Faceless Figures, White Cut-Outs
By Moses Serubiri
What happens to Fanon’s followers during liberation? In what condition is Fanon’s nativism when revolution gives birth to independence from the terror of colonialism? How does Fanon translate to the cultural and economic development of present day Africa? Serubiri Moses turns to Eria Solomon Nsubuga’s recent exhibition for answers.
In the mantle of Africa rising, where do we place the African struggle for economic freedom and equality? It seems that economists have foreseen African states taking the position of economic powerhouse. Perhaps a thought, and more so, a dream of liberation that Franz Fanon did not manage to put down in writing for his many followers. Fanon, like C. L. R. James in Haiti, dwelt on the needs of revolution and decolonization. While Fanon was inspired by the dream of liberation and freedom, he did not, however, think of the practice of liberation after revolution. In this sense, it is difficult to resolve present day economic liberation in Uganda with the colonial economic and political oppression of the early 20th century.
These are concerns that can easily be pointed toward the recent exhibition, Black Face, White Masks, by Eria Solomon Nsubuga. In a selection of over 20 collage paintings, the artist addresses, according to the press release, “the need to seek an embrace with our tribal indigenous identities as forms of push back against colonial agencies.” This statement draws precisely from the psychology and theory of Franz Fanon, whose seminal work, Black Skins, White Masks, has been cited throughout the history of African nationalism. And yet one wonders whether Nsubuga’s artwork reflects this historical movement, and whether this exhibition promises any confidence in Uganda’s current national economic development.
Because Fanon comes from the Marxist tradition, it is impossible to ignore the symbolic visualization of capital within Nsubuga’s paintings, and certainly the selected works are full of references to global capital and bourgeois consumerism. Fake money is a dominating icon, sometimes echoing the fantastical world of today’s advertising, and the branding culture of capitalist corporations like Coca-Cola, Unilever, or FIFA. Similarly, newsprint and magazine print takes on an instrumental position on his canvas referencing the age of information.
In previous exhibitions such as Abanene (2013), Nsubuga worked with these same themes. His fascination with capital and consumerism manifested as a visual essay on tribalism and nativism in Abanene, a euphemism for Uganda’s political elite. He made rather broad and general observations about the life of a political figure from Western Uganda, who is so large that he couldn’t fit in his chair. No doubt a form of political satire.
While Kenyan artist Richard Onyango has worked with Drossie, a recurring female figure in several of his paintings, whose body is so large that it consumes the male bodies under or beside her, that artist’s fondness and consistency with the image of Drossie lends a sensitivity and intimacy to the work that is absent from Nsubuga’s own Abanene. Often times, the faces of these figures disappear entirely covered in rough and abstract drawing, an ambiguity that creates distance and, at moments, coldness.
In this exhibition, Nsubuga once again obscures the faces of most of the subjects in the collage paintings. The anonymity of the faces points directly towards an unfamiliarity with his subject, which is covered by heads cut-out from an American fashion magazine such as Cosmopolitan or Vanity Fair. In one of the stand out images from the series, two female figures resembling mermaids move across the horizontal axis like a Pisces sign. We cannot exactly identify the female figures from their faces, which have been replaced by a ‘White Mask’. In this case the head cut-out belongs to Hollywood film star Angelina Jolie. But why obscure faces? Why appropriate from American magazines?
Lifting the veil of nativism to appropriate American popular culture does not reflect Fanon, simply because a light-colored face is copied and pasted onto a dark-colored one. Contrary to this, Fanon is perplexed by the phenomenon of Blackness. While I applaud Nsubuga for abandoning his very commercially viable series of baboon and monkey drawings to the daring collage portraits of Uganda’s ruling political elite, I question the identity of these faceless figures. Who are they? What are they? The collage aesthetic procedure of cutting and pasting other people’s faces adds more to the confusion. In failing to address the obscurity of his figures, unlike Richard Onyango’s well narrated and loved Drossie, the exhibition Black Face, White Masks, for lack of a better term, vulgarizes Fanon.
Again, the interest in economic freedom and equality for natives during settler colonization comes from the Marxist tradition. And as a Marxist scholar, Fanon would have been immensely interested in the mantle of Africa rising; in the growing economies of independent African and Caribbean states; in the resilient decolonization processes of Africa’s education and political systems of governance; in a political culture of economic and military Pan-Africanism; and in the growing base and potential of African literature.
With Uganda’s economy growing exponentially, and currently at its highest peak since the independence of the country in the early 1960s, there is cause for pausing to reflect on the idea and practice of liberation. The annual growth rate is 6.0%, and coupled with a sense of political stability and social freedom for the various groups, the country has taken on a new social character.
Judging from poetry anthology titles alone, it seems that Uganda has come up from the phase of ‘Building the Nation’ (Henry Barlow) and has arrived at being ‘A Nation in Labor’ (Harriet Anena). Yet as some artists choose to tackle the meaning of labor and liberation, Nsubuga and his contemporaries re-interpret Fanon’s psychological thesis to determine a vacuum for revolutionary action in present-day Uganda.
This is not a unique perspective in Uganda, a country in which every other army officer has a personalized interpretation, or misinterpretation, of Cabral, Sankara, Machel, Nyerere, Fanon, and even Marx. Uganda’s president, whose cut-out appears in Nsubuga’s paintings often refers to himself as a revolutionary among guerrilla war “historicals”. While the importance of Fanon to the armed struggle of recent and past decades is pertinent to our times, we must question the idea and the practice of freedom and liberation. Looking at Nsubuga’s exhibition, it is clear that Fanon does not offer answers on how to maintain or reach our Uhuru.
Moses Serubiri is arts journalist living and working in Kampala. He is the former associate editor of Startjournal.