Art Crossroads with Ugandan Mastery – Interview with Dr. Kyeyune

Artist impression of group photo of participants at the First Conference of African Writer of English Expression, Makerere University, 1962 (Illustration: Dada Khanyisa). Image from Chimurenga Chronic.

Interview by Philip Balimunsi

In anticipation of a busy creative art season kicking off in August 2018 and the KAB18’s “The Studio” concept launched recently, many contemporary artists and audiences lurk within corridors in search of the creative voice of Makerere Art Gallery amidst the prevailing visual discourse. Philip Balimunsi interviews Professor George Kyeyune, Director of Makerere Art Gallery/Institute of Heritage Conservation and Restoration, about contemporary issues in Uganda. Kyeyune asserts the cultural affluence of Makerere Art Gallery in the East African arts scene.

Earlier in Ugandan Art History

On 01 June 1962 Kampala hosted a “Conference of African writers of English Expression” with sponsorship from Congress for Cultural Freedom (CCF) and Mbari Club in association with the Department of Extra-Mural Studies of Makerere University. According to Wole Soyinka in an interview on 30 October 2017 with BBC’s Veronique Edwards, “It was the first time there was a deliberate, structured encounter among Africans. It was such a comprehensive scale of a meeting of an older generation.” This landmark was indeed a cultural identity encounter aimed at change that had to do with a decolonization discourse amidst acknowledgement of colonial legacies.

The conference continued and launched a successful career of many African contemporary writers and artists like Ezekiel Mphahlele, Chinua Achebe, Wole Soyinka, Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Christopher Okigbo, Cameron Duodu, Duro Ladipo, Olusegun Olusola, Demas Nwoko, Obi Wali, John Pepper Clark, Gabriel Okara, Bloke Modisane, Lewis Nkosi, Robert Serumaga, Rajat Neogy, Christopher Uchefuna Okeke (Uche Okeke), Okot p’Bitek, Grace Ogot, David Rubadiri, among others.

However, has the highly politicized art enterprise central to the identity discourse achieved its goals set 56 years ago? The conference seemed ironic to Ngugi wa Thiong’o for its deliberate neglect of African writers of native expression. This to date remains controversial to art and has incessantly sparked off debates between “taught” and “self-taught” artists in Uganda. Many African writers and visual artists still race with disparate theories of experiences amidst a mystery of identity crisis unpacked by this conference. Therefore, this series of interviews will historically trace the scope and depth of Ugandan mastery to re-invent fragments of exhibition histories within the twenty first century contemporary global dialogue.

Artist impression of group photo of participants at the First Conference of African Writer of English Expression, Makerere University, 1962 (Illustration: Dada Khanyisa). Image from Chimurenga Chronic.

In anticipation of a busy creative biennial and festival season kicking off in August 2018 and an art biennale studio process initiated early this year, many contemporary artists and audiences lurk within corridors in search of the creative voice of Makerere Art Gallery amidst the prevailing visual discourse. Central to the 1962 identity debates was a controversy over inclusion of African material in the university curriculum. Although the view held by artists like Elimo Njau, Ngugi wa Thiong’o and Obi Wali strongly wished to distinguish between “African literature” and “literature from Africa”, it seemed unpopular to contend the prevailing conservative forces of Makerere University at the time.

The founding of Makerere Art Gallery in 1969 rests with pedigree of such controversial discourse to shape its twenty first century narrative.  Elimo Njau set up the “Chemi Chemi” kiSwahili for fountain with the help of Mphahlele in 1963 and mounted successful exhibitions but such never swayed the intellectual philosophy of Makerere art gallery founded six years later.

In this exclusive interview on contemporary issues in Uganda, Professor George Kyeyune, Director of Makerere Art Gallery/Institute of Heritage Conservation and Restoration, asserts the cultural affluence of Makerere Art Gallery in the East African arts scene.

Dr. George Kyeyune. Image by Thomas Bjørnskau for StartJournal

How do you plan and organise acquisitions for the gallery collection?

George Kyeyune: The collection has continued to come from students and staff. Every year we identify the best artworks in terms of ideas and processes, that the teaching and learning in that year has been attentive to. The work is also a glimpse into the wider national frame relating to social and political circumstances of the time. In the end, it is a story of and about the Makerere Art School and its ethos. We are now faced with a challenge of storage space. Some of the artworks worthy of collecting cannot be stored in the existing tight space. They are digitally recorded as a short term solution.  Right now, Hasifah Mukyala, the Gallery Administrator, is archiving the collection. She has had extensive training in archiving in Zimbabwe (2014) and Germany (2016).

How do you select exhibition themes and designs?

George Kyeyune: Some of our exhibitions are generated from the collection, while others come from Foreign Missions, our alumni, and artists with no direct link to Makerere Art School. Because Makerere Art Gallery is not a commercial institution, the exhibitions we accept must be ideologically and intellectually engaging for our students, staff, and the Makerere` community as a whole.

Most international contemporary art exhibitions in Uganda suffer a crisis in rendering visual permeability, internal integrity and conversational synergies. With the introduction of biennial discourses to the gallery, what is Makerere Art Gallery’s key success in communicating visual narratives to the public?

George Kyeyune: Very interesting! When an artwork becomes important, it can be historicised because it is ground-breaking; and when it is ground-breaking, it is at variance with the tastes of local communities. An artist who is progressive and wants to be ground-breaking should experiment with materials and processes, in time the public will get on board. Therefore, a successful exhibition within the scope of Ugandan social and cultural life should make a contribution to our community and make us aware of who we are by raising the Ugandan question.

