eria’s article hinged on biblical analogies, validates the influence of western art history on African traditional art by explaining the need to court western art tools like language, dictum, art methods and philosophies   in order to check the gross imbalance in the flow of ideas. In essence, the artist is of the view that looking to the west for inspiration in art makes the artist’s work potent in a global world we are living in today.

The influence of western modern art on the African artist in very much inevitable.  It is a subject they learn at University and provides a yard stick to their creativity and innovation. More so, adopting western art philosophies in art makes it globally accepted in this era where artists are very much concerned about their identity as international citizens. This fosters a globalized art discourse for their work.

Images are courtesy of and the artists