Kla Art Over All The Hurdles

Part of Odur’s installation Muwawa.

Kla Art is finally back this year. The bi-annual art festival, which was supposed to take place in August 2020, was postponed to this year and who is not happy to finally see art in the public within this dusty city?

A new format

The journey to the festival was a longer one this time, because of the pandemic but then also the director of the organizing body, 32° East Ugandan Arts Trust, Teesa Bahana came up with a new initiative, the Kla Art Labs.

The Labs was like an incubation period for the artists to formulate and grow their ideas. During the Labs, participating artists also went on residency with Arts Collaboratory network partners of 32.

This was very resourceful as some of the artists picked material from their new spaces, away from home that they could incorporate in their work to give our Ugandan eyes something fresh.

Working within the limits of the pandemic

The situation is not fully back to normal in the city with the 7PM curfew still in the way of the night-life. The mask wearing and social distancing curtailing our social interactions.

One would imagine the trouble the team went through to secure permission from authorities and space owners to put up this festival at a time when social gatherings are still discouraged by the state. This is probably what played a part in shortening the duration of the festival from the usual one month to 16 days.

Well, something is better than nothing they say.

A festival for the general public cannot happen online

One decision I put two thumbs up for the organisers is that they desisted from the allure of the trendy internet, to have the festival online bowing to the pressures of the physical affair like most things these days.

Teesa spells it out well in the introduction brief of the catalogue, that the festival has always been for the public, for those who don’t usually come to the white spaces to consume art. If it went online, only the usual crowd would see it.

Jacqueline Katesi’s installation Nature Invasion.

An all Ugandan artist affair

Unlike Kla Art 2018 where it had some foreigners, this time, it was purely Ugandan business with a stellar line-up of Kampala’s hot and emerging creatives.

This year has Liz Kobusinge, Jacqueline Katesi, Alison Nadunga, M, Jim Joel Nyakaana, Gloria Kiconco, Odur Ronald, Aloka Aloka, Edgar Kanyike, Martin Kharumwa and Charity Atukunda. 

Each of the eleven artists had since March 2019 to incite and astound the city dwellers with their creations.

Liz Kobusinge’s work in a florist’s garden.

The opening

The opening day has us at Spear House in the middle of town on the premier Jinja road, perfect location for the ambitions of the festival – to take art to the people.

At this wonderful spot, on a building owned by one of Kampala’s tycoons, Gordon Wavamuno who has recently just started collecting Ugandan contemporary art according to my insider information, this is where we find Jacqueline Katesi’s “Nature Invasion”.

The installation is a large tree-like sculpture engulfing the staircase of the building. This reminds me of Gilbert Musinguzi’s “Invasion” at the Kampala Biennale 2018 where he replicated an anthill in his space.

Katesi’s statement for nature

Katesi weaved strips of green plastic to make an over-head covering the stairs, making one walk into a green tunnel. Her work is spot on as it touches on a pertinent issue today seeing that COP26, the largest UN conference on Climate Change is on-going right now and the pressure to de-carbonize the planet is mounting and being discussed.

Katesi warns us of the possibility of nature reclaiming a space it occupied that we invaded. Where majority of Kampala exists today is a result of deforestation, swamp drainage and the like. No wonder, we still have remnants of that as the city is still relatively green, and the name that comes from an animal, the impala.

I however would have preferred the artist used real plants instead of building the plastic tree. Maybe through employing plastic, it becomes a good indirect play on how the material has played a huge role on environmental degradation.

Katesi supplemented her installation with a performance during the final tour of her exhibit. It included a tube fiddle playing with extra performers wearing polythene and mulondo roots. The polythene made the leaves on the female performers and the mulondo (ginseng) made the roots on the male performer. Mulondo is interestingly a sexual stimulant for males in Uganda which the artist subtly hints on in the performance.

Alison Nadunga, Birabi’s Kaleidoscope.

Kobusinge: “Who gets to access peace?”

In “Recipes To Cleanse The Body And Calm The Mind, Or How To Live When You’re Dying”, Liz Kobusinge brings plants she’s been tending to during the pandemic to a street florist’s garden. It is located next to a busy noisy roundabout that heads to the industrial part of the city.

For a work that imbues peace, meditation and all things calm, I’m first puzzled as to why she chose to install it in a noisy place.

The artist was interested in a high traffic area with mostly people on foot walking as she told me. Also, quieter places often tend to be reserved for the ‘higher’ classes of people who normally access contemporary art. “Who gets to access peace?”, she posed the question.

She ushers us into the garden after sanitizing our hands with a scented oil blend from Fitclique Africa. Kobusinge uses it daily to calm down her anxiety. Pop music plays as we take the meditative walk around. Every guest is encouraged to pluck away at any plant of their liking.

Kobusinge discloses to me that the work was largely activated by people participating in the walk through. They were taking and adding plants, sharing their own philosophies on what peace looks like for them. There was no cash transaction, plants were free. But there was still, as always, an exchange in terms of energies that people left behind. Participants also added to the wider document about how we make peace for ourselves. And how we live while we’re dying.

