Studio and Site Visits

Here we focus on the studio as a point of engagement, the process of making being crucial and as intensely engaging. we give space for critical exploration through supporting research An audience is invited and we often carry books and exchange books with artists with an intimate but diverse group of professions Medicine, law, entrepreneurs, engineers etc. We also carry along writers who we are interested in about the artists we visit.

Activating archives as a resource in contemporary art production: historical and cultural sites, physical libraries, human libraries, as potential knowledge embodiment.
UNDER GROUND currently relies on mobility for fluidity and flexibility: On movement between places and people. We still recognise the importance of physical art spaces and it’s potential together with organizing and mobilizing and networking and therefore we will in the near future need a conducive space.

Studio Crit Format attempts to devise tools for a gallery practice that will encourage theoretical and intellectual work in the Uganda’s art scene. Started in October 2020, Studio Crit is reaching out to modern and contemporary artists across the country and will organize at least three conversations with artist in their studio. A strategy borrowed from “Global Crit Clinic” this format was born of research necessity and has proven highly informative and will be sustained as part of our programs which plans to contact artists country-wide as part of its curatorial practice.

The choice of studio visitors is meant to intensify exchange between art and other fields of research, mediate knowledge between experts and locally based curators and artists. Moreover, it is hoped that these conversation will allow potential new audiences to access and demystify art making in spaces other than “the gallery”

Studio Visits

Buluma O. Mordecai March 2021

Buluma Ochungo Mordecai (1934) brief biography.

By Nantume Violet

My path with artist Buluma crossed on exactly 14th March 2021, 9 months after a futile search that took us to central and eastern Uganda. An invitation to contribute to an exhibition catalogue had come from Fisk University Galleries, Nashville and one of the works to be exhibited were of Buluma Ochungo Mordecai. Why would an artist projected to be one of the greatest painters of East Africa by Cecil Todd in the 60’s disappear off a scene’s radar!  Buluma lived a quiet life after his retirement but also relocated from the city back to his home town. There was unfortunately no knowledge or trace locally of the artist’s where about through academia or art scene except a mention of him in a visual assay that situated his painting The Rocket Kiln in paper on modernization and urbanization in paintings from the collection of the Makerere Art Gallery /HCR in Kampala. There was however faxes shared by Perrin Lathrop from the university’s archives. These were correspondences with Harmon Foundation USA from 1960’s, a period within which it collected and exhibited his works before it closed down in 1967.

Buluma’s career as a practicing artist, teacher and public servant spans six (6) decades. Known in Canada and USA for his colored silkscreen and woodcut prints and oil painting. Buluma’s artistic abilities had been noticeable from his childhood, and could be seen in the caricature drawings of his classmates and clay molds of bulls and human figures as toys for play. His first titled artwork a drawing of a store building he called Imperial Standard Pound in 1946 on a classroom board, a personal take on a one chief’s impressions of standard measures and weights he had visited in a trip to London.

In his work Man with a Bulldog in the Evening (1961) Buluma explores the themes of confinement and animal rights. Buluma loved animals and kept pets as well as other domestic animals, a love he attributes to his grandfather with whom he herded cattle during school holidays. The abandoned Huts (1961) oil painting vividly critics the deconstruction of family unit in a modern world in which we seek economic opportunities through work education and travel.  The inevitable incapacitation for one to care for his or her offspring, when they leave home town to go to the city. The painting captures human struggle and the repercussions of destruction of the familial fabric: the breakdown of the support system within the family setting where siblings shirk responsibilities to each other and children stop caring for parents, as the rural-urban labor flight takes toll on the family set up, the guilt of unmet promises, the scourge of absentee fathers, the struggles of city life visually symbolized by crumbling huts in the colored serigraph. His compositions and motifs often distributed in a narrow vertical space. “I paint a picture of absent fathers and the dissipating struggle in the city in crumbling hut houses made in colored serigraph.”

The Abandoned Huts by Buluma O. Mordecai, 1961, Color serigraph Collection of the National Archives USA

His painting tutor Alex Colville thought his “…art springs out of his own experience of life in Africa, without any trace of sentimentality, melodrama, or exoticism. His work pays homage to his realities. His paintings and prints are certainly plastic rather than literary but they have an extra ordinary intense and poetic evocativeness.”

