Ugandan Artists: Meet Jude Kateete
"The way forward is the need for young people, as it is for the old, to be conscious of the times in which we live and what those times dictate. I am my brother's keeper. You too are your brother/sister's keeper. We are everyone another's keeper. Watch your steps watch your backs and join the fight against armed conflicts. It's everyone's fight, and everyone's business, and THE TIME TO ACT IS NOW."
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First published: June 21, 2007
He is a grandson to A.D. Lubowa, the former (1990s) Speaker of the Buganda Lukiiko (Parliament) and a former minister in the Kabaka's government during the 1960s. Jude Kateete, a visual artist, was born in Kampala, Uganda in 1974 but grew up in the rural district of Mpigi during the 1981-86 civil wars in Uganda. He currently resides in Kampala. He was born in a family of 12 and is the son of the late Aloysius K.Lwomwa and Mrs. Josephine Namisango.
What is most interesting about Kateete is that none of his parents were artists. However his maternal grandmother Rose Nakidde Buliteeka used to weave mats. Jude's upbringing in a rustic lifestyle helped him develop an interest in gardening and later on art, when he learnt to make scarecrows that were placed in the cornfields to scare away birds. A former classmate to the son of the President of the Republic of Uganda, Major Muhozi Museveni Kainerugaba, Kateete attended St. Mary's College Kisubi (1988-94.) In 1994 he joined Makerere University Margaret Trowell School of Industrial and Fine Arts, where he is currently a postgraduate student researching Art Conservation. At the undergraduate level he majored in Painting and Sculpture. He has also independently taught himself French, Spanish and German.
Kateete has exhibited in group shows at Tulifanya Gallery in Kampala since 2000 and participated in a number of art workshops in Kampala. Like many Ugandan 'Generation Xers', Kateete grew up during a war-torn period and this invariably affects his artistic style. Kateete found his focus shifting from painting fishermen and rustic life themes to wanting to explore global issues more. The theme that fascinated him the most was that of armed conflict. Later, he began work on FACING UP TO THE ARMS CHALLENGE, his latest art collection. He has developed a portfolio of artwork for exhibition during June-July 2007 at Sankaranka Gallery, Contemporary African Art in Dumbo/Brooklyn, N.Y.C.
Kateete, who is based in Kampala, Uganda also does a lot of voluntary work. Among many things, he joined the global campaign to control arms and is one of over-a-million faces in the campaign on the website www.controlarms.org I had a chance to catch up with him over the phone and discuss what inspires him.
Jane: Introduce us to Jude Kateete.
Jude: Put simply, "Man is what he knows", therefore Jude Kateete is a Ugandan visual artist who has acquired encyclopedic knowledge about armed conflict and is using his art as a messenger for world peace under the theme FACING UP TO THE ARMS CHALLENGE.
Have you always been interested in visual arts? When did it start?
Yes it has always been a part of my life. It started in an unusual way when I was growing up in the village. I used to make scarecrows and I would place them in the cornfields to scare birds away.
What village is that?
Kayabwe near the equator.
How young were you?
I was in my early teens, I would say. A teenager.
Did your parents support that?
Yes and no because in those days, and even today, it is more fashionable to be a medical doctor, a pilot, or a lawyer. My parents wanted me to be a doctor. It meant a lot to them in the social sphere at that time but I wanted to pursue my love for art. It was always my dream. When I applied for Fine Arts as my first choice at university one of my teachers was shocked and took me for career guidance, arguing me to pick on Law or Mass Communication. The teacher's argument was that I would starve as an artist. I promised to work harder and so stood my ground.
Tell us more about your exhibit FACING TO THE CHALLENGE OF ARMS in New York. What can one expect from it?
Well, when I was growing up there was a war in Uganda and in some of its neighboring countries, I had a lot of empathy for those who were affected, and like many other Ugandans, I lost relatives and friends to war. As I grew up, I felt that it was time to act. I felt that I needed to make my contribution towards promoting peace, and so I came up with the title of the current art show. Basically, my message is; the time to do it is now. Through my art, I aim at demystifying guns. My message is; we must watch our backs and make sure these things do not happen over and over again. It is also my moral obligation from a biblical angle. I am my brother's keeper.
You touched on an important topic, the nature of the armed conflict in Africa. Why is this topic important to you?
When I learnt that some cynics had started denying that the holocaust in Rwanda ever took place, I choked back tears. When you work with a perspective of history, it helps to keep an eye on the future. The history of the holocaust was being denied in some vocal circles. It was pertinent to come up with artwork examining the nature of armed conflict in Africa and other parts of the world lest the events that are shaping the history of our times are denied in future. Considering that a picture is worth a thousand words, the power of change may not exist entirely beyond the stories depicted by these paintings. Nevertheless, it would take all of us working together to make a difference. I would like to use the artwork to make a difference to the social and political conditions from which the work was created, by means of an empathetic association.
When will the exhibit be?
How did you get in contact with Saidy Saidou the owner of the Sankaranka gallery in NYC where you are exhibiting?
