On Thursday April 13th the, at least on our side, long anticipated exhibition opened. The crowd was huge, the responses overwhelming. The show is on until May 13th at Makerere University Art Gallery. Below we will continue to feature the artists contributing to the show, starting with the performances that took place just before and during the event.
In his Ekifananyi Kya Muteesa he takes a position that is not a strange one for an artist. Artists ‘imagine’ things and give form to their imaginations. They construct worlds within and through their artworks. Sometimes these worlds show us what our eyes can also see, but rendered in another material, using for instance, paint, photography, sculpture or performance. When this is done well, we admire the skill of the artist.
Sometimes artists take us into the realm of fantasy, to worlds that are beyond the one we live in. We may then, if it is done well, commend their creativity.
And yet another option is that they respond to the world we know, but alter aspects of it, make it collide with other worlds. This way they allow us to go to where we would not go in real life, and imagine, with them, What If?
There are no consequences for following the line of thought, no penalties (except that it may bring us new insights). It is, after all, not real. It is playing around, but not necessarily without being serious. It is a certain kind of imagining, a kind of artistic practice that allows us to disagree with one another, but still share a sensory experience through the artwork.
(and this is me asking and imagining)
What If the imagined reality is something that is not compatible with your lifestyle and beliefs.
What If it goes against something you stand for.
What would you do?
Would you do what some of the visitors to the opening of the Ekifananyi Kya Muteesa show did?
Would you remove a video from a tablet, and in stead leave a trace of yourself behind in a photograph made with the tablet?
(come and see the video for yourself, and, please, remember, it is only a What If…)
It is only about nine months ago that I heard about Matt Kayem for the first time. He had a solo show at Underground, and I was impressed by his sculptures. He energetically took up the request for a sculpted interpretation of Stanley’s Ekifananyi Kya Muteesa, and allowed me to watch him cooking his art in his home studio. That studio is situated in Mengo, more or less right in the middle between Twekobe and Bulange. With a grandfather nearby to tell him about his experiences serving the Kingdom in the second half of the 20th century. Plenty of ingredients for a nice art meal.
In executing his task Matt made a decision that makes as much sense as it is radical. He did not sculpt what is not there in the photograph. Where the depiction in H.M. Stanley’s photograph goes ‘up in smoke’, the sculpted chiefs also ‘end’. And the only figure who really developed ‘a face’ (through his historical position as well as his place in the photograph) is the King himself.
Because the three dimensional quality of a sculpture does not really fit in a screen, we took Muteesa and his clay chiefs ‘home’, to the (momentarily uninhabited) palace of his great great grandson where he, once again, became a photograph.
Todays feature corrects a misunderstanding that crept into an article on the Ekifananyi Kya Muteesa show in today’s New Vision. The text mentions “a pencil drawing” that “presents the king as an Oscar award winner, while standing behind him are great world leaders and stars, including Pope Francis.” This work, that holds middle ground between a drawing and a painting was, different than the article says, made by Mukiza.
In a work in progress version that I was allowed to see the pope was already accompanied by Superman, Barbie, a man that reminded me of photographs I had seen of former Ugandan governor Henry Hesketh Bell, and a man who looked familiar but was hard for me to identify. The man I recognised was, according to the artist, a generic early 20th century colonial administrator. The man who I failed to identify was a mash up. His face is Pieter Willem Botha‘s. Once the name is mentioned it is, also for me, unmistakable that of the former South African apartheid prime minister and president.
The beard, mitre and outfit around Botha’s face belong to the Dutch version of St. Nicolas.
The Dutch ‘Sinterklaas’ comes to the Netherlands every year. He does not come alone but with helpers. These helpers were for the better part of the 20th century, and until recently, called ‘Zwarte Piet’, which translates into ‘Black Pete’. The presence presence of this black face has become an annually returning controversy. Black people in the Netherlands started to mention that this dressing up of white people was for them for various reasons an offensive tradition. At the same time quite a substantial number of (white) Dutch people feels that their ‘tradition’ is under attack.
While I think I understand this mash up of a man who stood for apartheid, and a figure that is part of a tradition that has been practicing apartheid, I am not sure it works. Who else does (not) recognise Botha and / or Sinterklaas? If not, is that a bad thing? Or does the depiction, also without full recognition of all the individuals, communicate a tension in representation of skin colour and values and privileges that continu to be attached to them? These individuals are, apart from Muteesa, all white, and with the exception of the stereotypical ideal ‘woman’ barbie all male.
In the final version of the drawing/painting I see an abstracted but still recognisable version of the current American president. And I see a man who is depicted in the very realistic style Mukiza is capable of. Who he is is still a mystery to me. Mukiza did not want to tell me. He said I would find out soon enough. But he has not yet been identified… And in the mean time Mukiza’s Muteesa keeps staring at us with a slightly ironic smile, as if I, we, should have known, should have seen it coming…
Who this man is and much much more.
