all photos by author except where otherwise noted

In this article I reexamine the ways in which certain contemporary artists based in Uganda problematize the narrative that the ruling National Resistance Movement (the NRM) party is the party of the rural poor (Cheeseman, Lynch, and Willis 2016) in their work while using it as a metaphor to inform their visual expression. I focus on the contest between tradition (imagined as a village) and modernity (imagined as a modern state), as well as the dilemma such a contest causes for a contemporary artist. Cornelius Adepegba (1995) argues that this dilemma influenced the African novel. Agreeing with Adepegba, Freeborn Odiboh (2009) observes that the same dilemma has shaped African visual artists, such as Abayomi Barber, and formal art education institutions like the Barber School in Nigeria; Odiboh then assesses the historical context in which this dilemma evolved as African nationalists struggled to forge postcolonial states based on a national consciousness amid competing ethnic, religious, and ideological interests.

I would argue that African artists resolved the dilemma through hybridity. However, the experience in Uganda has invited me to look again at the way contemporary artists construct “tradition” and “traditionalized village spaces” to critique the health of the postcolonial nation-state in which they practice. How do they reorient their practices to address pertinent political issues imposed by a modern state as they make a case for a welfare state using an egalitarian village grounded in traditions? This question—and critique—is relevant to the understanding of specific artworks in which the village is imagined and visually reconstructed as a representation of a better postcolonial nation-state.

I have purposively selected artworks in which artists present a traditional, productive village as a representation of an ideal postcolonial welfare nation-state as they confront the long list of unfulfilled promises and false hopes (Mutibwa 1992) that characterize Uganda under the NRM. This long list has been a subject of intense public debate and was recently captured in a cartoon by Moses Balagadde, a graduate of Makerere's art school (Fig. 1).

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Moses Balagadde, Cartoon, Daily Monitor, published on September 11, 2016.

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Moses Balagadde, Cartoon, Daily Monitor, published on September 11, 2016.

Some formally trained artists from Uganda are employed as anchors and talk show hosts; they direct television and radio talk shows in which Uganda's statehood is debated.1 Alongside exhibiting in the galleries, museums, and their studios, some artists publish comic strips in the local dailies and magazines. These artists are often satirical and humorous as they influence, and are influenced by, the sociopolitical discussions of the day.2 I have found the electronic and print media resourceful to this examination, since the artists whose works I analyze regularly access the media.3 The article contributes to discussions on the link among Uganda's art, art history, political action, public policy, and legal documents in which the health of the nation-state is negotiated and inscribed.

THE TRADITIONAL VILLAGE AS COLONIAL MYTH AND METAPHOR

Like many other peoples in the world, most Ugandans cherish their traditions. However, the notion that a traditional village can resolve the challenges imposed by a postcolonial nation-state is not entirely based on this love for tradition. It has an interesting political history that needs to be explained before we appreciate art forms in which artists imagine visual representation of a traditional, rural village which, unlike (nontraditional) modern urban centers, is rich in morality, traditions, shared values, and work ethos. We are made to believe that such a village presents an ideal space; it is African (read black African) and communal. It is framed by a postcolonial discourse that has shaped literature4 and music5 in the same way as it has informed contemporary Ugandan art.

I however submit that such a village (and its Africanness) was not available as a lived reality in the 1960s when Uganda became a postcolonial nation-state. By October 1962, the colonial project, mainly through taxation and compulsory cash and food production, had opened up and transformed most of the villages in the country. Interestingly, and ambivalently so, colonial discourse still mapped and retained villages as sanctuaries of “authentic traditions” through colonial modernity and commercial legislation. As a product of colonial modernity, the village was maintained in a context in which Africa had emerged as a metaphor based on stereotypes through which remarkable adjectives were allocated to Africans in order to establish the civilizing project (Mudimbe 1994:29).

As a product of commercial legislation, the village was produced through the enactment of the Trade 1901 Licencing Ordinance, which introduced a licence tax of £10 on trade in Uganda's urban areas. The levy prevented small businesses owned by natives6 from operating in urban centers.7 It created rural-native and urban-nonnative economies. This duality was completed through the enactment of Trading Ordinance No. 19 of 1938, which prohibited natives from trading within three miles of a township or trading center. It outlawed business transactions in which a native would have traded on behalf of a nonnative. It also prohibited nonnatives from trading outside towns and trading centers.

