Shaheen Merali – weaving dreams for Uganda

Radiance – They Dream in Time: why histories are connected and histories and dreams are connected.

The Uganda National Pavilion has been awarded a special mention at the Award Ceremony and Opening at Ca’ Giustinian by the the Jury of the 59th International Art Exhibition of La Biennale di Venezia, comprising Adrienne Edwards (USA), President of the Jury, Lorenzo Giusti (Italy), Julieta González (Mexico), Bonaventure Soh Bejeng Ndikung (Cameroon/Germany), Susanne Pfeffer (Germany). The Pavilion exhibits the artworks by Ugandan artists Acaye Kerunen and Collin Sekajugo situated outside of the usual Giardini or Arsenale in the heart of city at Palazzo Palumbo Fossati and is open to the public until 27 November 2022 (free entrance). We met with the Ugandan Pavilion’s London based curator Shaheen Merali and in this extensive interview we discuss this project, aspects of the art scene in Uganda and in Africa in general.

Posters at the entrance of the Uganda pavilion in Venice, photo courtesy of pmc
Is it the first time in history Uganda is represented at the Art Biennale in Venice?

It’s the inaugural Pavilion. That’s right.

How would you put Uganda’s contemporary art scene on the map for a western audience?

Well, to be honest, Uganda is not sufficiently on the map that predominantly exists for the Western art scene. The artists who have migrated out of Africa and live in its diaspora – including John Akomfrah, Yinka Shonibare, Wangechi Mutu…- are now on the scene. William Kentridge from South Africa is, but to a certain extent, is not viewed as an African artist, but dealing with African subject matter and history in a stasis of post colonial reality. One encounters artists who make monumental works that are increasingly part of larger group exhibitions and Biennal events including Ibrahim Mahama and El Anutsi. 

Uganda, like other landlocked countries in Africa, including Congo, Rwanda, Burundi, Zimbabwe and Zambia, finds it more difficult to be part of “a scene” because of their histories of colonialism which were based on extraction and retained very little transferable infrastructure in comparison to the ports and cities on the oceans surrounding the continent. The ports retain a semblance of the history of Africa throughout its colonial period, an imperial history from its trade routes. The ships that came from Western Europe had created multiple ideas about their roles in how it discovered a continent – not only Africa but also Asia. So, in this long arch of history we find modern trajectories and difficulties we need to overcome. The Western world / the Northern hemisphere has retained these imperial sentiments in its art world, of trade and discovery of resources which it morphs by creating other spaces, for instance the model of Art Basel which is now in Hong Kong, and Miami. They act as a tightrope, where artists perform feats of balancing – big clever ideological constraints which are difficult for artistic communities who do not have a gallery system, or are not surrounded by active contemporary museums, or who remain outside a collector’s base in their own countries. Instead an art economy performs alongside visiting collectors coming from outside the region – and what is collected is retained abroad.

What is your personal connection with the art scene in Uganda?

I was born in Tanzania, in Dar es Salaam. In 1970, at a very young age, I left with my mother and my sisters when there was an expulsion of Asians from East Africa. Uganda and East Africa had a checkered history during the 1970s when thousands of Asian Africans, including my dear great uncle, were expelled alongside three generations of my extended family. Like myself, we arrived in England completely disoriented and we all became tagged as Ugandan Asians. Many families were split and found themselves in highly volatile climate of heightened racism in Britain, Switzerland, and Canada, where we rekindled our relationship with East Africa. 

My relationship to Uganda is in essence as an East African, and the notion of East Africa remains very important to me now and as a child. I loved the idea of East African airlines, it felt like the height of sophistication and modernity.  East African collaboration between Uganda, Kenya, and Tanzania remained at the forefront in the idea of African resilience and endurance. During the recent pandemic, I started writing a series of fictional accounts embedded in the formation of East Africa starting at the time of German East African history. The narrative in fictional form allowed me to engage with histories of revolutions and the place of cultural interrogation of pre-colonial formations. When the idea of the Ugandan pavilion came about, I was already imagining and researching Uganda, alongside Tanzania. Resolving fictional accounts through a porous border alongside Lake Victoria, a scene with roads and routes in which my family maintained their relationship between those two countries. When the idea of the pavilion started to become more of a reality rather than only a plan, I was acting as an advisor on the  curatorial aspects. With excitement I referred the idea of curators from Uganda who could curate the pavilion, but for various reasons in the time of Covid-19, it became challenging and the physical reality of traveling made commitments to any project very difficult.

