Editorial: Returning to the archive: It is still rich, accessible and usable!
Editorial by Angelo Kakande
This issue demonstrates that the available archive of the history of Uganda’s visual culture is still rich, accessible and usable. However, it could shape a conversation on the country’s creative discourse if (and only if) we looked at it again and looked at it hard enough.
In her essay Amanda Tumusiime moves beyond the oft-repeated excuse which (probably) started with Sanyal (2000) and was picked up by Kyeyune (2003), Kakande (2008, 16) and Tumusiime (2012, 32) that the archive of Uganda’s art history is scattered/lost as a result of the country’s tumultuous political history. In her article Tumusiime raised this excuse as a question, but did not present it as a statement of fact. She then visited the Albert Cook Medical Library Archives at Mulago Hospital where she found a rich archive of photographs and clinical notes left behind by Sir Albert Cook. She has used them to apprehend the powerful warps and wefts of colonial modernity (grounded in Darwinist theory and ideology) which shaped Margaret Trowell’s pedagogy as she put together a formidable foundation for the collegiate art education from which artists in Sudan, Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania, Malawi and Zambia have benefited.
Now, if Tumusiime re-engaged a public archive, Annette Sseba accessed a private one as she reflected on the socio-economy she grew up in and which is reproduced in Mira Nair’s Queen of Katwe (2016). Francis Duggan, in his poem Our Destiny in our Hands (2008), insists that there is a thick line separating the destiny of the powerful, rich elite from that of the poor; our fates are different and inherently determined by the socio-economic conditions into which we are born. Such conditions reproduce themselves in our entire lives; they predetermine not only what we are but what we will be as well. For Duggan, this situation is worse for those affected by war, hunger, homelessness, acts of terrorism and the
…ninety nine per cent of street kids [who] will die in poverty
Due to their circumstances of birth they are condemned to fail
And some of them die of drug overdoses and some of them die in jail.
Yet Uganda’s Phiona Mutesi (born c. 1996), the Queen of Katwe, defied these odds (these being Duggan’s ‘circumstances’) as she joined the ranks of the coveted elite class of chess stars. Put differently, it is not that socio-economic challenges do not exist in Katwe; in fact, they have only multiplied. Sebba explains that Katwe has traffic jams, prostitution, underemployment etc., which did not exist in the early 1960s. However, Katwe is also a space for the incredible innovativeness with which individuals have reclaimed their agency and improved their lives through petty trade and offering booda booda (motorcycle transport) services, among others, as they access the trappings of modern life (the mobile phones, for example).
This is the context in which Mutesi defied economic marginalisation. She problematised the tropes of street kid, juvenile delinquency and powerlessness as she became the very representation of the ‘possibility and not poverty’ that is poignantly celebrated in the movie Queen of Katwe. This is the symbolism that has motivated Sebba to reflect on the specific archive (in the custody of her mother) about the Katwe in which she grew up as a girl. She casts her autobiographical essay into the wider social, economic and political anthropologies which have shaped Katwe’s landscape and which have informed Kalungi Kabuye’s essay published in this issue. Kabuye has written a review of Mira Nair’s Queen of Katwe and whatever historical tangents this movie shares with Mississippi Masala, another movie based on the archive of Uganda’s tumultuous political history, which Nair directed in the early 1990s.
In a related way, Faisal Kiwewa’s article presents a balance sheet of the achievements of the Bayimba International Festival of the Arts which, in the last decade, has become part of Uganda’s cultural landscape. However, as you read his short essay I invite you to reflect on this specific achievement which, personally, I will always fondly remember. Bernard Tabaire also highlighted it in his column entitled ‘Daring to think and see a few things in the Uganda of 2017’ which was published on 2 January 2017 in the Daily Monitor Online. This achievement is the return of Geoffrey Oryema to Uganda (his native country) on 17 December 2016 and his performance at Lohana Academy in Kampala during the Bayimba International Festival of the Arts. Oryema returned after nearly forty years in Paris where he had been exiled as a result of the draconian politics at the heart of Nair’s Mississippi Masala.
