Tackling the complexities of free movement via art

Odur’s installation Fabric of Identity made of burnt woven aluminium printing plates. PHOTOS | MUSINGUZI BAMURURAKI

What you need to know:

  • Using aluminium printing plates and copper wires, Odur’s practice involves large-scale installations.

In his current seven-week-long art exhibition titled “The Republic of This and That” Ronald Odur presents an artistic exploration and commentary on the concepts of unrestricted and restricted mobility, belonging, and personal identity presented by passport policies around the world.   

Using aluminium printing plates and copper wire, Odur skilfully reimagines traditional passport booklets as metallic representations, each containing visa endorsement stamps on various pages. This conceptual approach effectively captures the multifaceted challenges, obstacles, and restrictions imposed by borders and boundaries. 

Odur invites the viewer to contemplate the complexities of free movement, belonging and personhood through the motif of the passport. By denting, burning, stitching and weaving, reclaimed aluminium, he transforms this commonplace and often discarded material into highly stylised sculptural reconstructions of everyday objects that capture the current moment, and seemingly freezes time. 

The exhibition that opened at the Afropocene Capsule in Kampala on November 11 and closes today (December 31) offers an entry point into a critical re-evaluation of the structure of modern society. 

“The Republic of This and That” is an ongoing body of work that explores and comments on the idea of free movement, belonging, and personhood using recreated aluminium printing plate passports finely stitched together with copper wire. 

A motif of the passport The Republic of Kenya. PHOTOs /bamuturaki musinguzi

On display are different passports and their republics, Fabric of Identity, Republic of Kyeyo, Republic of Kyeyo, and Republic of the Undocumented. 

This exploration has raised various questions and findings, leading to further examination of identity, belongingness, movement, and access by exploring how individual nuances and autonomy in identity can serve as connecting points within larger societal contexts. 

The installation Fabric of Identity consists of a chair and suspended recreated metallic passports and a woven aluminium printing plate mat hung on the wall adjacent to the passports. 

“The mat is a symbol of the intertwined cultures of African people which are similar in a way. The chair conceptually imitates and creates an atmosphere of a visa interview room,” Odur told Sunday Monitor. 

“The passports are suspended to free the moment in time, which lets the viewers and the artists to question, interact and comment on the installation piece,” he added. 

The Fabric of Identity was first exhibited at Loman Art in Dakar, Senegal, as part of the African Union residency (AU20). 

AU20 in collaboration with UNDP Africa, and implemented by Africa No Filter, brought 10 artists from across the continent to Dakar to create works under the theme “Our Africa, Our Future.” The aim of the residency was to support works which shifted narratives and highlight the valuable contributions of African artists in sharing African stories. The completed works were also exhibited at the AU headquarters in Addis Ababa Ethiopia at the margins of the AU summit 2022, which also celebrated the 20 years of the continental body. 

Passports galore

Republic of Kyeyo is a piece of work that responds to the influx of Ugandans seeking greener pasture. The Republic of Opportunities captures the idea of how the people with power wrongfully find opportunities in an opportunity (say nepotism, tribalism, sexual harassment or corruption). Republic of the Undocumented is a passport that represents the people who have no documentation like the state sanction documentation. 

“I have shown this body of work mostly outside the country yet the work speaks volumes to the Ugandans, for example, the particular piece in the body of work The Republic of Kyeyo, Odur said, adding, “I use the passport as a lens through which to comment and speak about the issues of crossing borders which has also grown beyond this to questioning identity, personhood, belonging and other societal and contemporary global issues.”

Odur, who reveals that his work is informed by “continuous rejections I got from the different applications,” is not in doubt that “there is an unfairness in the documentation system when it comes to travelling.” 

Odur, born in 1992, is a Ugandan multidisciplinary artist based in Kampala. He studied interior design at Kyambogo University in Kampala, graduating in 2016.   

“I think interior design was just another way for me to get an education though most times I don’t feel comfortable talking about my education due to the sad experiences I went through to have one, art has always been part of me till today and that’s what I can do best,” he said of his switch to fine art from interior design.

Using aluminium printing plates and copper wires, Odur’s practice involves large-scale installations, sculptures, drawings, and performances; to not only explore the capabilities of the aluminium he works with, but also the complexities of the socio-political issues he encounters. 

Aluminium combination

Odur began using the aluminium plates to materialise his ideas during a Silhouette Residency at Afriart Gallery in Kampala in 2020 which culminated in the first passport The Republic of Contemporary Art. 

He returned to this format for the installation titled Ekisaakaate (2023), which was commissioned by the Prince Claus Fund for the occasion of the phase one opening of 32 Degrees East Arts Trust in Kampala. The installation consisted of 50 aluminium passport sculptures suspended from door frames, and explored themes of boundaries and borders. 

“Aluminium is a material that has been part of me since I was younger. I used to collect this material as scrap to earn some extra cash to acquire myself toys, it’s interesting how the same material has given me a medium of creating as an artist,” he said of his choice to use aluminium plates to materialise his ideas.

Art fascination

As to why he finds art interesting, he said: “The freedom to express myself makes art interesting to me without offending anybody.” 

Odur deals with themes and narratives that capture socio-political issues derived from his society and the contemporary world by collaborating with the community, different art scholars and by visiting archives. 

“Most people comment on my work to be political; I somehow agree with them though my work always comments on my personal experiences, my immediate surroundings and the contemporary world,” he said. 

As to what he would have been if he was not in the fine art industry, Odur told Sunday Monitor thus: “I think I would have been an instrumentalist. I do play a couple of musical instruments like the trumpet and the guitar.” 

When asked who buys Ugandan art, he finds the question “very interesting” before offering that “it’s mostly foreign collectors” who buy Ugandan art.

As to how he unwinds after a hard day’s work, he says, “I love music, so that’s how I unwind after my hard day’s work by singing and playing the guitar and the trumpet at times.” 

According to Odur, his practice its greatly characterised by crafting, stitching aluminium print plates and copper wires, exploring its possibilities, one technique at a time by not only painting on the aluminium sheets, but also by denting, burning, scratching, layering, stitching and weaving the shiny metal thus achieving texture, colour, shape and character collaborating with different materials like canvas and different found objects to create paintings, sculptures and installations. 

“I wouldn’t want to call it my style but rather a piece of experiment because these techniques have been passed on to us by our ancestors in form of crafts just like basketry, weaving, stitching and through art I explore a different material from the traditional ones used, for example dry fibres but rather metal (aluminium printing plates),”  he said.

Odur’s recent exhibitions include: Where The Wild Things Are, Afriart Gallery; The Collector’s Collection Exhibition, Motiv, Kampala (both in 2021); East Meets West, The New Gallery, CoCuDI Center, Jerusalem; (Im)perfections, Afriart Gallery (both in 2020); The East African Biennial, Tanzania (2019); The 2018 Kampala Art Biennale; the 14th Kaunas Biennial, Latvia, (2023); Silent Invasions: The Art of Material Hacking, Amasaka Gallery, Uganda, (2023). 

In 2020 he was the recipient of the Prince Claus Seed Award and the Mukumbya Musoke Art Prize, and was shortlisted for the Alpine Fellowship Award (UK) the same year.