Uganda’s inaugural pavilion at the 59th La Biennale di Venezia 2022 International Art Exhibition, featuring paintings by Collin Sekajugo and weavings by Acaye Kerunen, received a special mention.
Kerunen was particularly singled out for her use of materials such as raffia, illustrating “sustainability as a practice and not just as a policy or concept”.
The prestigious and the world’s largest art festival, popularly known as the Venice Biennale Arte, which opened in Venice, Italy on April 23 and will end on November 27, is held under the theme ” The milk of dreams”. It is curated by Cecilia Alemani and organized by La Biennale di Venezia chaired by Roberto Cicutto.
The eight-month exhibition which takes place in the central pavilion (Giardini) and at the Arsenale includes 213 artists from 58 countries, including 180 beginners.
The international exhibition presents 1,433 works and objects on display, with 80 new projects designed specifically for the Biennale Arte.
Several countries, including the Republic of Cameroon, Namibia, Nepal, the Sultanate of Oman and Uganda, are taking part in the Arte Biennale for the first time. The Republic of Kazakhstan, the Kyrgyz Republic and the Republic of Uzbekistan, which are also making their debut, have their own pavilions.
The two Ugandan artists based in Kampala present their work at the national pavilion of Uganda under the title “Radiance—They Dream in Time”. This opportunity was made possible through a partnership between Stjarna.art and the Uganda National Cultural Center (UNCC).
Shaheen Merali, British curator of Tanzanian origin, presents the works of Kerunen and Sekajugo.
“Radiance – They Dream in Time” is the result of multiple processes, including online conversations, field trips to centers of excellence developing artistic practices and resources through curatorial and organizational support. A two-year gestation period allowed Kerunen and Sekajugo time for contemplation, revision, reassessment of ideas, and conversations.
Uganda’s capital, Kampala, and the city of Jinja have been recognized for providing a platform for a cultural environment to take root.
Kerunen’s and Sekajugo’s dual approaches to artmaking – while diverse in their respective aesthetic approach – find common ground in their respective imaginings of materiality and form. Merali refers to the title of their work as reflecting their “essential knowledge and lived experiences” as well as “urban commerce and living conditions in [Uganda’s] urban centres”.
Merali adds, “Both artists have worked actively with formal and informal archives of Uganda’s vibrant visual culture.
Kerunen’s installation work uses hand sewing, adding, knotting and weaving with natural fibers. In her cooperative work with local Ugandan artisans, the artist creates installations that challenge the divide between fine art and craft as predicted by Western artistic traditions. Her work is rooted in the belief that creative production is an authentic expression of lived experience.
Kerunen’s process as a socially engaged artist highlights the work of local and regional Ugandan artisans, celebrating them as integral collaborators and elevating the artistic practices of local artisans, who are stewards of their local wetlands. It also draws on a sacred and tacit knowledge of ecological stewardship.
By deconstructing utilitarian materials and craftsmanship, Kerunen repositions the work to tell new stories and posit new meaning. Reinstalling these deconstructed materials is a response to the agency of women’s work in Africa and a recognition of the role that this artistic work plays in the climate ecosystem.
Kerunen owns nine large works and 16 smaller editions, including Iwang sawa (Alur for: “In the eye of time”). The new works added are Myel, an installation representing a woman in a moment of dance movement in basketry, woven mat and raffia; Wangker (Alur for ‘Eyes of Reign’), a large mural in banana fiber, palm leaves and raffia; Kot Ubinu (Alur for the rain is coming), an interactive multimedia installation in basketry, palm leaves and raffia; and Passion Flower, a round mural in raffia, palm tree and basket rings.
Through a combination of performance, social work, environmentalism and artistic collaboration, Kerunen advocates for the empowerment of Ugandan women beyond the values of Western liberal feminism. She told The Sunday Monitor that her “work is an idea of what I think art should look like, whose time has come”.
She added, “The inclusion of women is key in the history of Uganda’s artistic heritage. The practice of climate conservation from a community-led, women-led perspective and the need for conscious artistic creation.
Sekajugo’s lively, semi-abstract works focus on the human figure, using silhouettes and collage elements to critique ethnocentrism and visualize people’s shared humanity. Her multimedia collages include embroidery, photography, acrylic paint and locally sourced materials such as polypropylene and barkcloth. The recycling of these materials is part of his interest in art as an act of transformation.