I find three issues emerging from the above: First, these legislations created a complex economy in which the commercial interests of natives were ruralized while those of nonnatives were urbanized. Secondly, the law systematically pushed natives (and their labor) into the villages, where they would till the land and produce the cash crops (coffee, cotton, tobacco, tea, etc.) that had been introduced in 1901. Thirdly, these developments reduced contact between the modern metropolitan and the heterogeneous political, social, and legal systems inscribed in the several agreements which the British signed in the period 1892–1955. As a way forward, British administrators invented traditions in the manner analyzed by Ranger and Hobsbawn (1983). They relied on their own respect for monarchical authority to choose what they took to be traditional authority in Uganda. In the process, the British systematically chose and promulgated “traditions thereby transforming flexible custom into hard prescription” (1983:212). Included in these invented “traditions” was the less representative political system in Buganda, which started with Muteesa I in 1856 and has affected the Baganda, who are the most populous ethnic group in Uganda—currently constituting 17 percent of the country's thirty-four million citizens ([Uganda] Ministry of Finance and Economic Planning 2016). The issues of Buganda are also important for this article because the Margaret Trowell School of Industrial and Fine Arts at Makarere University (MTSIFA) is located in Buganda; many Baganda traditions have shaped some aspects of its pedagogy.

Muteesa I was the kabaka (king) of the Buganda kingdom until his death in 1884. Kings in Buganda have the power to begin and to terminate traditions. Thus, during his reign, Muteesa I started a new administrative structure that eroded a more representative system headed by abataka (elders) and replaced it with one in which he centralized power and authority in the person of the king (Reid 2002). He radically imposed representatives of the kabaka onto all layers of executive, legislative, and judicial authority formerly held by elders. This system was inherited by his successors. On the advent of colonialism, these representatives became corrupt, power-hungry, greedy agents of colonialism. By 1900 they had undermined the traditional institution itself and expelled Muteesa I's successor, Kabaka Mwanga, before they concluded the 1900 Buganda Agreement through which their authority was woven into the colonial capitalist economy.

These are the representatives that the British codified as “traditional chiefs” and deployed across the Uganda protectorate to organize villages so that they would pay taxes and produce cash and food crops. Draconian laws like the Luwalo Ordinance of 1903 were placed at their disposal to enforce community service—a form of forced labor under what was commonly called Bulungi bwa nsi (literally “working for the common good”). In addition, the office of the Governor enacted the Native Authority Ordinance of 1919 to create native authorities in which “traditional African chiefs” exercised powers (including judicial powers) and duties. They were above the law as long they paid allegiance to the imperial majesty. They became agents of colonialism whose legitimacy had become contested by the 1920s.8

Such was the colonial discourse in which “community service” was done through corvée labor (called kasanvu in Buganda) supervised by “traditional technocrats”9 in traditional villages that became sites for production and the very representation of a productive nation-state. After being left behind by colonialism and inherited by the postcolonial state, in what ways do these villages function in the politics of the NRM-led nation-state based on electoral politics of adult suffrage? Bruno Sserunkuuma, whose work I examine later in detail, is not resident in such villages but regularly visits them and is aware of the challenges they face. What visual and political strategies has he mobilized to construct an alternative nation-state based on a village structure implicating a village produced by colonial modernity and commercial legislation? How does he circumvent its political contradictions?

UGANDA'S VOTING RURAL POOR AND THE STORY OF UNFULFILLED HOPES

Uganda's political elites characterize the majority of the electorate as being rural, poor, hopeless, and disconnected from urbanism. This in spite of the fact that many people in rural areas are connected to urban areas. They have access to mobile phones and transact through mobile-money—a new banking platform which requires connection to the banking network that is concentrated in urban and rurban spaces. During electoral campaigns many politicians use slogans in which rurality and poverty (not to mention rurality as poverty) are powerfully reconstructed and reproduced to frame a voting constituency often characterized at national and local levels as “my people.” It is in this context that a demarcation of electoral constituencies— including towns and municipalities—is tagged to the political fortunes of the incumbent as opposed to the economic viability of the constituencies demarcated. This has led to a huge budget being required for an ever-expanding legislature and public service structure (Tumushabe and Gariyo 2009).

Seen in this light, the characterization of the majority of Ugandan voters as the rural poor invites one to shift attention away from the negative effects of economic exclusion due to poverty, inequality, and illiteracy affecting some (but not all) Ugandans in the rural countryside. Instead, one begins to focus on ways in which a constituency called the “rural poor,” whose interests must be met but are never met, has become part of Uganda's post-1986 political negotiations and electoral politics. One can then begin to interrogate the conditions in which the villages represented in recent artworks can be interpreted more as depictions of political poverty than real-life experiences of economic marginalization. I am by no means suggesting that poverty is a fiction in Uganda. I am only arguing that representations of poverty can sometimes be public projections of the political elite that might be politically productive in a range of ways that can shape a country's visual discourse.

