A comfort zone for women artists in Uganda
In February of 2015, the Moleskine Foundation conducted the third chapter of the AtWork program in Kampala, Uganda, under the theme “Should I take off my shoes?”. Among the twenty students, many have persevered in their artistic career and transformed the Ugandan creative environment.
Martha Kazungu is a curator, Art Historian and Founder of Njabala Foundation, an organization that curates periodic exhibitions as well as organizes a public program of activities to create a safe space for female artists to thrive and blossom.
As an AtWork alumna and a trailblazer for feminist art in Uganda, she tells the story of her journey in building her own art space and the work she does to fight against gender inequality in the Ugandan art scene.
Fari Sow: You can start by introducing the foundation, is there a story behind it? How did it come to life?
Martha Kazungu: The project was conceived in 2018 as an exhibition project. But over the years, with the pandemic and inability to have funding for a more extensive Collection, to have more than 20 artists from across Africa, women artists showing different artworks, talking about womanhood and its problems, and its victories, there was never enough in logistics for that. So we decided, if we don’t have all the money in the world to do this as one event, how about we establish a platform with which we can make smaller but more engaging and meaningful events? This way, we could maybe impress or convince other stakeholders to support us since we operate in an economy where art isn’t given much value or finances.
So then, how do you then get people to understand that what you’re doing makes sense and needs to be supported? We could have this foundation to do smaller projects that we can afford, but the long-term goal is to convince key players. But then, we couldn’t just say I want to do this. You have to have a foundation of sorts; you need to have something in place so people can support what you’re doing. And so that’s how the foundation came into place. And on March the 8th, we’re going to launch it in Kampala, with a vast exhibition of 8 Ugandan artists, and a series of events to accompany that.
Fari Sow: Then the journey started in 2018, what were key moments or reflections that led you there?
Martha Kazungu: The general thing was that I always saw these problems. I always thought that the art scene was unfair to women artists. But then I thought, maybe I am biased because I’m a woman. So in 2018, together with a Norwegian artist called Maria Brinch, we invited Ugandan artists into a two-day workshop of sorts to speak about Uganda’s art scene and ask them what their experiences are? Why are they not showing more, what’s the problem? We were asking why there are no great women artists from Uganda? And of course, people had so much to say about it, you know, how they get invited with no permission, with no logistics, without names. They don’t get any invitations.
And in this two-day convening we called “Tuwaye”, the artists were very clear: We need to have groundbreaking exhibitions. We need to have publications about our turn to assert and compete with other players in the arts. And it was in this meeting that I was given the responsibility because I was the only curator to come up with a project that can accommodate all the sentiments, all the complaints of women. Then, I was still doing my master’s degree in Germany, and I thought, What would make sense? And this folklore came back to me unintentionally, and I was thought, maybe this is something that we could get inspired from. I ran it back with the artists and asked them what they thought about the Njabala folklore. Because it’s a very, very popular story, still told to girls growing up. So, how does that work as an inspiration for the mission? They were all very, very excited about it, and that’s how it began. Like I told you, initially that the dream was sort of like an extensive collection, but we never got the money to put that in place. So we thought, instead of having a one-off show, let’s establish an institution where we can make smaller-scale events, but all leading to one thing from watching the work of women artists or making them blossom, and it’s how it came in place.
Fari Sow: You talked about your background a little bit, you’re a curator. How do you see that role?
Martha Kazungu: Well, I think in Uganda you cannot be just a curator. You have to be the business manager, you are the producer, you are the fundraiser, you negotiate, you basically do everything. I’m even hesitant if we should afford that term in Uganda or in an African context, because there is no luxury of just being a curator, you have to be able to put the puzzles together to be able to achieve an exhibition. I’m doing a lot of that, a lot of improvisation, a lot of reaching out to people who are able to support and so on and so forth. But I can tell you, it’s not the European definition, which is really about taking care of the collection or being able to come up with concepts. It is much more than that, having to think of where you get the support, where you get the funds, where you get the institution to host an exhibition, where you get the artists to even work with. It’s much more complex and so I want to think of curating as a very, very complex area.
Fari Sow: About the art scene in Uganda. Do you think there is a pressing need to create these new platforms to highlight the work of women artists, or is there a lack in general of platforms for all artists?
