Ugandan Artists: Meet Philip Kwesiga Katatumba
Been around the world and raised many Ugandan artists.
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First published: January 18, 2006
Philip Kwesiga Katatumba is not only an academic and teacher but he is a distinguished designer of ceramics and has exhibited his works in Kampala, London, Hague and Cuba. He works as a graphic designer as well and illustrates childrens books. He also writes essays, articles and periodicals. His publications have dealt with improvement of fire clays in Uganda, ceramic industries in and around Kampala and pottery in Ibanda county. He has done extensive research on the influence of management on the quality of pottery in South-Western Uganda. So it is only fitting that a visual artist would head an arts department in a university.
Kwesiga Katatumba is also a historian and activist. He is a man who is passionate about the history of Ugandan art with special focus on contradicting its so called non-existence, according to old colonial literature. East African art has only been receiving international exposure in the last few decades or so. If we were to go by history books one would be led to believe that the only art that came from Africa were cave painting, stone carving, masks and ritual art and that there was no art apart from this until Africa was discovered.
When I managed to catch up with him he was in Uganda after finishing his PhD at Middlesex University, London UK, where he did quite a lot of arts with local communities in West London sponsored by the Arts Council England and some lecturing at Middlesex University.
Jane: At what age did you create your first art piece?
Philip: At the age of seven. This is the furthest I can remember.
Your pottery is very impressive. What sparked your interest in such a fragile medium?
It probably was an inspiration from my grandmother the late Faith Nyamuromba. She was a great potter and I shared her clay for some of my first work.
So there is a clear example of Ugandan history, art and tradition being passed down to another generation. It just goes to show that Africans always had their own system of education.
Thats an interesting observation.
You create images on canvas and pottery portraying families of refugees and family life. Why refugees?
Uganda has been a scene for social and political transformation. The AIDS pandemic has continued to create havoc among families and the political climates in Uganda and its neighbours have created tensions among the different ethnic groups resulting into migrations within and out of the countrys boundaries. My work continues to endeavour to highlight on such issues as asylum seekers, refugees and minority populations in the Diaspora.
How long were you the Dean of the School of Industrial and Fine Arts of Makerere University in Kampala? What was that experience like?
I was Dean of the Margaret Trowell School of Industrial and Fine Arts, Makerere University from 1996-2001. My tenure for deanship had been renewed at the time but since I had registered for my Research Degree Studies at Middlesex University, I was given study leave. I must say I enjoyed every single moment of that tenure even when I was limited in what I could do as a practicing artist. I was exposed not only to the issues of administration and leadership, but had a chance to get exposure both in Uganda and abroad.
To what would you attribute the spectacular successes of this your former faculty as far as producing so many excellent Ugandan artists?
There has been a team of dedicated academicians and art teachers who have continued to churn out graduate artists both at degree and postgraduate levels. The kind of teaching adopted during the years has also helped in shaping some of our graduates to be self-supporting and creative. The school has also been active within the Uganda Artists Association which caters for all Uganda artists, trained and self-trained. We always had representatives from the school of Industrial and Fine Arts where for four years (1997-2001) I held a post of Vice Chair. We continue to encourage artists especially lecturers to exhibit there work annually.
You have exhibited your works in Kampala, London, Hague and Cuba. Where did you get the warmest reception?
All places I have exhibited in have been welcoming but I should mention that Dan Hague in the Netherlands brought back memories. It was one place I enjoyed most since I had been there in 1993 as a student on an International Course in Electronic Publishing. Of recent, I had great moments in the exhibitions held at various venues in West London.
International Course in Electronic Publishing? You transitioned from that to visual artist? What prompted this change in profession?
I had been working the New Vision Printing and Publishing Corporation from 1986 to 1996, thus the opportunity to attend the International course in Den Haag in 1993. At University for my first degree, I offered Ceramics and Graphic Design for my finals. Because the paper was coming out first once a week and bi-weekly then daily, I was able to offer some time to The New Vision. I had already established myself at Makerere by 1985. But with the pressures of administration-I was elected as Dean of the School of Industrial and Fine Arts-I could not cope with the work at of the newspaper establishment. I eventually left in 1996 after taking on my annual leave in December of that year. I have done a lot of graphic design projects with publishers, companies and individuals. I still do design work, using IT for several clienteles. I just enjoy my work and continue to design some catalogues, booklets to mention some.
What did you think of Cuba? Did you get to experience its artistic scene?
While in Cuba I had an opportunity to visit the various places of interest. In addition I opted to share some of the experiences with local families where I shared meals for what I would spend for a meal in a hotel, was enough to share among the family of six for dinner. The landscape still lingers memories of that country.
I lived in Cuba for four years and I found great similarity between Cubans and Africans. Did you encounter this as well?
My stay in Cuba was short-lived I had gone to represent a paper at an Art Conference in Havana. But as it were, I had carried some of my work with me. My presentation at the conference had most slides of my work.
I happened to travel with a lady who was working with Mbarara University. The Cuban Ambassador had informed her of some Ugandan-I imagine there very few Ugandans who travel to Cuba-who was travelling on the same plane. So I managed to connect with the lady and later in Cuba with her family. I had even proposed to her son who is a musician to initiate some contact for him to perform in Uganda. But it never materialised. Ideally I saw the communities, the homes and the streets - had all to do with Africa. To make it more interesting there were some communities that had a black complexion - and they have maintained it. What an encounter!
