Notes About The Times – Kayem’s response to COVID-19

Installation “Afrika is not getting it” from Notes about the times at Modzi Arts by Matt Kayem.

By Trevor Mukholi

Covid-19 all caught us all by surprise. Ugandan contemporary artist Matt Kayem had just arrived in Lusaka, Zambia for his art is residency at Modzi Arts when borders closed and there was no return back to his beloved motherland. 

“Notes About The Times” is Kayem’s response to the Corona virus and its effects on the relationship between Africa and the West. Kayem, being a vivid and critical art writer himself doesn’t fall short on the conceptual side of his art which is well expressed.  However, by doing so, he sacrifices aesthetics to get his message through. “Notes About The Times” is not beautiful or visually captivating, and maybe it was not meant to be. It is however a trip into the artists mind and thought process as he grappled with these complex relationships between himself, the communities he has lived in and the conceptual west.

Below is a conversation I had with the artist on phone.

Thank you so much Matt, for taking your time to talk about the work you have been creating during your residency time at Modzi Arts. What can you say about your time so far at the space?

Matt Kayem: Well, it’s been great here, I’ve met some interesting like-minded people. And most of all, I’m glad that I got to use my time here profitably, meaning that I completed a body of work that I am now showing. It’s always a mixture of ups and downs, but there have been more ups during my stay here in Lusaka and at Modzi Arts.

Great! Please do tell about the body of work you have created “Notes About The Times”. What inspired this work and what was the process behind creating it?

MK: The work is like a diary or a sketch book and each of the artworks can be treated as pages from my sketch book. I tried to document what was going on around me during this period, but most importantly, asking the difficult questions of what is behind the curtains.

The Covid-19 disease is among us and I noticed two organs that have emerged as powerful within this period; the media and the governments which have enforced and spread fear within the masses. We are all following what they are telling us without standing back and asking the much-needed ‘why?’ I noticed there is so much going on during this period that doesn’t add up. And at the same time there is a lot that adds up and is eerily related. So the work was inspired by the conversation that has been suffocating me during this time, from physical engagements to the battle that takes place on social media. I found that my day-to-day was filled by worrying and fear from those around me.  So I decided to set out to get some answers. I had deep conversations with the curator of the show, Julia Taonga, who happens to also be my host here in Zambia. I can say she heavily influenced my work. It’s from her questioning spirit that I managed to get ideas and eventually package them up into what has become the final body of work.

We have some pieces here from the “notes about the times” series. I selected these  because I found them rather interesting, could you give some insight into what inspired these works?

1. The Media

  Matt Kayem, The Media, Oil pastel, markers on denim | 120 x 90 cm

MK: This work tries to illustrate the media’s role in spreading the “pandemic”. In this case, maybe fear could be the pandemic. From reporting widely about the deaths and infection numbers of Covid-19, the media’s hand in circulating fear among the masses cannot be downplayed. Why do they concentrate on the infected and the dead yet number of those recovering are much higher? Who controls the big media houses and what are their motives at the end? I try to answer these questions with some of the information I have stumbled on, some so controversial that it has been branded “conspiracy theory”. But I answer the questions and also ending up asking more. There is also an over-flow of information right now and the other question is; who should we trust that they are giving us authentic information?

2: Masterminds

MK: This work tries to highlight the major players in this pandemic and their role in this. These include the wealthiest individuals on the planet who have been subject to different theories. One main figure stands out though and that’s Bill Gates who has been at the forefront of this pandemic, predicting and advising on the way forward. Why is he very much interested in this? And who warranted him to research into a vaccine for covid-19? Jeff Bezos is another one who is becoming richer during this period through his mega-company, Amazon. Dr. Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases in the U.S has also been the front of the news during the period stating one time that we may not go back to the way things were. Who gives these people the moral authority to do and say things this way? Do they control how things turn around? This looks like a big game and the big boys are moving the pawns.

3. New Normal

Matt Kayem, New Normal, Oil pastel, markers on denim | 120 x 90 cm

The work paints a picture of the current state of affairs around us which is expected to be the new normal. From deserted and empty streets in major cities worldwide to stay home enforcement; our world seems to be changing to a new system that will be with us for some time. The major questions here are whether lock-downs are an effective way to manage the situation back here in Africa? With our socialist and communal nature, will protocols like social distancing work here? And why are we just copying from what we see being done in the west? Somewhere, I hint on what could be the effects of the stay home tactic which might lead to depression and mental breakdowns. And the low-income earners? What are they to do now that they can’t earn like they used to? This is in the case of my country Uganda where these protocols are being enforced with an iron hand. Uganda has always been a police state.

