Ugandan Artists: Meet Photographer Roshan Karmali
With my work I would really like to help women feel more in control of their destinies and fight for their freedom to achieve their own personal goals within life.
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First published: June 19, 2006
On the surface, Roshan Karmali is just another university student who is trying to etch out her career by carrying out one of her passions, photography. From her humility and down to earth nature, you would never suspect just how talented she is. Her subject matter is a clever analysis of cultural signs, architecture and average people, and her style is a very colorfully vibrant, aesthetically pleasing one. Colours explode from her photographs in shocking ways that tantalize our imaginative resources. For her human subjects, especially the innocent village children, she captures the souls of their essence.
Indian Ugandan, Roshan Karmali was born in March 1986 in Kampala, Uganda. At the age of 4, she moved to England and has lived there for the majority of her life. She went to boarding school from the age of nine to sixteen. It was during this time that she took a commendable interest in English literature and drama. The combination of the two drove her to receive the bronze communications and public speaking awards, all administered by the Lamda Group, a group in the UK, which facilitates and helps young people develop communication and theatre skills within a friendly and supportive workshop environment.
Once Roshan was in college, she developed an affinity for public speaking and performance and found herself becoming the Deputy Drama Captain. When she completed college, she enrolled herself into The Kent Institute of Art and Design where she started to practice photography on a more professional level. Although the idea of photography as a visual art in Uganda is relatively new and underappreciated, Karmali is working to change this.
Currently Roshan is in her second year of university but in her own words, she is trying to break out of the classical school work attitude by networking with the public and gaining exposure. She will be having her work shown for the first time in a café in Kamokya, Kampala, Uganda at the end of July. I had a chance to catch up with her before and after a long anticipated trip to Uganda where she was able to take photographs for some upcoming collections.
Jane: Please tell us who Roshan Karmali is.
Roshan: Who am I? I'm not sure how well I can answer that. I am only 20 so I take pleasure in the fact that this is the time when I am 'finding myself.' What I do know about myself is that I want to be a photographer, and through this practice I want explore as much of the world as I possibly can. I think I am a very family-orientated person and so I want to incorporate this into my work by looking at other family units especially those less fortunate than myself and hopefully becoming a positive force through my photography.
In which Ugandan hospital were you born?
I was born in March of 1986 in Nsambya Hospital in Kampala, Uganda. I am the daughter of Elsie Cooper and Amirali Karmali, and I am also the only girl in a family which has four boys.
Could you please elaborate more on the origins of your family in Uganda and how your family moved to East Africa?
I have grown up really with just my mother and so I only really know about her family history. My mother's grandfather came to Uganda from England as a kind of scout. Upon arrival, he was given a plot of land in Kyaggwe which he made into a farm. Here is where he met his wife who was a Ugandan, and my great grandmother, and they had my grandmother and her siblings. Then when her father died my grandmother took over their farm and married my grandfather Cooper, with whom she had my mother and her siblings with. My grandmother still lives in Kyaggwe but I have never met my grandfather.
When did your interest in photography start?
My interest in photography really began when I was around 16. I had always loved to take photographs but never really thought of it as a career path. I was really into drama and poetry and liked the idea of the stage. Not wanting to act and not being good at drawing I turned to photography to illustrate my thoughts and beliefs. I want to capture, in one image, total meanings and messages which would usually take a whole play to unfold.
What are you main themes for photography?
My main themes for photography I think have changed a lot over time. I am still young and have time to grow into my practice further. However, for a while now, I have had a great interest in the ways in which I can represent the idea of 'truth.' I am forever assessing things in terms of what the 'truth' is and who represents the 'truth.' Up to this point I have created work that either documents the 'truth' or work that captures the same reality but as it is experienced by those living through it. Saying this however, I am still a huge fan of the theatre and I want to still experiment with the ideas of construction and performance... one could say I want to create metaphors of the 'truth.'
You had mentioned to me that you are trying to establish yourself as a feminist photographer. Empowering women is very important for you. Why is that?
Empowering women is extremely important to me for many reasons. I think that as a woman who has been allowed to achieve, it seems a shame that other women do not have the same advantages and do not know that there are options out there for them. My mum is my idol and she forces me to strive and be independent and I feel that I need to help others strive. When you come from a family full of boys, (which I do- four brothers) you soon learn that you have to stand up tall and claim your space and you're right to be there. I also think as well that charity begins at home and Uganda is my home, so as a woman before I can attempt anything else in the world, I need to help rectify or expose the wrongs going on in Uganda. With my work I would really like to help women feel more in control of their destinies and fight for their freedom to achieve their own personal goals in life.
So what do you think about today's current standard of beauty?
I think beauty comes from within. Everybody is beautiful but it has to come from within you before other people will be able to see and appreciate your beauty. But in a highly aesthetic world the media seems to dictate beauty and my personal thought is that they pressure young people into being something that they are not. I love the curves of men and women and I love to photograph a body that is detailed and intricate. I am not a size 8 but I am every bit a confident woman who is more than happy in the skin God gave me.
Back to photography, the particular photos you showed me were part of a project to look at different sectors of housing within Uganda and compare them with the UK. What inspired that?
Roshan Karmali Photographs: Click to Enlarge
The project you are referring to came about because of preconceived notions of where I am from. People in my course and throughout my life have always asked me questions like 'do you live in a tree?'
(laughs) Well lots of Africans get that...