Joseph N.C. Egemonye (1933–2011) was a writer, journalist, and politician from Nigeria. Located in a postcolonial state ruptured by Machiavellian politics, Egemonye wrote a novel, The Night of Freedom (1972), in which he doubted the health of post-colonial nation-states using the metaphor of a little, exploited village. “[H]ow many of the people in this little village are free? When … the paths of many are dark with unpleasant expectations, the few who are happy wish to use the poorer class as their means to an end …?” he asked (1972:70). He engaged this question as a point of departure to engage with the idea of a poor, ignorant, hopeless, exploited village in order to critique the greedy political elite who unashamedly exploited their citizens to achieve their selfish ends. He then used the “little village” as a powerful metaphor to expose the bad health of the nation-state and the political elites and politics that shaped it. In the process a debate on wrong politics and selfish politicians went beyond political morality to become artistically productive.

As with other African novels on this theme—and here I am reminded of Chunua Achebe's A Man of the People (1966)—at the core of Egemonye's “little village” is a political situation that has been manipulated by many African politicians. Intriguingly, and as Fela Anikulapo Kuti articulated in his 1980 song “Coffin for the Head of State,” this “village” nexus exists in many African states as a site for political contest, negotiation, and survival. In Uganda's case it has been exploited by the ruling NRM, which prides itself as Uganda's party for the rural poor. For example, on February 18, 2016, Yoweri Museveni of the NRM “won” a disputed presidential election; members of his party also won the majority of the seats in the legislature and the local councils.

To secure these victories, however, the party paid 250,000 Uganda shillings (approximately US$71) to each of the villages in the country to buy, among other things, “food and refreshments.”10 Now, this figure might look small in US currency. However, it changed the political fortunes of the ruling party. The expenditure was justified as money spent to “cover expenses of a candidate's organization meetings or campaign planning.” The party applied similar strategies during the 1996, 2001, 2006, and 2011 electoral campaigns. Critics argue that this money—and this has been the pattern in past elections (Jensen and Justesen 2014)—was used for political patronage and to buy votes from gullible rural voters. The NRM has rejected this criticism. However, the Supreme Court of Uganda agreed that there was evidence of vote-buying in two petitions filed before it following the 2001 and 2006 polls. The conclusions of the Supreme Court, then, confirm that villages in Uganda are not free of the greed of the elite urban politicians. In fact, I argue that some village residents are beneficiaries and participants in the unethical political conduct engendered by the monetization of Uganda's politics critiqued by the artists as they image the village as a portrait of a nation-state.

CONTEMPORARY ART AND THE VILLAGE AS A PORTRAIT OF A POSTCOLONIAL NATION-STATE

Opolot William Okitoi graduated from MTSIFA. In 1990, Okitoi produced his painting Untitled (Corruption) (Fig. 2), in which he cast doubt on the NRM's claim for a fundamental change using the symbolism of an elite male, dining in the company of a female companion, guarded by the military. Elsewhere I have argued that Okitoi's representation critiqued the way the NRM's political elite enjoyed the trappings of absolute power as they exploited weaknesses in the country's legal system to abuse power (Kakande 2016a, 2016b). I now focus on Okitoi's visualization of a female companion unconcernedly placing her pointed stiletto heel deep into the spine of a committed, hard-working, rural woman cultivating the fields from which agricultural produce is harvested to feed the insatiable appetite of the urban elite.

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Opolot William Okitoi Untitled (Corruption) (1990) Oil on board, 120 cm × 210 cm

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Opolot William Okitoi Untitled (Corruption) (1990) Oil on board, 120 cm × 210 cm

The artist overemphasizes the anatomy of the rural woman's dilated blood vessels. They are filled with blood to symbolize hard work. The woman uses a hand hoe to plow the fields, as is commonly done in the countryside, where it is a noble duty for women to dig, as well as nurture children. She is identifiably nonelite; she participates in production. She digs at the expense of tending to her vulnerable baby, who is left to the mercy of the environment as it cries for care and the presence of its mother. This representation places into high relief the gluttony and selfishness of the corrupt ruling (urban) elites located at the top of the painting. The artist uses his painting to visually express the view that the political elites abuse power and expropriate the labor of many hardworking rural people—72 percent of the country's population—who sacrifice to support Uganda's agricultural economy.

The artist relied on some vexed gendered (Tumusiime 2012) and political questions of the day, including the corrupt political elite who use resources meant for the rural poor to finance their personal interests11 and the widely held view that “pretty women are not necessarily good mothers, don't want to get their hands dirty, and are so proud, they scare away visitors” (Ssegawa 2014). As such, Ugandans in general preferred an ugly woman who was selfless, hardworking, and fecund.12

I thus argue that the artist seems to miss the complex political transactions to which I have alluded, by which the rural folk are made complicit in the very corruption that he critiques. Nevertheless, he expands the metaphor of a productive village as he composes an image in which a productive rural population selflessly sacrifices, through community service, to sustain a postcolonial nation-state that is being abused by the NRM political elite guarded by the military. Bruno Sserunkuuma has continuously returned to this theme since the early 1990s.

