These past seven weeks in Kampala may forever go down as a moment that brought art and politics to a crossroads. Over the years, even when art sang truth to power, it always knew the right time to reconcile with power, especially when it came to matters of money. Yet, the recent arrest of Ugandan popular musician turned opposition legislator Robert Kyagulanyi Ssentamu, better known as Bobi Wine, has cemented the position of art as a properly critical force.
“It was useless for the government to believe he wasn’t a threat when he has been preaching people power to wainaichis through his musical career,” argued Judith Adong, a playwright and theatre director in a social media post.
After Wine’s arrest and alleged torture, Kampala’s arts scene has felt newly politicized. At the city’s Writivism Festival, a literary showcase to poetry collective Kitara Poets’ theatrical production Arrest the Poem, undertones of the political climate were easily noticeable on stage in poems Omugenyi (The Visitor) about a guest that has outstayed their invite to scenes of police hunting down poets for what they are reciting on streets.
It was not surprising that the production was banned from the theatre premises only hours after curtains came down.
As was the case at the third Kampala Art Biennale, that opened in the Ugandan capital on 24 August and closed this Monday on 24 September, which provided an abstract yet timely political statement.
Aptly titled ‘The Studio’, this year’s biennale saw curator Simon Njami invite seven masters, Bili Bidjocka (Cameroon), Godfried Donkor (Ghana), Abdoulaye Konaté (Mali), Myriam Mihindou (Gabon), Radenko Milak (Bosnia and Herzegovina), Aïda Muluneh (Ethiopia) and Pascale Marthine Tayou (Cameroon) to open studio spaces in Kampala, where they would take on East African and international artists, Sandra Suubi, Matt Kayem, Adonias Ocom and Arim Andrew among others as apprentices. ‘The tradition of the studios has always been fundamental in art history, be it in the West or in Africa where, contrary to the ethnological reading, the great masters used to work with a crowd of apprentices and pupils,’ Njami writes in his curatorial statement.
Taking ‘the studio’ as a theme could be interpreted as a political gesture calling for transitions of power between generations, as Njami appeared to suggest in his introduction at the biennale opening night.
For its promotional posters, the biennale deployed the French Realist artist Gustave Courbet’s famous work, The Painter’s Studio (1855). Courbet’s work is known for its portrayal of France’s artistic society at the time – yet it is also famous for being displayed at one of the infamous Salon des Refusés, a showcase that sprung up to show work by the many artists rejected by the Paris Salon (the official exhibition of the Académie des Beaux-Arts). Does the Kampala Biennale have similar rebellious intent?
For this year’s biennale, Njami worked with a space in Kampala industrial area that has for years been an abandoned warehouse in many ways, it defied normal displays, and brought contemporary art to an ordinary side of Uganda.
Located at the Design Hub in Kampala’s most polluted area of the past, the Ware House was partly still sticking with dark oils that must have dripped from machines that must have been removed only days to the opening.
Njami did not touch the dirty walls, in fact, I wonder whether he may have asked his team to make them even messier. One artwork created a series of ant hills across the installation space, yet you could not blame visitors for thinking it was real. Njami allowed the space to work for him, dividing it into different ‘studios’ for masters and apprentices to exploit.
With a studio-themed biennale, the inevitable happened: much of the works seemed incomplete or hastily improvised. Others, you could easily assume some students entered the wrong class entirely; not that they were bad artistes, some like those in weaving simply signed up for a discipline they rarely practice.
Compared to Konate’s neat textile art that was on display, with that of the apprentices, the sloppiness or careless finishing that punctuated it said it all.
It is hard to name them: the whole show was produced without artwork titles or attribution (apart from a general list of artists on the wall). Walking through the exhibition sometimes felt like entering a maze of confusion.
But the problems of the Kampala Biennale are more serious than mere issues of titles and signatures – the presentation and concept had already been heavily criticized by the Ugandan art world even before it had kicked off. In a Facebook post, Robinah Nansubuga a renown curator asked whether Uganda lacked even a single master.
Why did Njami have to come to Kampala to curate a biennale of masters that were neither Ugandan or East African? Did this mean there were no masters in Uganda? Did this mean that Uganda didn’t have art at all?
As for the answers, Njami and his team present them on the walls; the showcase almost suggested East Africa doesn’t have art, at least judging by the influences, voices and stories it told.
It was only at a few incidents like Bidjocka and Donkor’s studios where it felt like the master indeed came to Uganda and tried to work with Ugandan stories or generally with an East African space.
Other studios and installations were mostly a collective of ideas some of which could even be too foreign for West Africans where a big number of our masters hailed from and sadly, some of the works by these masters failed to have a sense of belonging as they always seemed to have been imported for the biennale than produced for it.
As a result, only days after the opening, Konaté’s work for instance had been removed.
But the forgiving lot that Ugandans are, we let that slide – until we came face to face with an artwork comprising of a bed, complete with unmade sheets. The Tracey Emin effect, if you like.
In the British artist’s Turner-Prize-winning original piece, My Bed (1998), she showcased a real wooden bed, with wrinkled sheets and pillows with other objects. The Kampala Art Biennale recreation added shoes, saucepans and plates, but it did not take away the fact that it was a work people have experienced before, and elsewhere.
Njami’s biggest mistake as a curator may be the fact that he denied the whole showcase a Ugandan or East African voice of reason. It seemed like a wholly imported exhibition from Europe, of course this stems from the origin of the masters that became the drivers of the art works produced by apprentices and a fact that as a biennale, probably organisers intended to pride themselves in extreme internationalism.
But for a showcase placed in a Kampala warehouse, a Ugandan capital where techniques have been birthed and later showcased to the world, a biennale with a predominately Ugandan art community, this will highly go down as one that came and did not only conquer but dictated to regional artistes what, when and how to say things.