Martha Kazungu: Absolutely, I mean, the gap is really big between women and men artists, but everyone has to take a focus, and I thought, even if you open 20 galleries today in Uganda, you still would not solve the problem because there is too much needed. Many people don’t have a chance to have their work critiqued or exhibited in meaningful exhibitions or just seeing it even in studios. I thought that there would be so many ways to approach the art scene in order to support it, but for me, because I was very passionate about the role of a woman and also the plight of a woman in this art scene, I thought it makes sense to focus on certain things and give it my all and then let other people come and focus on what makes more sense to them.
Fari Sow So, this exhibition, Njabala This is not how, that you’re launching on International Women’s Day, it’s about themes of memory, love, womanhood, and activism. In your context of being a woman curator in the art scene in Uganda, why do you think it’s important to highlight those themes in particular?
Martha Kazungu: I think the themes come by default from the folklore, which is the umbrella of the whole exhibition, so maybe I should just give you a very brief introduction. The Njabala folklore is putting two women at the forefront, there is a mother and a daughter. The daughter is depicted as one who is not able to work or provide for the needs of the husband. And then there’s a mother who is sneaking into the daughter’s home to teach her how the work should be done right. And I think that society, just like Njabala’s mother is telling women how to live their life. This is how you cook, how you sleep, there are so many rules for women in Uganda and in every context, of course, even in Europe. It depends on where you are, every woman has some kind of injustice, but the degree to which it happens to them really depends on where you go.
About the exhibition, the themes of love, for example, the story has a couple, Njabala and the husband, so there’s already marriage. Love, by default, becomes a theme. And then, of course, activism. Why we do all this work is basically to remind people that women have brains and emotions and values and all of these things because the way the world is moving right now is people just thinking that women embody something else that’s not as acknowledged as for men. All the themes are really derived from the folklore and we named ourselves Njabala Foundation because we want to allow ourselves to be inspired by this folklore because it has so many layers on so many stories that can really correspond to our current needs, in the contemporary era, to understand how did we get here? This folklore has been told for centuries. How did we get into this situation and why has the plight of a woman been normalized in many contexts? Because stories like this introduce the problem way before we’re even born. And so how can we approach these problems by interrogating these folklores and establishing ways in which we can ask questions? What would Njabala do if she was alive today? What would her mother do if she was telling Njabala what to do today?
And the exhibition, all the eight artists are basically reenacting the role of the Njabala’s mother in the folklore. But instead of telling “this is how you do…”, they’re telling her, “this is not how…”. And basically, the idea is to say that women can do a variety of things, not just one way of living or doing, which is very, very important for us, freedom of expression and giving the women the platform to think that, within themselves, they can get out of this mould they have been confined to for the past generations.
The show is proposing very bold suggestions for approaching problems women have to deal with, domestic violence, for example, or child marriages. I don’t know if you know, but Uganda had the longest closed schools during the pandemic, nearly two years. And in this period, more than 6000 girls became pregnant. And these girls are now stuck at home with their babies as the boys are back to school. Things like this are what the artists are depicting. For example, one of them went to like this community, where these girls are born, took a story to tell, you know, cause when you hear these things in the news, they look so far away. But it is about people with lives, with hearts, with dignity and who deserve also a life. What our exhibition does is take things from the news to the actual tangible reality, to actually see these people who are the victims of the society that was created for women in this country. There are eight artists and each of them has a very significant but different approach to the whole story.
Fari Sow: It is very interesting that you’re revisiting this folklore that has been told for centuries, but you still find relevance in it today. A pessimist could think of it as if the condition of women has not changed since then, but it’s just that you adapt the folklore and its meaning to the situation of today. Do you think that there is tangible change happening in Ugandan society or is that what you want to accomplish in the future? Do you think, with your role as a curator and by highlighting women artists and activists, you can make a tangible change?
Martha Kazungu: What I focus on is getting the work done, and in this work, the major thing is really to portray what these artists are doing, because, without the exhibition, no one would know about this artist’s projects, right? No one would know that this artist even existed. And so for me, I’m hitting many birds with one stone. First of all, by mentioning this folklore, I mention eight artists, their names. And that for me is already a win. Because otherwise, no one would ever know about them. And then it’s about the Ugandan art scene in general which is also very secluded from the rest of the world. We are a landlocked country with very little going on here. And so despite the presence of a major art school, the Makerere Art School, we are still behind on the national art consumption. For art, people like to go to Nairobi, Nigeria or to South Africa, but rarely do you hear about Uganda. All things come to life with just one vision. But the nitty-gritty of how that actually relates on an individual level, how people are affected or influenced, you can’t guarantee it, but definitely, the work has to be done and has to be advertised. It has to be done well, so people get inspired. We’re doing it in an exhibition space, in the university setting. And for me, it’s very powerful because then students get a chance to come and see exhibitions. I mean, I cannot count five curators in this country. So what does that mean for the art scene, if people cannot curate exhibitions? People are organizing but not curating exhibitions, and for me, that’s very powerful as well. It’s like so many things all together that are really small and obvious, but in a context like ours, they are really phenomenal.