Currently an elder and cultural leader in Bugwe kingdom, Buluma was born to Wabwire William Ngakayi and Nekesa Janet in Busumba Bulumbi in the county of Samia-Bugwe. The second child of seven (7) siblings, attended Busia Primary school before joining Budo Kings College. It was at Budo that Buluma attended regular art classes with his English teacher Margaret Carney. Although not an art teacher, Margaret offered art classes at least four hours a week. When Buluma took the overseas Cambridge School Certificate after 6 years, art is one of the subject he offered and in 1956 he was admitted to the University College of East Africa now Makerere University. He joined the Makerere Art School at the age of 23 and studied painting under the tutelage of Margaret Trowell in painting, Gregory Maloba in sculpture, and later Cecil Todd.

Self-portrait by Buluma O. Mordecai, 1962, oil on canvas, 101.5 x 76.2 cm, Collection of the Fine Arts Department, Mount Allison University, Sackville, New Brunswick, Canada

Buluma found great inspiration from Cecil who had joined Makerere in Buluma’s fourth and final year. Contrary to Trowell, Cecil taught art by demonstration. He paid attention and encouraged mastering techniques of figure drawing, color theory and exposed his students to art histories and artistic productions from other parts of the world. It was in fact through Cecil that The Harmon Foundation (1921 to 1967) was introduced to Buluma in 1960. The cultural institute had in 1959 sent out invitations to art teachers across Africa to recommend artists for a publication of Contemporary Art from Africa. Cecil recommended his student Estella Betty Manyolo, his colleagues Sam Ntiro and Musangogwantamu Francis as well as his former student Buluma who was in Canada then. The Harmon Foundation in New York has been recognized for its promotion and exhibition of African and African American artists in the USA. The foundation in collaboration with other cultural organizations; museums, galleries, art departments and schools exhibited the foundations Africa collection in contemporary exhibitions across USA.

On graduation from Makerere, Buluma applied to the Royal College of Arts London, but was transferred to Mount Allison University, New Brunswick in Canada. Three months later, in fall of 1960 he received the Common Wealth Scholarship and Fellowship Plan and joined the art department at Mt. Allison University for two years. He studied painting, sculpture and English as a language. It was in New Brunswick that Buluma had his most active artistic travel and exhibition years. Buluma’s most known works were mostly made in Sackville, New Brunswick and exhibited across US. He participated in gallery and museum tours with fellow artists from West and East Africa.

The Rocket Kiln by Buluma O. Mordecai, Early 1960s, Oil on hardboard 72 x 28 cm,

Courtesy: Makerere Art Gallery Collection, Margaret Trowell school of industrial and Fine Arts, Makerere University, Kampala Uganda

Buluma left Canada immediately after graduation in the fall of 1962, same time when Uganda was getting its independence. That November he joined the Uganda Museum as a trainee Education Officer. Generally, many public institutions colonial directors and management were handing over management to African leadership.  He later became the museum Education Officer and participated in art education initiatives that facilitated exchanges with school children in Uganda and other countries. He developed art school programs, promoted visual aids and briefcase exhibits and supported building a film library as well as develop a curriculum for school children in 1966.

Buluma became active in curatorial work across East Africa through collaboration and staging shows for fellow artists in the region. Buluma participated in the independence exhibition at the Uganda Museum and other exhibitions at Nommo Gallery co-curated by Cecil. As a museum representative, he travelled widely as a cultural representative to Mexico, Yugoslavia, and US. He was intensely engaged with ministry of culture between 1962 until September 1989 when he retired from public service. He promoted, organized workshops and represented artists together with Rekyaelimoo Njau in seminars. As a curator, he wrote cultural commentaries with New Vision in the 80’s and published two children books Cheche and Taaka, Cheche the Monster with Fountain Publishers.

In 1968 Buluma was appointed as a teacher by the Ministry of Education at the National Teachers College, today’s Nkozi University. He served as a Fine Arts and English teacher at the Kampala Technical Institute (now Kyambogo University). He curated at the Nommo Gallery, National Cultural Centre (UNCC) under Uganda’s Ministry of Culture. He was a director at the Uganda Museum in 1970 before retiring from public service.

