10 February 2013

Uganda: Makerere Art School Paints Bold Picture of Society

And who says Makerere University lost its niche on coming out boldly on issues affecting society?

Visit the ongoing art exhibition at the Margaret Trowell School of Industrial and Fine Arts, and you will be disproved. The exhibition dubbed "Different But One 17", which coincides with the school's platinum jubilee, has different carefully chosen art pieces. Yes, some pass as ordinary artworks; however, majority are thoughtfully done to reflect society.

One of such pieces is titled "Heroine Cerinah Nebanda's shoe; speaking the unspeakable."

From far, the piece done by Dr Amanda Tumusiime, one of the school's lecturers, comes off as a mere banner. However, on a closer look, the white cloth strikes you with a shoe fixed in the middle of the map of Uganda, whose boundaries are covered in blood-stained foot and finger prints.

The 'shoe in installation' apparently signifies Nebanda's power and authority that the patriarchal society will struggle to silence, undermine and destroy.

"The heroines like Cerinah Nebanda are remarkably brave women who can be traced in pre-colonial Uganda. The heroines were the remnants of the matriarchy which was overran by the patriarchy," writes Tumusiime in a catalogue explaining the exhibited art works.

Since then, according to Tumusiime, a patriarchal society has been struggling to control women's sexuality, mobility, reproduction and production, whereas the matriarchy also keeps in resistance to reshape itself. This piece therefore demonstrates that whenever the patriarchy feels threatened, it devises means of reinstating itself.

"It plots ways of getting rid of such powerful, threatening women by labeling them witches, satanic, prostitutes, immoral and mad, and are sometimes excommunicated or murdered," Tumusiime says. He adds that today, drug addiction, which is alleged to give women confidence to speak in public places because they are not supposed to do so, has been added on the long list.

"This [art piece] questions how the patriarchy dealt with Nebanda's threat. Which tools did the patriarchy deploy to undermine and silence Nebanda? Yet on the other hand it demonstrates that upon her death her body became so powerful that it became a site of power struggles," Tumusiime notes.

She gives examples of several MPs who were arrested, intimidated, coup threats, rebel talks, stealing of body parts, tearing of the president's condolence message, drug addictions and poison scares, roadblocks in Butaleja - all signs that something was wrong. To further take on issues in society today, Angelo Kakande F.J, a lecturer of ceramics, uses a pot to bring out the discussion on the impact of an omnipotent presidency and its impact on the functions of other organs of the state.

Titled "Powerful presidency, untamed monster", the art piece uses a multi-disciplinary approach drawing on contemporary art, cultural discourse and legal analysis to reflect on how the country was sucked into the relationship between the executive and legislature.

Kakande also sees a very powerful presidency threatening personal freedoms.

"With so many restrictions on the electronic media, and following the president's recent threat to close media houses which criticize government, I am using pottery as a medium through which to exercise my right to freedom of expression," he says.

"It is a way of creating alternative avenues for discussing governance issues, which, in itself, is a civic duty for all Ugandans including artists," he adds.

Since the first exhibition 17 years ago, the school has kept on the tradition of exhibiting its staff's work in the Different But One exhibition. The exhibition, the brain child of Jewish Curator Rebeka Uziel, is this year distinguished because of its coinciding with the 75th birthday of the art school.

Staff members were tasked to create works that represent the past, present and future.


A trained art teacher from the UK, Margaret Trowell, started the school on the verandah of her home in Mulago, where she was married to a missionary medical doctor. It started as a hobby with nurses, doctors at Mulago joining her at her verandah to create art pieces.

In 1937, she approached Makerere and was allowed to bring the classes to the then Makerere College of East Africa. In 1950, the diploma in fine art programme was introduced before the degree programme was introduced in the late 1960s.

To celebrate the school's journey, the exhibition will run for the next seven to eight months, with a climax in September when the school intends to invite all its alumni for a reunion and also launch a fundraising drive to expand the gallery.

This occasion will also be used to unveil the school's new degree programmes; Bachelor's degree in Visual Art and Communication, Bachelor's degree in Fine Art, and Bachelor's degree in Industrial Art and Applied Art.

At the moment, the school offers only the Bachelor's degree in Fine Art and Industrial Art.

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