This is the review of the second book in the Ebifananyi series on the photographic legacy of Musa Katuramu, by Joel Ntwatwa, aka Nevender. The review of the first book can be read here. Joel’s words are illustrated by selected pages from the book in the hands of Andrea Stultiens, who made it.
1916 is over a hundred years ago. Uganda in the context of the world was not even present except as a protectorate of the British government. In that year, Musa Katuramu was born. He goes on to capture life in his environs, and shares with us glimpses of the life he lived, the life of the people around him lived. It is largely set in the West, that is Ankole and Tooro.
The photos shared in this book give us a look into the past. Into life understood by its places and its people’s poses. It’s a book that has portraits of life in a time without colour but with identity, an identity that tells the historical context.
Reading this book seems as though we are talking about two geographies or two countries and that’s what time does in this case. That’s what photographic depictions in different times display. For example, we are aware of Makerere University as an institution of higher learning, and in fact not the only one. Back then Kampala Technical College was the first and at the time the only one.
Possessions of value also change over time. When Musa got his first paycheque as a teacher at Nyakasura School, he bought a bicycle. The bicycle became his major mode of transportation especially for taking photographs but there is something more interesting about it. It becomes a feature in a lot of his photos. The subjects he captures pose alongside it, whether it is a man with his family outside his house, two girls in school uniform on the roadside or boys in their home compound.
There are a few photographs in this collection taken indoors. Life is much bigger than the roof under which we have grown accustomed to find an identity. Much bigger than an office, a classroom, a living room. In this book, life is part of the landscapes and the sky. Life is however, at the same time, much smaller. It is smaller than the flurry of the activity of man. It cannot be captured in more than one frame. Life is lived in poses.
Life lived in poses – and for me that is what makes this a fascinating collection. Each photo is is not necessarily choreographed, rather planned, set, laid. A life lived in poses also tells of what were the most important aspects of society in the time. From the photos, these are clearly seen as being – family, school and marriage and what we could call progress.
Progress being fronted by people posing outside in the grass seated in chairs, next to tables and stools, items that may not necessarily be part of the setting in which the photo is captured. For example, there is one where a group of students sit outside St. James Cathedral in chairs, with a table which has a flower in a vase.
The poses, sometimes vary between people standing, kneeling and sitting on chairs. And yes, the women too take the same poses. To me these were pictures of change in thinking in that time seeing as women were always seen as servants of their counterparts men; them taking up “equal” positions in photos was something to take note of.
The people range from royals, to everyday people in their homes, to soldiers, to traditional warriors, to men of “high class” dressed in suits and putting on shoes, to students in uniform without shoes, to newlyweds whose brides were carrying bouquets that seemed more shrub than flower. And not forgetting the cows. Several photos show a presence of cows. Given how much the animals are revered in Ankole and Tooro, it’s not a surprise that perhaps one would want their favourite cow in a photo.
Some poses are really extravagant. One photo in which an unexpected face pops in from the left, is of a man dressed to his shoes outside a house with one foot raised high on a table, the other on the ground and his one hand on the side of his face and the other on his waist. These are common poses in the later years in the studios but it is interesting seeing one before that time. Was Musa simply recreating what he had seen in photos in magazines sent to him by the British Photography Association?
Other poses are quite funny to be honest and I am sure they were not in that time. One has four people at a well. Three adults and a boy. An older man sits on a chair on his left a boy carrying a jar. Behind them one man in a suit (coat and tie) seems to be pressing a lever and the other in a kanzu seems to collecting the water. I wondered what it all meant.
A lot of the aspects of the time are communicated in the photos. Several aspects appear in the same photos. Religion, education, economic progress. A great deal of photos are taken outside St. James Cathedral. One photo has a group of students seated on a bench together with a sign in front of them that reads “LET BROTHER-LY LOVE CONTINUE”. This photo, quoting Hebrew 13:1 from the Bible is a key photograph with regard to the religious aspect of seeing as it is not just boys (brothers) in this photo, there are also two girls present.
In another picture, a man dressed in a white suit sits proudly on a huge bike with a woman at his back, he has a subtle grin on his face. I can’t imagine his present circumstances but I can assume this is part of an old culture that persists today of people acquiring wealth going to church for either thanksgiving or to say prayers of protection upon their property.
However who knows if people also go to Church to flaunt what they have. His suit is typical of what is called “Sunday Best”, one’s best clothes for Sunday.
Seeing Central Art Studio coming into conversation made me giddy somewhat. This is the same studio that comes into conversation in the book about Deo Kyakulagira. In this one, we are given a little bit more history about the studio which was the only place for developing photographs in the 50s. It was interesting seeing that the two stories connect histories in a way, they connect because of the presence of a camera.
Who’s not to say that photographs cast shadows on history while at the same time showing it. Who’s not to say that photographs reveal while they hide at the same time. In all the photos, one is aware of a calmness in the frames. The people are calm. The skies are calm. The landscapes are calm. However a keen look into history might reveal that a lot of changes were going on in this place that was a protectorate.
It is not surprising seeing this symbolically placed in the photos, where Musa’s shadow falls in a lot of the photos he captures. It was like being aware that even though people were living their lives, someone else was turning the knobs. The colonist was slowly changing perceptions. Changing the dress of the people, changing the appearance of the people and more.
However, that said, as time changes – we see new captures, people reimagining for themselves. Using photoshop to change reality as son of Musa’s friend Tom Kayangire does, or using our own frames to capture reality, as Rumanzi and Andrea do in this book.
Musa’s son Jerry Bagonza must be thanked a great deal for the good state these photos were found in. Very few people understand the importance of the past in trying to make sense of our future. Blessed are those who can look into their past and trace it to their present. Musa and Jerry give us an opportunity to do so in this collection.
Reviews and letters published on this blog accompany the first exhibition presenting all the collections the Ebifananyi books are based on. The show takes place in Belgium, at the Photo Museum in Antwerp.
A presentation in Uganda will follow, from end of April 2018, at the Uganda Museum in Kampala. Exact dates to be announced.