Kampala stakes its place on East African art map

African art lovers are preparing for the Kampala Art Biennale, which will be held throughout August in venues around Kampala. The Biennale is presented as an innovative project with the intention of showing contemporary works from around the continent and creating debate on its current value. According to the organizers, the first edition will give visibility to art on the peripheries of mainstream news.

“The Biennale of Kampala is a project of the Kampala Arts Trust, a collective of visual artists and [people in] showbiz who live and work in both public and private spaces of the city of Kampala,” says Daudi Karungi, the Biennale’s artistic director.

For the first edition of the Biennale the emblem is Progressive Africa. The theme, according to the organizers, represents a challenge to two current dominant narratives on Africa: Africa is now (which is one of the slogans of the last annual Design Indaba conference in Cape Town) and that acclaimed artistic notion that Africa is the future.

“The issue of Progressive Africa must be understood in relation to this discursive pair (today or tomorrow) of the current Pan-Africanism. Kampala, like all other African cities, is trying to find its place in the new Africa. So we just wanted to start this adventure,” says Karungi.

Michael Soi. 'The general election 2. Acrylic on canvas.
Michael Soi. ‘The general election 2.’ Acrylic on canvas.

Forty-five painters, photographers and illustrators from 13 African countries will present their perception of the current state of Africa through the visual arts. The countries represented are: Uganda, Kenya, South Africa, Ethiopia, Angola, Ghana, Nigeria, Togo, Ivory Coast, Zimbabwe, DR Congo, Mali and Tanzania. There will also be parallel events throughout the Biennale, including films, workshops and art installations on the streets.

As happens with other art biennials, the KAB architects and local authorities know that their work will make an impact beyond the cultural industry. “The relationship with the city of Kampala is of great interest,” says Karungi. “We have the support of the City of Kampala and the Ugandan government. We have partnered with the Uganda Bureau of Tourism and the Ministry of Tourism, to ensure the continuity of the biennial.”

There are few experiences that show how a biennial can position a city at the head of tourist preferences. Venice in Italy is one example. And African examples, such as the Biennale of Dakar in Senegal, have over decades been able to make a dent in the processes of development of the city, and by extension, the country.

“Many members of KAB have been in different biennials, including Dakar’s, during the past 20 years,” says Karungi. “In such events we made many friends and contacts, and now we’re about to light the flame of KAB. There will be curators, art critics, artists and different professionals in the arts sector we have met in this circle.”

Paul Ndema.' Wings spread.' Acrylics and ink on water colour paper.
Paul Ndema.’ Wings spread.’ Acrylics and ink on water colour paper.

Kampala is one of Africa’s fast developing cities and one of the most enjoyable towns for East African tourists but it has not yet hosted an arts event like the Biennale. “We never had an event like this because many people in Kampala were afraid to try and had panic to fail, so they settled for small local events, markets and exhibitions,” says Karungi. “We will break barriers with the Kampala Biennale and build inland trade between African artists and the various professionals in the arts.”

For more on the Biennale visit the website: http://kampalabiennale.org/

Main image: Shenzo Shabangu. ‘They took everything.’ 2012. Linocut.

Gemma Solés i Coll holds an M.A. in Social Science of Development South of the Sahara (URV) and graduated in Philosophy (UB). She specializes in artistic and cultural trends and urban dynamics in Africa. She serves as chief editor for the music and performing arts section of Spanish online magazine WIRIKO, of which she is the founder.

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