Sidney Kasfir – a selfless researcher and educationist

Sidney Kasfir speaking at a symposium at Makerere School of Fine Art & Design in 2014. Image by Fiona Siegenthaler

By George Kyeyune

In 2013, I won a coveted Fulbright Fellowship to spend the winter semester at Emory University, USA. I shared my excitement with my PhD supervisor, (1999-2003) Prof. John Picton. I told him that Professor Sidney Kasfir was going to be my mentor and John’s remark was, ‘you are very lucky because Sidney is a very intelligent and devoted scholar.’ A talented and prolific scholar of African Art, Sidney was John’s first PhD student when he was recruited to teach History of African Art at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London in the early 1980s. Relatedly, I was one of John’s last PhD students before his retirement in 2004, while my 2013 Fulbright Fellowship at Emory was also Sidney’s year of retirement.

I had read many of Sidney’s publications, many of which were focusing on East Africa. Still, it was a different feeling sitting in her seminar classes for graduate students at Emory. I experienced a remarkable learner-centred professor, very methodical and with a high sense of organisation. I took that very seriously. She nurtured a spirit of free-thinking and independence. I had earlier sensed that in her PhD student, Sunanda Sanyal (1998), at the Margaret Trowell School of Industrial and Fine Arts (MTSIFA), Makerere University, when he came for his field research. Sunanda’s PhD, Imaging Art, Making History: Two Generations of Makerere Artists, 2000, inspired many, if not all, the PhDs at MTSIFA that proliferated after the millennium. The Mujaju Report threat (2000) that a PhD was mandatory for anyone who dreamt of teaching and promotion at Makerere University had created anxiety and panic for the academic staff.

Sidney’s love for Uganda and its art was insatiable, and Nommo Gallery was her window into the visual landscape of Uganda. She was director of Nommo Gallery for a couple of years in the late 1960s. Like Mrs Margaret Trowell, the founder of Makerere Art School, Sidney knew that much as Uganda did not inherit a rich legacy of figurative art comparable to that of Congo and other parts of Africa, its art comprising of ornamental arts, pottery, weaving, myths and legends was not inferior. It was common for early scholars in African Art History to judge East Africa as less creative because of its plastic art ‘desert,’ among other reasons. Interestingly, ‘traditional art’ in its entirety, was not favoured by Cecil Todd, Trowell’s successor, as potential resources for modern art. Sidney took it on herself to elevate the ‘traditional’ arts and promoted them in Nommo Gallery, treating them as a critical part of East Africa’s inheritance of significant value. She showed such art traditions as the Tinga Tinga which, up to now, has remained impervious to modern academic influence that Todd pushed in the 60s. She also showed informally trained and ‘naïve’ artists such as Jak Katarikawe (painter) and Richard Ndabagoye (printmaker). This liberal approach to art consumption and display permitted an art experience in Uganda which was wide-ranging and inclusive.

Sidney’s new husband, Kirati Lenaronkoito, a Samburu in Kenya, made it possible for her to cross the border and visit Uganda regularly. She had close friends at MTSIFA which included Rose Kirumira, with whom she wrote a chapter in African Art and Agency in the Workshop, a book she edited. Uganda was her second home, and whenever she wrote about contemporary African Art, Uganda was always close to her mind. Her article Up Close and Far Away: Re-narrating Buganda’s Troubled Past published in African Arts Journal (Autumn 2012), reveals her deep interest and understanding of Uganda’s past and its influence on the contemporary artist.

Sidney was a generous and selfless scholar, who was always keen to develop the discipline of African Art by sharing her knowledge with the young generation. Whenever possible, she gave lectures to students and staff of MTSIFA many of whom, only came to appreciate her depth of knowledge and relevance to them when they themselves embarked on their PhD programs.

We are indebted to her.

George Kyeyune

George Kyeyune is an Associate Professor at the Margaret Trowell School of Industrial and Fine Arts, College of Engineering, Design, Art and Technology, Makerere University.