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Artist explores local history in art exhibition

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(L): Pamela Enyonu, Certain Materials, 2024. PHOTO/Royal Kenogo Courtesy of the Artist

(R): Pamela Enyonu, Ideke Abwangu, 2024. PHOTO/Royal Kenogo Courtesy of the Artist

In her first local solo exhibition titled Ateker, Ijasi Biyayi?—Greetings From the Road (A Dedication), Pamela Enyonu, a multimedia artist, explores history narrated through her new and older artwork.

Enyonu has a collection of 33 artworks on display that include Buto, Nambi OwegGulu, Topapa, Certain Materials, Atatait, Verse III (When They Gave Blessings), Verse IV (When They Gave Blessings), Tree of Knowledge (of good and evil), Menye, and Social Nature Studios.

The exhibition that opened on May 11 and ends on July 11 at the Summit Residences in Kampala in partnership with the Vodo Art Society and Lab, is curated by Julia Gyemant.

The artworks

Made of paper, pen, gold leaf, acrylic paint on canvas, Buto shows colour brown depicting the brick-making industry in her neighbourhood in Buto in Kira Town Council, Wakiso District. “Dust is portrayed in a negative sense yet I come from Dokolo District, where dust is the order of the day,” Enyonu says.

Certain materials show a woman dressed in long dress with a veil covering her face and necklaces depicting opulence and abundance. Against a backdrop of deep orange reds, a veiled imposing figure stands, regally clothed with what looks like a black afro. She holds a golden object.  Enyonu says this evokes wealth and luxury.

Nambi OwegGulu shows a woman dressed in a blue dress surrounded by grey tissue, holding beads in her left hand. From a blue, white greenish world, a female emerges, eyes locking with the viewer in a steely gaze that follows you around. An inch or so raised off the vertical canvas it sits on surrounded by a dark charcoal grey border.

“Goddess Nambi cuts through the hazy threshold of the divine and earthly planes with a handful of golden seeds, wearing a blue tank top, piercing her eyes into the spectator,” she adds. 

In a palette of mostly greens, Ideke Abwangu is rendered in a classical Grecian style as instructed in art school, Enyonu says. Ideke Abwangu and three others are a quad of imagined Ateso Goddesses, she further adds.

Minimalist in approach, Atatait, which means granddaughter in Ateso, is rendered in a palette of blues, greys and whites as a self-portrait. “This is a self-portrait through my grandmother, who taught me how to weave mats and prepare food,” the artist says.

Verse IV (When They Gave Blessings) captures the relationship between a cattle keeper and cows. It is about the distribution of wealth among cattle keeping communities in Uganda, where one with 200 heads of cattle is considered very wealthy.

Hang off the wall with tapestry hangers, Menye is an experiment in framing both as a presentation and a hanging system.

Curator’s two cents

In a curatorial note, Gyemant says “The exhibition includes older pieces with a completely new body of work that delves into history narrated through Enyonu’s particular gaze, in a country whose borders were drawn in someone else’s sketchbook.”

He adds: “The Tree of Knowledge (of Good and Evil) with its golden fruits evoking another creational myth whose incursion into the lives of the people now known as Ugandans has redirected its trajectory onto a questionable timeline leading from an alien past to an uncertain future.”

According to Gyemant, the artist then turns her eyes to the world of humans looking for loopholes from the deeply personal into the heart of the collective.

“Enyonu’s tapestries with botanical drawings of Matooke—in what the artist calls ‘Social Nature Studies’—can be read as a love letter to the foods that construct community. Observing her neighbourhood in the outskirts of Kampala, Enyonu’s gaze wanders across rooftops that appear behind high fences crowned with barbed wire that is meant to provide security yet cuts divisions between the people who can provide it.”

  Ateker, Ijasi Biyayi?—Greetings From the Road (A Dedication) is the first of a multi-chapter exhibition and research project that will further unfold in the future, Gyemant says. “We begin with the dedication: A dedication to Ugandans and Ugandanness in all its multiplicity and its contradictory self that does not owe anyone an explanation.”

Enyonu’s style

Asked to describe her style of art, Enyonu replied: “Off paper, I am a little hesitant to describe what my style is. I have been to a lot of places in the last seven years and all these journeys have each contributed a different visual language, which is in the process of being translated through my gaze.”

She added: “On paper, I am a Kampala-based multimedia artist, experimenting with various materials in a practice that probes identity, history, and gender complexities. Womanhood both lived and observed centres. I draw from a diverse toolbox that allows my work to become an intersectional exploration of the human condition through a woman’s gaze.”

Enyonu says her background in advertising influences the structure of her process. “My work involves designing the big questions, reading and gathering items, which will inspire the visuals to be used. The artworks often begin as texts or poems that I have written, which serve as cues for artwork compositions.”

One distinguishing feature of her artworks, she adds, “is that they are primarily made with paper and richly textured, which is achieved by layering multiple pieces of light weight 50gms paper that infuses depth and complexity into the piece.”

Asked why she prefers to use tissue paper and second fabrics for her works, Enyonu says she is intentional about exploring the relationship between a maker, their materials and the (their) environment and paper is one such material. “It is abundant, accessible and oftentimes free,” she adds.

A practical choice

Paper, she observes, carries a rich history, “but none as personal and present as tissue paper.” She calls her pivoting towards secondhand fabrics as “a practical choice.” This after she couldn’t find a single art supply shop that could sell her a whole roll of canvas in the quality she preferred.

“It seemed more efficient to score Owino Market for high thread count thick cotton fabrics which offer better support for the detail oriented work I do,” she said, adding, “The efficiency in economy means that it is important that I can find what I need near me.”

Enyonu says that she first began using paper with intentionality during her undergraduate studies at Kyambogo University for her printmaking and mixed media majors.

“Printmaking taught me how to make it. It taught me the language and the vocabulary of paper as a physical material. Mixed Media craft taught me how to see paper as a material that can be used for making whatever I want. In a material research that has taken me the better of three to four years, this exhibition tries to put that material vocabulary on display. There are canvases made out of tissue paper, sculptural objects, paintings, installations, and tapestry.”

 Enyonu says she works with paper in three frameworks. “As a material investigating politics and economic critique (reference John Ruskin and Karl Marx), physical characteristics (texture, colour, plant - based, versatility, among others), and my personal history + experience with the material. Paper like grass, [our] mothers used grass for everything. Wove it, roofed their houses.

Enyonu says artists whose practice continues to inspire her are Leslie Dill (text and paper artist), Nick Cave (multimedia artist), Iris Van Herpen (fashion designer), Minjung Kim (artist) and Ade Booms (ceramist).

Who is Pamela Enyonu?

Enyonu studied Art and Design at the Kyambogo University. Her work probes identity, history, and gender complexities. In 2018, she received the inaugural Makumbya Musoke Art Prize. She has since exhibited and done residencies in Africa, Europe and the UK. Her work was featured in museum exhibitions such as Ca’ Pesaro Museum Venice (2023) where she confronted the idea of home in and as a foreign body for the first time. This enriched her experience and visual vocabulary. Her work was also featured at Makerere University Art Gallery.