Ugandan Artists: Meet Amanda Tumusiime
"Before 2000, I looked at social issues, now I look beyond the traditional woman carrying a basket on her head and hand her a book to read..."
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First published: January 2, 2006
Amanda Tumusiime was born in Kaharo Kabale-Uganda in 1973. She went to the Margaret Trowell School of Industrial and Fine Arts-Makerere University and she was also a PhD student at the University of Witwatersrand, South Africa. She has two masters' degrees in art. A person who is definitely in tune with her community, some of her roles have been an interior decorator, lecturer, General Secretary for Uganda Artists Association, Director for AFORD (Art for Development) in Uganda, and Secretary-Uganda National Artists. She was also a member of the following associations: Uganda Artists Association, University Women's Association, and Uganda Red Cross.
Some people would call her a feminist because of the way she promotes the cultivation of positive images about African women. She advocates for women's rights but not through the usual political arena; instead, she has used a medium that she is familiar with and has carved out a niche in this respect both locally and internationally. Her abstract art pieces, which are resplendently beautiful, explore themes relating to women's changing status. She uses her art to liberate and celebrate women by showing them in empowering, emancipating ways that are reflective of the present day realities and changes that have come with western development, while still celebrating the traditional essence.
African women have moved from the areas of nursing and teaching to other fields, including business, politics, academia, the media and many other new occupations and she is determined to reflect that by veering away from the traditional images of the African woman with a baby stuck to her hip. One way she is doing this is by promoting literacy through painting images of women holding books. She also has pieces that address authenticity and identity, speaking to the rapid changes in understandings of womanhood from one generation to another. The African woman today is different from the woman of the last generation. It begs the question how does one move ahead with development and still keep their authenticity?
Her works are in the private collections of distinguished people such as: Hon. Minister Eriya Kategaya, Mr Klaus-former German Ambassador in Uganda, Mrs Mercedes Paniker-Femvision President, Mr. Mark Adibert of the French Embassy in Uganda among many others. Therefore it was with great pleasure that I was able to interview this beautiful, inspirational artist and get her to share her perspectives in a never seen before print question and answer interview…
Jane: Did you always know as a little girl that you were going to be an artist?
Amanda: No. But I suspect my parents did. At a very tender age I was creative; I was inquisitive. I would draw, put different things apart and reconstitute them. I opened every object we had in the house. I investigated the interior of flasks, torches and radios. My parents never punished me for all this. They were always supportive. Life turned upside down – so to speak – when I joined school. One day, in my first year of schooling, I did art in class and my teacher was damn hostile. She threatened violence, she called me names. I ran for my life. The following day I did not want to go back to school. My dad intervened. He complained to the head of the school on my behalf. The threat of violence subsided though the name-calling persisted. Art-in-school stopped.
When I joined Mary Hill High School I met a missionary headmistress, Sister Felice (a catholic nun). She encouraged me to pursue my art career. She also recruited Wanito, a graduate from the Makerere Art School, as our art teacher. At Mary Hill we had a big art room with lots art materials. With a supportive head teacher, graduate art teacher and materials, I recovered lost impetus. I knew that I will be an artist since then.
It's always encouraging to hear about supportive parents. Your pieces of art are very beautiful Amanda. What inspires you as an artist?
I draw from different landscapes in Uganda, lakescapes, personal experiences, love stories and politics of women's emancipation project are my sources of inspiration.
Judging from your active participation in art exhibits you are a very busy lady. Is art something that you do on a full time basis?
Yes. Art comes first, everything else follows.
Mother and Child, 2002
Many of your pieces are centered on women empowerment. You went from doing the traditional thing-drawing mother and child, women doing domestic work to drawing the more conscious theme of women empowerment. Why do you feel that it is important to address this?
Yes it's true I left the passive, frail, mother-and-child, and nude women images to engage images that reinforce women's empowerment. By the turn of the century, I created images that were not different from the mass media images, which subtly, and purposely, reinforce the silence and compliance of Uganda's emancipated women.
During 2003 I realized this was improper. My images fuelled the stereotypes on what an ideal woman should be in a patriarchal ordering. Clearly, I contradicted the position of a woman enshrined in the 1995 Uganda constitution. The constitution redressed "the imbalances created by history, tradition, customs, laws, and cultures which are against the dignity, welfare, and interest of women or which undermine their status…" (article 33 of the Uganda Constitution). Given the training I got from the Education system in Uganda, I was not sensitive to the fact that images could be used to subordinate women.
After 2003 I realized that images are strong tools of communication. They produce meaning and circulate ideologies. It seemed to me that my images were circulating the ideology which subordinates women in Uganda. I therefore abandoned all the images that were undermining the status of women and took on images that advocate women's advancement. My themes and symbolism changed.
That's a very powerful realization. Would you classify yourself as a feminist and why?
Frankly the term feminist has taken pejorative undertones in Uganda. Feminist is often taken to imply women who seek to grab men's property. But if a feminist is that woman who is aware of her rights and also advocates for equal rights of women, then I am a feminist. I use art to advocate for the political, social and economic action on women issues.
What role do you think that Ugandan art plays on the global scene?
