Ugandan artist Matt Kayem is multitalented. His exhibition at Kioko Mwitiki’s Art Gallery has been billed as very appealing to millennials, who say they admire his #MeToo sort of style.
But his is not the #MeToo that protests sexual harassment. Rather, it is one that puts him squarely at the centre of his paintings and prints, making no pretence of being modest — because he isn’t.
His prints are more like artistic installations in which he creates the visual context, including the colourful African wax-print fabrics used as a visual backdrop, and then he throws himself in, with different poses, depending on the concept he aims to create.
Clearly having fun placing himself at the centre of attention, Kayem works with a photographer to create the colourful works.
He displays his six-pack bare-chested in Son of the Sun I and II, with his most prominent attire being brand-new Nike shoes. In Royal Guard he also displays his six-pack stoically seated on a wooden throne, spear in hand, looking like a man in charge.
But Kayem also likes being transgressive. Before the opening of his Cool Africa Vol. 2 solo show last weekend, he told the Saturday Nation why he titled one print “Bad Muganda”, “Good Afrikan”.
“I am a Baganda, but no good member of that community would place his foot on a bunch of matooke,” he said, explaining one of his prints. “Neither would he wear dreadlocks or have pierced ears as I do.” He said he prefers being a “good African” because he sees himself in a broader pan-African context.
He admits that he has been influenced in his art by African-American culture, but this is more apparent in his paintings than in the prints. For instance, in “The Arrival of the Cool”, he features Michael Jackson, Mohammed Ali and Beyoncé, together with George Washington Carver (Black inventor) and at the back of the line is a character that looks like himself.
But probably the clearest example of a contemporary pan-African perspective that derives from African-American culture is his painting of “Black Panther”, a painting, like all his acrylic works, produced not on canvas but on denim jeans, which he opens up and stitches into the shapes he plans to paint on.
One of the denim works that Kayem likes a lot is his portrait of the backside of Natasha Kemigishe, a voluptuous young woman, the kind he says African men adore.
Natasha’s skirt is made with bark cloth, a fabric used traditionally in Ugandan art. It blends well with his denim and Dutch-wax print.
But one of the most interesting prints in his exhibition is titled “Highly Melanated”.
It features three lovely young women and him standing in a row. Initially, it’s a wonder what they have in common, but Kayem explains they are all different. Each is a different shade of brown and each is aligned from the lightest-to-the-darkest-toned woman.
Coincidentally, they also stand in profile, with the darkest being the tallest, down to the lightest being the shortest.
“I thought about deconstruction of the ‘colour bar’,” he says, noting that melanin researchers now believe the darker you are, the better for your health and happiness.