The therapeutic art, cultural space in Gulu

Through Art Keep Smiling (TAKS) Centre,  artist and sculptor David Lukani Odwar  envisioned a space where Art could be used as a therapeutic outlet in Gulu. PHOTO/MOSES OPOBO

What you need to know:

  • Beacon of  hope.  Back in the last decades of the Uganda Protectorate, the clubhouse was a bastion of the British establishment.
  • Today, Taks centre is a far cry from its  old self, the buiding houses a bar,  internet cafe, a small sound studio and uses Art as a therapeutic outlet, writes Moses Opobo.

When David Lukani Odwar acquired the property that was to become the (Through Art Keep Smiling) TAKS Centre in Gulu in 2005, it had become utter ruin. Because of its prime location in the upscale Senior Quarters neighbourhood of the town, coupled with a rich history, many people were offering huge sums of money to the district to take over the property. In the end, Odwar acquired it. 

The 48-year-old ceramic artist and sculptor attributes this to his “passion for my motherland which I was forced to flee as a 12-year-old”. 

Today, TAKS is a premier community art space and cultural hub in Gulu, offering pleasure, hope, and a positive sense of community to locals and visitors from far and wide. 

This new reputation stands in sharp contrast to the centre’s peculiar history as a former colonial Clubhouse.

TAKS Centre today
Located on Upper Churchill Drive, Senior Quarters in Gulu city, TAKS Centre is a far cry from its former colonial self. 

The centre’s stated mission is; “to engage the people of Northern Uganda in the Creative Arts so that they can re-affirm the richness of their culture, reassert their humanity, re-establish the value of their education, take pride in themselves, and develop the skills which will help them find new options for their lives and eventually employment”. 

Walking into the facility, what strikes you first are the sprawling, neatly manicured gardens, about the size of a football pitch, with a splattering of big shaded mango trees in the middle. The air of tranquility and serenity; one is reminded of a rehab. Standing conspicuously on the northern edge of these gardens is the former club house, which has undergone some changes.  Today, only a tennis court net post remains. 

Bedecked in a coat of black paint, the building is a typical upper-middle class residential house in a modern Ugandan setting, but for its ageing features. 

Today, the building houses a bar, pool, lounge, internet café, cafeteria, and a small sound studio. The interior décor is marked by various colorful paintings on canvas, done either by the centre’s resident artists, or those visiting  from around the globe. Some of the paintings are  on sale. 

Walking in, one will encounter groups of people huddled in small groups, busy at a game of omweso, draughts, pool, cards, darts, or scrabble. Others are working off their laptops, engaged in small group meetings, or simply enjoying a meal. In a way, this is reminiscent of what one will find in a typical innovation hub. 

David Lukani Odwar, founder Taks Centre. PHOTO/NET

Venturing outdoors, the gardens are characterised by children’s play and cycling gear, while adults engage in fun football, volleyball, tennis or rugby. Social events such as birthday parties, weddings, seminars and workshops are also common, especially come weekends. In the evenings, young people under the TAKS Dance Troupe converge for their daily dance sessions, perfecting their moves for the different cultural dances.  

Cultural events such as Bayimba Festival and local film festivals and traditional music/dance shows have also called this home. 

“Back in the last decades of the Uganda Protectorate, it (clubhouse) was a bastion of the British establishment which administered the Acholi population of what was then Acholi district. Nearby was a carefully maintained nine-hole golf course, a swimming pool and cricket fields, which have now disappeared,” wrote Tim Allen, professor in Development Anthropology (International Development) at the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE), in UK. The article that was written in 2018, appears on the LSE blog, under the title; TAKS Center in Gulu: From Bastion of the Colonial Establishment to Acholi Cultural Hub. Prof Allen wrote the article as part of the London School of Economics’ #LSEReturn series, exploring displacement and return themes. 

“The clubhouse was where the white administrators and their families relaxed. They played tennis, drank their sundowners in the bar, and rested after a trying day,” Prof Allen further wrote. 

Allen is also the Director of the Firoz Lalji Centre for Africa at London School of Economics. 

In July 2019, the Firoz Lalji Centre together with TAKS Centre staged a two-day conference and Art exhibition on the Politics of Return, to mark the end of the Politics of Return research project Prof Allen led at TAKS. 

The exhibition presented findings from a three-year research project titled “Politics of Return”, which focused on the everyday experiences of those attempting to build or rebuild communities to understand how internally displaced people and former combatants negotiate and experience ‘return’. The project drew on anthropology, visual arts, journalism, history, heritage studies and political science. 

A rear view of the dilapidated Club House just after it was bought off in 2005. PHOTO/COURTESY 

Further, in a research article titled; Colonial encounters in Acholiland and Oxford: the Anthropology of Frank Girling and Okot P’Bitek, Prof Allen writes about the observations of British Anthropologist Girling, who visited the TAKS Centre in 1949. 

“In his doctoral dissertation Girling described ‘a centralised and all-powerful British administration under the District Commissioner’, and he describes the houses of the officials clustered around their clubhouse. Africans and Indians were barred from membership. As one member explained to him (Girling}: ‘We need to have somewhere where we can get away for a time from our colored brothers.”

Allen quotes Girling further: “All the Europeans are subject to a greater or less degree to the current myths about the Acholi, which serve to maintain the unity and cohesiveness of the European group.”

“Some Europeans, Girling further noted, ‘were indifferent to the condition of the people’, while others regarded themselves as ‘the bearers of a civilising mission’. 