As a country we have had to deal with a lot of negative press. AIDS, wars and political imbalance are the first thing on many peoples minds when one says Uganda. In my opinion the promotion of the visual arts scene internationally is one of the ways of portraying Uganda in a positive light. What is your opinion?
While it is true that Ugandas image has been portrayed and is full of negative publicity, it is our people-Ugandans both in Uganda and in the Diaspora, who continue to support the kind of image. The reason is that most Ugandans think life is okay and better outside Uganda and for most of those who are already out there have to maintain and encourage their stay abroad. I have had a chance to interact with some of the Ugandans in UK, in order to get visas and acquire permanent stay, they continue to front issues like AIDS and political persecutions to sustain their claims. These issues have been used locally to gain support especially from opposition.
Those who think that life is better abroad should read my article on kyeyo. I was as brutally honest as I could be in that. Often people think of the pros and do not bother to think of the cons of kyeyo. What do you think of the article?
I have read your article. It is wonderful - I wish we had a face to face interview may be it could have been more interesting. Well I have lived in UK for the last few years. Indeed you meet people speaking Uganda local languages like Luganda and there they are! Some of them are scared of any police presence - they dont have enough time for leisure, they are almost obscure! Yet I have also met some with success stories. But the success stories are cut short especially when the send funds and it lands in the hands of hungry relatives. Some of them have built virtual houses and bought invisible properties. After all as you say - people back in Uganda think that money for kyeyo is picked like fruits. They have a common phrase "leta dolla ezo tuzilye" Bring those foreign currencies and well enjoy! We need more of those articles especially in the local media.
There is a general ignorance about the existence of art in East Africa in our pasts. To quote one of your essays, you say that the only references made of African art is the cave paintings, and more on the masks and ritual art which did not feature much in East Africa and Uganda in particular. How can we change that? How can we educate people about our wealthy artistic background in history?
The issue of ignorance about the existence of art in East Africa is cultural-critical and historical. Cultural critical in a way that what would have been art was portrayed as traditional crafts from the savage mind which could not compete with the elite and was misdirected during the changes from traditional to formal education. Historically, East Africa did not offer much for the outsider observer-ethnographers. We now need insider observers who can freshly represent our histories the way they should be. Additionally, our artisans were not fully supported the various political establishments for example kingdoms and chiefdoms like most other cultures such as in West Africa and the rest of the world. We need to develop and relate our art to the cultures of the people. Most of the artworks in Uganda can qualify for modern European Art. We definitely need modern Ugandan Art. We need a lot of publicity both at local and international levels. We need to appreciate our art at home first.
Are you the type of parent who would encourage your children to be artists if you saw that they were interested?
I always encouraged my children to do art and some of them have won prizes at the age of eight and ten at an international level. One of them is interested in architecture which to me comes in line as an artistic field. Personally I design and supervise my architectural developments.
How important do you think it is for parents to support their childrens dreams, passions, and interests for example in art?
It is quite challenging for parents to support their childrens aspirations. During my research, most parents did not think of art as a serious career. Yet at university level, there has been a growing demand for students, with support from some parents, to offer art. The government has also not been supportive. The more we get of artists as successful career, the more support would be generated from parents.
There was an ongoing debate in Uganda about promoting the sciences over the arts. What did you think of that?
I dont think there is any science that can survive without art. Even at the most advanced technology, the use of art has been critical for example the space shuttle and the use of ceramic materials. This has been my major thesis in my recently completed study.
You just finished your PhD at Middlesex University, London, UK. Which PHD course did you take?
It was a research degree titled: Transformation in the Arts Education: Production and Use of Pottery in Nkore South-western Uganda.
You mentioned doing quite a lot of arts with local communities in West London sponsored by the Arts Council England and some lecturing at Middlesex University. Can you please tell us more about that experience?
I was working with a local charity organisation in West London called Africa Policy Research Network. They use visual art to convey messages within the migrant, asylum seekers and local BME-(Black Minority Ethnic) communities. The art projects also help to keep young people from anti-social behaviours (drugs, violence, racist attacks and truancy). These projects are carried mostly during summer vacation and evenings. They in addition help to highlight some of the techniques used by Africans since the young people learn the European type of art from schools. The programmes were always fully subscribed. The project also identified artists, most of whom were studying their PhDs, to undertake work on themes on Art and Human Rights to commemorate the various Human Rights days (Violence Against Women, Africa Black History Month, International Human Rights Day, World Aids Day etc.) My teaching at Middlesex was more of introducing African artistic techniques and cultures to the undergraduate students offering design.
What are your current projects?
I am currently trying to revive working with local people to develop their local crafts to compete at world markets. I have also to initiate the teaching of pottery in primary schools.
What is a beautiful woman in your experience?
In my experience a beautiful woman is one that can keep the inside (inner self) together with outer self. One such person has been my mother the late Flavia Katatumba and my spouse Lydia Mbabazi Kwesiga.
Do you have any words of advice to any young people who may want to follow your path?
They should aspire for continued creativity even when there is barely any appreciation from the expected supporters of your creativeness.
Where can people who want to buy/see your art find it?
The work can be found of websites for those who are outside Uganda- Just type in Philip Kwesiga. Some work is also available with:
Africa Policy Research Network,
Vista Business Centre,
50 Salisbury Road,
Hounslow Middlesex, TW4 6JQ, London.
For visitors or local people, they can contact me at:
What kind of legacy do you want to leave behind?
An artist culture and community able to support and create its own art.
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First published: January 18, 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.