23 March 2014

Uganda: Makerere University Exhibiting Jewish Community in Uganda

Some have done this through fine art, poetry, music, dance and drama, but as time goes on, more genres of art have been explored. And if crazy Lady Gaga pulled off a vomit art stunt in a concert, it is proof enough that art is not limited to still pictures and sophiscated paintings.

On Friday, Makerere University's Margaret Trowell art gallery hosted the Once Upon A Time art exhibition. I went set to amuse my eyes with some fine drawings and paintings, plus interact with the groups of rich people that actually pay for these pieces.

But I was wrong; this had nothing to do with paintings. It was art where they were showcasing a 12-minute documentary about Judaism in Uganda. Once Upon A Time is a four-channel video installation featuring interviews with four Rabbinical students in Nabugoye, Mbale district.

To avoid making a cocktail of organized noise, there were headsets on each of the videos so that when one was watching the first clip, they were not interrupted by another person watching the second clip.

Two of the students in the clips are Ugandans, while the other two are from Kenya and Ghana. Their narratives are highly personal, though; there's a coherence that emerges in all their stories.

Alex Armor left Ghana to study Judaism in Uganda in 2008. He's all praise for his teacher Rabbi Gerson. He would want to finish studies and go back to lead the Jewish community in Ghana, which he is not sure exists. On the other hand, Jacob Juma, a student at the Islamic University in Uganda seems to be on a verge of exiting the culture; he has studied for two years but does not know how long the course to becoming a rabbi lasts.

"Rabbi Gerson tells us that we can only be ordained when we become like him," Juma says.

What makes Once Upon A Time stand out as an art is the craft the Kenya-based Ukrainian producer Sam Hopkins puts in the project; separate videos that start and end in the same way and at exactly the same time, yet both cover different stories.

"I did the story to show the world the other stories that have not been exploited about East Africa. For example, there's more to Kenya than the Maasai," he says.

The four videos weren't the only ones on show. In another partition of the gallery was another one with a numerical codename 326/203/301/656. It was also about the Abayudaya of Uganda, although it took a pseudo-mystical approach of using photos of the kipot (Jewish traditional skullcaps).

In 1919, Buganda chief Semei Kakungulu and his family were circumcised and later declared themselves Jewish, hence fourth founding the Abayudaya, a Jewish community in Mbale. Today, this community is one of the African handful of Jewish people that are not ethnic Jews, but chose to adopt and practise the Jewish way of worship.

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