Identity Crisis: 'Come on, Henry, Be Sophisticated'
By DAVID KAIZA
An identity crisis stalks African artists like a shadow, according to Ugandan artist-cum-teacher Henry "Mzili" Mujunga.
Mujunga, whose works titled Gnome I and Gnome II were on exhibition during the Alliance Francaise "Artist of The Month" show, did not use these words, but talking to him at the Alliance gallery in Kampala recently, I could feel his sense of displacement.
And he blames the identity crisis on Western concepts that contaminate the African mind.
In Gnome I and Gnome II, he uses traditional Ugandan materials.
Mujunga, who is currently studying for a post-graduate degree in Fine Art at the Makerere University, says he has a problem with the training that African artists receive in African universities. He says they are taught Western concepts that alienate them from their people, who misunderstand them, while at the same time they find little acceptance of their works in the West. Mujunga says, "I have already raised questions on Christianity. But I thought the practices of our people are better understood by our people. These are practices that help you survive if be, through life and understand the after death."
Last year, he travelled to Ghana and Mali and found that the local African art there has retained its Africanness through the darkest days of Western assault. Public monuments, interior decor, the dress and language are still punctuated by African gods and voodoo. Of all the Africans, according to Mujunga, it is the East Africans who have been anglicised beyond recognition.
His conclusion was that West African artists have not lost their link with the people because their work speaks the language the people understand. For example, voodoo or vodun art is part and parcel of everyday art.
To do Gnome I and II, he visited shrines, gathering irizi or traditional talismans and also tried to learn what values are attached to them. Mujunga is using these two pieces as part of a thesis. He therefore takes on the role of an anthropologist, studying the talismans to probe what shapes the psychology of the culture of the people who use them.
Gnome I and II feature a sisal gunnysack nailed to a wooden frame as the working surface, with pieces of bathing sponge or ekyangwe sewn on the sisal. Talismans bound in bark cloth are then sewn on to the sponges.
The colour scheme is impressively understated. Beige like the colour of rotting wood and the far from bright red-brown of the bark cloth.
Bark cloth is traditionally used in making burial shrouds in Buganda among other important rituals. Gnome I and II are therefore a personal statement and are not for sale.
"The kind of art I do is very successful as far as Western concepts are concerned. But the people I want to speak to through my work, the Ugandan people on the streets, do not understand it," says Mujunga.
Mujunga describes himself as living a life of isolation, in a world of the creative mind which tragically fails to connect to those around him. "Artists always find themselves outside society. Our worlds never meet. It is simply because the kind of work we do is very involving emotionally and is on a personal level. But if you can't share it with your neighbours, it's not satisfying."
Mujunga also laments how the art clientele — largely Western tourists — has influenced art in the region, giving rise to curio shacks, but hails the action by artists in Zanzibar against bastardisation of local art by tourists.
"If I do a Van Gogh-kind of art," Mujunga says, "it's seen as a reflection of high art. If I try to use bark cloth, all I get is 'come on Henry, you can be more sophisticated than that.' You talk of Van Gogh but not Jack Katarikawe." http://www.nationaudio.com/News/EastAfrican/current/Features/PartII100520046.html