Lira’s red pot maker and  other Ugandan art stories

Wednesday September 30 2020

Mid last year, I was in Gaborone, the capital of well-governed little rich Botswana.

 I went to an artist’s village at the edge of the capital, and later to view an art installation in a busy market area in the centre of the city.

The installation was perhaps a little abstract, as masses passed by it without a second look. The artist’s village, though, had many bold “out there” creations, but also a lot of the more accessible material. I saw some of the most amazing pots I have set my eyes upon in my wanderings in this fair continent. 

Three months later, I was travelling in northern Uganda. At one point, as we drove outside Lira, in an area with several carpentry and metal work joints, to the far end, I noticed a place where pots were lined up, and potters working nearby. One pot, red, was striking even from a distance, and seemed out of place. We stopped and I checked it out. It was in the exact same tradition like the ones I had seen in Botswana. One of the potters had made it. He hadn’t been to Botswana, and hadn’t even heard of it. However, that, as we shall see shortly, doesn’t mean they weren’t connected.

I wanted two of them, for them to work artistically, but he’d made only one, just for display. I asked why he hadn’t made more. He could even make far better ones than the solitary beautiful one, he said, but no one would buy them; no one would see their artistic value. So, he and his friend made the more practical ones; for water, for drinking ajono/kongo/malwa, and for potted plants. 

I was looking at a world class artist in a small corner of Uganda, aware of how much salt he had in him, but resigned to peddling the more ordinary, because it was what put food on the table. 
So, how could he be related to the Botswana artist? We can only hazard. Like him, there is a whole profound and global body of knowledge and research in Uganda, which exists on the margins. You run into this small group of smart Ugandans a lot outside the country, and if you fortunate, they get to admit you into their closed circles at home.


It was in this way that one of them once took me in to explain how art had travelled around during the Bantu, Luo, and other migrations. And how subsequent movements, in search of work, during war, famines, and colonial-era displacement had also spread art (and music). 

And so, he told me how that colourful art of the Venda people in South Africa, had made it into central Africa, and through present-day Democratic Republic of Congo into parts of present-day Uganda.

 So, likewise, on close study, the Lira and Botswana potters could well be drinking from the creative spring and they don’t know it.

The Lira potter’s pot was so strikingly colourful, I wondered about the spirit that juiced.

 Maybe the war in the north. There is a lot of poetry, vivid art, and music that emerged from the long northern war hell, but it is not prominent yet in Kampala’s mainstream cultural market. I have mostly encountered it at fringe and independent exhibitions outside Uganda.

The more mainstream “new” art, is hyperreal art. Using charcoal, graphite, and ballpoint pens, there are many young Ugandans who are doing artistic capture mostly of people, that are so real, it is impossible to tell at first quick glance that they aren’t photographs. 

Hyperrealism, though, is not just Ugandan. It is a big movement across Africa, with Nigerians perhaps doing it better than anyone anywhere in the world.

For most, it is not yet making money, but they are getting the work out and around cleverly using social media, with the ridiculous OTT taxes and crazy registration requirements, probably being a setback.

Where is Ugandan hyperrealism coming from? Like elsewhere, from youth angst, the melancholy and alienation in fast urbanising societies, a vivid imagination stimulated by a bigger world and knowledge made possible by the Internet, the dramatic and sharp images of HD TV and sports, and amped by the accentuated colours and photoshopped world of Instagram, Pinterest, and Facebook photographs. 

My generation formed those sensibilities from the disruption of the Idi Amin era, Drum magazine, Sports Illustrated, Reader’s Digest, Esquire, GQ (Gentleman’s Quarterly), TIME and Newsweek magazines to name but a few that are suitable for family consumption. Visually, we are cavemen and women. These young ones, they are artistic X-men and women.

And that guy outside Lira? I will be sure to visit him again one day soon.

Mr Onyango-Obbo is a journalist, 
writer and curator of the “Wall of Great Africans”.