In 1988 Sserunkuuma graduated from MTSIFA, where he also pursued a Master (Fine Art) graduate degree, completed in 1995. He has taught ceramics there since 1989 and headed the Department of Industrial Art and Design in 1996–2001.13 These experiences nurtured his skill as he changed ceramic art into a research tool and process (Kyeyune 2003) through which he has taken a stand on the political (Kakande 2008), socioeconomic (Kakande 2014), and environmental (Kakande and Tumusiime 2016) issues that affect his ethnic group, kingdom, and country.

Sserunkuuma is a Muganda: a member of the Baganda ethnic group of the Buganda Kingdom. He upholds Bagandan traditions and believes that the integration of the kingdom of Buganda into the modern state of Uganda led to the loss of its autonomy. Like many Baganda, he believes that the restoration of Buganda's autonomy is critical to Buganda's development, since it will offer better governance and service delivery. He strongly believes that such autonomy will eliminate the corruption in Uganda that undermines the country's international image, since many “people do not like Ugandans because of corruption …”14 Interestingly, he does not stop at mourning this embarrassing situation, because he believes it can be changed in two ways that will increase the traditional village's currency and relevance.

First, he suggests that the solution lies in the decolonization of the minds of Ugandans. It is interesting to engage his case for decolonization. Unlike critiques of colonialism like those of Malian writer Yambo Ouologuem (1968) and Nigerian musician, composer, pioneer of Afrobeat, human rights activist, and political maverick Fela Kuti and his band Afrika 70, in their Shuffering and Shmiling (1977), Sserunkuuma seems to believe that it was exclusively the West that colonized the minds of Africans, forcing them to lose their sense of pride in African identity. This situation has to be changed, he stresses, arguing that: “Yes we must be proud of Africa; we must decolonize.”15 In this way Sserunkuuma echoes a call other artists have made before him. For instance, Elimo Njau (who graduated from MTSIFA in the mid 1960s) warned that

we have not washed our face to see a new day with a new heart and soul after colonialism. When you look at yourself in the mirror and a shadow of your colonial professor is still standing behind you, you only see a blurred image of yourself (cited in Kyeyune 2003:107).

However, as implied in Njau's statement, these clarion calls seem to suggest that colonialism was a “Euro-white” and not “Afro-black” project. And yet, as I demonstrated earlier, colonials coopted some natives into the colonial administration.

Secondly, Sserunkuuma does not attend to the Baganda landed aristocracy, which was produced by the Buganda Agreement signed between Sir Harry Johnston and Baganda chiefs on March 10, 1900. This aristocracy received swathes of land from the colonial administration in return for its allegiance to the British Empire. This process dispossessed many, who were rendered landless. This is the landlessness in which the village, as a site for production and portrait of a productive and vibrant nation-state, has been located for the last 116 years of Uganda's existence as a modern state.16

Sserunkuuma does not attend to these and related concerns. He has limited his scope to making a case for the autonomy of the kingdom of Buganda. And why is this autonomy so important to him? He argued during our interview in 200617 (and also in 2016)18 that, before losing autonomy in 1966, the Buganda kingdom had respectable policy implementers. They performed better than the bureaucracy introduced in the 1960s by Milton Obote (Uganda's first premier), who used the national army, under the command of Idi Amin (then his trusted colonel in the Uganda Army), to overrun the Buganda kingdom. Obote promulgated the 1967 Constitution of the Republic of Uganda and the 1967 Local Government Act, under which he outlawed the Buganda kingdom and abolished its “traditional” bureaucratic structures, including those inherited from colonialism. Sserunkuuma believes that the change was wrong. It must be reversed. Once revitalized, he argued in our interview, the traditional technocrats would help the current government of Uganda, which “has good policies that it cannot implement.”19 He contends that, since they were constrained by traditions, Buganda's technocrats were less corrupt. Appointed by the kabaka, they supervised projects with devotion and helped to raise the kingdom's productivity.

I have earlier argued that this so-called productivity was not voluntary; the bureaucracy that supervised it was invented, organized, and traditionalized under colonial policy and commercial legislation. It was contested in the 1920s. It was based on landlessness. And yet Sserunkuuma believes in it so strongly that it framed his pots, including his Ggwanga Mujje (2001; Fig. 3).