You are no stranger to controversy. You have been known make some pretty vocal statements about western influence on Africa. We saw this in the Cool Afrika series, and now in “Notes About The Times” you have again included elements that appear to voice these concerns. How is your intended audience receiving your work?

MK: I got to tell you this, I love controversy, it is in my DNA, hehe. People come to the show with masks on and walk out with masks off.  I like this. It is what I wanted to happen. I love the conversations that the work is stirring up. I love the criticisms as well. I don’t want make work that can’t get people talking. Whatever way my work gets to you, it is better if it leaves a mark, makes you think otherwise, love me or hate me.

The Covid 19 pandemic caused a large number of exhibitions to be relegated to the online and digital spaces, how did this affect your exhibition?

MK: This affected me and my curator. As we were preparing for the show we pondered a lot on what method we could go about with this. But we finally agreed that we can let people book in when they want to see the show. And they were allowed to come in less than three people at a time. We also put the show up online on Modzi Arts Instagram and facebook page and I also keep posting something on my personal Facebook and Instagram pages too. Yes, we were determined to do this and didn’t see anything other hurdles coming our way. This is the time to keep the guns up!

Do you feel like online exhibitions are a feasible option? How do you think it affects the quality of engagement with artists work and discourse amongst the artist and audiences?

 MK: Of course there is no way you can compare online experience with physical engagement. Physical always wins. We’ve had people come in to see the show after seeing it online and there are amazed by being in contact with the work physically. There are some things you cannot experience behind those screens.

You chose very unusual materials and mediums to work with, and since I viewed this exhibition online I couldn’t engage with the work. Please do tell about the choices you made concerning the materials you used and if they have a bearing to the ideas expressed in your work.

MK: For this work I made an exception; I stuck to my usual jeans as canvas, but I drew on them with oil pastels, markers and pens rather than paint. I was looking for a quicker way to work because I had only a month for the residency and my usual style wouldn’t work. But the fact that I was working with a different topic, I felt it required a different mode of expression, probably something more expressive. It had me thinking about Jean-Michel’s work and Da Vinci’s sketches and then the usual sketch-noting as done during presentations in boardrooms. So adding these together, I formed this language that had line sketches from life or photographs, illustrations from the internet and whatsapp application and finally, the text.

Your work details themes of western influence on Africa socially and economically, but how do you think western influence affects and influences the culture and arts scene today, can the arts sector flourish without western patronage?

MK: Western influence affects our arts scenes both negatively and positively but I think the negativity outweighs the positivity in that the west will always have a dictatorial stand on our art if they are the ones funding us. They have their own agendas. When they throw in the funds, they want the artists to push their agendas, they want the art to look a certain way to please their aesthetic tastes. Our arts scenes can ofcourse flourish without western patronage but we have a long way to go on this. We have failed as artists to sell our art to our people. And when I say ‘sell’, I’m not talking about only the economics. We artists that make art that follows western aesthetic, are the reason why our families don’t want come to our exhibitions, festivals, and events. They don’t want buy a CD because they don’t understand the music.

Critics in the online space have interpreted your expression as “anti-western” and some artists I have interacted with interpret your work as “pro-african”. Who has misinterpreted you in this case? And how do you see your ideology?

 MK: My work is pro-Africa or pro-black for that matter. I don’t know if I can be called anti-western, maybe I am. But I am mostly interested in seeing my people and myself prosper and not be stepped on like we have been for a long time. I mean, I’m for myself, I can’t be pro-west, they don’t love me and you and they have shown it and continue to show it. So why not dig deeper into myself and find the gold, the fire that has been put out.

Thanks for taking time to give us this wonderful discussion, as we wind up tell us about Lusaka and Zambia’s art scene, what are the places one should look out for if one is there?

MK: Thanks for the opportunity to talk to you. I’m loving it here, I love the city which is so spacious and not crowded like Kampala. I love the consumer culture here, the many malls, I’m learning a few words of Kinyanja, a local dialect here. The art scene is interesting with places like Modzi Arts and others that I have not gotten the chance to see yet because they were closed. But I’ve met so many amazing artists like Aaron Mulenga, Mulenga Mulenga, Stary Mwaba and heard about others.

Trevor Mukholi

Trevor Mukholi (21) studies Literature and Languages at Kyambogo University. He started photography two years ago when he collaborated with artist Wandulu Timothy in his work "modern intellects" in KLAART 2018. This spurred his interest and that is how he began his early journey in contemporary art. He was involved in architectural photography with Doreen Adengo in "African Modernism" and has collaborated with Wandulu Timothy to produce modern intellects amongst other projects yet to be exhibited.