The Artisans of the Walled City of Lahore

Perched outside his workshop in Lahore’s Walled City, Mohamed Tahir plays a harmonium while watching the passing melee. The melancholy sounds of the instrument are barely audible over the din of motorbikes and wheel cutters, but still they evoke something of Lahore’s history, a world that lives on beneath the dust and frantic rhythms of everyday life.

“The piano and harmonium were brought here by the Britishers, but drum-making began during the Mughal period,” Tahir says. Wrapped in a black cotton shawl, the elderly man has been making musical instruments on this street for over 70 years.

Like many artisans in the Walled City, Tahir’s skills have been passed down the generations, surviving the turns of history that have ruptured this region. With changing traditions and market competition, though, Lahore’s craftsmen face an uncertain future. Yet some initiatives are offering these artisans an opportunity to craft a profound transformation upon the city.

There are hopes that the work of these craftsmen and women will revive a city that has been passed over by tourists for decades. Lahore rivals Delhi for its heritage, yet receives a tenth of the visitors. Plus it’s a relatively short drive from the city to the country’s breathtaking northern mountain ranges. For travellers, the lure of the city has been overshadowed, it seems, by the drama of Pakistan’s history.

When Pakistan became a sovereign state in 1947, Mohamed Tahir’s family moved from Amritsar, in India, to Lahore, inside the new Pakistani border. The period is known as Partition. Seven million Hindus and Sikhs left for India. Over 10 million Muslims crossed into Pakistan, including many of Lahore’s current artisans. Theirs is a lineage disrupted by politics, whose continuity lies in their craft. Though in the upheaval surrounding the new state of Pakistan, a great deal was lost.

For over a thousand years, Lahore thrived by welcoming all sorts; Chinese travellers, Sufi saints from Ghazni, Portuguese priests, Italian painters and Armenian ironsmiths. Lahore reached the height of its splendour during the Mughal period, from 16th to 18th centuries. The Emperors of this time – Akbar, Jahangir, Shah Jahan and Aurungzeb – were generous patrons of the arts and crafts. The most impressive Mughal architecture, such as the Lahore Fort and Badshahi Mosque, borrowed from Islamic, Persian and Hindu traditions. The Walled City became Lahore’s commercial heart: a dense maze of alleyways and markets, whose karkhana (workshops) thronged with thousands of weavers, ironsmiths, masons, miniaturists, astrolabe makers, jewelers, cobblers and carpet weavers. Together they sustained imperial trade and supplied a burgeoning society with their material needs.

Many craftsmen are still at it. Walking through the bustling Kasera bazaar, the blacksmiths are impossible to ignore: standing at their workshops which open onto the street, they press blades and other tools onto sharpening wheels, prompting the shrill, piercing sound of drills and sprays of sparks like fireworks. Here, in his tiny workshop, I meet Affif Mughal, a blacksmith whose forefathers made swords for the Mughal court and aristocracy. With the decline of the Sikh Empire in the 19th century, his family switched to knives and scissors. Today, Affif’s scissors are used by Lahore’s tailors and cobblers. These artisans comprise an ecosystem. Such relationships are a remnant of former, more prosperous days, when dozens of craft industries were bound together.

Lahore’s artisans are proud of their heritage. Down a back alley off the Moti bazaar, on the floor of a tiny room, I meet Fazal Durrani, a shoemaker in the Walled City since 1981. “The Mughal Emperors had their own cordwainers (cobblers),” he says, waving a leather sole under his work lights. “I am continuing this tradition”.

With the decline of the Mughal Empire, many of Lahore’s crafts diminished. The artisans’ fortunes were invigorated under the muscular reign of the Sikh, Ranjit Singh, but by the time the British seized the city, in 1846, new patterns of trade threatened the old professions. Over the ensuing decades, British manufactured imports, such as umbrellas and bicycles, began to appear in Lahore’s shops. With a new political economy came changes in consumption patterns.

Rudyard Kipling was in Lahore at the time. When the author depicted the Walled City in his 1891 story, The City of the Dreadful Night, he described a place of “fetid breezes”, lepers and corpses, a city “of Death as well as Night”. As a champion of the British Empire, Kipling has always faced criticism. Orwell labeled him a “jingo imperialist”. Today, some will see Kipling’s portrayal of the Walled City as ‘orientalising’; that he rendered the place otherworldly and uncivilized, its people listless, and therefore, by implication, worthy of subjugation.

