Tag Archives: Simon Njami

AtWork_Kampala 2015: an alternative learning environment

On Buziga hill, Kampala, Uganda, I walked through a small metal gate into a beautiful, large garden, with towering trees. A refreshing breeze blew up the hill, calming relief after the heat in Kampala traffic. I took my shoes off, raised my hands to receive the breeze, and run down the steep, grassy hill. Artist George Kyeyune was my guide to this hidden gem, Maisha Film Gardens, a project by film maker Mira Nair and Professor Mahmood Mamdani. Half way down the hill, we joined a small group in a tree shade. AtWork_Kampala Workshop for young artists and curators was in progress.

Mira Nair and others at workshop in Maisha Film Gardens

Mira Nair and others at workshop in Maisha Film Gardens


The group of about twenty-four was seated in a circle on low round enga stools. Curator Simon Njami, in his trademark dark glasses, was speaking. He smiled. Welcomed us. This informal learning environment is the brainchild of Njami. Lettera27, an Italian foundation supporting the right to literacy, education, and access to knowledge and information, supports these workshops, in collaboration with Moleskine®, an Italian company that produces notebooks, and related paper products. This iteration in Kampala was hosted by Margaret Trowell School of Industrial and Fine Arts, Makerere Art Gallery / Institute of Heritage Conservation and Restoration, and Maisha Foundation. Curator Katrin Peters-Klaphake’s superior organizational skills ensured the smooth running of this weeklong workshop. I knew many of the participants either as former students at Makerere University Art School, artists, or curators with whom I have collaborated on various projects. Sculptor Lilian Nabulime was part of the circle. Nabulime and Kyeyune were the facilitators of this small alternative learning environment.
Simon Njami speaking to workshop participants at Makerere

Simon Njami speaking to workshop participants at Makerere

Katrin Peters-Klaphake speaking at Makerere Art Gallery

Katrin Peters-Klaphake speaking at Makerere Art Gallery


The AtWork workshop model uses the context of the place where it will happen, taking issues relevant locally as a starting point for thoughts, discussions, and idea sharing. In Kampala, the theme, ‘Should I take my shoes off?’ was arrived at when two schoolgirls visited the Makerere Art Gallery, and upon seeing a clean, quiet space, asked if they needed to remove their shoes before entry. As a symbol of respect and immaculate cleanliness, sacred places like houses of worship are entered barefoot, shedding distractions and dirt at the threshold. This was an apt starting point, for this kind of schoolgirl uncertainty is often encountered in young people embarking on a career in any field. Paradoxically, there exists a boldness, certainty, and willingness to tackle challenging situations, perhaps born of youthful confidence.

Some Participants

Joseph Adriko at work

Joseph Adriko at work

Joseph Adriko attended the AtWork Kampala workshop. He was one of my most illustrious students at the Makerere Art School in 2009. When his studies were interrupted by reasons beyond his control, Adriko set up a studio-cum-gallery, Adriko Arts, in his hometown Arua in Northern Uganda. Occasionally he travels to Kampala to feel the pulse of the varied art genres abundant in the city. He was delighted, expanded, and yet perplexed as a participant of the workshop. He chose to explore the confluence of art, architecture, and theatre.

Violet Nantume presenting her work

Violet Nantume presenting her work


Violet Nantume, another participant, was also my student at Makerere Art School. She juggles art making with curating. Nantume was one of four curators for KLA ART 014 – Kampala Contemporary Art Festival. Over time, her administrative and curatorial duties overshadowed her art making. She decided to register as an artist for the AtWork workshop in order to have an unencumbered opportunity to make art again. Nantume is a confident go-getter, and articulate speaker who has been accepted on the Masters in Curatorial Studies program at Bard College, New York. Her idea for the workshop was to challenge accepted social norms, suggesting possibilities of departure.
Leilah Babirye (left) in discussion with Robinah Nansubuga (right)

Leilah Babirye (left) in discussion with Robinah Nansubuga (right)


Another participant, Robinah Nansubuga, on the other hand, is not a Makerere graduate, but has worked with many private galleries, as well as 32° East and has curated exhibitions in Tanzania, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Uganda, including as curatorial team member of KLA ART 014. Her locally acclaimed monthly discussion event Ekyoto is sought-after. She decided to revisit a failed application to the Young Curators’ Workshop at the Berlin Biennale, trying to understand why it was rejected, and what it takes to be a good writer. Nansubuga is an eager learner, and full of vitality. She joined the workshop as a curator.

Adriko, Nantume, and Nansubuga are resourceful and passionate young individuals who are shining stars in the arts. They are ready to be challenged, and willing to emerge as different or perhaps better artists and curators.

