KAMPALA, Uganda — We gathered on a dusty road in the Kololo neighborhood of Kampala, Uganda’s capital city, for coffee at The Hub, a popular coworking and events space. It had been a few weeks now since the terrific Kampala Art Festival, and I was just scratching the surface of Uganda’s art scene. I knew I had to learn more and invited some of the folks behind Start Journal, Uganda’s premiere art journal, for a conversation. Happily, they agreed.
“Many artists became jacks of all trades,” noted Thomas Bjørnskau, Start‘s editor and a Norwegian resident in Kampala. Bjørnskau inherited the role from Daudi Karungi, a self-described “man with a strong character and opinion” and native Ugandan. They tell me about the importance of finding a strong curator, and why the festival, the first of its kind in Uganda, was important to the scene.
The resourcefulness of Ugandan artists, who often work with multiple forms of media, was reflected in the decision to use containers distributed around the city as the sites for installation.
“The way these cubes are being used in places like this. People are living in them. Shopping in them. They’re not only for storage and transportation,” said Bjørnskau. “Ultimately, what you really need for an exhibition is a room, a white space. And we wanted to do something related to the innovation of arts, this idea of thinking outside the box.”
Start Journal began with Karungi and founding partner Henry Mzili Mujunga, who recognized to a growing need to archive and talk about the contemporary art scene in Uganda. It began as print but has since moved online, allowing them to bring the conversation to a wider audience.
“Henry and I were going to exhibitions and we would review them just between the two of us,” Karungi explained. “We had these long conversations for many days, weeks, months. I like to do things, and I thought, why not produce a magazine?” The Journal now commissions writing from a number of art scene observers, both local and foreign, covering anything from fashion to dance to, of course, visual art. It’s become a prolific record of Uganda’s vibrant art community, serving as both magazine and living archive for researchers and newcomers like me.
But the Journal editors recognize it is still has room to grow, especially as it moves into the realm of critique. “The goal of an artist right now is to make money and get paid for what they’re doing. To make a living,” noted Karungi. “When you write about that artist negatively, when you criticize, he’ll say, ‘Hey, c’mon, what did I do to you? Why are you destroying my name?’”
“Artists need to understand the negative criticism is good,” Karungi noted. “It’s also publicity,” Jantien Zuurbier, Start’s web designer, added.
Start Journal is only one of Karungi’s projects. The high-energy artist, curator and writer also runs AfriArt Gallery, which hosts monthly exhibitions and houses a stunning array of contemporary art and design pieces. One of the shows I visited was featuring the woodblock prints of Fred Mutebi, a call to action to improve opportunities for women to contribute to Uganda’s political and civic future. It’s part of a growing community of art spaces along Kampala’s Kira Road, which includes The Hub and Umoja Art Gallery.
It was through Start that I learned about Weaver Bird International Artists Residency, a beautiful space located near Masaka, in western Uganda. Started by Ugandan artists Collin Sekajugo and Sheila Nakitende, the residency consists of a sculpture garden and proper residency atop a hill along with a vibrant artist village at the bottom. With fresh air, beautiful sculptures, and even a monkey, the residency hosts regular artist camps and aims to become a hub for local and international artists.
Artist Hassan Mukiibi, who also explores art as a therapeutic practice for HIV/AIDS patients, took me on a tour of their space, which includes a children’s library under construction, a series of murals, a residence hall, and even plots of land for artists to purchase. The village itself aims to become a hub for education and engagement with residents near Masaka. As we walked and motored around on boda bodas (motorcycle taxis), I could easily see the space’s potential, as it’s already tied itself well with the local community. In turn, artists I met in Kampala spoke favorably of the art camp, a community affair and welcome retreat from the stresses of the capital city.
Where is Ugandan contemporary art? It’s everywhere, I learned, and Start Journal is telling its stories. “We want to promote the unpromoted visual arts,” Karungi explained about Start Journal. With so much going on, I’m excited to check in regularly and report back on my next visit.