But the ‘creative destruction’ of British-led capitalism was already imposing itself upon many of Lahore’s old trades. From the time of the Raj onwards, Lahore’s artisans have faced stiff competition from market forces, while many fail to adapt to changing tastes. One craft struggling to survive today is hookah pipe production. Passing stalls displaying colourful dupattas and saris, I walk around the Wazir Khan mosque, where Kipling set his story. Here, I meet Umer Saleem, a large, thoughtful man, and one of the Walled City’s last hookah pipe makers.

“There used to be 30 workshops here. Now there are only three,” he says. Saleem’s family began making smoking pipes three generations ago. He describes the history of the hookah, invented by the Persian physicist, Abu’l-Fath Gilani, in the 16th century. He proclaims their social value, as a way of “bringing people together” and “taking time”. But he is not optimistic. A 2013 law banned their use in cafés and restaurants. Also, he concedes, “the new generation prefers cigarettes”. Saleem has suffered a 75 percent decline in sales.

In recent decades, the Chinese have taken up where the British began. Chinese factories supply everyday items to Lahore’s markets, at prices that undercut local producers and capture domestic markets. Up two flights of stairs, in a hot, bare room in the Langa Mandi quarter, I meet a metalworker called Muhammad Muzamil. Working on the floor beside two other craftsmen, he is feeling the pinch. “China has introduced cheaper goods. They have their own factory designs, but I believe hand-made is better,” he says, while hammering a pattern into a steel buffet lid. Muzamil’s great-grandfather started their business, in Delhi, but he is not passing his craft onto his children. “It is too up and down” he says.

If the fate of Lahore’s artisans seems bleak, there are grounds for hope. Several organisations are supporting craftsmen. The Walled City of Lahore Authority (WCLA), for example, wants to highlight the influence that artisans have had on the city. “Old Lahore was a place where people were identified with their skills. Places still bear the names of the craftsmen who worked there, like Bowmakers Street,” says Kamran Lashari, the WCLA Director General. The WCLA has offers leases to designated shopkeepers to sell local crafts along Food Street, a prominent avenue near the crimson walls of the Badshahi Mosque. The WCLA has also been giving free day tours for visitors around the Walled City and the Lahore Fort since 2012, and began organizing night tours last year. Passing areas such as the Lohari Davarza (Blacksmiths’ Gate), the walks navigate places where the Lahore’s craft history lives on today.

Over the past decade, the WCLA has partnered with the Aga Khan Trust for Culture (AKTC) to conserve some of Lahore’s most remarkable buildings. Initially, AKTC restored the walls and mashrabiya of the old havelis along the Shahi Guzargah, the Royal Trail. Processions of Mughal Emperors coming from Delhi would follow this road, entering Lahore via the Delhi Gate and travelling on to the Lahore Fort. Craftsmen under AKTC have also conserved the last remaining Mughal-era bathhouse, the Shahi Hammam, as well as the walls, minarets and façade of the Wazir Khan mosque. Both structures were built in the 17th century.

AKTC’s most ambitious project is the restoration of the 450 metre-long and 16-metre high Mughal-era ‘Picture Wall’ in the Lahore Fort. Constructed in the early 17th century, it was exquisitely decorated by hundreds of artisans under Shah Jahan. The result was an artistic triumph; a monumental screen of over 110 panels comprising glazed tiles, faience mosaics and frescoes. Some of these depict figurative images, such as angels and dragons. These motifs, now brought back into focus through the AKTC restoration, reveal what was an outward-looking Empire, receptive to eastern and western ideas.

These days, walls are rarely the subject of unanimous praise, nor do they elicit a sense of pluralism. But this one inverts the idea. Dozens of young female and male architects, fresco painters, chemists, digital conservators and historians are collaborating on this assignment. The project may take several years, but the conservators are a pool of enthusiasm. They discuss the wall’s Persian, Italian and Chinese influences. The older master craftsmen, busy restoring tiles, filigree and brickwork, are equally excited. One evening, as the sun is setting behind the nearby tomb of Ranjit Singh, I climb up to the highest point of scaffolding along the wall. There, I meet Ala Uddin, a master mason. He is laying bricks. “I love this wall,” he says, his face literally glowing in the orange light. “It brings our culture and traditions to life.”

Of course, restoring Lahore’s historic monuments will not tackle the structural economic factors threatening the city’s artisans. But these projects are employing craftsmen in numbers not seen in decades. These artisans are reviving Mughal techniques, while also working with a diverse community of practitioners trained in the latest methods. The results will attract more visitors to Lahore, generating income that can be reinvested into further restoration work. The project may even awaken a demand for craftsmanship among wealthy Lahoris looking to embellish their homes.