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Bruno Sserunkuuma Ggwanga Mujje (2001) Earthenware vase, 23 cm

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Bruno Sserunkuuma Ggwanga Mujje (2001) Earthenware vase, 23 cm

On Ggwanga Mujje, Sserunkuuma uses complex, multilayered motifs with simplified humans, masks, and geometric designs. The pot derives its name from a drummer seated on what looks like a chair placed above a cluster of six standardized masks symbolizing a village. As a representation of a whole village, Sserunkuuma's motif gains the character of a portrait which, to borrow from Borgatti (1990), is individuated by the name of an office[r] and the context of traditional forms of production like the fish industry (obuvubi), symbolized by fish, and food production (obulimi), represented by bananas.

To amplify his case for the valuable role of traditional technocrats in supervising collectivized rural modes of production inscribed in Ggwanga Mujje, Sserunkuuma also made two other pots: Ganda Economy (late 1990s) and Ganda Symbols of Power (2003), which I need to discuss before I return to Ggwanga Mujje.

On Ganda Economy he affirmed the value of agriculture in Buganda using a combination of cowrie shells and a hand holding a plant shoot. Although they had commercial value as mediums of exchange at the advent of colonialism, cowrie shells could not sustain the capitalist colonial economy in Uganda. The British replaced them with rupees and then shillings, and this happened in other parts of Africa where cowrie shells currently have cultural symbolism and are associated with rituals of fertility, religion, and power, among others.20 Sserunkuuma is aware of these appropriations. But he relies on the context in Buganda, where cowrie shells have been “traditionalized as symbols of economic, apotropaic, and religious value” (Kakande 2008:22–23). Contemporary artists invoke all or some of these values in their work. For example, Mulindwa applied them for apotropaic and religious symbolism in the richly colored and densely populated series of allegorical paintings he produced in the 1970s and ‘80s. Sserunkuuma often visualizes their economic symbolism. He specifically has used them on Ganda Economy, in addition to plant shoots, to symbolize an agricultural economy.21

Sserunkuuma made two pots on the theme of Ganda Symbols of Power (Fig. 4) and exhibited them in Gallery Sankaranka in Brooklyn New York in 2006. He appears to refer to the need to industrialize production processes in Buganda through intricate abstract motifs drawn from “industrial cogwheels” in addition to geometric shapes. He introduces some aspects of recreation through a smoking pipe. He then applies these motifs around the pots, creating a rich decoration that covers the entire pot to urge the view that industrialization is critical for Buganda's development. One “cannot speak about symbols of power if your economy is low” he warns, “so [on these pots] I was saying that Buganda wants to modernize” (Kakande 2008:302).

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Bruno Sserunkuuma Ganda Symbols of Power (2003) Earthenware vases, 15 cm

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Bruno Sserunkuuma Ganda Symbols of Power (2003) Earthenware vases, 15 cm

In other words, if on the pots Ganda Economy and Ganda Symbols of Power Sserunkuuma engaged the issue of modernizing Buganda's economy, then we can infer that on Ggwanga Mujje the artist highlighted the need for committed leaders to supervise the process of this modernization.

Ggwanga Mujje is a Luganda phrase that can be literally translated as “rise up nation.” The phrase is usually invoked to mobilize a community for community work (bulungi bwa nsi) or when there is a need to defend a collective interest.22 A local leader traverses the locality with a drum; he is usually the supervisor (also called nnampala in Luganda). He beats the drum repeatedly to produce a sound verbalized as “Ggwanga mujje! Ggwanga mujje!” In response, the community converges on an agreed location to confront the issue at stake, such as road repair, fighting crime, sanitation, or well construction. Therefore these supervisors are necessary in the rural economy, not just in Buganda but in the country as a whole and, indeed, the continent.

As such, in 1992 President Museveni wrote that “on countless occasions, I have had to act as nyampara or foreman to ensure that simple and routine things get done” (Museveni 1992). What Museveni refers to here as nyampara is a Runyankore23 word for what the Baganda call nnampala, although the same word is used by communities in Eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, Rwanda, Burundi, and Tanzania, among others, in reference to supervisors/agents of the state. President Museveni was expressing his concern that his administration had undedicated technocrats who “refuse to implement [but instead] sabotage government policies” (Museveni 1992) in addition to abusing government property with impunity. Museveni did not see these problems of governance as symptoms of a failed Decentralisation Policy, which his government introduced in the 1990s hoping to improve accountability, responsiveness, and service delivery. Rather, he diagnosed them as an ideological problem, stressing that people who are ideologically “backward do not regard social property as their own” (1992:83). In 2013 he called it an “ideological disorientation” (Vision Reporter 2013); in 2014 he called it “ideological bankruptcy” (Vision Reporter 2014).

