For a moment today I was startled by serendipity. My surprise did not last very long. Only until it was brought to my attention that the way Facebook reminds us of our (Facebooked) past was the cause of what seemed to be chance. First my friend, Ropo Ewenla, Deputy Director of University of Ibadan Media Centre in Nigeria, and performer, shared two images that are part of the album containing photographs from the collection of the Ugandan National Theatre. Then Rumanzi Canon, co-founder of HIPUganda, and the person sharing images on our Facebook page from our own (digital) collection did the same. The sharing of memories is not part of my system. I ignore them, feel I am perfectly capable of making my own memories without reminders.
But here they were, two posts of photocopied photographs. One on our own Facebook wall, one on Ropo Ewenla’s. I have no idea where the originals are, but the versions we digitised were at the time in a drawer in the archive room of the National Theatre in Kampala.
Ropo’s question begging an answer goes like this: Where is the portal that houses all our pictures at the National Theatre in Nigeria? If there was never one, is this not the time to start one?
The National Theatre in Lagos is rather huge. I photographed it, inside and outside, around the time Ropo and I had the pleasure of meeting in person. It also looked rather dis-functional to me. It looked like an archive in and of itself. An archive of endless ambitions, with its main hall that can seat an audience upto 5000 heads, its two movie halls, its banquet hall… This theatre was, as German artist Daniel Kötter tells us on his project website State Theatre, built for the second World Black and African Festival of Arts and Culture (FESTAC) in 1976. It is the only state-subsidized theatre in Nigeria. While its smaller halls are occasionally used for theatre performances, banquetsand weddings, the 5000-seat main hall has been deserted since the early 1990s. A reopening was scheduled for 2010 but postponedindefinitely after a series of changes in direction.
The Ugandan National Theatre is quite a bit older, and was not built to celebrate ‘African Arts and Culture,’ as the Nigerian one, but to celebrate British Theatre. The photographs that were shared with us by Jackie Lloyd provide, depending on your interest and expectations, an entertaining and/or disturbing testimonies to this.
Kaddu Wasswa added an experience from a Ugandan side to these pantomimes and plays. He wrote plays, and, understandably, had the ambition to perform them in the newly opened National Theatre. The (British) director Maxwell Jackson was on a mission and was accepting applications for a workshop. But he was not allowed to follow up on his intentions. In a letter that Kaddu holds in his Archive (and that was published in our The Kaddu Wasswa Archive) he thanks him for his ‘application to join the training scheme leading to African National Theatre Company’ and continues:
I am very sorry to have to tell you that the responsible authorities have taken steps to prevent the establishment of a true National Theatre of Uganda which would have been the first National Theatre for indigenous people in Africa.
Jackson’s hope that in not too long ‘public opinion will be strong enough to revers this decision’ did not materialise. Kaddu did not yet perform, or see his work performed on the theatre stage. But since we are talking here of the man who received his bachelor in social work last year, aged 82, anything is possible.
All this went through my head when reading Ropo’s call, coming from another side of the continent. I felt that, however much I do sympathise with it, I had to put some perspective to his quest, and the image he used for it. So I told him that the ‘archive’ of the National Theatre in Kampala is housed in one cabinet and a set of albums. One or two of the drawers of the cabinet had quite a lot of films in it/them, that seemed to have on them events related to the theatre; people holding microphones and shaking hands. The albums housed a selection of prints from these negatives. There were, if I recollect correctly, three drawers with photographs. Almost half of them were exhibition prints from Korea and Russia with a pretty propagandistic character. These prints must, at some point, have been exhibited at the theatre. It seems most likely that this happened during one of the (socialist) Obote regimes. But I remember now having read something about a Korean exhibit during the 1970s, which would be under Idi Amin’s rule. Then there were some original prints, mostly devoid of contextual information, and some photocopies of photos, that probably someone, at some point collected and made to benefit the memory of the theatre. Some of these have captions, names, descriptions attached to them. But not all.
His question, and that of others who repeatedly ask whether I could not start a History In Progress in their respective countries also reminded me of something that happens along the process we, with the HIPUganda work, continuously go through; that it is striking, and in an at least mildly ironical way funny how the simple gesture of making what could be argued to be a rather poor collection of photos publicly available, shows its use and the necessity to do exactly this, Make Stuff Available for people to engage with. Not only to confirm existing ideas and facts, but also to establish new connections and create possibilities.