Yet the restoration work is really about something deeper. If the Picture Wall displays Lahore’s cosmopolitan past, the way it is being restored suggests a pluralistic present rarely found in contemporary narratives of Pakistan. The multidisciplinary team of craftsmen and conservators, from different generations, gender and ethnic origin are, in their small way, embodying the ‘can do’ spirit that animated the city four centuries ago.

My last interview in Lahore was with an elderly master mason, Mohammad Ramzan. It was after dusk, and the end of his day. What he said about the Picture Wall, and the restoration effort, lingered in my memory: “It is a way of understanding our identity.”

 

A version of this article was published in the FT Weekend

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Tunisia Talents

Aïcha Snoussi
I’m sitting in the shade of a courtyard in the medina of Tunis, and Aïcha Snoussi is telling me how she identifies with the octopus. “I love all the limbs, the ink, and how they release it to hide themselves with clouds,” she says. The artist’s fascination comes as no surprise. Snoussi’s work is alive with gothic visions. She conjures illustrations of crazed, bionic-anthropomorphic creatures, sometimes powered by a medusa’s head of cables, whose brains are exposed to the viewer. She says she always liked to draw “ugly, destroyed characters. Excluded characters.”

Snoussi grew up in Hammamet, near to Tunis. She studied in Tunisia before moving to Paris, where she is currently based. The fact that as a Tunisian woman she is able to exhibit such graphic images may reflect a more liberal Tunisian attitude towards art and the artist. This permissiveness was also indicated by her 2016 exhibition at the Tunisian Embassy in London, where she covered the interior with red ink drawings of vegetated, mechanic, sexual beings. “With red everywhere, it felt like being inside a body.” And this, perhaps, is Snoussi’s aim: to leave our heads, and be with our bodies, in all their instinctive, unspeakable, irrational ways.

Portrait of the Tunisian folk duo in Tunis, Tunisia

Yuma

Sabrine Jenhani and Ramy Zoghlemi are sitting opposite, posing with plates of fruit in Duken, a new gastro-café in the medina. Quick to laugh, playful, and on the cusp of stardom, they are Yuma, Tunisia’s vivacious folk music duo. On stage, Jenhani’s voice can be heart-wrenching, powerful yet fragile, while Zoghlemi accompanies in harmony, singing with a deep, breathy intensity, as if to himself, while playing acoustic guitar. Their melodies are intimate in themselves. But sung sincerely, in Tunisian dialect, across themes scarcely addressed by other artists, they are reaching a young generation eager to express themselves.

“People are making declarations of love after our concerts. Maybe they wouldn’t have before. We are addressing taboos and influencing changes,” Jenhani tells me. There is an implication that they may inadvertently be challenging familial traditions of arranged marriages. “Our songs are focusing on metaphors of love and emotion that are more real to people’s lives,” she adds.

At this point, a giddy adolescent girl rushes into the café to ask if she can have a photo with them. Yuma’s first album, Chura, and their second, Stardust, are pushing boundaries artistically. Their fanbase is growing fast, and they were awarded the ‘Public Vote’ at the Journées Musicales de Carthage in April 2017.

Yasmine Sfar
“For a long time creativity was not encouraged in Tunisia,” says Yasmine Sfar, manager of Tinja, a homeware hub. But this, she adds, is changing. “Design is being born,” she tells me. “There is a real wave of desire to do things, different things.”

Named after a little town in northern Tunisia, Tinja’s work evokes the colours and materials of that region. The boutique is filled with wicker lamp shades, rusted clay pots, blown-glass gourds, and pale yellow, grey and lime-green cotton cushions. The style is artisanal chic; hand-crafted, with modern, clean designs. “All our pieces are made in Tunisia, using local materials,” says Sfar.

Since it began in 2007, Tinja’s basic model remains the same: working with locally-crafted artisanal products, such as pottery from Sejnane, they then develop the designs from their workshop in Tunis. Success arrived after the Office National de l’artisanat invited them to exhibit at the Salon Maison et Objets, a major design fair in Paris. From 2012 they began producing a proper catalogue and exporting to clients all over the world. Despite acknowledging that they “offer a more avant garde vision” than most, Sfar says that their “inspiration still comes from meetings with artisans around the country.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Salah Barka
Fashion designer Salah Barka also recognises the influence of Tunisia’s artisans. “Our culture is very much based around clothing,” he tells me from his home in Menzah, a green neighborhood in the west of Tunis. “In each town in Tunisia people had to have five to ten outfits; for the day, the night, as well as for social and religious ceremonies and festivals. There used to be local artisans making those clothes.” He still derives inspiration from these old Berber communities’ ethnic outfits.