Aware of concerns like Museveni's, Sserunkuuma proposes an alternative system grounded in the traditions he visualized on his Ggwanga Mujje pot. He suggests that Buganda's traditional system of governance, ordered in layers of bannampara (plural of nnampala), provides good and committed bureaucrats and technocrats who can implement policy, deliver urgently needed services, and supervise development projects in Uganda. Ostensibly, he deconstructs the modern state inherited from colonialism as he proposes an alternative—probably egalitarian—state based on service delivery and common good.

I argue that the artist echoed the views of the sitting king of Buganda, Ronald Mutebi II. In 1997 Mutebi II decried the collapse of Buganda's economy after 1967 (Buganda Kingdom 1997). He nostalgically, and romantically, submitted that this disruption resulted from the collapse of the network of traditional village structures linked to the traditional authority he inherited from his forefathers. He recounted that such structures were headed by the “representatives of the kabaka” (called ababaka ba kabaka), who supervised developmental projects. During our interview in 2006, Sserunkuuma argued that “the system was well-organized and everything was working well” until Obote outlawed it.24 He is concerned that this collective effort was not recognized in NRM's Decentralisation Policy (1997), which created the District as the basic unit of administration, replacing the traditional systems which relied on counties. For him, therefore, the policy could not resuscitate Buganda's productiveness. Citing the experience in his village in Kabulassoke-Gomba, he argues that rural productivity has gone down because of the collapse of traditional local governance. He warns that “if the Baganda are not careful … we may completely disappear in terms of the economy,” adding that the problem of rural unproductiveness is a serious one “which society must realize and work on” (Kakande 2008:306).

Though certainly controversial, Sserunkuuma produced a pot titled Village Chiefs (1992) to enunciate his views on the representatives of the kabaka (Fig. 5). He used symbolic shields and stylized motifs running around the pots to construct power and authority. He relied on the tradition in which shields symbolize power and authority in Buganda. The pots are slightly over-fired. This effect blurs some of the colors and upsets their consistency. It does not, however, take away the political message behind the pots, through which the artist emphasized the role of traditional village chiefs as vanguards of political power and authority. He contended that such attributes give traditional chiefs respect within the communities and enhance their supervisory roles—a point he affirms through Village Chiefs.

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Bruno Sserunkuuma Village Chiefs “Medium and high earthenware” vases, 24 cm

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Bruno Sserunkuuma Village Chiefs “Medium and high earthenware” vases, 24 cm

Sserunkuuma's romantic nostalgia reminds us of Camara Laye's “Malinke villages” in his African Child (1954). In the face of colonial modernity, Camara's villages remained “uncorrupted by the complexity and dislocation of the [modern, colonial, capitalist] world we know” (Laye 1954). Such villages maintained a wealth of values, cohesion, self-reliance, freedom, African pride, and traditions; in addition to their appearance in Laye's novel, they have been reproduced as artistic metaphors in poems, theater, music, and dance. For example, they are the basis for Okot p'Bitek's African villages, where shared values were the norm (p'Bitek 2001) and Head Bessie's Serowe villages—most especially the Pilikwe village—where a “traditional system was not autocratic” (Bessie 2008).

As a metaphor of visual representation in Uganda's contemporary art, Sserukuuma's traditional village harks back to the paintings in which Sam Ntiro recreated his Chagga village to construct a productive socialist polity (Kakande 2008), held together by community service, shared values, and a work ethic, as evident in the construction of a new home in his Making a Chagga Hut (1960s). Save for Severino Matti's Village Massacre (Fig. 6), where there is obvious disruption and collapse of the social fabric in the village, after Ntiro, artists have deployed the village as a metaphor to represent a sense of community through productive (and sometimes populous) spaces. This visual strategy was seen in Henry Tayali's Village Bar (Fig. 7) and Kasapo's My Village (Fig. 8) before Sserunkuuma deployed it in his My Village (Fig. 9).

6

Severino Matti

Village Massacre I (late 1960s)

Oil on board, 244 cm × 122 cm

6

Severino Matti

Village Massacre I (late 1960s)

Oil on board, 244 cm × 122 cm

7

Henry Tayali

Village Bar (late 1960s)

Oil on board, 100 cm × 100 cm

7

Henry Tayali

Village Bar (late 1960s)

Oil on board, 100 cm × 100 cm

8

J.M. Kasapo

My Village (1960s)

Oil on board, 80 cm × 201 cm

8

J.M. Kasapo

My Village (1960s)

Oil on board, 80 cm × 201 cm

9

Bruno Sserunkuuma

My Village (2002)

Earthenware vase, 58 cm

9

Bruno Sserunkuuma

My Village (2002)

Earthenware vase, 58 cm

This work is a series of vases on which the artist creates a motif—relying on demography, production, and infrastructure—in which he critiques the health of the postcolonial nation-state in Uganda. It is based on the village theme also seen in his series Ganda Women and Ganda Youths of the 1990s and most recently on his candle stands done “for export.”25 However, Sserukuuma's pots based on the “my village” theme carry an urgent political text through which the artist unfolds an organized, undisturbed village inhabited by a sizeable population. He uses a black color against an off-white clay background through which he inscribes varied figures and objects using a sharp needle. His pots have oversized men and/or women draped in ornate fabrics. They sometime carry pots, hoes, or bags. They define latitudinal spaces in which groups of women are captured standing, seated, or bending—in a ritualistic way—and participating in a rural agricultural economy and political system. They help the artist to divide up and frame the very detailed motifs that cover the entire pot, leaving limited breathing space.

