Global Connections: Elise Atangana on 2nd Kampala Art Biennale

by Moses Serubiri

The Kampala Art Biennale emerged in 2014, organized by the Kampala Arts Trust. It was billed erroneously as the “first biennale in Africa” in the Observer newspaper. Not surprisingly, the biennale was isolated from the Kampala Contemporary Art Festival – KLA ART, its predecessor in 2012. The Kampala Art Biennale premier edition, held at the Uganda Museum, was themed Progressive Africa, and its artistic director was artist-educator Henry Mzili Mujunga. While the first edition embodied a Pan-African spirit of artistic production, it contradictorily relied on the notion of “tourism”—one of the very funny comments I overheard at the opening was when a panelist compared art sales to gorilla mountain treks. Regardless, the biennale seemed to draw quite a lot of local press and drew in large crowds who came to see the Pan-African selection of artworks on display.

The second edition of the Kampala Art Biennale was realized under the collaboration between the Kampala Arts Trust and the Paris-based curator Elise Atangana. Though held at the same venue, this edition was shaped, neither by the recent art history of tourist art or that of local arts festivals, but rather by the curator Atangana’s research project on mobility. In this interview with the curator, we discuss the inspiration for the biennale’s theme in a recent exhibition titled, Entry Prohibited to Foreigners held in Sweden in 2015. There is also a discussion about how that exhibition shaped her curatorial strategy, and the links between the two shows in the artwork of Paris-based artist Julien Creuzet. It emerges that this 2nd edition had a focus on globality, by including a range of European artists and engaging global themes such as migration and virtual communication, and in so doing the curator perhaps isolated the previous focus of the biennale on Pan-African progress.

This interview is based on points of debate that emerged during a series of programmed talks during the biennale. These include Curator’s Talk and Kampala Mobilities and Futures roundtable involving Kampala City Council Authority (KCCA) officials, both at the Alliance Française conference room. Both discussions were attended by artists, organizers of the biennale, and a general public that asked urgent questions about thematics, methodology, and the background to the exhibition. Some of the many issues explored resonated with the curator’s research in mobilities in concepts like social connections and life cycles of surveillance technology.

Background and Methodology

Moses Serubiri: Can you say something about the biennale and your time in Kampala, and the collaboration?

Elise Atangana: My sentiment is that I took the experience as an adventure. A biennale is a challenge and your mind is constantly full of uncertainty. I came with no expectation but to explore possibilities of places, spaces and interact with all the actors. I believed in an engagement of the artists and the Biennale’s director Daudi Karungi and his team, to do the best together.

It was also an opportunity for the artists to experiment with the nature of their practice in another context or dialogue with a new problematic. This is where I started. After that, it was about trying to make this possible, to keep a good vibe that could generate some real connection between everyone. It was at the same time an artistic ambition and a human adventure.

My time in Kampala was intense with the craziness of the city. On the motorcycle taxi boda-boda you always feel the tensions of the city and witness the phenomenal transformation day by day. The biennale’s office was a great spot to work in and to regroup but most of the time we were all very mobile and mostly communicated via Whatsapp. It was also such a meditative experience within a city with such an incredible landscape.  We were staying in a rented residential property, where we could work and rest. I spent a month running around the city. However, I had some space to take some distance, to exchange with artists and appreciate the experience.

Moses Serubiri: Can you talk about how you could compare this to an experience that you’ve had before? Either in your personal life or in your professional life. It could be something that reminds you of this sentiment of being here.

Elise Atangana: Yes. I curated a show in Sweden a year ago, titled Entry Prohibited to Foreigners which was related to mobilities but involving a much wider perspective.

It was about the movement of people, ideas and communication showing different contexts, such as the Lebanon civil war involving family, and the situation of women who stayed back as their husbands went to work in  Saudi Arabia. How these family members interconnected through audiotapes forming an archive of tapes. Ahmad Ghossein’s video is a very intimate and ingenious narrative of archives, images and recording conversations, which shows the reality of an individual and collective trauma through exile and war.