(In the mean time a post on instagram with a request to identify the mystery man led to his identification. I knew who he was, but I, and many with me it seems, did not know what he looked like. I wonder whether I should consider that to be a good or a bad thing)
Below, Mukiza’s Muteesa, a detail of the work in progress version of the drawing/painting on display at Ekifananyi Kya Muteesa.
April 15th: ‘Keep Your Muteesas on’, or how the name of a historical figure became a noun.
The actual opening of the exhibition had short introductions and speeches by Kazungu Martha (upcoming curator and at the moment an important force in Makerere University art gallery), the Dutch ambassador Henk Jan Bakker, and myself as initiator of the whole thing. But more important were the two performances staged before and after this moment.
In the afternoon the performance was private. Only the people performing, those finalising the installation of the show and my camera were present.
In the evening an audience found a place around the scene, and photographer Timothy Erau invited six of them to help him to illuminate it using the torches of their mobile phones.
I vividly remember telling people why I found myself drawn to photography. It was, I used to say, something I could do on my own. Something that required only me, my camera and my interest in the world to lead to a result. But that was then. This whole exhibition, and these performances in particular are examples of what in German would be called a ‘Gestalt‘, a whole that is more than the sum of its parts. It could be thought of, in another German word, as a ‘Gesamkunstwerk‘: “a work of art that makes use of all or many art forms or strives to do so.”
It is hard to pin down the art forms here. Or even the materials. I guess it would start for me with the gallery space itself, legacy of Margret Trowell’s efforts. Reading about her (for instance in the latest issue of start Journal) brings forth good intentions, but arguably also problematic ‘colonial subject formation’. From another moment, more remote in time, there is the photograph made by Henry Morton Stanley as an important ‘material’.
In the here and now five people were, next to me, instrumental for the performance. The choice of materials is theirs, but their application, to some extend at least, the result of conversations, questions, challenges.
Sanaa Gateja is the elder among the artists contributing to the show, both in age and experience. He started to make the royal outfit worn in the performance by ‘Muteesa’ a couple of years ago in relation to the fourth book in the Ebifananyi series (this exhibition will lead to the eighth and last one). The outfit does not appear in the book, but it did feature in one of the exhibitions related to it.
Martha Namutosi and Piloya Irene on the other hand are the ‘youngest’ artists in the show. Both graduated from UCU Mukono last October. Their contributions are spin offs of works they made for a student exchange between UCU and Minerva Art Academy in the Netherlands where I teach. Both made portraits of their grandmothers using very different materials. Martha’s portraits were embroideries on rice bags. The bags chosen because her grandmother had kept them for her, telling her they would be of use to her one day. Piloya made a slightly larger than life fibre glass sculpture.
For Ekifananyi Kya Muteesa I invited Martha to outline the scene in real life size, again using rice bags. When visiting Piloya to discuss her contribution she was working on a relief sculpture made of barkcloth. UCU lecturer Nathan Omiel happened to be present, and a collective brainstorm led to the idea to make masks in this material for Muteesa and all of his chiefs. Nathan himself made Kanzus for the ruler and his chiefs, applying both barkcloth and ‘more contemporary African fabric’ in details to signify the proximity the chiefs had to the King.
Timothy Erau is as an artist best known for his ‘light paintings’. When discussing and looking at his contribution to the exhibition (featured all the way down in this post) the possibility of a ‘live light painting’ came up. This makes the gesture of ‘writing with light’, aka ‘photo graphy’ aparent. And it further increased the collectivity of the ‘Gesamtkunstwerk’, as Timothy invited visitors to inscribed their message to the future with the torches of their mobile phones into the picture he was making.
The masks made by Piloya are visually very attractive, but also very uncomfortable to wear. And, helped by the massive attendance of the opening, it was very hot in the gallery. Timothy was taking that into account, telling the performers when they could take their masks off, but also when they should keep them on. While giving instruction he transformed a name into a noun while giving the instruction: ”Keep your Muteesas on’.
While this is light hearted and funny, it also is a small scale example of the transformation of history and what we know about it. It once again emphasises the questions and ambitions that drove me and all of those contributing (I can’t thank you enough!!) towards the show.
Why is the photograph H.M. Stanley made of Kabaka Muteesa I not known in Uganda? Why is the (mis)representation of the King and his Chiefs in the woodcut used in Stanley’s book not questioned? What is the origin of the two portraits of Muteesa that are well known and used interchangeably it seems? What is the significance of all of this? And what and how can we learn from the responses and interpretations made by artists for the ‘Ekifananyi Kya Muteesa’ exhibition?