“There’s a piece of art called ‘I own everything. This is my cover and it depicts an ideal post-colonial affluent Ugandan man. The work depicts a fashionable gentleman relaxing on an elegant sofa,” Sekajugo said of one of his dozens of artworks on display in Venice, adding, “The backdrop to his bedroom is decorated with motifs representing the long-horned cattle of Uganda. Cows in this situation denote the richness of Ugandan culture. And the floor is covered with slabs of barkcloth in a bid to evoke a sense of uniqueness for Ugandan culture.
On the inspiration for his work, Sekajugo said, “First of all, for decades there has been an ongoing discussion about whether Africa is creating contemporary art or emulating what what the West has been doing for years. As an extremely versatile artist, I have always challenged my creative practice through different mediums.
“…my idea was to bring something unconventional and unexpected from me at this point in my career. Although my approach and style may seem familiar to some art lovers, I believe that what I took to Venice was evocative and provocative but so refreshing for many.
“Secondly, while there is a growing demand for African art in the international market, the competition between artists and galleries is overwhelming. As the saying goes now: “It’s all been done before.” It is with this notion that I chose to explore topics relevant to what has become essential for Africa today. That’s to say; the effects of colonialism on our lifestyles today versus the volatility of technologies.
Sekajugo considers his work to be “hack[s] identities” at least in the room where “black figures… are transformed from stock images of white people surrounded by privilege”. He further says of the presentation, “This is how we black people want to see ourselves in these positions or environments.”
The Ugandan artists received a special mention in “recognition of their vision, ambition and commitment to art and work in their country” at the April 23 awards ceremony. A jury citation says of Kerunen’s body of work: “His choice of sculptural materials like bark-covered rafia exemplifies sustainability as a practice and not just a policy or concept.”
Sekajugo said receiving the Special Mention award is “recognition for our hard work and commitment.” He believes it “has also opened so many doors for other local artists, who aspire to be our voice and our representatives on the world stage”.
Kerunen said: “I felt amazing, humbled, thrilled when the special mention was announced.”
The international jury of the Venice Arte Biennale 2022 was composed of Adrienne Edwards, Lorenzo Giusti, Julieta González, Bonaventure Soh Bejeng Ndikung and Susanne Pfeffe.
Sekajugo said he was thrilled to exhibit his work at “the oldest and largest art exhibition in the world”. Kerunen said the “visibility” she had “for me, my art and the countless women I work with” was invaluable.
Born in Uganda in 1981, Kerunen is a multidisciplinary performance and installation artist, storyteller, writer, actress and activist. She graduated with a BSc in Mass Communication from the Islamic University of Uganda, Mbale. She also earned a degree in Information Systems Management from Aptech.
Kerunen participated in a dance fellowship with Japan’s Saisan Foundation in 2021. Through a curatorial fellowship with Newcastle University, the artist also debuted his first five-week solo exhibition “Iwang Sawa” from September 18 to October 28, 2021 at Afriart Gallery in Kampala with great success.
Since 2012, Sekajugo has worked with common image manipulation to expose his inherent biases of entitlement and privilege largely modeled on the Western self. His artistic practice highlights a contemporary anthropological reversal of this dominant culture through the prism of a decidedly African sense of irreverence and play on the ad-hoc.
Conceptually, Sekajugo’s works become pure theatre, identity hacking that exposes certain truths behind these archival images that quietly continue to colonize the entire globe by the weight of their own popularity.
Sekajugo approaches his work from a distinct aesthetic starting point which lies in his repeated return to pop culture and the pervasive influence exuded by the global mainstream, conversing and critiquing his many biases across visual, oral and digital.
Sekajugo, born in Uganda in 1980, also creates drawings, paintings and performances. Her works often evoke the beauty, chaos and energy of her homeland and contemplate her own place within Uganda’s diverse social fabric. Social commitment is an integral part of his practice. He divides his time between Rwanda, where he founded Ivuka Arts Kigali, and Uganda, where he directs the Weaver Bird Arts Foundation.
The 42-year-old’s work is held in the permanent collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art, Washington DC, as well as other notable public and private collections in the United States, Europe, Africa and Asia. .