Ahmad Ghossein, My Father is still a Communist, installation


The exhibition was at Havremagasinet in Boden, an old military base in the North of Sweden. The Boden winter is -30 F, and there is a midnight sun in the summer. It is very far from everything, like time has been suspended, frozen and close to the real North of the Scandinavian region.  During the cold war, Boden was closed to foreigners. Until 1997, “Entry prohibited to Aliens” was written on placards and distributed in the city. One of the artists, Tamrat Gezahegne did a reinterpretation of the placard, which gave the show its title.

Most of all the artists in the project came to Boden, so it was also an intense experience. The space was huge we had a really great set up preparation with team of the art center. Each artist had the same space—like small solo shows. While in Boden, I really worked organically, so we set up the show together. The artists came from Ethiopia, Sweden, France, U.K., Mozambique, South Africa and the time we spent together was very intense. In my work, I need this intensity of a collective that actually works together.

Moses Serubiri: There are two points that we can explore further. This reminds me of when you and Daudi Karungi talked about working together, his exact words, because I wrote them down, were: “the sense of collegiality, passion, and friendship.” And then a member of the audience said this is different from the Dakar Biennale, because the Dakar Biennale is less about passion or friendship. Did you develop a friendship in the show you did about mobility in Sweden?

Elise Atangana: All the artists are very conscious that we are here to focus on professional work, and thus, the main focus is on work. However, one has to make an environment within which there is the possibility of innovation, exchanges and friendship. It’s always difficult to work with stress but you can test your limit. And yes, I did develop a friendship during my project in Sweden.

Moses Serubiri: Can you talk about working with the artist Julien Creuzet? And also his thoughts on the notion of love, and his exploring this in his work: love, the narrative of love, and affection. And also the possibility of working in this city that he had only heard once or twice about.

Elise Atangana: Julien and I met more than a year ago at the Entry Prohibited to Foreigners exhibition.

Moses Serubiri: Was he an artist in the show?

Yes. He had been recommended by Katia Kameli, one of the artists with whom I was working. When I saw his portfolio. I contacted him very spontaneously. Then I came to see his show during his residency at La Galerie Noisy Le Sec, near Paris. I was very intrigued by his language, dealing with raw material, low technology and the structure of his arrangements. In his narratives, each piece is a poem in itself.  It is as if you opened a poetry collection. I was also curious about his cosmology and his relationship to the Archipelago of the Antilles. It is as though his work operates as a deconstruction through images, forms, text and sound and in bodily performance. We had a date over lunch, during which I asked for his participation in the exhibition in Sweden. It was very short notice, but he said yes. I really like the fact that he was flexible and open.
Though he is really deep with his own rhythm, his gesture is very immediate. He is really good at doing things in place and time with no boundaries. His work structured by its poetry carries the notion of “créolité” and introduces the postcolonial, as he says.

Moses Serubiri: And Cesaire and Glissant. There’s also this notion of possibility in relation to the poetic spirit. People say that poetry is full of emotion, but poetry is also immediate, and it has this aspect of immediacy. Do you think that maybe that is part of the methodology? The sense of immediate action.

Elise Atangana: Immediate feelings occur at different levels. This happened also in Julien’s poem from the video LOVA LOVA SAFARI GO, 2016. The poem is an ode to the Biblical Tree of Life. It’s a relationship between two trees performed by two beautiful teenagers. The tree couple is separate, they are longing from each other. One is in a forest, the other one in a garden. Julien choose different registers like satire in using pop images. He also plays with anachronism to highlight the ecological impacts of technology. Through a love story, he addresses a social critique to our habits.

When curator Elvira Dyangani Ose saw his work and performance, she said that he is a griot in a sense. He is a “low tech” storyteller of our fragmented time.

Screen shot from LOVA LOVA SAFARI GO.

Moses Serubiri: Wow.

Elise Atangana: There are so many layers in this work. From Paris, Julien’s intention was already focused on love and to work in connection to the young generation.

Moses Serubiri: I asked Julien this question about France and Paris. And he said he worked on a book last year called J’ai Quitte Paris. He was actually making a bit of fun when he said he loves Paris so much that he wrote this book about leaving the city.

