Consulting the oracle at the Kampala contemporary art show 

Saturday May 21 2016

Strange Fruit: Flesh Bulbs on exhibition at the Circle Arts Gallery of Ugandan contemporary art. PHOTO | STACEY GILLIAN

Strange Fruit: Flesh Bulbs on exhibition at the Circle Arts Gallery of Ugandan contemporary art. PHOTO | STACEY GILLIAN 

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I had not planned to attend the Kampala contemporary art exhibition at Circle Art Gallery, in Nairobi, but when the Internet exploded with the arrest of Ugandan opposition leader Kizza Besigye after swearing himself in as president on Wednesday, May 11, and realising that the exhibition was coming to an end, I knew that it was imperative to set time aside.

And so after ascertaining that it would still be possible to view the paintings after the exhibition’s official end on Saturday, Monday morning saw me toddling into Circle Art’s Lavington gates.

Why was this quest so vital? I had charged myself with finding out how the consistently violent and draconian treatment of Dr Besigye (on top of the consistent harassment he has faced in his political aspirations, he has now been charged with treason) could be explained in the art of the people of Uganda. You see, any time a situation of psychic imbalance hits a country, the answers are always to be found in the arts of its people.

Like a diviner reading tea leaves, I was, therefore, there to consult the visual art of the people of the land of ssebo, which this exhibition revolved around, to find out what this move portended for the future of the continent. You know what they say about not ignoring it when your neighbour’s house catches fire.

Curated by Nicola Elphinstone and Robinah Nansubuga, the first image that grabbed my attention was a painting by Mukiza, depicting a picture of a girl kissing three frogs. If the smooth chocolate skin and Bantu knots on her head were not enough to suggest that the artist was using her to symbolise Africa, the fact that the shape of her head was done in the shape of the map of Africa. The frogs, too, were not just any frogs; they were painted in the flags of three global powers: China, USA and the European Union.


What was this artist trying to say? It was clear. Africa is kissing frogs, imagining that one of them will turn into a handsome prince. In more tangible terms, she is wasting her energy and power continuously looking out of herself for power when it lies within her. In fact, these ‘suitors’ that surround her are more aware of her power than she is herself, no wonder they all jostle for her time, attention and yes, markets and mineral reserves.

This artist’s Pan-African orientation is clear from another oil and pencil on canvas work, ‘Heirloom,’ a work that is the visual equivalent of Tony Morrison’s novel The Bluest Eye.

Mukiza suggests that the heirloom this generation of Africans is handing down to the next is one of racial self-hatred by its very refusal to create its own images and tell their own stories. The painting shows an older woman (presumably the mother) handing a Caucasian doll with blonde hair and blue eyes to an expectant and innocent African girl. Mukiza does not shed much light on the Ugandan political situation but he still gives a powerful reminder to the continent of her potential.

Papa Shabani’s stunning photographs ‘Kampala: City of Dreams’ and ‘I Create’ created a very sudden and unexpected cognitive shift for me amidst my investigations. ‘Kampala: City of Dreams’ is fresh, with silvery gold hues, a subtle light bouncing off the picture surface. It features a muscled youth clad in funky urban gear standing in the middle of orderly traffic on a clean and perfectly tarmacked road.

Vitality, order and functionality are spelt out. What does it tell us? That African’s masculinity is coming out in all its glory, bringing the days of its feminine wildness and disorder to an end.

‘I Create’, on the other hand, depicts the same young man, this time standing hidden behind green palm fronds, banana leaves and riotously coloured shrubs, a camera in hand. It is as if Africa is telling the world: “I can see you, and with the power of my lens, I will now create you.”

It must be noted that capturing and defining of essence is key in the accumulation of power. The person that does this assumes a role of power because by their naming, they are also laying out the coordinates of the game. Have you noticed the ultimate power-warrior Donald Trump laying the same strategy with his pejoratively baptising his political opponents names as ‘Little Marco’, ‘Crooked Hillary’ and ‘Low Energy Jeb Bush’? Papa Shabani is suggesting that Africa is now growing its own cojones.

Xenson’s riotously colourful mixed media works aver to explore superficial adaptations of identity. They do it well to. On the surface, they appear to transmit a happy air with their exuberant colours, yet if you look closer, the essence of the characters is obscured. Insight into Uganda? Is it the appearance of civility and normalcy on the surface yet the dark brutal hand of politics controls everything below ground?

Paul Ndema’s oil on canvas collections are hilarious in their depiction of religious hypocrisy. With Private Blessing has a priest, his collar on askew, a startled expression on his face, standing just behind a young woman, naked but for a bed sheet clutched to her chest. The priest has been caught out in his mischief. ‘Be Like the Raven’ depicts a religious leader, decked out in church regalia, a raven sitting on his shoulder.


The message is clear. While Jesus Christ advised that those following his teachings be like the raven in their simplicity and eschew opulence and materiality, religious leaders of the present in Africa are notorious for their large living, swindling their own flock to their ends. ‘The Seat of Confession’ then shows a religious leader sitting as if in deep contemplation, holding his head as if worried (guilt?), a gun pointed to his head by the hand of a woman, as evidenced by the lacquered finger nails.

Paul seems to be suggesting that sexual debauchery and avarice will be the downfall of the African Christian church. But this would not be surprising. It is these very same things that saw Martin Luther take up a one-man revolt by pinning up his 95 theses in the 16th century.

This sheds additional light to the Besigye situation. Africa is at the bottom of the Maslow hierarchy, where survival and acquiring the basic needs are still something to be fought for. If religious leaders are so dehumanised that eating off the fat of their flock is no big deal, then why should a government trying to hold on to power let go of an upstart trying to muscle in on its territory?

The last image I encountered, Stacey Gillian’s ‘Strange Fruit: Flesh Bulbs,’ was an installation comprising bottles tightly bunched together and hanging macabrely from the ceiling, like the body of a dead man. Like Paul Ndema’s, they reminded us of the stark and harsh facts of this African space. Alluding to  Billy Holiday’s song by the same title, which spoke about the public lynchings and hanging of African Americans in the deep south in the 1930s, the installation reminded us of the events in Uganda.

I’ve never really thought about it, but Africa does have its own style of ‘Strange Fruit’, innocent people that go through public lynching’s and hangings (both literally and figuratively speaking) by the dominant powers and supporters of the status quo in their quest for change. And so, with Besigye installed in a jail cell in Moroto and all the violence he and his supporters have faced in their attempt to create a new dispensation, he is Kampala’s and perhaps Africa’s Strange Fruit of the moment, as the continent continuously negotiates its future.