I also invite you to note that Oryema grounds his music in some uncanny sense of idealism which allows him to challenge the deep-seated socio-political tensions that forced him, and many Ugandans of Asian descent, to become stateless refugees. For example, in his song The River – off his Album Beat the Border (1993) – Oryema asserts that we all have the duty to create (or ‘paint’) a world based on coexistence, love and harmony (this being his ‘picture’). He makes his point in the following lyrics:
Paint me a picture of a river
And let it flow
Just let it flow
It will flow and wash away our differences
And love will grow
You have the power to deliver
So let it flow
I observe and argue that this duty – of eliminating (or washing away) our deep-seated differences – was central to the love between Demetrius and Mina in Mississippi Masala. However, since it takes more than music and film to eliminate such differences, I further argue that through Oryema’s The River and Nair’s Mississippi Masala we confront the ways in which our differences can constitute an archive which, though problematic, can be appropriated for artistic expression.
And the notion of appropriation for artistic expression is also present in Matt Kayem’s essay. Kayem reviews his own work, linking it to a global archive in which found objects have been used for artistic expression. He relies extensively on internet sources. He thus faces the stiff challenge of situating his personal practice against a backdrop of limited knowledge of scholarship outside that available on the internet. However, this does not detract much from his effort. Using surrealism as a style, he produces art forms based on local and non-local sources of found material. He regularly presents his work in exhibitions, including the Kampala Biennale 2016 where he presented his Stuck Traveller (2016).
The archive surrounding the Kampala Biennale 2016 is also at the heart of the interview between Moses Serubiri and Élise Atangana which is published in this issue. Moses Serubiri believes that Uganda’s art discourse has global, and not strictly local, sources that shape the visions of curators. To make his point, he presents an interview with Élise Atangana that discusses the relationship between her two exhibitions: Entry Prohibited to Foreigners (2015) hosted in Boden (Sweden) and the Kampala Biennale 2016 (2016) hosted in Kampala (Uganda).
Atangana confirms that Entry Prohibited to Foreigners was based on the notion of mobility as a source of visual expression which she also mobilised as a theme for Kampala Biennale 2016 to assert the view that movement across borders can produce ‘real connection between people’ and ‘global citizenship’ and counter the excesses of xenophobia, racism, discrimination, forced migration, exclusion and economic marginalisation that affect many in the world today.
Interestingly, Serubiri’s interview also raises the question as to whether the category ‘African contemporary art’ has meaning beyond the art academy. Is contemporary African art a matter for academics? This question attracts debate. I have heard several graduates of the art school struggling to explain how much they have nothing to do with what they learn from the art school at Makerere University. It is a kind of ‘self-marketing’ where self-representation as a graduate of Makerere whose work has nothing to do with formal training would increase one’s chances of selling his/her work to gullible tourists. It is often used by upcoming artists. I however insist that it must only be raised as a point of departure for a rewarding conversation with such artists. Taking it as a historical fact might misrepresent (and grossly distort) the archive of Uganda’s art history we are all trying to build.
Angelo Kakande is Senior Lecturer and Head, Department of Industrial Art and Applied Design, Senior Research Associate Rhodes University, Fellow ACLS, Fellow NGAA and a Visiting Professor, Bungoma Teachers Training College.
Duggan, Francis. 2008. Our destiny is in our hands. PoemHunter.Com.
Kakande, Angelo. 2008. ‘Contemporary Art in Uganda: A Nexus between Art and Politics’. PhD Thesis, School of Arts, University of the Witwatersrand.
Kyeyune, George. 2003. ‘Art in Uganda in the 20th Century’. PhD, Department of Art and Archealogy, University of London.
Sanyal, Sunanda. 2000. ‘Imaging Art, Making History: Two Generations of Makerere Artists’. PhD, Emory University.
Tumusiime, Amanda. 2012. ‘Art and Gender: Imag[in]ing the New Woman in Contemporary Ugandan Art’. Doctor of Literature and Philosophy, Department of Art History and Musicology, University of South Africa.