Fari Sow: Right now, you have this platform to uplift women artists, but you also do the work to make it available to women and young girls, to give them access to arts and maybe inspire them to get involved?
Martha Kazungu Exactly, this is the dream, and it is bigger than what I can afford right now, but I know that every big thing began somewhere. And so, I feel like with this step, with the launch, if we can be able to convince more stakeholders, we can implement an annual program which responds to all these factors. I’m really concerned that there are no curators in this country, I’m concerned that the women artists have been misrepresented. I’m concerned that art education is really critiqued. But you know, depending on what resources we have, we can implement programs and projects that can really respond directly to the needs, the local needs of this context, which are really diverse. But if we had an infrastructure, of course we’d have people just to support this kind of way. I cannot tell you the dream in its entirety but it’s big. It’s bigger than us.
Fari Sow: I’m sure I’ll see it someday. You were part of the Atwork workshop in Kampala in 2015, what do you recall from your experience? Is there something that you learned from that workshop that you still carry with you today?
Martha Kazungu: That workshop was very, very meaningful because I was a student at Makerere, and with this workshop, I got a chance to meet someone like Simon Njami for the first time, but also have a moment for reflection and basically thinking because, when you’re in school, you’re supposed to be doing these things, but I didn’t get that chance, really before then. And Atwork for me was very interesting and particularly the theme of the workshop, “Should I take off my shoes?” was very poetic, but when we tried to understand the meaning of the whole theme, for us shoes were considered a comfort zone and taking them off was considered attempting to risk, attempting to get out of your comfort zone.
And it was in this workshop that I actually considered approaching my position towards the place of a woman in this country because I’m born from a family of four and I have three brothers and at a very young age, I experienced this gender-related imbalance. But I could not coin it, get the vocabulary, or language to understand what was going on. But as an adult, as a young woman growing up when I came to university, I realized, Oh, it’s not just me that faces that, it’s all around the place and people are experiencing it in different ways, you know? But it was in Atwork that I got this vision to actually get out of my comfort zone, to approach it and try to speak about it.
Fari Sow: It is the right place to get out of your comfort zone. And your notebook, it’s part of the collection now. You titled it “Exaggerated memories” and you explored themes of identity and finding your place in a patriarchal society that is not built around you as a woman. Does it still resonate with you today, and how?
Martha Kazungu: Of course it does, by default it does. I mean, the work I’m doing right now, is just a page from that diary. It’s from that encounter that I had to really explore further because the workshop was for a very limited time, but I continued exploring further with the opportunities that I got from different people. And yes, it’s truly still important. I mean, Njabala is all about that experience of campaigning for better for women.
Fari Sow: The thought process that happens in a workshop, you get uncomfortable, you maybe realize things about yourself, is that something that stuck with you?
Martha Kazungu Exactly. I mean, there’s nothing comfortable about Njabala, and even just the act of flying from Germany to Kampala to come and do this exhibition. I experienced so much difficulty, you know, from accessing the materials, the funds, the space, there’s too much, but you have to be willing to take that risk. You know, I’d be now in my office in Germany you know, but saying, look, I can take two days of leave to just go and do this, you know, that’s a risk, to say the least. So yeah, it’s constantly negotiating that and possibly taking risks and taking my shoes off. So I can say AtWork has been quite instrumental for me in my career.
Fari Sow: I’m glad, there’s been a lot of people from this specific AtWork Kampala workshop that went on to pursue something great with creativity in their careers, so I see that with you too, it’s amazing.
At the Moleskine Foundation, our mission is Creativity for social change. How do you use creativity to change your community, the society around you or yourself?
Martha Kazungu: I mean, through the arts, I mean, all the problems I talked about, the artists are responding through artistic mediums. So, my role as curator is to bring it all together in a meaningful story that can be comprehensible to the local context. That’s how I can do it.
Njabala is a multi-faceted campaign sourcing inspiration from a popular Ugandan myth of Njabala to facilitate conversations on womanhood. Their responsibility is to curate periodic exhibitions as well as organize a public program of activities aimed at creating safe spaces for female artists to thrive and blossom.