Kampala Contemporary: encroaching a new realm

Zihan Kassam

Circle, Kenya’s first independent art agency since 2012, continues to guide audiences with an interest in East African art. April 13, 2016 marked the opening of Kampala Contemporary, Circle Art Agency’s second annual ‘focus on East Africa’ exhibition. The exhibition sequence began last year with Addis Contemporary, with plans underway for Khartoum Contemporary in 2017. With 25 works of art including painting, installation, video and photography, Kampala Contemporary runs until May 14, 2016. Curated by Nicola Elphinstone and Robinah Nansubuga, it features artwork by ten Ugandan artists: Henry Mzili, Xenson, Denis Mubiru, Paul Ndema, Immy Mali, Papa Shabani, Mukiza, Timothy Erau, Eria ‘Sane’ Nsubuga, and Stacey Gillian.

The objective of Kampala Contemporary is to “present an honest account of the cohabiting realities in Kampala.” Curator Nicola Elphinstone explains that the artists are addressing issues related to art history, colonialism, religion and popular culture. Elphinstone sheds light on the status quo of the art scene in Kampala describing it as, “a time when informal education and international exhibition opportunities for artists are on the increase. There are regional and international exchange programmes and interest from international curators selecting artists to participate in workshops. Ugandan artists are being shown at art fairs, exhibitions, festivals and biennales abroad.” These opportunities for exposure are all good indicators of progress on the Ugandan art scene.

Based on the way the messages are being delivered through the artwork however, in subtle, subliminal forms, one can’t help but question how liberated the artists are and why some of the messages don’t come through. What’s more, why is there a feeling of frustration or dissatisfaction being communicated through some of the artwork? Studying the nature of the art at Kampala Contemporary, one questions whether the diverse “realities” or modes of existence in Kampala are really “cohabiting” or whether they are, instead, clashing? Is there a tension that exists between people of different mindsets, lifestyles and perspectives?

At the ‘Kampala Contemporary: Curators and Artists Talk’ on April 14, some of the artists in attendance shared the viewpoint that growth on the Ugandan art scene is in a way hindered or decelerated. One reason is that the artists are simply not expressing their ideas freely. They fear the repercussions from authorities. Artists with a strong desire to address systemic social and political issues are often forced to work in riddles rather than overt messages. “You have to be political without being political; you can’t attack, only comment”, said Eria ‘Sane’ Nsubuga. Progress in the Ugandan art scene presents a catch-22 scenario: while freedom of expression through artwork could substantially contribute to its appeal and impact, only artists who do not have a sizable following are able to experiment with controversial subject matter. The more attention artists get, the riskier it becomes for them to infuse their art with powerful social and political insight – the effect of which would undoubtedly raise the profile of Ugandan artists and their work.

According to Sane, “there is cosmetic prosperity, but when you look closer there is no foundation, no building blocks or infrastructure for the arts to grow. People don’t understand the value of art. They consume popcorn art”. At Kampala Contemporary, Sane’s eye-catching mixed media works Zeitgeist and Questlove feature female fashionistas set in lavish homes. The collages address the capitalism, consumerism and commoditisation of the female body influencing Kampala. Sane’s work is not explicit per se, but to the discerning viewer there is a cynicism about it; a contempt for the luxuries depicted and the broader quest for material riches. Thus in his work, Sane also reveals another conflict at play in Kampala – a conflict between the people who strive for the Western notions of success and those who pursue a more traditional existence.

Dabbling in daring subject matter, popular artist Paul Ndema is the least fearful of the lot. He candidly exposes the hypocrisies that exist both within the political administration and also Catholicism, as he has experienced it. He addresses issues around sexual identity and perceived sexual deviance. He uses vivid geometric patterns as a background contrasted with a unique foreground aesthetic used to portray the transgressors and victims of questionable, and often unnecessary, laws. Ndema holds a mirror to society exposing its rampant duplicities. In his oil painting Private Blessings, he creates a self-portrait depicting himself as a priest caught red handed with a prostitute. Both figures in the painting flaunt his customary yellow halos. Incriminating himself in the process, he attempts to tackle the hypocrisies of Kampala life.

Paul Ndema has certainly been turning heads these last few years. His paintings have been featured at the Kampala Art Biennale in 2014, the Cape Town Art Fair in 2015, and through Circle Art Agency who will take it to the 1:54 art fair in London this year. Like many of his peers, Ndema obtained his Bachelor’s degree in Fine Arts from the Margaret Trowell School of Industrial and Fine Arts at Markerere University. The school of Makerere artists have always focused on technical aptitude. The majority of Makerere artists concentrate on creating images that mimic real life. As trends in the international art scene continue to make an impact on these artists, many of them are caught between focusing on their technical aptitude to create realistic artwork versus creating artwork that is abstract or conceptual. Even Ndema’s striking compositions fall under the scrutiny of the old school who aren’t convinced of his newfangled ways.

The best example of this strenuous movement towards the conceptual is Mukiza’s oil and pencil work on canvas. Inviting the viewer to fill in the blanks, Mukiza quite literally creates incomplete images of recognizable symbols. Caught between spoon-feeding his audience with his depictions of reality and capturing the essence of things through line and form, he seeks an in-between world. His untitled painting portrays a Ugandan girl being kissed by three frogs filled in with flag colours from Uganda’s various donors. The USA, the EU and China are represented in each of the frogs but the fourth one remains an uncoloured outline, possibly anticipating a new donor looking for a piece of the Ugandan pie. We also learn that Mukiza is critical of Western fairy tales consumed by African children who aspire to be Disney princesses. As interesting as the premise is, the painting still feels disconnected with a bareness about it that doesn’t just stem from the unfinished work. Although the artist makes a beautiful point, and deserves praise for veering away from his formal training, he perhaps hasn’t quite found his rhythm yet.

Hanging in the balance is Mbasakidde Xenson’s mixed media work Are you questioning my hard work? With its technical prowess, strong message and entertaining execution, it is a tasteful and enjoyable composition. He hits the nail on the head. Using the tidal wave of colour that has washed through the exhibition, one of Xenson’s portraits is a side profile of a male figure wearing a mask and a hefty load of bananas on his head. It is quintessentially African subject matter with a contemporary twist. Although Xenson’s message is palpable, it is not a complete give-away; he is investigating identity and the human inclination to hide behind masks. He also explores our material indulgence and infatuation as consumers.

In Stacey Gillian’s Strange Fruit: Fresh Bulbs, she uses glass bottles, in an installation that hangs from the ceiling, to “represent misconceptions of gender equality in Uganda.” Dancing with Myself is a 22 minute video installation where Immy Mali uses a tapestry made of receipts from a 100 year old hotel where the guests had to abide by strict rules. By stitching them together to blow freely in the wind, she reflects a desire to break free. Both pieces address the felt oppression of Ugandans as a result of redundant social and political regulations in their country. In works like these and Timothy Erau’s unique photographic compositions, it is refreshing to see Ugandan artists working in new mediums. However, the connection between the message and the channels used to express them can often feel severed. Is this a reflection of artistic skill or does it stem from the need to mask their agenda under the social and political context in which they find themselves?

Looking closely at the artwork at Kampala Contemporary, the artists use cryptograms to highlight aspects of Kampala life. Sometimes the messages are evident, and at other times they are not. As some Ugandan artists dip into critical issues of their time and place, the tensions that exists between the orthodox and the progressive become the basis for a deeper, meta-discussion of Ugandan art. Though it has been a slow current, the artists are certainly delving into high waters and working in more original ways. There is an evolution in this art scene, a transition from Sane’s “popcorn art” to conceptual try-outs.

May 4, 2017