Kampala Biennale Artist-in-Residence Charity Atukunda speaks to ART AFRICA about artistic practice in Uganda; the role of formal training, digital advancements and the realities of producing art whilst working a full-time job.
ART AFRICA: You have previously said “I wanted to make art an everyday reality for every Ugandan.” Why do you think this is so important?
Charity Atukunda: This is important because I feel like a lot of Ugandans don’t think art belongs to them. Our history and current context has bred a great misunderstanding of what art means and could be to Ugandans. There are misconceptions that arise towards art and the first revolves around material. Because ‘formal’ art training comes from a European context, the assumption is that to create fine art you have to use imported tools from Europe or other parts of the world. Realistically a lot of people here can’t afford those materials but they don’t need them to create.
When I was in University, one of my painting teachers explained to our class that what sells in fine art is your culture, to be specific, the ‘traditional,’ which essentially exoticised ‘African,’ despite the fact that these traditional depictions no longer hold any personal meaning to the artists. When tourist season rolls around, this art sells well, but the consumers are all foreigners and rarely locals.
It’s a shame that in Uganda there is a prevalent, biased perception of what art is. Especially this idea that it belongs to only a certain group of people.
You have also stated that you wanted everyone to have a chance to appreciate art. How do you physically do this in the context of the many important societal issues that we all face every day?
I recently participated in the third Sadolin MabARTi Challenge 2016, which is part of a contemporary art project initiated by the Goethe Zentrum Kampala and Sadolin Paints Uganda ltd, to promote art in public spaces. I had to execute a three-by-two metre painting on corrugated iron sheets, locally known here as Mabaati. The material was very difficult to handle but most difficult of all was trying to paint on the side of a very busy Gayaza Road, near a bustling marketplace in Kalerwe. It was all very contrary to my usual process which is contemplative, solitary, peaceful and private.
For those four days I integrated myself in an environment that I never partake in. My presence in that space made the work more accessible and contextually relevant to the public. The act normalised the process of creation to that particular public in that particular space. This kind of approach to transforming our spaces, engaging in the artistic process in a public way, makes an impression on people and sometimes sparks creativity within themselves or just a different way of thinking. But you have to be there and connect consistently with the people if you want to effect some kind of change.
What parallels can you draw between your own work and this year’s Kampala Biennale theme ‘Seven Hills’?
I live and work in Kampala so I have drawn deeply on my day to day experiences in order to find a parallel to the ‘Seven Hills’ themes. I have a full time job and realistically as a painter, I never have enough time to delve into the process of creation in a consistent way. I had to turn to digital tools in order to continue practicing art. My lunch hours are spent on a computer, I scan my sketches, experiment, play with digital tools in the office setting. There is a level of creative mobility which I have acquired through digital tools. They have enabled me to amplify/accelerate my artistic process – from research, to execution, and experimentation – even a brief critique is a Whatsapp message away. It’s this acceleration that allows me to pursue and explore my creative capacity within a time restrictive lifestyle.
How important are events like the Kampala Biennale and for them to take place on the continent? What opportunities do they afford artists like yourself and what are you hoping to achieve or get out of the residency?
This is Kampala’s second biennale and I think this initiative of bringing biennales to Kampala is one of the best things to happen to its contemporary art scene. I think there are a lot of potential and creative minds that have not been recognised and will benefit with the outlets the biennale has to offer. Personally, I have been practicing art all my life but I have never shared it on such a platform. What I am really looking forward to is the exchange of ideas, critique and stepping outside the private relationship I have with my work in order to mature as an artist.
This interview was first published in the September 2016 edition of ART AFRICA magazine, entitled ‘BEYOND FAIR’.