L-R: Buluma O. Mordecai, Mrs. Barbra Brown and a Russian delegate at Nommo gallery in the early 70’s, Courtesy of UNDER GROUND

Courtesy of UNDER GROUND

In1989, at 55 Buluma fully dedicated his time to studio practice. Buluma lived with his first wife Kezia Nabatanzi in Naguru up-to 1994 when he left the capital and relocated to his home Busia. Between 1996 and 2004 he developed a relationship with his lawyer brother in law who from time to time collected his work. Issa Luboti lived/s between Tennessee Memphis, USA and in Kampala. He enjoyed the seclusion from travel and public event and continued to paint in mother’s house that is a stone throw away from his own house. Buluma still lives in homestead surrounded by his children, one of his wives and relatives who stretch over 8 acres. He sold his work to Luboti and after some time agreements were renewed. There was an upcoming solo exhibition in US, it took long for this to materialize but 2004 travel arrangements were made preparations were up in gear as he renewed his passport. By this time a total of 60 paintings and drawings were in custody of his brother in-law Luboti in Memphis. In 2005 all communication from Memphis breaks off. Letters were not responded to and calls were not picked and messengers who supported collecting and sending works didn’t come anymore. Slowly Buluma stopped to paint, sketch and slowly his brushes and paints started to disappear as he stopped ritual of going to his mother’s house every morning. Some equipment became play toys for his grandchildren. Buluma though stayed active in writing for local newspapers and active cultural administrator for Bugwe Kingdom. By the time we met Buluma in March 2021, he had spent over 15 years without painting.

Buluma looking at images of his painting made 1961/62. Forward is the Mambo Jambo and the back is Sackville Studio.

Courtesy of UNDER GROUND

Exhibitions

  • 1960 East African Artists exhibition, Uganda museum
  • 1961 Contemporary African Productions, UNESCO meetings Boston
  • 1961 Carver Club of City College, School of Business
  • 1961 Temple Emanu-El, Yonkers
  • 1962 Queens College Africa Conference in New York
  • 1962Bronx NAACP, Savoy Manor, Bronx
  • 1962 Community Church, 35th St. & Parker Ave. New York
  • 1962 Washington Heights Branch, New York Public Library
  • 1962 Skunder Boghossian Merton Smithsonian Gallery
  • 1962 Museum Association Williamsburg, Virginia organized by America Associations of Museums
  • 1962 Hampton Institute
  • 1962 Phelps-Stokes Fund
  • 1963 Margaret Hall Girls school, Versailles
  • June 1964 Exhibition of East African artists in Dar-es-Salaam at the National Festival
  • 1964 First major and joint show by Buluma Ochungo Mordecai and Musangogwantamu Francis, Chemi Chemi Gallery, Nairobi
  • 1964 Washington Square Gallery  
  • 1964 Inaugural Exhibition, Group Exhibition, painting and graphics work, Nommo Gallery
  • 1965  A representative Collection, paintings and graphics work, Nommo Gallery
  • 1966 Traveling exhibition, Smithsonian Institute of Washington D.C. African artists in Print Media.
  • 1984 Sanaa: Contemporary Art from East Africa at the Commonwealth Institute in London. (Co-curators Rekyaelimoo Njau, Mordecai Ochungo Buluma, and Fatmah Abdallah)

Bibliography

Correspondences between Buluma O. Mordecai and Harmon Foundation 1960’s, Fisk University Galleries.

Correspondences between author and Mount Allison University, Sackville, New Brunswick, Canada March /April 2021

Interviews with Buluma O. Mordecai March/April 2021

https://www.archives.gov/research/african-art Contemporary African Art




Studio Crit Format – Kyakonye Allan

Egg Portrait Series

Portraits of Queens, Kings, political leaders of past and present, and cultural icons appear illustriously in medallion shaped paintings: Familiar faces, encoding well-known histories. On monumental canvases Kyakonye Allan playfully intertwines these portraits with ancestral symbolism and material experimentation that contain hidden inscriptions of his personal biography.

The works comprising the Egg Portrait Series chose the oval shape as their primary framework. The egg, intuitively associated with new beginnings and cycles of rebirth, delivers the backdrop for the personalities the artist depicts using egg tempera of his own making: an organic choice of paint that gives the portraits a somewhat porous, brittle texture. The medallion portraits form the centerpiece of large “canvases” from aluminium foil, a material the artist collected from an early age.