Nadunga’s Birabi’s Kaleidoscope: A homage to parenting and education

Alison Nadunga is the other artist on show and she brings the Japanese craft, origami to Kampala. In a small compound in Banda that looked like a garage, Alison’s colourful paper sculpture stands out suspended in mid-air on a wooden plank.

Inspired by one of Alison’s favourite toys when growing up, the kaleidoscope, “Birabi’s Kaleidoscope” comments on education systems and how they diverge from natural ways of learning and play.

Birabi is Nadunga’s dad. Alison’s parents, who are strong icons of education for her, built a domestic curriculum at home. This became her reference to learning and her favourite educational path.

In the work, she pays homage to her parents who introduced an important toy in her early life. Alison presents us with this colourful piece in a manner of being grateful to having been introduced to it as a child. She seems to say to us, this is how we should teach our young children.

For someone who learnt the craft on YouTube, Nadunga stuns us with the mastery of paper folding. It’s so intricate and well-done, a full two years in production. But wait, it’s not only beautiful, Alison applies mathematics and what seemed like complex geometry when constructing it. Alison’s work is definitely one of the wonders of this Kla Art.

Art enthusiasts watching M’s short animation film The Silence

“M’s animation is fit for a film festival”

For M, the pandemic got her wondering what would happen if a zombie outbreak happened in Najjera and everything dystopian because she is a huge fan of this futuristic movie genre.

She weaved this post-apocalyptic story where earth is filled with flooding. There are these two boys who live a quiet life in a shack. Their silent life is cut short when the older boy who fends for the two of them does not return home one day. The younger one who happens to be missing a limb steps out to look for his brother and other relatives. However, in their locale, there are certain things that are not to be talked about. As soon as the young boy meets an aunt and asks about the whereabouts of his brother, they are abducted too.

“The Silence”, M’s animation, likely hints at the situation back in Uganda where political abductions have become a norm. Regime opponents have kept disappearing whenever they raise their voices and appear to be threats to those in power. Brilliant story this one, fit for a film festival.

Jim Joel Nyakaana’s pictures hanging at a fruit and vegetable stall in his neighbourhood.

Jim Joel Nyakaana takes his Instagram to Kawempe

On one of the tour days, we had to make our way north of the city in the suburb of Kawempe to find Jim Joel Nyakaana’s work.

“Kaduukagram” is the interesting title Jim gives his work which is a combination of Luganda and English.

He usually shares his work on Instagram. So in a way, this is his new platform to share his creation, which is his neighbourhood.

Nyakaana is one of the artists who utilized space in it’s expanse on his project as he takes us around his neighbourhood to these kiosks, the makeshift shops (buduuka) where his photographs are exhibited. His effort is to elevate the status of these shops as important cornerstones of each Kampala neighbourhood.

We ascribe importance to the high rise buildings with sophisticated architecture in town but these are often closed off and inaccessible due to bureaucracy. The photos on the kiosks are of different areas of the town. The artist requested the suburb dwellers to recognize the places.

The suburb people, who are the commoners of the city, couldn’t put the photographed buildings to their exact locations because these are places they never go to. So in reverse, the elites who work in the high-rise buildings don’t see the value of the makeshift kiosks and are always passing laws that keep pushing them to the outskirts .

Kiconco invites to read and experience delight

Gloria Kiconco’s work was located at the National Library. She presented a space of delight and wonder that invites one into a reading room with a collection of four zines.

With a good dose of wit, the zines are titled with punctuation marks, each denoting a situation/feeling during the pandemic the artist was experiencing. And in each zine is a collection of poems and prose corresponding to the punctuation mark.

Gloria reads to us some of the material in her zines through a recorded speaker since she was away on residency. She has selected a few of her close friends who read to us in a bid to make it more engaging.

Yes, Gloria is interested in having libraries as welcoming spaces to all walks of life, to encourage curiosity and exploration. And that’s the reason the artist installed cool coloured waving strips of cloth to make the tunnel of delight.

The orange, light green and blue were colours that were in Kiconco’s private space during the pandemic. They helped her cope with the stress and anxiety. She hopes the same can work for the guests coming to experience the work.

At the National library where Gloria Kiconco’s installation and readings were held.

1200 bullets: Odor created his art work during the Ugandan election turbulence

Amidst the pandemic, we in Uganda had another catastrophe – the general elections.

Well, the race to the presidential seat in Uganda is never a sweet one. The artist Odur Ronald was unlucky to taste part of its bitterness.

In Muwawa, the artist reflects on an unfortunate experience where he was in his home and the smell of tear gas and bullets firing around filled the air.

Odur reconstructed his living space, a dining table with two chairs, a television set, bible, liquor bottle, cigarette pack and mat, all in his usual material, aluminum. There are money notes as well made out of the sheet metal. And over the table is the focal point of the installation: 1200 bullets cast in aluminum hanging on strings with a bulb in the middle.

This created a beautiful chandelier-like aura with the warm lighting creating a calm environment juxtaposing the chaotic ideas of the installation. All this is enclosed in a wooden booth.

Odur’s dexterity and intricacy at working the aluminum sheets into any desired object is one to note and his interior designing knowledge from university came in handy here.