If in "Ugandan art" you mean contemporary visual art in Uganda, then the picture is at its nascent stage. Contemporary art started in 1937 through the efforts of Margaret Trowell. Whereas Trowell created a formidable foundation for art to prosper in Uganda, in the period 1966-1986 political turmoil inhibited progress. In fact art in Uganda lost its grip on the international scene. After 1986, political, economic and social changes have created a vibrant environment through which Uganda's visual artists are slowly recovering their space on the global scene. Progress is still slow.
Do you believe that artists are cultural ambassadors of their countries? Could you please explain why?
Yes. Artists communicate through images. They inform their audience about the richness, or even poverty, of a country's cultural heritage.
One of the things that you avoid in your art is the deliberate eroticization of the female body; something that you say is the commonest appearance in many paintings. Why have you made that move?
Hidden in books
Since the late 1980s, artists have produced eroticized images hiding in conceptions of ideal form, beauty, and aesthetic appeal. Yet in my experience erotic art circulates images that are not different from pin-ups and pornography. Through nudes artists eroticize the woman's body; the construction of female sexuality satisfies male sexual desire. No doubt contemporary art has joined the wider frame in which images of female sexuality are multiplying endlessly as spectacles for male sexual pleasure. There is a crucial political point defining all this, i.e. the eroticization of the female body has become a subtle form of silencing and subordinating a woman. I therefore try not to fall into these traps of creating women as objects for the male gaze. I hate to reinstate the power to patriarchy.
Again you are sharing very powerful insight. You also advocate for increased African female literacy in Africa. You have pieces that show women reading. I am asking this question and the answers may seem obvious, but for the sake of inspiring and empowering others, why is there such an intense focus on women?
Education is most certainly the key to unlock the woman's potential. An educated woman is an emancipated woman. Educated women fend for themselves. Education therefore frees women from the baggage of dependency on men for their survival. Such dependency has led to untold suffering. This situation must change and the time is now or never.
You are from Kabale-also known as the Switzerland of Africa. If you were to market it to tourists, how would you entice them to go there?
Kabale District is located in south-western Uganda. It has rich volcanic soils. It is mountainous. It receives ample rainfall. These geographical characteristics support a predominantly agricultural economy with minimum industrial activity. Kabale has one of the best sceneries in Uganda. Its undulating hills, deep valleys, terraces, lakes, small rivers, flora and fauna, blue skies, and low temperatures create a homely environment. The peoples are welcoming; the cost of living is low. It is the best place to be.
You were a PhD student at the University of Witwatersrand, South Africa and with two master's degrees in art. How challenging was it for you to pursue these degrees?
For sure I have been in school as far back as I can remember. It has been a very tough decision I have had to make. The consequences have been dire. My mum thinks I am aging in school; she is concerned that I have no children (and probably I will never have them in future). My husband is always confronted with a barrage of questions like: is that woman not infertile? When does she stay at home? I have to endure all this here in Uganda and in South Africa. This talk upsets me at times. My only solution is to avoid such distraction and cheap talk. I have a game plan: I want live a life different from my mom's.
That makes sense. Women these days have to balance the tough challenges of being, mothers, wife's, caretakers of the home and career women. This is especially more challenging from those who do not have house girls. How are you balancing these different roles?
I do not have children yet. I hope to have 13 children when time comes. Consequently my husband and I manage without house keepers. We do the house chores together. This gives me ample time to frame and advance my career.
I always ask this question because of the surge of self esteem problems based on having a standardized stereotype of beauty that negates many women, especially black women. There is that expectation for all women to look the same. What is a beautiful black woman in your experience?
A beautiful 'black' woman is one with intellect, fends for herself, and knows her rights – period.
What kind of music do you listen to?
I love country music.
What is next for you?
I have to shoot the glass ceiling down.
Thank you Amanda for the interview.
It was my pleasure.
For more information on Amanda Tumusiime please go to http://www.mehtagroup.com/art.htm
2002 Women Artistic Voices at the Nommo National Gallery, Uganda
2002 Different But One Six MTSIFA art Gallery.
2001 Double Heritage Art Exhibition at the Nommo Gallery
2001 Uganda Sweden exhibition 2001
2001 Different But One Five MUK S.I.F.A Gallery
2001 All Artists Group Exhibition, Nommo Gallery.
2000 Different but one four staffs exhibition at the Makerere University Gallery.
2000 Women Exhibition Nommo gallery (Uganda's National Gallery).
2000 Group exhibition in the Netherlands.
2000 Exhibition on Wildlife at the Nommo Gallery.
1999 All Women's Exhibition at the Nommo Gallery.
1999 Different But One III Makerere University Staff Exhibition.
1998 All Artist's Exhibition at the Nommo Gallery.
1998 Different but One II Makerere University Staff Exhibition held in the University Gallery at the School Of Industrial and Fine Arts
1998 Ngoma Exhibition for International Artists hosted at the School Of Industrial and Fine Arts (Makerere University).
Upon her request this is a list of Amanda Tumusiime's suggested reads:
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First published: January 2, 2006
Jane won the Miss Africanada beauty pageant 2000 in Toronto where she was also named one of the new voices of Africa after reciting one of her poems. In 2004, she was published in T-Dot Griots-An Anthology of Toronto's Black storytellers and in February 2005, her art piece Namyenya was featured as the poster piece for the Human Rights through Art-Black History Month Exhibit.
She is the recipient of numerous awards for her poetry, art and playwriting and is becoming a household name in Toronto circles. Please visit her website at www.nteyafas.com.