To alter the verticality that is imposed by the straight-trunk form of the pots, he snakes his population around the pots in a zig-zag arrangement as he displays a mastery of the vocabulary of art-making instructed at MTSIFA. Beyond these technical issues, the artist argues that he visualized a community ethos in his My Village series. His claim that he based these pots on proverbial Ganda sayings, which emphasize the community rather than the individual as the basis for a stable and productive society, confirms that, like many other African artists, Sserunkuuma's pots are grounded in his traditions. I argue that it is from such traditions that he finds the attributes he wished existed in Uganda's modern state since, for him, failure to imbibe such attributes has bred a corrupt civil service that has failed to deliver needed services to his community and build Uganda as a prosperous modern state.

CONCLUSION

Contemporary artists in Uganda have at different times reoriented practices to address pertinent political issues imposed by Uganda as a modern state. Some have made a case for a welfare state through their artworks. In the process, they have imagined and visualized, as a better alternative, an undemocratic village from which they themselves are removed by virtue of their training at Makerere University, which is located in the capital city Kampala. They have not preferred the liberal (and relatively democratic) urban centers in which they reside, practice, sell their art, and have access to better services. This poses a dilemma for them. And yet such a dilemma has been productive. It has shaped a strategy that some post-1986 artists in Uganda have adopted in order to challenge what seems to them an unethical political dispensation in which the urban, political elite exploit the rural masses to keep themselves in power. As seen in Okitoi's and Sserunkuuma's work, in the process they have questioned and critiqued the health of Uganda. I thus argue that, although some post-1986 artists in Uganda have imagined (and imaged) a traditional village as an antithesis (that also functions as a cure) to the mismanagement of the modern postcolonial nation-state, they in fact inadvertently ignore or reproduce the very political immorality they countervail because, unable to find an alternative village in the past on which to base their art forms, the villages they refer to are themselves interwoven into the colonial and postcolonial state whose power they deconstruct while decolonizing and redistributing its power economy.

Notes

This article draws on research I conducted during my PhD studies at the University of the Witwatersrand. I have built on it with additional research undertaken in 2013–2015 with the support of the African Humanities Program of the American Council for Learned Societies. A version of this paper was presented at the Rhodes University SARChI Publishing Workshop. I am indebted to Ruth Simbao and Alex Dodd, who provided me with feedback on this paper. I thank George Kyeyune, Bruno Sserunkuuma, Amanda Tumusiime, Sarah Nakisanze, Dorah Kasozi, Annette Ssebba, Deborah Namugga, and Mannington Mbaziira for their material and intellectual support. Special thanks go to the Carnegie Corporation of New York, Makerere University, and the National Research Foundation Chair in Geopolitics and the Arts of Africa (NRF and DST) at Rhodes University (Grahamstown, South Africa) for their support.

1

For instance, Alex Jakana and Nancy Kacungira graduated from Makerere University's Art School and worked with local FM stations hosting many talk shows before they both joined the BBC World Service.

2

Charles Onen has produced political cartoons and exhibited them as art in his Rastoon exhibition (2006). However most artists—for example Freddie Ssenoga (a.k.a Snoogie) of the New Vision and Alex Kwizera of the Daily Monitor—separate political cartoons, which they produce for the print and electronic media, from the art they exhibit in galleries.

3

For example, Bruno Sserunkuuma regularly buys and keeps newspapers in his studio, which he consults. He has radios in his studio and car for monitoring political talk shows.

4

For example, it is expressed in Song of Lawino and Song of Ocol (1966, 1967), a novel in which Okot p'Bitek reproduces an essentialized “Africa” framed in a rural, Negritudist “blackness” (p. 126) stuck in the past, where it is endowed with a rich “granary [o]f taboos, customs, [and t]raditions” (p. 127). He then opposes it to the modern urban realm in which Africans (represented by Ocol) lost their traditional values, work ethos, and respect as they adopted Western values and excesses including promiscuity and alcoholism.

5

For instance Fred Masagazi (1937–2009) and his UK Jazz Band did his “Atanawa Musolo” (1961) encouraging (especially urban) Ugandans to work and pay taxes. He also sang “Osaana Okole” (1962) encouraging men, especially those who come to the city, not to be lazy and idle.