(Laughs) I know! So it was these comments that got me thinking about what people really own. The point of my project was to look at different sectors of housing within Uganda and a compare them to those same statistic within the UK. Surprisingly I found that the level of home ownership within Uganda was a lot higher than within the UK, which initially shocked me. Whilst people in the UK are perhaps richer than some Ugandans, it seems that in Uganda we do not pay mortgages and we own the land we live on. This is different compared to here in the UK, where a family will pay a mortgage on their house off over a number of years.
How would you define your style of photography?
My style has been said to be quite political at times. I would say that I have experimented with many different styles of photography, but my aim is become more of a portrait style photographer. This is because I enjoy the intimacy of portraiture and I want to incorporate a lot personal aspects connected with the people I take pictures of.
As an Indian Ugandan how do you hope to contribute to the Ugandan visual arts scene?
I think that my contribution to the Ugandan visual arts scene is to firstly bring in something fresh and new like photography into the playing field. I have found it hard to find other photographers within Uganda, and to some extent I do not think people in Uganda see photography as 'art' yet. I think I am here to change that, I want to open people's eyes to the concept of photography as 'art' pieces.
In our communication you mentioned a special interest you had in photographing a collection on Ugandan writers. Why is that?
Well I enjoy literature as a whole but I feel that Ugandan writers, especially female ones, are setting a great example to younger generations. Basically, I wanted to especially photograph writers because literature has played a huge role in my decision to become a photographer. Since a young age I have loved to write and have been hugely moved by Maya Angelou, having studied her for seven years, since I was 13. I was also hugely influenced by the theatre and wanted to take elements of the theatre and transform them into a photographic context. Hence my interest in Ugandan writers.
Well, I hope they take up the challenge. It's a wonderful thing. Are your parents supportive of your artistic endeavours?
I think there are always reservations expressed by parents when one of their children wants to take a risky life path. But despite this I know my parents love me and have faith in my abilities. They would support me in any path I decided to take and it is because of this support system that I strive and aim for excellence and success in every endeavour I take on.
You just came back from a trip to Uganda. How were you able to incorporate photography in your trip?
My plans whilst in Uganda were to take a number of photographs in order to increase my portfolio. I wanted to take a number of pictures building toward my final degree work. The ideas which I have now surround Ugandan writers and their influence within Uganda. I also wanted to get involved with Ugandan-based charities and begin to document not only their journeys but the beginning of my journey of discovery within Uganda. I took a lot of pictures my current project 'Take A Picture Of Me.' It is a compilation of images of people who I met on my journey from Kampala to the border of Congo.
Do you visit Uganda often?
I consider Uganda to be my home. My whole family is based there and so I visit on a very regular basis. I spend up to 3 months there during most summers and visit whenever I can get some time off from the University. Although I have lived the majority of my life within the UK my family has always been rooted within Uganda and I have always considered myself, and have been proud of the fact that I am, a Ugandan.
Would you consider moving there?
After I have finished my degree I would like to travel for a couple of months and then come home. I have more than considered moving home and I see Uganda as the only place I want begin my hopefully fruitful, career.
This may be a sensitive topic, but let's talk about Idi Amin. You mentioned that you had produced video pieces about Idi Amin. Can you give us a brief description of what these videos entail?
My last video was a documentary style video using footage which I had found from news and documentary programs. It portrayed the more eccentric sides of Amin and puts them next to factual information about his effect on the Ugandan people. The end of the piece takes on a political broadcast style ending with the words 'STAND UP' 'SPEAK UP' 'VOTE.' It was a piece which I thought if it had been broadcast would have been used to try and evoke people to vote during elections.
Was your family forced out of Uganda during the Idi Amin period?
My mother is of mixed race and most of our family were allowed to stay in the country. My father on the other hand was forced out of Uganda for a short while but seeing no future for himself or his family elsewhere, returned to Uganda and now has a very successful business.
Is there a large Ugandan Indian population in the UK that you are aware of?
To be honest I have only met one other Indian who has Ugandan heritage but he has never lived there or even visited. I do have a few Ugandan friends though. Mainly the Ugandan people I know here are family and friends of family.
Have you considered pursuing a cinematique career as well like Mira Nair?
I think that film is a much more accessible medium than photography, and I do enjoy making short films, but I think that my true talents are in photography. To be in the world of cinema, I think, involves being able to prolong a message or meaning by putting it into the moving form. I, on the other hand tend to look for messages and meanings in terms of the still image. I try as hard as I can to capture everything I want to say in one moment of time which is real and not always constructed.
How did your role as Deputy Drama Captain in college help you? What skills did you learn?
This position came with responsibilities which would help me later in life such as learning to teach young children drama but most importantly it helped me to refine my writing skills in order to write my first pantomime, a humorous but classy remake of the classic Aladdin Story.
Who are your role models?
I have got so many role models and for so many different reasons. My first is Maya Angelou; her work inspires me more and more every time I read it. I try to read at least one of her poems everyday. My favorite of her poems is Ain't I a Woman. As far as photographers go there are so many people who inspire me for different reasons. I love the work of Weege, he was such an inquisitive photographer, which is what I think made his work so gripping and addictive.
What books are you reading?
I love to read and so I've always got a couple of books on the go. I love biography style books like Maya Angelou's and I love to read classic books. At the moment I am re-reading To Kill a Mockingbird, which is my all time favourite book because I think it has so much to say about the world we live in and has such gentle and griping characters who you can't help but fall in love with.
What is next for you?
Well I hope to finish my degree next year and so at the moment that is my top priority. For my degree I am hoping to travel round Uganda to take pictures of different and interesting people. I want to look at galleries in Uganda and see if anyone is interested in displaying some of my work and generally networking myself to everyone who I think might want to get to know me.
Thank you Roshan for the interview.
It was my pleasure!
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First published: June 19, 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.