Art and Artists in Uganda

Ugandan art has produced a host of famous artists in recent generations, despite experiencing a political rollercoaster and huge social upheaval. How did they do it?

Uganda has a long history of formal art education. Under British colonial rule as a Protectorate, it was seen as being of less strategic importance than Kenya and this allowed the establishment of art as a school subject. By contrast, art was only taught in white-only schools in Kenya.

Art was extended to degree level through the efforts of Margaret Trowell, who founded the Fine Art school at Makerere University in Kampala. Her courses emphasised the importance of building on existing artistic practices, but introduced new techniques such as silkscreen printing. This echoed the British style of administration in protectorates, that of ‘indirect rule’ where colonial power structures used existing forms of government. Students came from all over eastern and south-eastern Africa, from the Sudan to Zimbabwe.

Early students at the Margaret Trowell Fine Art School include the sculptor Francis Nnaggenda, a Kenyan, and the painter Sam Ntiro from Tanzania. Exhibitions of outstanding students‘ work were held in prestigious London galleries. Some went on the study at London art schools or the Royal Academy. Many such students became lecturers at the school and helped nurture the talents of younger artists.

When the East African countries of Uganda, Kenya and Tanzania achieved independence in the early 1960s, they formed the East African Community. Part of this structure involved sharing university facilities. Uganda, with its fine art school, continued its tradition of providing art education for much of East Africa.

However, all this changed in 1971 when a coup d’état brought Idi Amin to power. Kampala had been the centre of Uganda’s intellectual life, but in a very short time this fertile artistic environment had evaporated and all public debate was stifled. Many prominent artists went into exile and those that remained lived a very precarious life indeed. The University lost many outspoken tutors, included its Vice Chancellor who ‘disappeared’. An entire generation was traumatised by fourteen years of civil war.

The Fine Art school miraculously stayed open throughout this dreadful time. The old patrons of Kampala’s élite and middle-classes were replaced with new patrons from the military, producing not only medals and insignia but commissioned sculpture and paintings for those rising fast through the army ranks. It managed this by employing recent graduates as lecturers. In a way, this gave the school a new lease of life by providing opportunities for innovative young artists and breaking links with those whose training was based on the colonial system.

Current resident artists and lecturers include the sculptors Lilian Nabulime and Rose Kirumira and painters Godfrey Banadda and Paul Lubowa. Their work has been featured in definitive texts on African art such as ‘Contemporary African Art’ by Sidney Littlefield Kasfir, and also in ground-breaking exhibitions such as ‘Seven Stories of Modern Art in Africa’ (1995-6, London, Sweden and New York). Guruve has developed excellent relationships with such senior artists, and with many of their most promising students. We promote these artists and their work as part of our mission to raise the profile of contemporary African art in the UK.

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Related links:

Gallery artist: Godfrey Banadda

African art and culture
Shona art movement
Art in Bulawayo