The vast majority of humans, if not all of us, appreciate and savour visual art every day. God, the greatest master artist, created an Earth and universe whose visual magnificence is too awesome for words, albeit constantly available to us in our waking hours and in our dreams.
God’s artwork, which renders all human efforts at imitation rather infantile, is well summarised by the great Christian hymn: How Great Thou Art. That hymn is always uplifting whenever we sing “O Lord, my God, when I in awesome wonder, consider all the worlds Thy Hands have made. Technological advances since the invention of the camera 200 years ago, have afforded us visual enjoyment of beautiful landscapes, magnificent flora and fauna, and the great variety of human faces and bodies in distant lands that display God’s extraordinary power.
However, in His immeasurable generosity, God gave humanity the ability to apply our skills and imagination to create, with our hands, drawings, paintings, sculptures and other works of art that appeal to our emotions, feed our senses, tell our story and preserve specific points of humanity’s journey. Not all of us have the ability to produce works of art that pass the critical test of the connoisseurs. I, for one, am hopelessly lost with a paint brush or an artist’s pencil.
Happily, my paint-brush disabilities are compensated for by an intense love affair with beautiful art and a well composed photograph. The work of very many photographers, including amateurs with an eye for great subjects, amaze and please me in equal measure.
Yet the creative genius of men and women who produce masterpieces from their heads, unassisted by the artificial eye of the camera, is in a class above all. Africa has been full of them for centuries, although the work of many is unknown, with most gone forever, destroyed by a world that cares little about preserving their rich canon.
Uganda, even before it came into being as a united colonial experiment, was home to outstanding artists whose creations were passed down in oral history and, occasionally, as surviving artefacts. However, even during the colonial period, hardly any of these were collected, curated and systematically preserved for posterity. It was only in 1964 that an American woman, a temporary resident of Kampala, founded the Nommo Gallery. The Nommo Gallery, which opened in a small, but now forgotten venue somewhere on Kampala Road, before quickly relocating to its current address at 4 Victoria Avenue, Nakasero, Kampala, was the first art gallery in all of East Africa.
Barbara Neogy Lapcek, its founder and first executive director, is a woman whose name ought to be entrenched in the top-tier list of outstanding contributors to our country’s development. Barbara was born on November 24, 1933 in Yonkers, New York, United States of America to Elizabeth and Joseph Lapchick. A 1955 honours’ graduate of Barnard College, New York, she did her postgraduate studies at Columbia University. Soon after arriving in Kampala in the early 1960s, Barbara immersed herself in the country’s cultural world even before she met and married Rajat Neogy, the famed Ugandan-Asian founder of Transition Magazine.
While in Uganda, Barbara also worked as a cultural columnist for The People newspaper and assistant editor and advertising manager, Transition Magazine. She and her husband were forced to leave Uganda soon after Rajat Neogy’s release from prison where he had been incarcerated on tramped up sedition charges.
On returning to America, Barbara worked as the director of the New York State Arts in Prison Programme that brought visual artists and writers to New York prisons and hospitals; director, the New York State Artists Fellowship Programme; and executive director of Musica Sacra. She spent the last two decades of her career working as executive director, Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture.
Barbara, who was honoured by the Uganda History Society as Woman of the Year in 1967 and was a recipient of the Service to the Arts Award of the Maine Art Dealers Association in 1990, was the recipient of the 2019 International Community of Banyakigezi Award of Excellence for her contribution to the Arts in Uganda. In appreciation of her work, ICOB also gave her two framed paintings by David Kibuuka, one Uganda’s best-known artists.
In a message to me last week, Barbara said: “I have been looking with intensity at the two paintings that your wonderful committee gave me. I would very much like to write to the artist to thank him and to be in contact with him when, and if, he is in New York City.
“These are wonderful, wonderful paintings and I am extremely grateful for them, as I am for all the things that you did to make my day outstanding.
“Of the honours and awards I have been getting, the one that your group gave me means, without question, the most and matters enormously. I hope that I can one day, within the next couple of years, see the Nommo Gallery again and see our Kampala again and be among the most wonderful population in the world – the Ugandan citizens. I was so happy to be there.”
I share Barbara’s hope and dream that she will visit Kampala again. I hope that our country’s artists and custodians of our arts will fulfil her dream. Uganda should honour this great woman whose foresight brought forth the Nommo Gallery, an institution that survived the many trials and tribulations of our land, and stillfeatures exhibitions of art by both Ugandan and foreign artists.
I appreciate and honour Gen Elly Tumwine, a great artist, for his efforts to preserve and grow the Nommo Gallery. He and his artist colleagues stand on the broad shoulders of a very frail woman in whose honour we should rename the great institution “The Barbara Neogy Lapcek Nommo Gallery.”