He is very well known in the art circles in Uganda, he is very well known. He has been a collector of Ugandan art for a long time. He spotted me while he was still working for the UN. I first met Mr. Saidy in 2001 at an art workshop organized by The Uganda-German Cultural Society, conducted by Brigitta Godlund, the wife of the then Swedish Ambassador to Uganda. In my first acquaintance with him, he got to know me as the Spanish-speaking Ugandan artist. I did not know who he was and what art meant to him. A friend of mine who had been to his residence in Kampala had seen some of my paintings hanging in his living room. The friend told me that if Mr Saidy bought art from me then I was really a good artist for Mr. Saidy has an eye for good art. This earned me some respect among my peers. He visited my studio, and the rest is history. As far as this particular exhibition is concerned, I have been planning it for two years.
What's the name of the image of the camels with guns for legs? What's the story behind that?
Breaking the Back of the Camel.
The name of the image is Breaking the Back of the Camel. It's a non-human amputee. It shows the wider scale of the damage war does; both humans and non humans are affected. I used it to symbolically represent a simple African war story. I was very specific in terms of the geographical location. I wanted to present a broad theatre of events and show that its not just humans that are affected. Even the animals that surround us are affected.
There is also an image of a bird holding a gun. What's the relevance?
Shooting from the air.
That image of the bird is metaphorically representing the action of preventing a gun, a very dangerous weapon which is being shown, from being used. This bird that I am using is broadening the concept into other circles. I am subtly referring to peace talks with the LRA and the talks that were going on between the LRA and NRA. Did you notice the olive branch?
I do yes...
Can you trust a vulture with an olive branch? For example when you think of the Ugandan troops in Congo and how the circumstances around it turned out, it makes one distrust the so-called peace-talks.
Very deep stuff indeed. You also have an image of a gun wearing boots and a helmet...
Killed in Action (KIA.)
I was so passionate about it. I called it Killed in Action (KIA.) I have seen the images of the deaths in Iraq, and the circumstances that followed thereafter. I tried to magnify it into a general perspective including all the people who died all over the world, and not just limiting it to Africa.
What medium do you use?
Oil on canvas, acrylics in canvas.
How easy is it to get those particular materials in Uganda?
The market is difficult because when the colours run out of stock it is very challenging to find other alternatives. But I am very innovative.
What did you think of the Ugandan government's partiality for sciences over the arts in schools?
It leaves a lot to be desired. I have been involved in the debates. It is an ongoing debate. This pushed me further. We as artists are the eyes of the society. I look to the French Revolution and the influence of the arts and people like Jacques Louis David -- allegorical references at that time were depicted in their art. Art tells stories and is also a recording of history. The philosophy of 'a picture is worth a 1000 words' needs to be revisited so that the arts can be accommodated more than they are now.
Lots of artists feel that there is a general lack of appreciation for visual artists in Uganda. The profession is seen more as an extravagance. Others argue that it's not an air of lethargy. It's just that many people are not able to buy the art even if they value it. What is your take on this subject?
Taking courses like engineering and law is more popular. There is a stereotype image of the starving artist. The Ugandan public ought to be educated on that and learn that every society needs artists and needs to support its artists. I was recently listening to one of the big personalities here saying that art is a reserve of only the rich people. The performing arts have picked up but the visual arts are lagging behind. The visual language is still seen in another dimension. Many people only think of caricatures. But the definition of art is poetic, metaphorical and symbolical. We need to educate them on art.
Uganda is becoming celebrated on the international scene for its plethora of inexhaustible visual artists. Why do you think that there is a surge the number of visual artists now?
It's the timing. These are favourable times. It's a communication age and everyone has something to say about anything. As artists we look for ways to say something. Lately for example, there has been debates about Mabira forest and its ancient part. It's part of Uganda's legacy and heritage even in an artistic sense.
What are your current projects?
I am finalizing my thesis in the area of Art Conservation, which is due in June 2007 at Makerere University. I joined the global campaign against fire arms and I continue to sound the alarm against armed conflict. The struggle continues. I am also writing my autobiography.
Any words of advice to young people?
To the young people, remember this, "The world makes way for the person who knows where he/she is going." The young need to be conscious of the times in which we live and what those times dictate. These are turbulent times and the young should stay out of trouble. If there's anything they should be worried about, it's the danger from weapons of war. Do not carry guns to school. Let us all join in the fight against armed conflict. The bird that knows its feathers are beautiful to humans should not fly close to the ground.
What kind of legacy do you want to leave behind?
Future generations will be left with a legacy of the spectrum of armed conflict theatres around the world in colors and images that depict; the narrative of victims, the narrative of communities divided and broken by terrorist acts, the narrative of courageous people who risk their lives going about their daily business and the narrative of values for which the UN stands. The legacy is to reflect the expressions of an artist who portrayed some of the pitfalls from armed conflict around the world to empathize with the victims and develop a framework against those pitfalls.
Where can your art be purchased?
My art can be purchased at:
CONTEMPORARY AFRICAN ART.
111 FRONT STREET
For more information on Jude Kateete please go to http://www.sankarankagallery.com/
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First published: June 21, 2007
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.