Not surprisingly, Africans and Indians were barred from accessing the club house. Any visits by members of these two races required a special invite from a white member, according to Girling’s account. 

Girling authored Lawino’s People: The Acholi of Uganda, a book published in June 2019. A veteran of the Spanish Civil War and of the Indian army during World War II, Girling  expressed open repugnance for the racist tendencies he encountered in the Uganda protectorate.

In 1950, a year after his arrival in Uganda, he was barred from further stay in the country. He made his way back to England. When his doctoral thesis was eventually published, his observations about the Club House had been deliberately omitted, according to Prof Allen’s account in the article; Colonial Encounters in Acholiland and Oxford: The Anthropology of Frank Girling and Okot p’Bitek. Girling authored Lawino’s People: The Acholi of Uganda, a book published in June 2019. 

End of an era
Following Uganda’s Independence from British Protectorate rule in 1962, the club house started on a downward spiral. The ruin continued from Obote I, through to the Idi Amin era, and by the early 1980s there was hardly a trace of the once spectacular sports amenities. 

In the late 1980s locals turned the crumbling facility into a martial arts training ground, but at the close of the 1990s, a local school, Universal Standard College temporarily relocated here, fleeing the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) rebel activity in the Gulu countryside.  

In 2005, ceramic artist and sculptor Odwar bought the facility from the then Gulu District administration. It was the first step in the fulfilment of a long-harbored dream:

“Owing to the two decade-long LRA war, I was of the view that my people needed art therapy to foster healing from the trauma,” Odwar explains. 

“The people of Northern Uganda were suffering, not just physically, but from trauma as well. As an artist, I envisioned a space where Art could be used as a therapeutic outlet.”

When he approached the district, he was pleased to learn that it had a similar vision for the former club house:

“The district was offering the property on condition that the new owner would develop it into a cultural site.”

2001:  Homecoming 
Odwar holds a bachelor’s in Ceramics from Cardiff University in UK. He left Uganda with his mother in 1988, aged 12, fleeing the LRA rebel insurgency that was taking root in northern Uganda. It was while in primary school in Oxford, that he first developed an interest in art. But Odwar never forgot his roots.  

As a freelance ceramicist and sculptor, his art leans heavily on his childhood experiences growing up in his village in Lamogi Sub-County in the then Gulu District (now Amuru District). At TAKS Centre, glimpses of his work are on display; mostly clay figurines of his people, women balancing clay pots on their heads, or traditional dance. 

TAKS Centre Dance Troupe offers in-house cultural entertainment. PHOTO/MOSES OPOBO

In 2001, Odwar embarked on his first homecoming, after nearly 14 years of asylum in England.

He was accompanied by a BBC documentary crew, whose mission was to document Odwar’s history and that of his people, and the legacy of the LRA rebel insurgency that was at its peak.

The result was the documentary, To Bring A Smile, that was featured on BBC 2. 

Wall of fame
Featured prominently on the exterior of the building are prominent portraits of some pre-eminent personalities from the Acholi tribe:

Okot p’Bitek; Betty Bigombe; Judith Ayaa; Rebecca Abitimo. Also featured in the same spirit is former president Apollo Milton Obote, who was Lango. As Uganda’s first post-independence leader in the early 1960s, Obote lodged at the nearby Presidential State Lodge whenever he was on official duty in Gulu. The building is a stone’s throw away from, and is visible from the TAKS Centre. It is occupied by the Ugandan military.   

Other portraits include Jamaican reggae icon Bob Marley, and legendary American jazz musician Lance.  The portraits are the handiwork of Solomon Onen, one of the resident artists at the centre, and they tell a story of their own. That of Judith Ayaa (1952-1997) is captioned as “The only female Acholi and Ugandan Commonwealth medallist (1970). Ayaa scooped a bronze medal in the 400m race at the 1970 Commonwealth Games, becoming the first Ugandan woman to claim such a feat. 
Ayaa’s portrait shares a wall with that of the poet and cultural icon Okot p’Bitek (1931-1982), who is best known for his internationally acclaimed poem, Song of Lawino. Known mostly for his poetic genius, Okot p’Bitek was a man of many talents; a footballer, actor, dancer, novelist, sociologist, and philosopher. He has been described as “one of the greatest African poets,” and “the most important personality in Ugandan literature”. 

Betty Bigombe’s smiling portrait is captioned; “Betty Oyella Bigombe The Peace maker”, and it’s the only portrait of a living person. Bigombe’s appearance on the TAKS Centre wall of fame is in recognition of her immense contribution in brokering peace between the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) rebels, and the Government of Uganda. 

Close to Bigombe’s portrait is that of another local heroine, Rebecca Abitimo (1934-2016). Described as a ‘beacon of hope for education in Gulu’, Abitimo is credited for founding the first private primary school in Gulu District, Unifat Primary School, despite having endured a turbulent childhood. 

“We took some time to select who appears here,” Odwar explains.

“We asked our guests to suggest names of people they considered as our local heroes.”

2005 Turn around
Ceramicist and sculptor Odwar bought the facility from the then Gulu District administration

Featured on the exterior of the building are portraits of some pre-eminent personalities from the Acholi tribe. These include  Milton Obote, Betty Bigombe,  and Rebecca Abitimo 

One cannot miss other portraits such as Jamaican reggae icon Bob Marley, and legendary American jazz musician Lance.