Muwawa is a Luganda word for “without care”. He points to the fear of being an unintended victim even in spaces deemed private. Violence is cheap and easy to reproduce without care, at least for the ruling government.

“Ready For Export” by Trevor Aloka: labour as a commodity

In the same location where Odur’s installation is located, we find Trevor Aloka’s work. In Kabalagala, in a quiet idle store building.

Aloka fills a room with cargo boxes, jute sacks, air-tight packaging containers, personified objects and precious metals. It’s a staged export clearance area and the artist is probing into the migratory labour practices among young people.

We have the different talents of the young people represented. Sports stars by dumbbells and sneakers, hairdressers and cosmeticians by a dryer. Techies and music enthusiasts by a laptop and headphones, fashion people with a sewing machine and so forth. We have gold bars too.

In “Ready For Export” these objects and the precious metals on pedestals connect labour as a commodity. It questions how young people view their own value, and what their value is worth to their own country.

This is a much needed conversation for a country with almost 70% of the population under the age of 30. Especially with the looming unemployment levels. And a good number of these young energetic talented souls usually have no option but to aspire to leave this place and look for income generating opportunities in other countries. Very sad.

Part of Odur’s installation Muwawa.

Aloka Aloka’s Ready For Export.

Kanyike positions his art within his community

Edgar Kanyike took us to Sosolya Undugu Dance Academy which is in the middle of slum area in Kabalagala.

In this neighbourhood where he hails from. In a dance studio he has honed his skills, he employs an open studio format.

“This Is Me” has objects stringed around in the small compound, a Dj set with music playing and photography hang around.

Kanyike’s practice is inseparable from the community around him. The interactive installation is witness to how art lives side by side with the people around him.

Photographer Kharumwa: “Who do we become when the only tech we invest in is surveillance and war drones?”

At the Ethiopian village in Kabalagala, Martin Kharumwa presents to us pages from his project “The Book of Owaz”. It shares the same title as his exhibited work. The pages are photo montages pasted and sewn on a plastic sack material. They mirror our perceptions or characterisations of life in Kampala.

In a photo titled “Surveillance Uganda”, a figure clad in a PPE suit made out of the sack material, walks by a banana plantation and a street camera. It’s leading what looks like a robot dog.

Stimulating appositioning, reminds one of the movement – Afrofuturism.

Martin tells me that this one leans more to his write-up about technology’s contribution to our Epigenetics or gene expressions. He continues, “Who do we become when the only tech we invest in is surveillance and war drones?”

The artist encouraged us to put on his PPE suits made with upcycled materials. With the pandemic, at least in Uganda came with a lot of ideas to save oneself from the disease. The herbs, teas and steaming. Martin wanted to take this idea further and he came up with the homemade PPEs.

When one digs deeper into Martin’s work, one realizes that he’s interested in futurism. With that I liken him to Waswad, another Ugandan artist exploring the same subject. For Kharumwa, it is the theories around the next evolution of the homo sapiens that originated from East Africa – the homo-machinus that tickle his brain.

At Edgar Kanyike’s venue.
Martin Kharumwa talking about his work to festival goers.

Atukunda bewilders the crowd

Charity Atukunda’s work “The Transients” was reminiscent of the masquerade performances in West, Central and Southern Africa. It looks like she’s one of the artists who benefitted from her residency time in Mali. She clearly picked notes from the cultural happenings there.

Her work is inspired by the hustle of street hawkers and vendors who carry the weight of their wares as they maneuver through the bustling city.

Charity hired two performers who got suited up, adorned with sellable items like combs, wigs, compact discs and so forth. One of them announced their products and trade on a microphone. The other one danced and gyrated around the place, which included heading out to the small trading, centre in Banda.

Charity’s performance was interactive and exciting as it got in on a large number of people. It was interesting to see the young kids following the dancer and jumping back when he moves to scare them.

It was another thing to hear the grown-ups ask what was happening. Just the similar atmosphere the masquerades stir up, a mysterious anonymous masked individual dancing away to a bewildered crowd.

The performer during Charity Atukunda’s piece The Transients.

Kla Art’s theme this year was “This Is Ours” but whose is it, and did they own it?

Well, Kla Art is supposed to be for the city, its dweller. It’s meant to be a present from the artists to the everyday city rat. The person who has a 9-5, jumps on a taxi/boda everyday, doesn’t have time to visit galleries or museums.

But with the restrictions and pandemic pressure, the festival did not reach out to as many as other previous editions have.

But no worries. I think that the most important thing is that the artists ‘pushed out the babies that had been gestating for a long time in their wombs’ like Katesi puts it.

The few who got to experience the work for the small duration it was up should pass on the information to others.

Photo credit: 32° East Ugandan Arts Trust 

Matt Kayem
Contemporary Artist, writer

Matt Kayem is a contemporary artist, art writer and critic who lives and works from Kampala, Uganda. As an artist, he is interested in the identity crisis on the continent as a product of colonialism. He is passionate about African history, heritage and traditional culture juxtaposed with western culture, modernism and pop-culture. As an art writer, Matt is more keen on aesthetics versus concept as two core aspects of modern art. He has huge interest in the the global art market and commercialization of art