The situation created a bottleneck – the prolonged interaction of the next six months was a marathon, and we were not able as a team based within and outside of Uganda find a curator from within Uganda to undertake cultural production in a number of sites including Belgium, Uganda, the UK. Due to my international relationships, and a history of regional curating I was asked, so I agreed to undertake the curating, including the designing of the pavilion and the editing/writing of the publication. My intention started with this opportunity and to learn from observation so that the next iteration of the Ugandan Pavilion can be at least aware of the pitfalls, the time schedules and the duress of the ambition.

Shaheen Merali, photo courtesy of pmc
Does the regional art scene tend to connect the political and anti-political, the traditional and anti-traditional in their themes and practices?

Absolutely. It is a very interesting dialogue to address. In the exhibition, Acaye Kerunen deliberately uses non-traditional, non-western mediums, to challenge both Western art history based on paint and canvas, with prints on paper and with sculptures in bronze. That dominance of the Western hegemony has governed the art world for centuries, which we recognise as modernity, it also acts as a governing tool. In contrast, methods, materials, forms and the context allow a different craftsmanship and knowledge with much needed remodelling and variations, including the work by Acaye Kerunen who predominantly works with raffia, sisal, and banana fibres. 

The use of natural material, and the use of natural dyes remains rare in the West. This sense of purity and what are seen as simple structures she makes, are actually very complicated. Kerunen’s work with traditional knowledge is an assessment of collective knowledge found in Uganda. She works with women who know the country as a terrain, its folds and forests, pinpointing when, where and how to to find a certain berry, to give her the colour that she wanted for e.g. the “Passion Flower” work in the exhibition. It takes resources, patience and time for Kerunen to find these networks of women who are involved in this work, and she spends sometimes months with them to receive a certain amount of material sufficient to make the structures she imagines. Her role as an artist is to deal with networks and the labour of women, including understanding the intensity of their realities, their interdependent lives in nature and the natural order of ecosystems. For many of us, these works present the natural beauty in our urban context where for Kerunen and her network it is about local knowledge that could impact global policy. Sometimes an artist can make their audience think beyond the commonplace product such as a placemat that we use for our dinner tables, forming a consciousness and acknowledgement for where do they come from? Who made them? Why have they spent a week making one of those? We may call it tourist art – they call that their reality.

Acaye Kerunen, Passion Flower, photo courtesy of pmc
Is the Western distinction between crafts and fine art practices really so important?

We have this kind of very modern traditional idea, binary: this is craft, this is art. We just stopped a kind of porosity between the two. We are always interrogating it: How do we evolve, how have you evolved in relationship respecting others, whether it’s about sexuality, whether it’s gender, whether it’s age? So, the guidelines that we have referred to male patriarchal structures, which sort of disallowed other hierarchies than the emphasis on: painters on the top, then sculptors and printmakers and everything beyond is a bit lesser. We have visited the Bauhaus recently in looking at the remaking of the world through other crafts, other techniques and technologies which have positioned art differently. And of course, the histories of art and craft are very specific, as is the history between art and design. A designer can work with half a dozen other people to create a design, to evolve that design, even including architects, technicians. Art and craft also have this relationship, which is not as well evaluated.

I must add the following: Why should it be we allow dance to be next to art, we have allowed architects to be next to it, writers, but why not craftspeople? We walk into an exhibition we go from painting to a sculpture to film installation, yet generally we disallow craft, in the same space, although in many ways it is the same occupation. So, I think there is something diagnostically wrong in our attitude, in our history. Even exhibitions are very necessary to recover the work of not only craftspeople but also women, to diversify “monoculturalism”. Overall as the main exhibition in the Venice Biennale exemplifies that they come from Europe or North America or from Latin America, but rarely women from India or Africa have been included. So it’s not about women, it is a specific history of women.