Black Africa is clearly important to Barka, too. “The first time I went to Africa, to Niger, I cried. It was a dream. I felt I was with family. I loved the energy of the people, the simplicity, and the poverty, which is actually a richness, une richesse humaine.” It was 2009, and Barka won second prize at the International Festival of African Fashion (FIMA). Today his work often draws on the motifs, colours and history of sub-Saharan African cultures.

A black, gay man, Barka has had to overcome a latent racism and homophobia that lurks among a minority of more traditional Tunisians. The youngest of 12 siblings, his family, and mother in particular, were supportive. “If you respect yourself, people respect you,” he says. “This has really helped me with my work.”

Portrait of the film director in Tunis, Tunisia

Sélim Gribaa
It is sunset, and film director Sélim Gribaa is animated. We are chatting on a rooftop in the medina, not far from where his last film, Passicalme, was shot. The settings could not feel more different. Passicalme is strange and tense, a surreal, nightmarish sequence of individuals preparing to send two people through a shadowy gate (the medina’s Bab Jedid). Gribaa tells me his head has always been filled with abstract scenes. He says it was “after watching Mulholland Drive that I decided I wanted to make films”.

Yet Gribaa’s first award-winning short film, The Purple House, produced in 2014, was more conventional. The story centers around Hsan, a naïve old man who spends all his money painting his house purple, the colour of the national political party, believing this display of loyalty will yield advantages. But the party is ousted from power in a popular uprising. As the tragi-comedy reaches its climactic end, Hsan burns himself. It is an ironic nod to the self-immolation of Mohamed Bouazizi, whose dramatic suicide sparked the beginning of the 2011 Tunisian revolution. Given its success, I ask why Gribaa chose such a new genre with Passicalme. “I wanted to evolve. Since I’m an autodidact, I didn’t go to film school, I need to try new styles to keep learning,” he replies.

Nataal

Photography by Christopher Wilton-Steer

Yuma

yuma

“It was vital, imperative, natural, instinctive. Perhaps we arrived at a musical universe, or perhaps we created it”, says Ramy Zoghlemi. He grabs his exuberant beard and funnels down it with one hand, while staring at a little espresso coffee cup on the table. Seated alongside is his collaborator, Sabrine Jenhani. Together, they are Tunisia’s folk duo Yuma. 

Yuma’s music is lovely; intimate, melodic, melancholic, powerfully simple. They combine Tunisian dialect with hints of western, almost Celtic melodies. Sabrine‘s voice is fully emotive, forceful yet fragile. Ramy accompanies with deep, breathy vocals, while playing acoustic guitar.

I saw them play the week before at the Rio cinema in downtown Tunis. The place was full, and filled with an excitement that was palpable and contagious. It was thrilling to see people responding to a performance in this way. I found myself wondering why the crowd was so excited.

It takes 3 minutes online to realise that Yuma produce music that is highly accessible to the western ear. As a blend of local dialects and sonorous, expansive melodies, perhaps it was simply the originality of the music, its novelty in this setting, that was so exciting to everyone?

But when we meet, a week later, in a café in the Tunis centre ville, Ramy offers another clue: “Sabrine and I are representing a Tunisian youth that has a great thirst for music, but also for love, hope and grace”. The primary musical vehicle for Tunisian youth culture is hip hop. Also delivered through dialect, it appears to offer mainly anger and swagger for those looking to embody the genre. Yuma offers an alternative. Through Yuma’s music, Tunisians can share in the celebration of their language, idioms and adages, within a genre, folk, that accommodates a wider gamut of emotions. As such, when Ramy says, “we have become spokespersons for a generation” it begins to make sense.  

It has all happened very quickly for Yuma. They formed just over a year ago, in late 2015. Their break came in the summer of 2016, when they played at the Hammamet music festival, seen as Tunisia’s most important music event. The rest is starting to become history. They are working on a second album, called ‘Stardust’. Sabrine, 30, and Ramy, 28, are gaining a national, or even international, following. 

Yuma’s popularity must also be seen in the context of a Tunisian culture that, for all its liberalism vis-a-vis other Maghreb and Arab countries, remains conservative. The duo’s decision to abandon steady jobs to pursue a career in music is unusual. For Sabrine to collaborate with a man, in an industry dominated by men, is also unconventional. For young Tunisians their courage must be inspirational.

“To an extent we have become cultural figures. It wasn’t deliberate. It just happened because of our expressing ourselves. It was through our desire to be personally satisfied” says Sabrine.