Makerere Art Gallery remains one of the historical partners and venues for Kampala Art Biennial since its inception in 2014. Do you consider Kampala Art Biennale’s 2018 Studio discourse out of context or a re-discovery of Uganda’s contemporary art?

George Kyeyune: Art Biennales are a mark of maturity and seriousness in visual culture. Biennales attract a local and international audience because they, by their nature, look out for cutting edge ideas grounded within local perspectives. The Kampala Art Biennale’s 2018 Studio discourse continues the studio conversations where artists engage in experimenting with themes, materials and formal content. Such artists are not in short supply in Uganda. If they are not participating in the 2018 Biennale Studio discourses, there must be a credible reason. We should not form an opinion without sufficient information.

Having been a student, lecturer and now director of the oldest gallery in Uganda, do you think Makerere’s art school and gallery have produced any master craftsmen in Uganda’s contemporary art scene? Give examples in case you believe so.

George Kyeyune: Master craftsmen in the context of Makerere Art School and its history sounds rather preposterous. Craftsman[ship] tends to be limited to technical adroitness as the measure for success.

Let us talk about art masters – old masters – and we have many of them in East Africa. They include Gregory Maloba (1922-2007), Sam Joseph Ntiro (1923-1993) and Elimo Njau (b.1932). The trio are not Ugandans which is itself interesting in telling the story about the Makerere Art School being a regional center for higher art education in the early years. These individuals heralded an African modernism of the Uganda Chapter.

Building from their legacy are artists like Francis Nnaggenda, whom I still regard the greatest artist the region of East Africa for his industriousness, sculptures of ambitious size, persistence, passion, and his holistic approach to art making backed by his revolutionary views of re-enacting the idea of Africa within academia.  As old masters, our ancestors in modern art have created thought provoking images, especially interrogative of social, cultural and political order (and disorder) of their time.

“We made it so difficult to get in [to Europe], we created a market for smuggling… it all started with the introduction of visas … in 1991, … before that there were more or less open borders …. Many migrants would come and earn money and then go back to their countries.” Hein de Haas

In reference to the above statement by former Co-Director, International Migration Institute-Oxford, a good number of Ugandan artists have moved to Europe, America, South Africa and the rest of the World with a no return ticket since the 1970s. What policies has Makerere Art Gallery initiated to extend visual discourse to Ugandans in the diaspora?

George Kyeyune: There is no streamlined policy on that and I am not sure we need one now, given that we are, as artists, still under dim light and inaudible on the international art radar. Let us work on our visibility first by making art and art that reflects the big and hard questions in the country. The problem of poor visibility draws back to contextual controversies created by the Africa 95 series of exhibitions and events and the 1980s Diaspora exhibitions that searched for uncontaminated African artists.

That said, the Makerere Art Gallery in partnership with Goethe Institute has indeed hosted high profile artists in the Diaspora such as Jak Katarikawe (2005). Katarikawe, an autodidact lives and works in Kenya today. He is regarded as one of the most versatile painters, not only in Uganda, but also in the region. This is how the western media has portrayed him. This, for me, is a matter of opinion.

When Europe and America face a crisis in cultural and exhibition discourses, they turn to Africa for inspiration. With reference to the African decolonization discourse, what do you conceive of this statement?

George Kyeyune: It was Pablo Picasso who blew the whistle about the vitality of African art. African sculpture inspired his famous painting Les Demoiselles d’Avignon of 1907. As this was going on, art schools in Africa which started around the same time, were busy giving modern art instruction based on anatomy and perspective. Along the way, modernity which in the recent past has been dominated by the electronic age, is in part to blame for the profusion of installations. They have their merits, but sometimes I feel as if one big machinery is responsible for the installations I see around the world. What I have noted is, artists in Uganda are reviewing Picasso’s position of 1907 within the scope of modern developments. The West too is reflecting on the ‘big machinery’ concept.

In recent years, technology has grown leaps and bounds, it has brought us closer and has created a generation of copiousness, but has also left us in want and hugely facilitates “self-organised” practices in the arts industry. In view of the above statement, what’s the future of museums and galleries in Uganda?

George Kyeyune: The Uganda Museum was created as a space for displaying and storing material culture that had become outdated due to the rapid modernisation. To that extent, it was at the time Mrs. Margaret Trowell managed it (as a volunteer) from 1935 to the late 1940s. The Uganda Museum had come to be known as Enyumba y’emizimu, Luganda for ‘house of spirits’, that a modern sane Ugandan might avoid. Museums and art galleries should be spaces that take us back in time, yet at the same time recognizing value in our past. Museums should be interactive. There is a need to develop programs for different audiences; for example, we can create games for children based on museum exhibits.

Philip Balimunsi is a Ugandan independent curator and artist pursuing an interest in Ugandan art history in relation to contemporary practice. He’sa UVADA member, national award winning artist, art judge, ICI alum, East African curatorial nominator for KfW Stiftung, has curated numerous exhibitions, writer and public speaker on countless symposia. blog:

George Kyeyune is a painter, sculptor, art historian, educator, and administrator.  He performs these multiple roles as a member of the academic staff at the Makerere Art School where he is director of the Makerere Art Gallery / Institute of Heritage Conservation and Restoration. In his new body of work for this exhibition created over the last six months, we see Kyeyune in a moment of transformation. Employing a multitude of materials, he narrates the notion of mobility through geographical space, social status, and his own artistic practice.

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