Innovative Pedagogical Conditions

Event–based learning
This workshop is remembered as a special occasion, because as a learning environment, it spanned only a few days. It enabled face-to-face encounters between renowned experts, nationally acclaimed facilitators, and young participants. As a small group, it provided access to experienced persons in a way that would not be possible through symposia or lectures. Participants got to know each other intimately, and were therefore able to share resources and opportunities. The event nature of the workshop, and the specific Moleskine® notebooks as material, gave participants a concrete goal to work towards, in a specific timeframe. This focused their attention in critical discussions, working, and progressive reflection. The process was steeped in intense, and metamorphosing emotions, for feedback was instantaneous, and response just as quick. Although it was a small group process, personal responsibility for learning was emphasized. As Nansubuga posted on her Facebook page on February 24 at 10:24pm, “How far we can go is our own making”.

AtWork Kampala is one of the recent events in Uganda, but there exist precedents in the workshop-based learning environment. Rose Namubiru Kirumira’s (2008) doctoral research focusing on workshops as formative spaces for artists, presents Triangle Artists’ Workshops as a case study. An article based on the same research co-authored with Sidney Littlefield Kasfir is published in African Art and Agency in the Workshop (2013). The Triangle Artists’ Workshops initiated by British collector Robert Loder and American sculptor Anthony Caro in 1982 have spread across continents. Uganda hosted one in Namasagali College, later growing into Ngoma workshops. The Triangle workshops typically last two weeks, take place in rural settings, and offer an experimental space for artists to work without academic or economic pressure. Other workshops have been run in Uganda for practical skills exchange by organizations and individuals like Uganda Visual Artists’ and Designers’ Association, 32° East, Weaverbird studios and Sanaa Gateja. They are based on a similar idea of a short time span, and finding community with others, while removed from quotidian distractions. Other workshops abound on the continent. Nantume participated in Asiko 2013 in Accra, Ghana, where she reported, “During the curatorial session, I noted that curatorship was beyond organizing a successful exhibition but critical analysis and writing that Bisi believed underpinned an argument that one puts across.” Also in 2013, Nansubuga attended the Curatorial Intensive developed by Independent Curators International (ICI) and the Bag Factory Artists’ Studios in Johannesburg, South Africa.

AtWork workshop is unique in that it alters the materials at hand, with a strong focus on the critical thought processes leading up to making an object, planning an exhibition, or writing a text.

Circular Sitting
Sitting in a circle signified a level playing field for all participants. With a cursory glance, one could not tell between facilitator and participant. This contrasts with formal education structures where hierarchy is unmistakeable. A teacher stands at the front of a classroom, authoritatively addressing students who are seated, quietly listening. In my observation, circular seating appears to have set the scene for an egalitarian community in the workshop where the facilitators and Njami were physically, and perhaps psychologically, seen as less superior, leading to ease in communication. It took great courage for Nabulime and Kyeyune to modify their accustomed superior role as lecturers, to become helpers and learners. To be vulnerable. To let budding artists and curators take centre stage. To set them free, to think, to question, to work through their visions. To communicate these visions.

This can be a mammoth step for learners too, as I experienced upon joining the Masters in Curating at Goldsmiths, University of London. Classes were held in a large well-lit room with no desks, rather chairs in a circle, with our tutors. On the first day, I could not tell who was who. Having received all my previous education in Uganda, I was accustomed to a top-down singular form of authority. Speaking when called upon. Not contradicting.

Modes of Address
Goldsmiths’ MA Curating course tutors Anna Harding and Tim Brennan, encouraged us to address them by first names. This was hard to abide by, for after years of conditioning that respect demanded a prefix and a surname, I could not easily bring myself to say, ‘Excuse me please, Anna. I have an alternative idea’. During the AtWork_Kampala workshop, I observed participants struggle with Mr. Simon, and Dr. Kyeyune, and Dr. Lilian. At the end they managed to drop the Mr. for Simon, but could not shake the long accustomed Dr. for the facilitators, who were also their lectures. Modes of address in a particular setting may encourage or deter open and inclusive discussions. They need attention in planning. Keen awareness as they evolve.

Lilian Nabulime starting her performance at the workshop presentations in Makerere Art Gallery

Lilian Nabulime starting her performance at the workshop presentations in Makerere Art Gallery

George Kyeyune reviewing past AtWork publication

George Kyeyune reviewing past AtWork publication

Instructional Methods and Materials

participants continue discussions over tea break

participants continue discussions over tea break


The methodological orientation of this workshop was to foreground the participants who presented their ideas, got feedback, engaged in critical thinking and discussions, worked and reworked them, interspersed with talks and examples of other concerns in the arts. The participants’ artistic and curatorial stances drew on varied genres such as poetry, theatre, literature, visual arts, reportage, and film. Perhaps as a stance of ethnic belonging, or an emerging confrontation with post-coloniality, participants started off with long held generalizations about identity of the ‘we’, ‘our culture forbids’, ‘my people believe’ variety. Njami listened to the participants’ ideas, and then critiqued their confident pronouncements on ‘we’ and ‘them’ binaries. On identity. With a stringent stance, which was often uncomfortable for the recipients, he encouraged taking stock of skills, a breadth of reading, self-reflection, and confronting one’s long held prejudices. With Njami’s counter positions, they were confronted with the modernist concept of an artist as an individual critical thinker and creator.