And here lies a final insight into the duo’s reception at the Rio cinema. Yuma are pursuing their purpose on their own terms. They do not pursue any overt political agenda, but their freedom of expression is a political act in the context of Tunisian society. Their art is theirs. This exposure is vulnerable, and therefore connecting.

I ask about the sadness I hear in their music. Sabrine responds “C’est moins triste que intimiste [It’s less sad than intimate]”. What matters, she later says, is “to be real”. With the courage of this conviction, in their quiet way, Yuma are making big noises on Tunisia’s cultural scene.  

True Africa

City Sounds Kampala

When Okot p’Bitek, a Ugandan poet, took over as Director of the National Theatre in Kampala in 1967, he promptly and ceremoniously replaced the British Council’s grand piano with a drum post driven into the ground outside, announcing “Our national instrument is not the piano – tinkle, tinkle, tinkle – but the drum – boom, boom, boom!”

The drum has always been central to this region’s musical heritage. The drum would beat at ceremonies among the kingdoms of Buganda, Busoga and Bunyoro across these lands before foreign traders, missionaries and colonists arrived.

The cow-hide drum still resides in churches and village bomas, where it sounds to the rituals of adulthood, marriage and death. And today the beat goes on, from the village to the dusty street, through genres rooted in the urban music culture of America’s African diaspora: hip hop and dancehall. Kampala’s mainstream music culture rests squarely around the beats, loops, cuts and samples that have come to define the first truly ‘global’ urban music genre.

Artists such as Bobi Wine combine the visual performance of US hip hop MCs with melodic dancehall delivery. Wine is the president of the Ghetto Republic of Uganja, a crew based in the Kampala slum called Kamwokya. The vice president is another artist called Buchaman. Their ‘cabinet’ includes a Defence Minister, a Minister for Disaster Preparedness and a Minister of Agriculture (whose policy, unsurprisingly, is to legalise cannabis).

The Ghetto Republic of Uganja might seem a frivolous endeavour, but these guys are national figures, with huge influence over their fans and politicians desperate to secure their patronage in the run-up to the general election in February 2011. Meanwhile, President Yoweri Museveni has inadvertently had a rap hit, after hip-hop producers remixed part of a speech featuring renditions of Ugandan folk songs by the leather-faced incumbent. Youngsters nationwide have adopted it as their ringtone. There are serious doubts Museveni himself can count on that level of popularity when it comes to the youth vote next year.

Wine wants to motivate people. “I call it edutainment. I want to reach out to the ghetto youth, and teach them about issues like condoms, but still keep aggressive and still keep entertaining…” Nightfall descends as we talk from the balcony of his recording studio, a bungalow covered in grasshoppers. In the slum nearby, a ‘farm’ made of white electric lights and huge cones of corrugated iron sheeting attract spectral clouds of the insects, which are cooked and sold as snacks.

Hundreds of thousands of Ugandan youths have also been drawn to the bright lights of the capital, exposed to a lifestyle so at odds with the rural, traditional lives of elder generations. Wine is the torchbearer of this brave new world. He offers pride and a sense of community to the scores of dispossessed, the slum kids fighting for a living. “We call it urban” he says. “Whereas rural music is narrative… informative… passive, urban music is more active and aggressive.”

As if p’Bitek’s words still hang in the ether, the city’s youthful hip hop culture can be experienced behind the National Theatre, at the ‘Bonfire’ outdoor gathering every Wednesday night. Bonfire comprises a hundred or so Kampalan b-boys and b-girls reciting poetry, and when the beats get dropped, rapping rhymes and hip hop verse in English or the preferred ‘Luga-flow’ (i.e. in the Buganda dialect, Lugandan). As the night progresses, beat boxers, break dancers and amateur acrobats emerge, shifting the emphasis from cerebral to corporal.

Breakdancers KLA

But Luga-flow, dancehall and reggaeton don’t entirely dominate Kampala’s city sounds. Rock, jazz fusion and traditional music have their niches. A seemingly incongruous Ugandan rock band called The Uneven, led by the sexy, charismatic Rachel K, gave a blistering performance at this year’s Bayimba Music Festival.  The jazz fusion scene revolves around Qwela and Baxmba Waves. Afro-fusion big band Qwela have developed a following after a succession of hugely popular all-singing hip-shaking concerts at bars and hotels across the city. Baxmba Waves are an accomplished jazz quintet, blending indigenous rhythms with contemporary jazz. But they play in Bubbles O’Leary, Kampala’s Irish pub, whose owner Declan shipped the interior out of a pub from the emerald isle. With sport showing on surrounding TV screens, even the all-consuming passion of their singer Ken Musoke fails to dispel the regular pub vibe. It begs the question: where’s the city’s ‘gig’ venue?

