It has received a special mention for its inaugural pavilion in Venice, yet Uganda’s global art venture has just begun, writes author Gloria Kiconco.
The announcement that Uganda would stage its inaugural pavilion at the 59th Venice Biennale didn’t land in Kampala, Uganda’s capital, with a fanfare. It trickled through the arts scene like a rumor, like a question. A Ugandan pavilion still seemed years away. The visual arts community has spent much of the last eight years trying to legitimize Uganda as a cultural producer, largely in response to the president’s public dismissal of the entire field as “useless” – a sentiment echoed by international curators and cultural actors. Perhaps it was also because we were emerging from the worst of the pandemic or because posts about it weren’t saturating social media that it took a while to sink in: Uganda had secured a pavilion at the biennale.
Radiance – They Dream in Time is on show at the Palazzo Palumbo Fossati. It features the work of Acaye Kerunen and Collin Sekajugo and is curated by writer, artist, and curator Shaheen Merali. The exhibition was first imagined as a collateral event by Ugandan artists and cultural actors in the country and in the Diaspora, under the Venice Biennale umbrella. These early efforts were frustrated by lack of funding and support for artists. Various organizers dropped out and among those remaining – Acaye and Sekajugo, Sam Okello and Robert Musiitwa from the Uganda National Cultural Centre, and artist management bureau Stjarna – rewrote the collateral event into a national pavilion. They lobbied for the involvement of a government body to facilitate the relationship and exchange between countries. Juliana Akoryo Naumo from the Ministry of Gender, Labour, and Social Development then came on as commissioner. Merali, who initially played an advisory role, was later brought on board as curator with a wealth of experience, roots in East Africa, and a strong understanding of the political position of BIPOC artists.
If the Venice Biennale is indeed like “the Olympics of art,” as Collin Sekajugo has described it, the stakes are high. Yet getting a national presence there seems to depend on individual countries “proving themselves” and “earning their place,” which opens up all kinds of snares. What’s important to Merali is helping artists who are new to such a stage avoid “cultural tripping up” over the inherent and pre-wired bias, discrimination, and racism present in the Global North.
What is the risk with tripping up? Is it that it distracts – from the art, from prolonged interaction with the work, and it therefore strips us of an opportunity to explore the identity, the actual nature of a culture. Where else could we trip up? Over the sense of competition attached to global stages on which countries have to earn a place? In a more insidious way, tripping up can pit marginalized artists against each other. Merali’s strategy for navigating these tripwires requires him to “have an understanding of some critical dimensions of what happens in the Global North. It’s not just about presenting oppositional identities but oppositional strategies that can create that notion of counter hegemony.” One way to do this, according to Merali, is to ask how we can accommodate rather than displace each other.
Collin Sekajugo and Acaye Kerunen’s work accommodates a lot through materials. Their respective bodies of work reflects and builds on a growing movement in Ugandan visual arts that embraces our Indigenous materials, that embraces mixed media and textures as we embrace the multiplicity of identities in this small country. “I like the idea that it is an installation,” says independent Ugandan curator Robinah Nansubuga of Kerunen’s work. “It challenges us as Ugandans to reflect on how we consume installation work. It challenges how we view our own crafts.” This challenge carries over to the international stage.
To Nansubuga, the remaining responsibility the artists carry is how they’ve written and speak about the materials used. The story is there, but how are they telling it? “I’m telling stories about women, about the community, about agriculture, about climate change,” says Acaye. “But also a story about breaking the boundaries of what storytelling means.” Her work centers Indigenous Ugandan materials, the type woven by women whom Acaye frames as the gatekeepers of the wetlands that are the source of those materials and that are at risk as wetland reclamation rapidly spreads.
Her work also addresses another question that Ugandan artists have grappled with for some time: art vs. craft. Raffia, sisal, and banana fiber have long been associated with baskets, mats, and stools, which are not valued anywhere like painting. However, the cultural significance of these “crafts” is misunderstood. Few can read the patterns in them and understand the stories they tell, stories that change from tribe to tribe in Uganda and beyond its imposed borders. “She’s framing so much,” says Merali. “They [Western cultural producers] don’t understand sisal as a material. She’s bringing in a new order.”
Collin Sekajugo complements Acaye’s references by using materials like gunny sack, which speaks to Uganda’s colonial subjugation through agriculture and how that has echoes from its precolonial to its modern experience. Such materials, when layered with manipulated stock photos, comment on the saturation of pop culture and represent the complexity of modern Ugandan reality. Sekajugo says his work “comes from a place of constant reinvention and experimentation [that] has been a significant part of my practice. As an activist and storyteller, the materials I use are fused with locally sourced objects that are relatable for my people back at home. I want Indigenous materials to define what my creative spaces comprise of, and for the end result to portray the unknown Africa or African.”
Both artists’ use of materials generates “a grammar of Ugandan aesthetics,” says Merali. It does more than break down the binaries of art and craft; it presents another decolonial option which broadens the frame of what is considered art. “You have to make meaning of it with your eyes rather than words – you’re left wondering. That is radiance: what you can’t quite capture. Before the before, not bound by history or modernity.”
There is no one way to the Venice Biennale, because countries are valued differently externally for their economic worth. This is reflected in the way they are valued for their cultural worth as well. As Nansubuga puts it, “East Africa has still been considered naïve, even by other African countries” – even though it is consistently mined for resources, which now include cultural production. From the hills of Kampala, what looks like arrival on the global stage is for the team in Venice a foot in the door. “That’s what this is about… Seeing the landscape, being part of it, walking through it and coming back to it,” says Merali, who is treating this as an opportunity to observe, learn, and prepare for the next iteration. When the Ugandan Pavilion received a special mention for national participation at the Golden Lion award ceremony on 23 April, it was unquestionably a significant moment – and the truth is that it’s just the start.
Gloria Kiconco is a Ugandan poet, essayist, zine-maker based in Kampala. As an art writer, she writes to contextualise art, profile artists, and address the role and impact of art writing.