KAMPALA, Uganda — All over Kampala, and in many parts of Uganda, you’ll find them: shipping containers. From and to all over the world, shipping containers arrive and go out. Some stay, serving as a storage container on the side of a road, repurposed for whatever the contents. Others go. But, for this foreigner at least, they make up an integral part of the city’s character.
This October marked the kick-off of the second annual Kampala Contemporary Art Festival, an exhibition in public space. It featured 12 artists, some Ugandan, some of Ugandan descent, and some foreign, in 12 different locales around Kampala, the country’s capital and largest city. The majority were located in the city center, but a number stretched out into Makerere University (the country’s flagship university) and east and south of the center. Thus, the work was very much public and distributed, as is much of Kampala.
Outside AfriArt Gallery, one of Kampala’s leading galleries, was the work of British expat Sue Crozier Thorburn. Thorburn created abstractions of the equatorial sun (Kampala is just a short drive away from the equator) at different stages of the day. At the National Theatre, Ruganzu Bruno created a world of trash come to life, with a pondering Thinker sculpture made of a discarded TV and newspapers, among other found materials. Performance artist Waswad’s vision of an animal world he dubs “Elefania” reached surreal levels as he wandered amidst the crowd handing out coffee beans, a symbol, his assistants told me, of Ugandan unity.
The two that stood out most to me were the installations of Xenson and Ronex. Xenson took over a large section of the Railway Station to create a living installation of refuse from the nearby Nakivubo Channel. Collecting and cleaning garbage from the channel each day, he and his assistants added the pieces to the installation, using blue bottles to represent the channel.
Further south of the rail line, Ronex completely descontructed his container, leaving only strips and pieces of metal. This created an open air feel even when standing inside. As the interior and exterior focused on the signs and potholes around the city, the container created a dialogue with Kampala’s public spaces. Visitors were invited to add their own messages in marker and create political posters.
The main drawback of the show, I think, was the difficulty of navigating it. Although each location was clearly marked on a map, as a newcomer to Kampala I still had difficulty finding some containers, and at times simply gave up. People in the immediate area didn’t seem to be aware of the containers, and the one at the National Theatre proved especially difficult to find, even after I asked multiple theatre staffers. Some containers I located, only to find they were closed; hours for each container were unclearly marked. But when I did find the containers (and they were open), I was rarely disappointed. Artists’ assistants were invariably present to explain the work and its concepts.
Kampala, like most cities, has its share of art festivals and events, so the draw of this particular event was its international nature. Sponsored by a variety of local and international arts institutions, including the Uganda Art Museum and AfriArt Gallery in Uganda and groups like the British Council and Alliance Francaise, the exhibition helped create dialogue with artists inside and outside Uganda. From my admittedly outsider perspective (unfortunately, I could not reach staff from the festival by press time), I felt the mix of Ugandan and muzungu (the local word for foreigner) attendees suggested that the show’s public nature successfully helped it reach a broad audience. It certainly helped lift the profile of not just the artists featured but the many assistants who have their own creative practice as well — of whom I met a good number. I’m excited to see what the next festival brings.
Kampala, Uganda’s Kampala Contemporary Art Festival ran from October 7 through 14, 2012.