Kampala’s traditional music scene has no such dilemma. The Ndere Centre provides an ideal setting for traditional music lovers. Established in 2003, the spacious theatre and open air auditorium are located in parkland in the north of Kampala. Or there’s the National Theatre, with its unchanged 1960s interior. National kora maestro Joel Sebunjo will perform there in his annual “diplomats tour” concert next month.

Joel Sebunjo

“More and more musicians in Uganda are drawing from their traditional roots and blending it with contemporary urban music” says Sebunjo. “Artists like Mesach Semakula or rapper Navio are using traditional themes in their songs and fusing that with an urban approach.” Sebunjo recalls a hugely popular song Mesach produced that referred to the Kabaka (King of Buganda). “When artists sing about something from their culture, people respond so much more than to songs with abstract ideas, where people can’t relate.” Sebunjo is a passionate promoter of more traditional African music. “I’m proud to see that major world music artists are coming to Kampala,” he says, “Salif Keita was here in October, we’ve had Oliver Mtukudzi, Miriam Makeba – they inspire people to discover the world music scene.”

It may not have the vibrancy of Dakar or Kinshasa just yet, but Kampala is undergoing a quiet musical revolution. The city’s hip hop, dancehall, rock, jazz fusion and traditional world music scenes are developing fast. Improved production and recording equipment, a burgeoning market, and an ambitious, outward-looking collection of artists are making it happen. Tinkling they are not.

Mondomix

Bayimba Cultural Foundation, Kampala www.bayimba.org

Evolution of Visual Art in Uganda

Across sub-saharan Africa, contemporary art remains particularly influenced by the agglomeration of historical and political forces that have shaped the country in question.

In Europe art patronage has been dominated by the tastes and demands of bourgeois collectors for centuries: the art market. Given the relative fluidity of European culture and tastes since the 20th century, and the transition of art into a marketplace of ideas and concepts, today’s British contemporary art is increasingly conceptual, and cannot be recognised as distinct from, say, the German equivalent in terms of form.  Expressions of cultural or national difference have been replaced instead by highly individualistic, polymorphous pieces that may ‘represent’ specific ideas pertaining to contemporary Western society.

Start Journal

In black Africa this kind of art market and its vagaries has not developed to the same extent. Only in the past few decades has an urban middle class consumer emerged. But where sustained royal patronage did exist in Africa, patterns of artistic production have largely resisted recent economic developments.

Countries like Mali, Nigeria, Sierra Leone, Cote D’Ivoire and Congo, held robust patronage networks based around strong, centralized traditional patterns of authority. Under such powerful systems of rule the arts could flourish. The kingdom of Benin, for example, covering parts of contemporary Nigeria, Benin, Togo and Ghana, reached its imperial and artistic zenith in the 15th century, producing the famous bronze wall plaques and life-sized bronze heads of their Obas of Benin (King). Even after the kingdom’s decline from the 16th century, a deeply-rooted culture for anthropomorphic sculpture and design had been developed.  The Ga people of contemporary Ghana claim their descent from the kingdom of Benin and have continued to produce stunning face masks through the 19th and 20th centuries up to today.

Neither Kenya nor Uganda’s precolonial ethnic groups had the unified, centralized organization or the sustained political and economic strength to develop such lasting art patronage networks.

“Uganda is not very well known for having a strong plastic [figurative] arts tradition” says George Kyeyune, Ugandan artist, scholar and teacher, and former Dean of Makerere University School of Fine Art.

“If you start with West Africa and Congo, we [Uganda] don’t have the masks, we don’t have the masquerades, we don’t have the bronze casts. We didn’t inherit that”.

Relatively few precolonial statuettes and masks have been discovered in Eastern Africa compared to those along the heavily forested southern belt of West and Central Africa. But this dearth of traditional production has allowed Uganda and Kenya more scope to create afresh, as literacy, urbanization and a growing consumerism brought new kinds of artist, art and collector to the scene.

Kyeyune, who holds a PhD on ‘Art in Uganda’ from the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), gives me an overview of the evolution of Ugandan art since independence. He speaks quietly from his office-cum-studio on Makerere campus, where he continues to write, paint and teach.

