Ugandan art puts best foot forward in Venice

Some of the paintings by Collin Sekajugo at the Venice Biennale Arte 2022. PHOTOS | FRANCESCO ALLEGRETO

What you need to know:

  • The prestigious and largest global art festival, popularly known as the Venice Biennale Arte opened in Venice, Italy on April 23, and will end on November 27.

Uganda’s inaugural pavilion at the 59th International Art Exhibition of La Biennale di Venezia 2022—featuring paintings by Collin Sekajugo and weavings by Acaye Kerunen—has been recognised with a Special Mention award. 

Kerunen was particularly singled out for her use of materials such as raffia, illustrating ‘sustainability as a practice and not just a policy or concept.’

The prestigious and largest global art festival, popularly known as the Venice Biennale Arte that opened in Venice, Italy on April 23, and will end on November 27, is being held under the theme ‘The Milk of Dreams.’ It is curated by Cecilia Alemani and organised by La Biennale di Venezia chaired by Roberto Cicutto.

The eight-month exhibition that is taking place in the Central Pavilion (Giardini) and in the Arsenale includes 213 artists from 58 countries—180 of whom are debutants. 

The international exhibition has 1,433 works and objects on display, with 80 new projects conceived specifically for the Biennale Arte.

A number of countries, including the Republic of Cameroon, Namibia, Nepal, Sultanate of Oman, and Uganda, are participating for the first time at the Biennale Arte. Republic of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyz Republic and Republic of Uzbekistan, who are also making their debut, have their own pavilion.

The two Kampala-based Ugandan artists are presenting their work at the Uganda National Pavilion under the title “Radiance—They Dream in Time.” This opportunity was made possible through a partnership between and the Uganda National Cultural Centre (UNCC). 

Shaheen Merali, a Tanzanian-born British curator, is presenting the works of Kerunen and Sekajugo.

“Radiance – They Dream in Time” is the result of multiple processes, including online conversations, field trips to the centres of excellence developing artistic practices and resources through curatorial and organisational support. A gestation period of two years granted Kerunen and Sekajugo time for contemplation, review, the reevaluation of ideas, and conversations.

The Ugandan capital, Kampala, and the city of Jinja have been credited for providing a platform for a cultural environment to take root.

Finding common ground

The dual approaches to art making of Kerunen and Sekajugo—while diverse in their respective aesthetic approach—find a common ground in their respective imaginations on materiality and form. Merali refers to the title of their work as reflective of their “essential knowledge and lived experiences” as well as “urban trade and living conditions in [Uganda’s] urban centres.”

Merali adds: “Both artists have been actively working with formal and informal archives of Uganda’s dynamic visual culture.”

Kerunen’s installation work employs hand stitching, appending, knotting, and weaving with natural fibre. In her cooperative work with local Ugandan craftswomen, the artist makes installations that question the divide between fine art and craft as predicated by Western art traditions. Her work is rooted in the belief that creative production is an authentic expression of lived experience.

Some of the weavings by Acaye Kerunen at the Venice Biennale Arte 2022. 

Kerunen’s process as a socially engaged artist foregrounds the work of local and regional Ugandan craftswomen, celebrating them as integral collaborators and elevating the artistic practices of local artisans, who are the gatekeepers of their local wetlands. It also draws upon a sacred and unspoken knowledge of ecological stewardship.

By deconstructing utilitarian materials and artisan crafts, Kerunen repositions the work in order to tell new stories and posit new meaning. The act of re-installing these deconstructed materials is a response to the agency of women’s work in Africa and an acknowledgment of the role that this artistic labour plays in the climate ecosystem.

Compelling abstracts

Kerunen has nine large works and 16 smaller edition works, including Iwang sawa (Alur for: ‘In the eye of time’). New works added are Myel, an installation depicting a woman in a moment of dance motion in basketry, woven mat and raffia; Wangker (Alur for ‘Eyes of Reign’), a large wall based work in banana fibre, palm leaves and raffia; Kot Ubinu (Alur for the rain is coming), an interactive multimedia installation in basketry, palm leaves, and raffia; and Passion Flower, a round wall based work in raffia, palm and basket rings.

Through a combination of performance, social work, environmentalism, and artistic collaboration, Kerunen advocates for the empowerment of Ugandan women beyond the values of Western liberal feminism. She told Sunday Monitor that her “work is an idea of what I believe art should look like, whose time has come.”

She added: “Inclusion of women is key in the art heritage story of Uganda. The practice of climate conservation from a community-led and women-led perspective and the need for conscious art making.”

