Located next to the State Lodge on Victoria Avenue on Nakasero Hill, Kampala; Nommo Gallery is more than Uganda’s National Art Gallery. The stories that catapulted the gallery into the limelight started simply enough: allegations of rent defaulting by Gen Elly Tumwine over the past two decades which was brought to light by the Permanent Secretary in the Mistry of Gender, Labour and Social Development, Pius Bagirimana.
The name attached to the place and amount demanded though meant the issue would more or less snowball, and it did with exchanges mostly on the terms under which the gallery came under Gen Tumwine’s stewardship. Many of us became aware of the gallery when the stories appeared in the press. What kind of place is it to warrant a national fuss, who goes there? Well, we found out.
Nommo Gallery is arguably the calmest part of Kampala. The ancient trees hem the large spacious compound. It makes the recreation centre feel like a world of its own. None of the city noise makes it to this quiet haven and there is little noise emanating from the place itself. No music here, or raised voices.
Despite having to go through the barrier with the large sign security check, it seems one can stroll in without as much as anyone asking for your bag to check. At least I was not. It is the art gallery that gives this centre its name. Commissioned in 1964, the little green building standing to one side of the compound is almost as old as independent Uganda. It is a component of Uganda National Cultural Centre.
On its website, Nommo Gallery is listed under visual arts. But there is more to the establishment besides it: Two restaurants and a craft shop. The fact that the gallery and the land it stands on is government property, probably explains the temporary nature of the buildings there. Thatch and wood for the Pearl Restaurant and iron sheets for the building housing the café and craft shop, Bindi.
On the Friday afternoon I visited the place, it was the Pearl Restaurant which had patrons. Bindi was open but unpatronised. The people seemed to be frequent customers because they headed for the buffet table, served themselves before taking their seats in the high raised grass-thatched building.
The restaurant has another hut outside, set at a vantage point where one can breathe in fresh air while admiring the sculptures that dot the compound.
Most diners, however, seem to prefer the cool airy hut which houses the restaurant and its verandah on this hot afternoon. Maybe it is more convenient to sit inside. Even with people coming and leaving, the sound level hardly goes above the cutlery on plates and hushed voices, and the occasional car wheels crunching on gravel outside.
Isaac Nyende, a waiter at Pearl Restaurant, says majority of the people who eat there, work at State House and Parliament. “They come here for the food and, of course, the quiet,” he says. True.
In the large parking lot, were several cars bearing government number plates. And several distinguished gentlemen stroll in and quietly head to their tables, seemingly intent on having their meals in peace. Most people do not seem to stay long, though with the quiet surroundings, the gallery is the perfect place to have a quiet conversation.
Sights and rates
One can walk across the compound to the gallery and browse. The paintings are on the wall, well most of them. Smaller ones are placed on tables along with ceramics. The sculptures are positioned in random places in rooms with batiks draped over them (which are also on sale). The prices may or may not be exorbitant depending on which economic divide you are coming from. For art enthusiasts, the prices are fair. Small acrylic paintings are between Shs150,000 and Shs200,000. Some ceramic vases are marked Shs70,000.
If you just came to have your meals and wandered off to the gallery, it may look expensive. In the deserted gallery, one can touch, look; weigh the hand items on display, but cannot take photos. It does not seem like the gallery pulls crowds unless there is a special event. I found myself wandering in and out of the rooms alone.
It must have impressed some people though because it featured as number 59 on Lonely Planet’s 82 places to visit while in Kampala. To reach the craft shop from the gallery, one has to walk across the lawn. It stocks on the items you would expect in a craft shop, soapstone knickknacks, African wear, beaded sandals, and various adornments like jewellery. The prices are surprisingly friendly, given the location of the place.
A custom-made clutch bag in the finest suede goes for Shs40,000 while beaded containers which can hold anything from fruit to jewellery cost between Shs5, 000 -and Shs15,000 depending on size. It feels like one has all the time in the world to browse as nobody hurries you.
Why you ought to visit
Nommo Gallery may not be the liveliest joint in town. In fact, little seems to happen in the spacious compound. Even when Nyende insists the place gets its fair share of customers, he agrees it is never crowded. But it has an out of the city feel despite being close to town, something that is fading out as the city expands.
It also has more to offer than your average restaurant in daylight hours: An art gallery and crafts. The lunchtime buffet is Shs25,000 a plate, definitely not the most expensive, one could pay for around town. “And one can always order a la carte incase what they want is not on the buffet,” says Nyende.
After some hours there, I can say the place may be the least fussy of places. The compound, while not overgrown, is not manicured either. It feels like there is a deliberate attempt to change the place as little as possible. It is the clientele made up of State House big wigs that gives the place an air of mystery and of course that it is run by the art-loving general.
It is entirely possible if the gallery was in some far flung corner halfway to nowhere, Nommo would not make news more than once, whoever’s name it was attached to. But the gallery sits next to the very seat of power, on Nakasero Hill. Can property get any primer than that?
10: Minutes it takes to reach the gallery from the city centre
59: Position listed by Lonely Planet as one of 82 places to visit in Kampala
1964: Year when the gallery was founded and established