 And then he said that he said that this Kampala experience has made him want to explore more from what he was writing last year, but in the physical. He wants to have a change of environment, to go to another place for about 6 months.

I thought this was also powerful, that perhaps this experience would not only bring back his own work and his own poetry, but would also create this direct connection that I see also in the personal and the spiritual, and a larger group of poets: Cesaire, Glissant.

Elise Atangana: He mentioned it at different times during the residency. He is someone to watch actually. I’m sure he will have the occasion soon. I know his limitless possibilities to adapt himself, create collaborations and find the right economy of material and production in any context.

Thematics of Virtual Travel

Moses Serubiri: In your past exhibition you talk about the artist Ahmed Ghossein dealing with an archive of audiotapes as material for an artwork. Sheila Nakitende deals with a similar notion of correspondence in the sculpture titled Deliverables Remain Physical. I wanted to ask you about this notion of virtual travel. Travelling through a poem, a letter, a memo of a day in the life. How do we travel with our biographies virtually?

Elise Atangana: The question of virtual travel is more than you can travel with the images. It’s first our imaginary. Now, it’s also the increasing distortion of the distance which lay in our capacity of being in one place and travelling to another one. However, there are many possibilities technically with virtual reality and, of course, social networks which I didn’t explore yet. For instance, Hito Steyerl is one of the most influential artist who has developed an incredible body of works and critical thinking on her notion of invisibility. From the Biennale perspective, I’m glad that the virtual mobility open call was a success and inspired creatively the artists.

Moses Serubiri: The question of Nakitende’s work is what remains of the communication.

 For her, maybe the letter is what remains

Sheila Nakitende, Deliverables Remain Physical, Sculpture.

Elise Atangana: We have access of new spaces of coexistence. Virtual is extending beyond certain boundaries, but it has its limits in the physical world.

Sheila really responded to the concept pointing out the transition of our modes of communication. It is about how you understand this phenomenon, what you propose critically, and formally. In a very poetic way her work convinced us that the letter’s physicality remains anyway. I definitely think she’s right.

Moses Serubiri: The only material she used consistently from her older works was this newspaper. And so I find that really interesting. I look at the work and I find …

Elise Atangana: All the artists responded wisely to the theme and challenge. I was really impressed by the works I selected through the open call. The choices were obvious for me.

Moses Serubiri: Can you talk a bit more about another work in the exhibition by Charity Atukunda that I saw at the Nommo Gallery. It is a publication, a small book, it is a quite conceptual work. She has made a version of it online. An online exhibition, what are your thoughts on that? On the fact that she actually made a mirror of the exhibition online.

A screenshot from Charity Atukunda’s online publication.

Elise Atangana: I find the idea brilliant. When I met her, she was already in the progress on this work. I was really impressed by her drawings, different connection of thoughts and personal journey . I like  her notion of handmade ‘zine’ that could be  shared with more audience, in its immaterial form. Kampala Biennale was for her the opportunity to show her new strong and poetic body of work since she came back in Kampala.

Moses Serubiri: But I think also for me, it responds to this notion of the virtuality implied. When I saw it, I thought how amazing is this because not only does it talk about the difficult connection between the USA and here, identity speaks in half; but it also attempts to put in practice the concept by this virtual exhibition. I think many people may be able to understand more about the biennial by looking at her blog and her online exhibition.

Elise Atangana: It definitely responds to the virtual mobility concept. The online exhibition was her proposition.

Sick Environments and the Question of Race

Moses Serubiri: And one of them is Alden Paul Mvoutoukoulou. What can you say about his encounter?

Elise Atangana: There are different layers in this work. The question of mapping was important to me. I really like how Alden Paul Mvoutoukoulou represents and symbolises seven maps.  Cities are constantly expanding and mapping is really effective to organize the transformation and the control of our movements.

I also find relevant to how Aiden Paul Mvoutoukoulou made the link to the sick environment, medication tablets as a motifs, at the cores of his works. Alden Paul Mvoutoukoulou finds so much medication in the street, that he think that “the environment is sick.” In doing so he’s pointing out the traffic of fake medication in his country and the whole continent. But his critique goes beyond to also connect to technology.

