George Kyeyune is a painter, sculptor, art historian, educator, and administrator. His role as an educator has been profiled here and here. He performs these multiple roles as a member of the academic staff at the Makerere Art School where he is director of the Makerere Art Gallery / Institute of Heritage Conservation and Restoration. In his new body of work for this exhibition created over the last six months, we see Kyeyune in a moment of transformation. Employing a multitude of materials, he narrates the notion of mobility through geographical space, social status, and his own artistic practice. In his Power of the Eye article of Friday 8th February 2013, Dominic Muwanguzi suggested that Kyeyune’s exhibition at Afriart Gallery was “studying the social scene of Kampala.” Kyeyune was then depicting boda boda drivers and mweso playing youth in Kampala. This time he presents a more personal narrative. Kyeyune was recently privileged to host an introduction ceremony, kwanjula, of one of his young relatives. He presided as a respected elder, a role that gave him a vantage point of power to observe and guide the ceremony. It was a springboard for this new work. There was a reawakening in him of the social expectations and actions played by various members in a community. He narrates a tradition that has remained alive despite the changing times where communications in a globalized world render the distant within reach, and the foreign accessible. At a touch of a button, after purchasing an Internet Bundle in Uganda’s bundled communications infrastructure, the world is in ones hands for as long as the bundle lasts.
The kwanjula ceremony performed among the Baganda is where a young woman introduces her intended marriage partner to her family. There is a roundness to the people Kyeyune depicts, a sign of health; affectionate gestures of friendship in arms wrapped around each other in an embrace. Gentle smiles. Richly hued and riotously textured in oils, touches of bright red provide a luminous centre for most of the paintings. This lends them an energy that is always palpable at the kwanjula ceremonies.
The joy and vibrancy of the occasion masks a necessary interrogation of the role of women in Uganda’s society today. This is a debate about equality of men and women, women’s careers, their rights and responsibilities that Amanda Tumusiime discusses in her 2012 doctoral research. It is worth examining the reasoning behind the continuation of male members of the family presiding over the kwanjula proceedings. Men carrying traditional beer to the young woman’s father – a significant part of the discussions where the young woman is asked, omwenge tunywe? should we drink the alcohol? If she agrees, and the father in turn approves of the brew’s potency, there is agreement for the marriage to proceed. The mother is never consulted. She is not even present to observe. Rather, if anything should go wrong, she carries the blame: mwaana mubi, avumya nyina, a poorly behaved child, brings scorn on the mother.” Perhaps this state of affairs might metamorphose if room for debate is allowed to expand.
The elements of gesture, pose, colour relationships, and facial expression are a grammar that owes a debt to a Makerere art education. Kyeyune not only employs this grammar but also passes it on to his students. He teaches and creates with, and among, his students whom one observes working on sculptures in the outdoor studio at the Sculpture Department of the art school. This studio is under a tree shade provided by a muwafu tree among others. Kyeyune is experimenting with its sap for use as wax in lost wax sculptures. The brass is recycled salvaged padlocks, window handles, and other such brass objects. He melts and uses them for the sculptures in this exhibition. The few slabs that form the crucified Jesus Christ, and the heavily textured female and male mortals are a testament to his innovative approach to art making.
The interesting parallels between geographical mobility, social mobility, and material experimentation in Kyeyune’s older boda boda images and the new kwanjula body of work, show us an artist transforming into nuanced visual narratives. It is our responsibility as viewers to take that innovative step with him into further discussion of the art’s deeper significance.
This text was first published in August 2015 by Makerere Art Gallery / Institute of Heritage Conservation and Restoration, Makerere University, Kampala, Uganda, in the exhibition catalogue Quiet Dignity, a solo exhibition by George Kyeyune.