Weeraba Sidney Littlefield Kasfir – Goodbye Sidney Littlefield Kasfir

Professor Sidney L. Kasfir (left). Image from twitter.com/LKasfir

By Kizito Maria Kasule

Death is a reality, and in life, every person is a candidate for death. The difference is the time of one’s death and the legacy they leave behind. 29th December 2019 was the day Sidney Littlefield Kasfir breathed her last. The day she disappeared for good from our visible earthly world. It was the day the always-smiling Kasfir became the late Kasfir. It was the day many of us reflected upon our physical impermanence in this world. It was indeed a sad moment when Kasfir concluded her earthly life. She completed her mission of researching and formally constructing contemporary African Art History. It was a journey that she started way back in 1967 in Uganda, where she worked as a managing director of the Nommo Gallery. It was a day to reflect on the different encounters many of us in Uganda had with her, the moments we shared with her. It was indeed a cold and white day, without sunshine for us to see her shadow as it disappeared for eternity. When I got the news of her death, I felt that much as Kasfir was gone, she remained a permanent tree stump in the study of African Art History through her scholarly work.

To talk of Kasfir is to talk about the history of African art. Without her name, it is incomplete. Although during the last years of his life, Patrice Lumumba foretold that one day Africa would write her glorious history. In this statement, Lumumba meant that Africans themselves would write the true history of Africa. I boldly state here that Kasfir belongs to those glorious adopted sons and daughters of Africa who have made an immense contribution to our understanding of contemporary African art. Without her insightful publications that have become part of the study of African art, the accumulation of the current knowledge about African art would have taken a long time to emerge. Her death marked the end of a resourceful chapter of those western scholars who immersed themselves in the study of African Art following the 1960s decade of independence by African countries. I am convinced that her death clears the path for emerging African scholars whose research will arise from their art and lived experiences, and will, perhaps challenge Kasfir’s arguments.

As we continue to mourn her death, more importantly, we should reflect on her scholarly work. The numerous publications she had is a clear testimony that she was a scholar always seeking new knowledge. Kasfir’s thirst for knowledge explains why each time she visited Uganda, she went to see old friends and institutions and also interviewed people in and outside art institutions. I vividly remember several meetings I had with her at the Margaret Trowell School of Industrial and Fine Arts, during meals at my home, and at Nagenda International Academy of Art and Design, Namulanda, Entebbe.

Born in 1939 in the USA, Sidney Kasfir arrived in Uganda in 1965 with her husband Nelson Kasfir, a researcher in political science with a keen interest in art. Although Sidney Kasfir trained as a scientist for her undergraduate degree, she had a deep sense of art appreciation. Her interaction with art students at the Makerere Art School ignited in her a desire to look closely at the modern art in newly independent Uganda. Following the untimely departure of Mrs Brown, the Director of Nommo Gallery, Uganda’s Ministry of Culture appointed Kasfir as her replacement. She worked tirelessly to promote emerging artists in Uganda. During her tenure, Kasfir petitioned Milton Obote’s government to increase the funding of Nommo Gallery. While she tried to work closely with the leadership of the Margaret Trowell School of Fine Art, the Art School management was displeased with her encouraging art students to show art in a commercial context. For the administration, it was taboo because selling art was seen as detrimental to the education of a true artist. For Kasfir, art marketing was part and parcel of art training, and there was nothing wrong in allowing students to exhibit their work in a professional commercial manner. Looking at her conviction today, one can say that she lived ahead of her time. Despite all this, some Makerere Art School graduates from the 1960s such as Norbert Kaggwa, Francis Musangogwantamu and Eli Kyeyune, became big names in the Kampala art market primarily due to her gallery initiatives. Indeed, before her departure in 1969, Nommo Gallery had started collecting Ugandan art as part of the national collection. Unfortunately, no one knows what happened to this national collection after her departure. She, however, noted in the late 1990s during our discussions in Kampala, that her biggest failure was to create an African community of local collectors. All her customers were bazungu, and she felt that many artists at that time were making art for bazungu buyers.

Possibly, the most crucial development for Kasfir in the 1960s was the realization that although she was fascinated with African Art, she still didn’t fully understand it. She needed to appreciate it from the lenses of African artists and the localities of its production. She had come to Uganda with an understanding that art was a universal language. However, the meaning of art in Africa meant more than the western universality notion that rotated around the so-called principles and elements of art. It included functionalism related to the locality, the visible and the invisible, the living world and the domain of the ancestors. It is against this background that following when she left Uganda, Kasfir immersed herself in the study of African art in European museum collections. The focused observation offered her an opportunity to realize that while African art had a lot in common, it also differed from region to region in terms of expression, functionality and materiality. Like Margaret Trowell, Kasfir concluded that the western notion of separating ‘high art’’ from ‘low art’ was artificial and not applicable to African art.

From 1974 to 1975, Kasfir worked as an Acting Curator of Anthropology at Dartmouth College Museum, and from 1976 to 1978 as Acting Curator at the Institute of African Studies, University of Ibadan, Nigeria. It was during this time that Kasfir came into contact with John Picton, the distinguished African art scholar. Picton had worked in West Africa for a considerable some years and continued researching African art. Meeting John Picton opened up research opportunities that allowed Kasfir access to works of art that were new to her. It is not surprising, therefore, that Kasfir joined SOAS as a PhD student under the tutorship of John Picton which she completed in 1979.

I must point out here that following the end of the civil war in Uganda in 1986 when Yoweri Museveni took power, Uganda once again became part of the international community. Consequently, many Ugandan artists started participating in international workshops. It was through these workshops that Kasfir once again became part and parcel of art development in Uganda. From 1995, Kasfir once again started re-visiting Uganda almost on an annual basis. Her research contributing to the publication of her book Contemporary African Art, in which she analyzed the shifting identity of African artists, national culture and migration, among others. Among the critical issues raised in this book were the obstacles newly-independent East African states faced in coining new national cultures. Following the publication of this book, Kasfir worked closely with Makerere Art School as a researcher and scholar, especially under the Fulbright Scholar program. She immensely contributed to the development of the Margaret Trowell School of Industrial and Fine Art curriculum at both undergraduate and post-graduate levels. She researched on several art movements in Africa and the forces shaping the development of contemporary art. Since her first contact with Africa, Kasfir has been very committed to the continent. In particular, she cherished the Samburu culture in which she remarried. She loved and cared for her husband, Kirati Lenarokoito and warmly loved her stepchildren from co-wives.

Kasfir was a strong lady, always a fighter for the development of art education, especially Art History. She worked tirelessly to promote female education and sometimes even paid tuition for those she met in the course of her field research. She loved cultures but hated the cultural enslavement of people. She disliked the notion of seeing African cultures as inferior to those from the west. It is not surprising, therefore, that the strength of her research lies in its rootedness among the people she met, and the cultures in which she immersed herself.

On a personal level, at the time of her death, we were preparing to co-author a book originating from one of the chapters in my PhD research on the legacy of Cecil Todd’s teaching in the development of art practice at Makerere Art School. I will continue working on this project.

She fought many wars but was unable to win the malaria war. We shall greatly miss her. Goodbye Kasfir. Sleep well in the land of the Samburu where you rest. May you become the ancestral shining star in eternity and always guide and protect the Samburu people whom you dearly loved. Sleep well until we meet in heavenly paradise.


Kizito Maria Kasule

Associate Professor Kizito Maria Kasule is the Dean of the Margaret Trowell School of Industrial and Fine Arts, College of Engineering, Design, Art and Technology, Makerere University, Kampala.