Acaye Kerunen, photo courtesy of pmc
Why did you choose to pair these two particular artists, Acaye Kerunen & Collin Sekajugo representing Uganda for the first time?

I think my central joy was found in their sensual use of material and of production that represents thought – and in the case of Sekajugo much needed humour. Both artists had the ability, energy, and the strength to produce in a very short intense time – not only this material for this exhibition, but to provide a sense of relationship between Uganda and the outside world. 

As important was the labour to also liaise with the Ministry. These two artists rose to that occasion. Not only they agreed to accomplish the artworks, but they assisted to build that bridge between the two administrations of the commissioner and the biennale.  That is what was necessary, to formulate and strengthen a new network and allow people to build their ideas of how things shall unfold in an international context. 

Both artists have learned a great deal from each other, they value and trust each other. They remain an example of how to build trust and bridges. Furthermore, there are the material connections between their artistic expressions. The use of bark-cloth by Sekajugo in his paintings which Kerunen also uses in her installations allows the shared space of Ugandan heritage. The textiles Sekajugo works with also connects with the fibres Kerunen employs.

The relation with textiles and the place of fashion in masculinity relates to a specific re-fashioning that keeps on evolving in patriarchy and in the male figure in Ugandan society. Its youth culture is going through a massive change. Possibly, to a certain extent, even going through a change which is less male than it was, and in certain cases even more male than it was. There are these binaries depending on how you look at the narration accomplished in Sekajugo’s paintings that suggests “uber”-testosterone as well as a softness that is present. Sekajugo’s “Call-centre portraits” an installation in the last room are all women. He has drawn from life representing his observation. The installation evokes a type of hearing: we want those voices on the other end of the phone to be who we think it should be. Somebody who can speak English, has been to England or to the West, who has a relationship to a recognisable institution we are calling, whether it is banking or technology or digital equipment. These call centres are not just about telephones, they are about commodification of young Ugandan lives and how we relate to them. They have to be available 24 hours a day, because their time zones are not necessarily only theirs but demand availability day and night.

Collin Sekajugo, Stock Image 014 - How may I direct Your Call? 2018/2021, acrylic and mixed media on canvas, 120x120cm, photo courtesy of Collin Sekajugo Studio
What does a visitor unfamiliar with the country need to know to decipher and understand the artworks and positions?

This question talks about the responsibility of inheritance, not only cultural, regional heritage, but global inheritance. If we’re not aware of the histories of the Southern world, then our sense of inheritance is an entitlement of the Western one. If we only work with only one part of the globe, we’re not working with Earth. Our notion and formation of reality should be much deeper at this point, when we are about to lose large portions of Earth through the way how we have occupied it and trashed it. We are in a desperate scenario, principally desperate times. 

WE need to return to the basic need that focuses on: what is going to happen to the next generation? They remain rightly worried about the interconnected condition that needs to be examined, addressed, and readjusted. How do we explore complex relationship between nations, this interdependency in our lives? We can start by any form that resonates with us, by examining what artists are creating, writers are writing, or journalists reporting! Many are interested in addressing how we can move forward and point to various roads ‘Where we might find the answers.’ How knowledge survives and is transmitted will allow us to take small steps towards the right direction. This pavilion, these artists provide two such voices – from the outside of Europe – which may inform us. 

Collin Sekajugo & Acaye Kerunen at the opening of the Uganda pavilion, photo courtesy of pmc
What is another prominent examples of contemporary Uganda for you and why?

My immediate answer is Sanaa Gateja! He remains a mentor for many people. Gateja started understanding the possibilities in recycling paper, he started to make paper beads applied directly to a flat surfaces – his paintings as such, his canvases and other large-scale works. He studied jewellery in Florence in the early 90s, and then came to London and that is when I met him. In the early 1990s, he decided to go back to Uganda, to set up a studio and a lot of people have found in him a kindred spirit including Kerunen. The next generation have been inspired by his tenacity – one that provides a community perspective – and in the use of Ugandan materials. Gateja’s understanding of what does it mean to be involved in an African system as an actor in a network of artists, remains underestimated and under-researched – and needs to be cited and underlined.