6

This term may offend some readers. However it was used in colonial discourse to identify all native Africans in Uganda. I use it in this context.

7

Inadvertently, the law exposed the vulnerability of nonnative traders whose businesses, it was feared, had been rendered unprofitable by the natives who traded in urban areas. It also exposed the ineffectiveness of capitalism as a neutral arbiter in regulating Uganda's economy, whose integration into the British colonial economy was to be completed in the 1930s.

8

And this can be exemplified by the case of Rex v Yowasi Kiwanuka Pailo & 2 Others (1922). The three accused persons were charged with libel and inciting hatred against the king of Buganda. They denied the charge, arguing that their actions were intended to improve life in the countryside. The trial court rejected their claim for civic action and activism and hence the appeal, which also failed. Before he rejected the appeal, the judge gave a lecture to the three accused Baganda emphasizing that they had to “respect” the traditional authority of the “traditional” kabaka, who was above the law.

9

Corvée labor was needed to support the colony in Buganda. However, critiques argue that it was a new form of exploitation and abuse introduced in colonial Africa following the abolition of slavery. For ways in which the Church Missionary Society in Uganda campaigned against it see Hansen (1993).

10

The Supreme Court of Uganda accepted this fact in its judgement in Amama Mbabazi v Yoweri Museveni, Electoral Commission and Attorney General (2016).

11

Not so many cases were taken to the courts of law in the 1990s on this subject. However, recently there has been an increase in such cases, including the infamous OPM Scandal of 2012, in which a top bureaucrat in the Office of the Prime Minister of Uganda diverted, for personal use, money which was meant to improve the lives of the rural communities battered by the 1988–2007 rebellion in northern and eastern Uganda. This incident was widely circulated in the media and confirmed by Justice Wangutsi in the criminal case of Uganda v Geoffrey Kazinda, which concluded with a conviction in 2013.

12

This view is reproduced by the Afrigo Band in their song “Wololo Nfunda n'Omubi” (off the Afriga Batuuse album [2015]). Let me however add here in passing that, though popular among many communities in Uganda and elsewhere, this belief often constructs a pretty (usually urban) woman feared by men. The Kads Band released a song, “Ngenda mu Kyalo” (off the Urban Beat album [2003]), in which a man abandoned his pretty, unmanageable urban woman to return to the village and get a not-so-pretty but manageable rural one.

13

He also served as the Dean of the School and was a member of Makerere University Senate in 1995–2001.

14

Bruno Sserenkuuma, interview with author, Makerere University, April 30, 2016.

15

Ibid.

16

This dispossession has visited brutality and marginalization on many Baganda, who became squatters; it led to serious riots in the 1920s forcing the colonial administration to draft the Busuulu and Envujjo Law of 1928 seeking to control the landlords. Different postcolonial governments have taken steps to reverse the “damage”—the most radical being Idi Amin Dada's Land Reform Decree of 1975, which nationalized all land in Uganda. However, all these interventions have had limited impact; they have not stopped the landed aristocracy from continuously reproducing itself in perpetuity through successive generations.

17

Bruno Sserunkuuma, interview with author, Makerere University, January 3, 2006.

18

Bruno Sserunkuuma, interview with author, Makerere University, April 30, 2016.

19

Ibid.

20

Amongst other things, they are used for fertility and religious ceremonies among the Efik of Nigeria (Onyile 2016). They service the construction of power during the Egungun festival in Ibandan, Nigeria (Campbell 2015). They are used in funeral rituals among the Senufo in Mali (Coulibaly and Frank 2015). In Cameroon they are added to geometric and zoomorphic designs to form a raised motif placed around Babessi pots used for fertility and in connection to events and spaces connected to the palace (Forni 2007).

21

Plant shoots serve a similar purpose on Uganda's official symbols. For instance, the furniture in Uganda's National Parliament, currency notes, and the Coat of Arms reveal plants that symbolize Uganda's predominantly agricultural economy.

22

President Museveni gave the phrase a national application to deal with the recurrent problem of land evictions in Uganda. During a political rally at Namboole Stadium, Kampala, the tough-talking Museveni cited this Luganda phrase to mobilize the peasantry to collectively defend its interests against the landed aristocracy. He was cited in the local press as having said: “Those landlords who come with graders [meaning tractors] at night to chase you, you should report them, or call ggwanga mujje and you chase them” (Matsiko, Kibuuka, and Mutaizibwa 2005).

23

The president belongs to the Banyankore ethnic group, whose language is Runyankore.

24

Bruno Sserenkuuma, interview with author, Makerere University, April 30, 2016.

25

Ibid.

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