Initially, he had hoped to sell the foil to scrap dealers, though, very soon he had to face their utter lack of interest in the valueless material. Nevertheless, Kyakonye continued collecting it. Why did he do that? Sometimes the material gives glimpses into the future, anticipates, when its story is not yet written. For, by the time Kyakonye decided to become an artist, mountains of foil were already waiting for him to be incorporated into his practice.

He fixes layered pieces of crumpled foil onto canvas and treats it with fire causing the material to discolor in different shades. The use of fire creates an allusion to the proverbial meaning of his name Kyakonye. In a subtle move very close to sampling and remixing the portraits cease to be solely of “decisive personalities” and develop – via a detour through the material, its treatment, and the handmade paint – a hidden, yet, obscurely present autobiographical dimension. In a way, the portraits tip over to become self-portraits creating invisible bridges across time and space and opening up a multiplicity of pathways for imagination.

An upcoming exhibition and youth workshop exploring the stories contained in materials and their usage in portraiture and images of the self will be staged under the title: Museum of Selves – Portraying Becoming towards the end of the year.

Text by Julia Gyemant



Studio Crit Format – Ocom Ekuwe Adonius

ROYAL PARADOXES?

For the past three years, Ocom has worked on a question, Who is your saint? This body of work consists of several large scale collages, where I appropriate old newspapers to make surfaces for drawing. Flat layers of paper are glued and stacked together to achieve thick and strong mache on which charcoal and wash drawing are made. By doing so, he comments on and critique social-political, political structures in Uganda and around the globe using a religious lingo to question processes in which honour and virtue is awarded, depending on the value systems of different communities, nations and a people. The title of the series poses a question as a starting point to invite the viewer into conversation with the artwork. As part and parcel of engagement, the works have evolved to reflect on the audience’s reflection and understanding “of goodness” of how then specific humans become idealised and glorified, and therefore awarded or canonised. Together with the viewer dymstifies the standardised processes which allows inclusivity of the non-popular view, the non-grand characters whose contribution through small deeds of service and kindness support intricate structures of industry, banking and transport. More so than ever, this work sought to acknowledge the things that have time immemorial created an environment in which grand ideas flourish. The themes that inspire this question resolve around world politics, migration and sexuality.

The artist is currently working with a new question, Royal Paradoxes? Informed by the previous question. He works with oils on canvas and uses people around him as his subjects. I have also been using ancient Egyptian mythologies and spiritual symbolism to illustrate power, royalty and holiness.

The question of interest is to attempt to redefine what is royal and who is royal. It also seeks to bring to light people who deserve to be celebrated as royals. This research is informed by the daily activities, people, and the present, past notions of hierarchy. The question seeks to understand how colonisation through education, religion and commercialization shape our perceptions about royalty. (Education(foreign curriculums) and religion were tools used to realise the colonial project to subdue people in Asia, Africa, caribean and South America) 




Studio Visit – Mwesiga Ian

17th Dec 2020 and 1st Mar 2021.

Portraying African bodies using iconic photography

There are important works from Uganda contributing to the conversation of redefining portraiture. For instance, Mwesiga Ian’s current body of works springs from an encounter with pictures from an ethnographic archive at the Uganda’s Ethnographic Museum. In his quest to work with 1960 archival images, he has rummaged through colonial archives with images of post-independent Uganda. The works are typical of photographs taken of people from central Africa that were never intended for the gaze of those who appeared in them. This is not a phenomenon that occurred only after colonization; historically images taken of natives by explorers and missionaries were fundamental evidences used to argue for the need to occupy, conquer and impose a western civilization. In a powerful gesture, Mwesiga’s paintings take back control of the gaze to determine in what light he wants black people to be seen. The works also critique popularization imaging through which the colonial powers envisaged racial differences through a comparative method; by placing colonial subjects next to colonial masters in which cultural difference was also reduced to physical distinction in skin color.

His works contribute to representation by portraying his subjects in dignified everyday local and familiar setting–; dressed up, taking a beer, playing cards, girls relaxing by the pool, street bars and salons, couple courting seated in a clean environment, at dance parties or females visiting the gallery; light moments and dignified narratives that are part of the African story. The paintings are a re-assembling of iconic photos of people, things and places to reflect on contemporary life through evoking the element of time and place.

Salon Kafunda 2017, Oil on canvas. 140x208cm by Mwesiga Ian. Courtesy of artist.

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