“In the 1960s, some felt we should dispense with the past and embrace the new, forge forward, whereas others felt ‘no, we’ve been cheated for such a long time out of our inheritance, we need to recover aspects of our past that are still relevant and important’. Others chose a middle ground, combining the past and the future…”

“From the 1970s onwards, when Idi Amin took power, a lot of things went to the dogs…” he reflects. “The subject matter changed. It became morbid. The colours used were very dark”. Art became a tool for protest.

“Artists criticised the leaders a lot. Not directly, as this was dangerous. They would use myths and legends to disguise their criticisms to the corrupt and inepts leaders. And they would also use the bible to speak about the injustices in their government”

Kyeyune told me skeletons were commonly depicted in 1970s visual arts. The 1980s became a decade of “self-reflection”, where artists “showed disgust with their leaders”, emphasising Francis Nnaggenda’s work in particular. But by the 1990s, Yoweri Museveni’s party, the National Resistance Movement, had brought stability and a liberalised, growing economy.

Artists reacted positively to this freedom; they began experimenting in form and style, using new motifs, textures and colours. If a period can, the 1990s represented “some kind of avant garde for Ugandan art” says Kyeyune.

Ronex Ahimbisibwe’s work conveys the diversity and complexity of Uganda’s new generation of artists. Short and wide-eyed, Ronex shows me around his house and studio near Makerere as dusk falls upon Kampala. It’s a temple to creativity; inside, a photography studio, walls covered in paintings and rooms filled with home-made furniture. The actual studio is crammed with mixed media artistry: pixelated images, collages, barkcloth, rollers, powder and binder liquid, acryllic – these are the diverse media and textures he adopts to conjure his visual art. Around the grounds outside lie metal carcasses: sculptures or furniture half-produced.

TindiArtists like Ronnie Tindi also promote the new vibrancy in Ugandan art. Tindi hails from western Uganda, from the Banyankole (President Yoweri Museveni’s clan), but has lived in Kampala for years, now working at the Njovu Studio in Bukoto district. Tindi’s most striking paintings are strange, fantastical African faces, an indigenous take on pop art, with bright red lips and a brash originality that’s perhaps at odds with his gentle demeanour.

 

Donald Wasswa is another young artist whose work is abstract but milder on the eye. For the past few years he’s been painting or what he calls ‘masking’ magical, childish scenes of floating elephants among trees.  The originality of these pieces, sometimes using pen, coffee, magazines and acrylic, reflect his desire to move beyond an art scene that deals in the tourist or ex-pat trade, confined to commercial pictures of cockerels and African women in primary colours.

“Lots of artists today find shortcuts” says Kyeyune. “They use colours with rollers, iconic features – geckos, fish – in some cases it becomes a bit of a cliché. There is little attention to detail”.

“Artists are starting to realise some of the problems that need to be rectified” says Wasswa. “Five years ago, many artists were mass-producing work that began to look very similar.” Wasswa says he realised you can’t produce work solely in view of where it could sell. Though he recognised you have to “evaluate a little”.

“It’s fine for a gallery to take your work but they need to promote it, which they are currently not doing” says Wasswa. Currently the city’s galleries will hardly inspire major collectors anyway; most are a few small rooms inside cramped bungalows with little if any lighting. Kampala urgently needs a large building with clean bright white spaces to honour its artists’ work.

“Some of us are thinking of developing a contemporary art gallery. We’ve looked at converting an old soap factory in Mbuya [a Kampala suburb]” he says. This was used in a one-off exhibition by the Goethe Institute some years ago and could be an interesting prospect.

We talked about the practical and touristic appeal of a Village des Arts (Dakar) equivalent in Kampala. Referring to tinga tinga, the Tanzanian art movement, Wasswa tells me he and some artists are looking to buy land down in Masaka district, west of Lake Victoria, to construct a series of large studios.

Clearly underfunding and government mismanagement means most of Uganda’s artists struggle to start, let alone survive. Wasswa describes the 2007 Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in Uganda, where artists were asked to submit their work which would be displayed around the city.

“Pieces were lost. Artists didn’t get rent fees. I lost a piece of work somewhere in Entebbe airport” he says. “Money does go to the Ministry of Culture but doesn’t trickle down to artists” Wasswa concludes.

Bruno SBruno Sserunkuuma could be seen as one of the old guard, who has survived working in Uganda. Originally a painter, Sserunkuuma became a potter who benefitted from his association as pupil and graduate fellow with Makerere University, a critical source of sustainable funding and resources as well as technical instruction.