Sekajugo’s lively, semi-abstract works focus on the human figure, using silhouettes and collaged elements to critique ethnocentrism and visualise people’s shared humanity. His mixed-media collages include embroidery, photography, acrylic paint, and locally sourced materials such as polypropylene and barkcloth. Recycling these materials is part of his interest in art as an act of transformation.

“There’s an artwork titled ‘I own it all.’ This is my cover piece and it portrays an ideal post-colonial well-to-do Ugandan man. The artwork features a fashionable gentleman relaxing on a stylish couch,” Sekajugo said of one of his dozen artworks on display in Venice, adding, “The backdrop of his room is adorned with pattern work representing Uganda’s long horned cattle. The cows in this situation denote wealth in Ugandan culture. And the floor is layered with patches of barkcloth purposely to evoke a sense of uniqueness for Ugandan culture.”

African approach

On the inspiration of his body of work, Sekajugo said: “Firstly, for decades, there has been an ongoing discussion about whether Africa creates contemporary art or it mimics what the West has done for years. As an extremely versatile artist, I have always challenged my creative practice through different mediums. 

“…my idea was to bring something unconventional and unexpected of me at this point of time in my career. Even though my approach and style may seem familiar to some art enthusiasts, I believe that what I took to Venice was evocative and provocative yet so refreshing for many out there.

“Secondly, while there’s a rapidly growing demand for African art on the international market, competition among artists and galleries is overwhelming. As the saying goes now: ‘Everything has been done before.’ It’s with this notion that I chose to explore topics that are relevant to what has become inescapable for modern day Africa. That is; the effects of colonialism on our lifestyles today versus the volatility of technologies.” 

Sekajugo reckons his body of work “hack[s] identities” at least in the piece where “the black figures…are transformed from stock images of White people surrounded by privilege.” He further says thus of the presentation: “This is how we black people wish to see ourselves in these positions or surroundings.”

The Ugandan artists were awarded a Special Mention in “acknowledgment of their vision, ambition and commitment to art and working in their country” during the April 23 awards ceremony. A jury’s citation says thus of Kerunen’s body of work: “Her choice of sculptural materials like bark-clothed rafia illustrates sustainability as a practice and not just a policy or concept.”

Sekajugo said landing the Special Mention award is “recognition for our hard work and commitment.” He reckons this “has also opened so many doors for other local artists, who aspire to become our voice and representatives on the global stage.”

Kerunen said thus: “I felt amazing, humbled, elated when the special mention was announced.” 

The Venice Biennale Arte 2022 international jury comprised Adrienne Edwards, Lorenzo Giusti, Julieta González, Bonaventure Soh Bejeng Ndikung, and Susanne Pfeffe. 

Sekajugo said he was thrilled to exhibit his work at “the world’s oldest and biggest art exhibition.” Kerunen said the “visibility” she got “for myself, my art and the countless women I work with” was priceless.

Profiles of the artists

Acaye Kerunen

Born in Uganda in 1981, Kerunen is a multidisciplinary performance and installation artist, storyteller, writer, actress, and activist. She graduated with a BSc in Mass Communication from the Islamic University in Uganda, Mbale. She also obtained a Diploma in Information Systems Management from Aptech.

Kerunen participated in a dance fellowship with the Saisan Foundation of Japan in 2021. Through a curatorial fellowship with Newcastle University, the artist also debuted her first solo five-week exhibition “Iwang Sawa” from September 18 to October 28, 2021 at Afriart Gallery in Kampala to much acclaim.

Collin Sekajugo

Since 2012, Sekajugo has worked with the manipulation of the common stock image to reveal its inherent biases of entitlement and privilege largely modelled on the Western self. His artistic practice highlights a contemporaneous anthropological reversal of this mainstream culture through the lens of a decidedly African sense for irreverence and play on the ad-hoc.

Conceptually, Sekajugo’s works become pure theatre, a hacking of identity that exposes some truths behind these stock images that quietly continue to colonise the entire globe by the weight of their own popularity.

Sekajugo approaches his work from a distinct, aesthetic departure point that resides in his repeated return to pop culture and the omnipresent influence exuded by the global mainstream, conversing and critiquing its many biases across visual, oral and digital cultures. 

Sekajugo, who was born in Uganda in 1980, also creates drawings, paintings, and performances. His works often evoke his homeland’s beauty, chaos, and energy and contemplate his own place within Uganda’s diverse social fabric. Social engagement is an integral part of his practice. He divides his time between Rwanda—where he founded the Ivuka Arts Kigali—and Uganda where he runs Weaver Bird Arts Foundation.

The 42-year-old’s work is held in the permanent collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art, Washington DC, as well as other notable public and private collections in the US, Europe, Africa, and Asia.