A comfort zone for women artists in Uganda

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. But over the years, we experienced challenges such as the pandemic and inability to have funding to have more than 20 women artists from across Africa, showing different artworks, talking about womanhood, its problems, and its victories. 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? The Foundation does smaller projects that we can afford, but the long-term goal is to convince key players for the support to afford bigger and ground breaking exhibitions. On March the 8th, 2022, we’re going to launch the Njabala Foundation 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: Broadly speaking, 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.

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 work. And it was in this meeting that I was given the responsibility (because I was the only curator in the room) to come up with a project that can accommodate all the sentiments, all the complaints of women artists.

Then, I was still doing my master’s degree in Germany. I developed the idea to work with the Njabala Folklore and ran it back with the artists and asked them what they thought about it. The Njabala folklore is a very popular story which is still told to girls growing up in Uganda. The artists were excited about my curatorial premise, and that’s how it all began. Like I told you, initially that the dream was an extensive exhibition, 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 — facilitating visibility for women artists.

Fari Sow: You talked about your background a little bit, you’re a curator. How do you see that role?

Photo by Miriam Watsemba

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 complex notion of bringing things together.

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 female and male 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. There are so many ways to approach the art scene in order to support it, but for me, because I was very passionate about the role and the plight of women artists in the Ugandan 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 all themes come from the Njabala folklore, which is the umbrella of the whole exhibition, so maybe I should just give you a very brief introduction. The Njabala folklore puts two women at the forefront, there is a mother and a daughter. The daughter is depicted as one who is unable to work or provide for the needs of the husband. And the mother sneaks into the daughter’s matrimonial home to teach her the ways of house keeping. And I think that society, just like Njabala’s mother is telling women how to live their lives. This is how you talk, how you dress…, 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 live.

In the exhibition, the themes of love, for example is inspired by couple -Njabala and the husband. 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? Hhow 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?

In the exhibition, all the eight artists namely, Immy Mali, Bathsheba Okwenje, Miriam Watsemba, Sandra Suubi, Pamela Enyonu, Sarah Nansubuga, Esteri Tebandeke and Lilian Nabulime 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 closure of 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 baby — fathers are back to school. Things like this are what the artists are depicting. For example, one of artists called Miriam Watsemba went to the community where these girls live and made photographs of them in their previous schools, places where they were not allowed to return when they became mothers. When you hear about these things in the news, they look so far away. But it is about people with lives, with hearts, with dignity and who also deserve a decent 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 our 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. 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. Despite the presence of a major art school, the Makerere Art School, we are still behind on the international art consumption. For art, people like to go to Kenya, 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 having the exhibition at the Makerere Art Gallery — in the university setting. And for me, it’s very powerful because then students get a chance to come and see exhibition. It’s so many things all together that are really small and obvious, but in a context like ours, they are really phenomenal.

Little Black Dress Film still, Copyrights by Esteri Tebandekepng

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 nearly no curators in this country, I’m concerned that the women artists have been misrepresented. I’m concerned that art education is really critiqued. 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 University, 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 critical thinking. 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. As a child, I could not coin it, get the vocabulary, or language to understand what was going on. But as an adult, 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. 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 many obstacles, but you have to be willing to take that risk. You know, I’d be now in my office in Germany , but saying, look, I can take days of leave to just go and do this, that’s a risk, to say the least. 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: Through the arts. 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 Foundation 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.

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Moleskine Foundation

Moleskine Foundation

The Moleskine Foundation is a non-profit organization that believes that Creativity and Quality Education are key to producing positive change in society.