Sserunkuuma’s artistry has clearly been influenced by the vision of the original founder of Makerere’s School of Fine Art, Margaret Trowell. Director of Makerere Art School from 1939-45, Trowell represented a colonial pedagogy. She wished to respect existing traditional methods while introducing technical knowledge as a pragmatic way to develop the visual arts in a region where representational art was rare. ‘We start from it, study it, and honour it’ was her dictum.Makerere School of Art & Design

The ceramicist’s output is a product of this philosophy. He produces pots and vases that demonstrate both acute cultural sensitivity as well as clear technical mastery.  Women feature heavily in his tall, minutely-detailed vases and pots.

“I was very close to my mother and as a result the role of women, particularly in rural settings, is very prominent in my work”. These pieces earned him 2nd prize in UNESCO’s Craft Prize for Africa in 2000. He has since exhibited globally.

Bruno is a kind of national ambassador for visual arts. His work is founded on good draftsmanship. When I asked George Kyeyune what was the fundamental strength of art in this country, he replied: “resilience”. “Lots of European artists have stopped painting images. Here we are still very traditional. We value drawing as a foundation for artists. To me that’s a strength.”

With further state and market investment as well publicity (a need identified by Kyeyune) an artist like Sserunkuuma could develop a genuinely global renown. Others would surely follow.

Orchestra di Piazza Vittorio

L'Orchestra di Piazza Vittorio

If ‘world music’ could be encompassed by a single group, Rome’s Orchestra di Piazza Vittorio (OPV) might just be it. They are a phenomenon which has sprung out of the city’s diversity; 15 players from 9 countries, spanning continents and cultures, religions and backgrounds, some with music diplomas, others whose education came from busking in the streets.

Effortlessly transcending genres, OPV’s music is classless, limitless, undefinable. You’ll hear all kinds of cross-cultural collaborations – fusions of fusions, and improvisations within improvisations. Songs like ‘Sahara blues’ may resemble Tinariwen’s sound but with more emphasis on Arab lyricism and with guitar instrumentation that echoes rhythms from the south of the US. ‘Tarareando’, meanwhile, is a mix of bossa nova with jazzy vocals, flute and tempo changes throughout. “We don’t care about conventions. We just do it” says Pino Pecorelli, the group’s Italian double bass player. “The Senegalese or Tunisians explain afterwards what they are saying in the songs…I don’t know! Everything,” he continues, “is connected to the feel, the rhythm.”

The Orchestra di Piazza Vittorio story began in 2002 when Italian classically-trained composer Mario Tronco joined forces with a group of artists, filmmakers, musicians and writers who were battling to save the Apollo. This old theatre in the Esquiline district was threatened with being converted into a Bingo Hall but the ‘Apollo 11’ campaigned to create a pluralistic cultural hub there. Since the Piazza Vittorio neighbourhood was home to some 60 nationalities at the time, it seemed only right for Tronco to name his eclectic Orchestra after one of the capital’s most vibrant multicultural spaces.

That OPV have become an internationally recognised group is an extraordinary achievement. Tronco was once quoted as saying he never expected the group to be self-financing, nor to perform very much. Over 300 concerts and several albums later, and an acclaimed documentary produced by Agostino Ferrente, growing financial resources and an international fan-base, OPV are doing just fine. In July they play their UK debut in London’s Barbican Hall.

What keeps this modern medley going? How can a line up which sometimes features over 20 musicians, many of whom don’t speak the same language, function as a travelling band? “How many things can you do with so many musicians, with so many instruments?” retorts Pecorelli. “It’s like a laboratory in which every day you can have an incredible experience.” This is why OPV functions. More than most bands, OPV entirely depend on their raw creative instincts. Music is the only language they can all speak.

But for Pecorelli and others, OPV’s music is more than a common language. It is also the basis for a more substantial education. “Every day you get to feel part of the whole world. Physically, I get to travel so much. Musically, I learn aspects of other cultures that you can’t learn reading a book. One day Senegalese, the next Cuban, the next Tunisian. It’s unbelievable!” he laughs.

Italy’s controversial 2002 Bossi-Fini immigration law was arguably the start of an Italian political shift towards a Right that continues to celebrate the politics of Mussolini. In May 2009 Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi said publicly that he did not consider Italy to be a multicultural society. As the Italian state and media becomes increasingly intolerant of immigration, the symbolic power of OPV has become widely upheld by artists, academics and social commentators.

OPV have come to represent and embody the enormous benefits that a tolerant, culturally diverse society can bring. The band has spawned a host of imitators across the country. New multicultural orchestras have emerged in Padova, Milan, Trento, Naples, Genova and other Italian cities. Why? Because in Italy OPV now stand for more than simply artistic freedom, but for freedom in the broadest sense, freedom to exist. Can there be a more popular calling?

Mondomix