Installation by Alden Paul Mvoutoukoulou

Moses Serubiri: What about the balloons?

Elise Atangana: The balloon also is a way of talking about connectivity. And also I connect it to the LOON project by Google X. They want to install “stratospheric” balloons to provide Internet access to rural areas.

The handmade fabrication makes the work stronger. Day by day, balloons are deflating themselves to signify an overconsumption of technology.

The artist mentioned that there is also one map representing Kampala. You can also think about imaginary cities or place. For me, the seven maps could represent also the Seven Hills of Kampala.

Moses Serubiri: It feels like a fictional adaptation. The space is actually a fictional adaptation.

Elise Atangana: Indeed.

Moses Serubiri: What about Sajan?

Elise Atangana: Sajan Mani is a really radical performer. He always goes very far in his performance. He emerges from the Japanese Butoh tradition. And so he always pushes the boundaries of his body. Sajan’s practice is politically engaged in the question of the Dalit, who are the darker skin people in India. He uses his black body as a medium to report the Indian caste system of discrimination. .

Sajan Mani, Liquidity Ar, 2016, Performance.

He works with the environment, and always this question approaches other questions: such as the question of water, and that of immigration. Dalit is also about being suspect. This merges in his performance with how water can bring people to another place but also the impossibility to move from a place to another. The artist stays in the boat during 50 hours outside of the Uganda Museum being observed by the city dwellers.  This work Liquidity Air, 2016 is a powerful statement but also a very poetic choreography in its gesture.

Globality versus Categorization

Moses Serubiri: Can we talk about this idea of global citizenship? I don’t know if this is directly connected to your exhibition. In the case of artist Julien Creuzet, the desire for global citizenship is clear. What philosopher Kwame Appiah talks about is: “different cultures are respected not because cultures matter in themselves, but because people matter and cultures matter to people.” This statement reminds me of Julien’s process: connecting people, manifesting this through a poem, an emotion. And then having a sense of belonging.

Elise Atangana: I personally try to adapt myself to each context. I like to meet and connect people. It related from my personal story and education, living in a community like, sharing and toward others first. The nature of my curatorial practice is intuitive, free, organic, experimental and collective. I try to avoid duality to focus on experience, affect and immanence. I rather prefer to escape categorisation and generalization.  So global citizenship in the way we all belong to the same world.

Moses Serubiri: It is already there.

Elise Atangana: In this experience I wanted to show a choice of artworks, various practices that could dialogue with the theme I proposed. I find very interesting to work with iteration with the artists in my research. Of course, I didn’t make any distinction of where people come from. I’m looking for a plurality of voices and multiplicity of stories where could emerge collective subversive discourses.

Moses Serubiri: Yeah, yeah.

Elise Atangana:  What matters is to develop a relationship with an artist, his practice. I rather consider this relationship as unique. I don’t mean that catégories don’t exist.

Moses Serubiri: It is not your primary concern.

Elise Atangana:  So maybe it comes from my education. I try to integrate the notion of the other in my own identity.

Moses Serubiri: Yeah.

Elise Atangana: So global, in a sense of community who are experimenting somewhere. That’s how I try to think art projects.

Moses Serubiri: Travel, make conversation, meet people, make connections, and decide how to move forward, how things are going to work.

Elise Atangana: If there should be particularity it has to be regarding a context. The panel Kampala Mobilities Futures, on the city transformation, showed some tensions between global planification methods and expectations of the city dwellers. When you work for people, you should at list consider their aspirations.

Moses Serubiri: That comment was very powerful today, when someone said what about human interaction inside the city. It is very important.

Elise Atangana:  We interacted to raise questions and engage a dialogue on various phenomena of urban mobility transformation observed locally and globally.

From intimate narratives, through daily life basics experiences to spiritual journeys,hopefully, the biennale may have succeeded to produce meaning.

Moses Serubiri is a writer. His work has appeared in C&, Africa Is A Country, and Chimurenga.