Participants responded with a mix of emotions from fear and disillusionment, to tentative appreciation and determination. They worked in smaller groups, and received one-on-one guidance. It was a consultative process where notions of becoming artists and curators, power relations, cultural production and mediation, were discussed alongside practical issues surrounding art making. The proximity of curators and artists in the same learning environment appears to have demystified each other’s practice. The process of open-space working rather than solo studio practice, and the public presentation of ideas and works in progress enabled critical reviews, and learning.

Each participant received two small notebooks: one for sketching, the other for final work. Text, sketches, material samples started to take shape. Quiet conversations, and solo introspection were prevalent at this stage. For some, a radical form of (re) shaping their identity commenced. Participants were considering their own experiential authority, the authority of the facilitators, and the authority of their chosen discipline. AtWork workshop offered a spread out, shared, form of authority, being not only from the facilitator figures, but also how their use of authority, connected with, and sometimes alienated participants. The facilitators and participants attempted to negotiate the impact on each other of their intersecting positions in the workshop. The initial anxiety and perplexity seems to have led to soul-searching and meaningful learning.

Dialectical dilemma
Although Simon Njami discourses from his own literary values, the participants attempted to weave his ideas with their own agency through references to indigenous cultures. The process of self-identification that compelled these young participants to refer to the cultural values of ‘we’ rather than ‘I’ is a valid one too, since the collective consciousness is still strong in their milieu. I wonder, is a locally situated, globally aware, mode of cultural production based on ‘ffe’ rather that ‘nze’ not possible anymore? Where does one situate Dr. Angelo Kakande’s email signature, one rooted in the okulanya tradition of the Baganda? Could it be a consciousness that situates him in a familial continuum? Some of the participants used Njami’s challenging stance as a springboard to reassess the convergences and deviations between the knowledge they hold unquestioningly, and the one he was proposing. A continuation of this conversation promises to be an exciting encounter of multiplicities. A frisson in the community. A volcano brewing.

Angelo KAKANDE
Musajja wa Kabaka; musajja muganda.
Muzzukulu wa Gabulyeri Ttakalirya.
Muzzukulu wa Njala Egobye.
Ava mu lunyiriri lwa Nakatalanga Nkoola.
Asibuka mu mutuba gwa Kalungi e Busere.
Ava mu ssiga lya Kasule e Buwembo.
Yeddira ngeye; akabbiro kkunguvvu.
Kasujja e Busujja ye mukulu w’ekika kye.

Omubala:
Tatuula asuulumba busuulumbi
Ttutu lifumita likyali tto bwe likula lifuuka lusenke.

Afterlives
How did the AtWork_Kampala workshop relate to Uganda’s economic conditions where one participant demanded a sitting allowance, just like politicians? How will artists express themselves in a society where their role is relegated to entertainment? Where will curators carve a space when curating as a practice is little understood? What is the significance of this workshop on art production, mediation, and consumption when the market, as a major driving force for informing stylistic decisions in Uganda, is not directly discussed? Will participants be agents of pedagogical reform? Will this result in radical change? Change? No change?

Nabulime feels that this kind of intensive, thought-provoking engagement is imperative for lecturers. Nantume’s art project challenged social constructions of gender-circumscribed behaviour, revealing biases in society’s expectations; perhaps hers is a much-needed cultural protest in Uganda. Nantume is raising funds to take her Masters at Bard College, while assisting on the Queen of Katwe film by Mira Nair. Adriko incorporates his mother’s theatrical performances, the circular design of traditional meeting places, with the architecture of theatre to alter its orientation. Adriko’s art must needs step away from the ubiquitous woman with a baby strapped on her back, as he foregrounds ideas, history and possibilities for his practice. Nansubuga has engaged a writing coach, is continuing her writing project, and curating an exhibition for May 2015.

Through the intergenerational and duo-location dialogue, participants appear to have opened themselves to new ways of thinking, working, and being. An elastic conversation begun through discussion, reading, writing and making, just like the elastic that holds together a Moleskine® notebook. It is imperative that we reflect on how the discursive space, and materiality of different art forms might enable experimentation. Might give room to disparate ways of knowing. To consider what can be learned though creative processes, we might consider letting go of the perpetual focus on finished text or object. Having said that, do not miss the exhibition of the participants’ projects at Makerere Art Gallery from 19th March 2015 to 11th April 2015.

Makerere Art Gallery / MIHCR

Makerere Art Gallery / MIHCR


I wait. Hunched.
Time passes.
Go. Witness. Keep your shoes on. Return.
Tell us about it. Guard the secrets. Conversations endure.

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