Are histories and dreams connected?

We dream in histories, I think. We dream about the histories we should have had, possibly. And we dream of histories we could have, which get shaped subconsciously. To a large extent we are sleeping less comfortably as humanity. I think the pain of this world remains disturbing our global dream, familial realities of our mothers, our sisters, our daughters, our brothers or uncles who might have passed away might have produced a haunted history that comes in our sleep. In the last two years, everywhere everyone has had some privilege removed may it be the privilege to wear or not wear a mask or the privilege to walk into a room and think everything is okay. 

So, subconsciously that affects our lives. It affects the way we think, the way we sleep and dream. History is very recent in that sense, it feels like an ambush, a threat that could be repeated. And what is going on with Ukraine is an extension of that tension. The fortress Europe built in reaction to the flight of refugees has created a chaotic shift, we find ourselves leaping around absolutely in the dark carelessness, meaninglessness of what it is to be defenceless. So, we are living an affective history charging between independent spaces which do not seem to belong to us. So, I do think, yes, histories are connected, histories and dreams are connected. And we are all trying to work out how to devise change from our dreams, so that we can make a better history for our next generation.

Acaye Kerunen, Installation, mixed material (Detail), photo courtesy of pmc
Collin Sekajugo, Stock Image 002 - Rich Woman Drinking Tea (Detail), photo courtesy of pmc
Are African innovations, trends and styles in youth and street cultures exploited and copied by the West without giving credit?

I think the way that social media and digital media works nowadays, credit is not part of resolving what is going on. It’s a kind of copy/paste on an unprecedented level. Yes, contextualising and re-contextualising is absent in the international system of piracy that we call ’social media’. You can say this is the mobility of digital colonialism or digital piracy, digital vampirism, you can call it all sorts of things – you could do a whole seminar on thinking about trends. 

In the exhibition, Sekajugo’s re- use of stock imagery is both an inspiration and a critical base. Re-creating a photograph of oligarch Richard Branson for instance but painting him as a ‘Black guy’. That painting and the series recognises piracy and this relationship of re-appropriation instigates to review pre-conceptions. The notion of decoloniality remains an agency, an intention, an interruption to forge further relationships to Earth and to ourselves. This decoloniality disallows the final phase of violence which is to remain silent to the violence. If we do not talk about rape culture, if we do not talk about street violence or domestic abuse, about racial justice or the history of human slavery, the silence becomes part of colonial control. So what was going on in America around racial politics and racial knowledge and texts banned from certain university is part of the final phase of colonialism – to silence the rage.

The relationship to the past and its affects in the present is never to be dropped. It is part of the knowledge that the next generation and this generation needs to re-evaluate. It should never be placed outside of our orbit. It is our orbit.

Finally, concerning the parameters in culture, we do need systems to protect our culture. The parameter of the Giardini, the parameter of the Arsenale exist as a gated community. It allows a certain amount of access and wealth to be guarded, a certain hegemony that acts as a Petri dish. Being outside of the two guarded territories is really very interesting. In this small localised neighbourhood, our daily dependence is on five or six cafes. Outside that one finds another neighbourhood, another square, which has its own characteristics and relationships. I think there’s a different relationship between here, outside of the gated community, and it is a historical difference mediated by coloniality. We are here in this palazzo by this little canal, on the outside. 

And this is the next goal: for the next iteration to be undertaken by the Uganda National Cultural Center (UNCC). The chairperson, Sam Okelo Kello, who is an artist in his own right with the artists in Uganda are proposing to undertake workshops in Kampala which would allow many others to take part towards the second presentation of the Uganda Pavilion in two years’ time.

Collin Sekajugo, Stock Image 001 - Boy In a Wheelchair (Detail), photo courtesy of pmc
Peter Muttcoin
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