Lugubrious Len and a toast to Queen Victoria

Saturday April 23 2016

Left, Birdman Vicky, by John Mukiza; and right,

Left, Birdman Vicky, by John Mukiza; and right, Private Blessings, by Paul Ndema. PHOTOS | FRANK WHALLEY  

By Frank Whalley

Croaking chanteur Leonard Cohen and I have something in common apart from being miserable old gits... an interest in Queen Victoria.

One of the numbers on Lugubrious Len’s album Live Songs is about her (“I love you too in all your forms”) and almost unbelievably my grandmother saw Victoria open the Manchester Ship Canal in 1894.

That nugget of family history triggered my curiosity. I went on to acquire two porcelain busts of Victoria and one of her husband Prince Albert, plus a signed photograph of the Queen in widow’s weeds and wearing a little lace cap.

As well as being Empress of India, this epitome of British majesty gave much to Africa too. Well, she gave her name anyway: Lake Victoria, Victoria Falls and the Victoria and Albert shopping mall in Cape Town — all trip lightly off the tongue.

Artists have noticed her too.

Victoria appears on a canvas by the Ugandan John Mukiza, stern as we know her (in private she was said to be vivacious, sexy — yes, really — and funny) surrounded by birds, some of which are left uncoloured. The painting represents the legacy of Uganda’s colonial past, an issue that troubles many an artist from the Pearl of Africa.


Vultures are the colonialists picking at the country’s riches, an Indian crow wears a necktie, all dressed up to meet the Queen, while a parrot represents the endless talking that gets us nowhere.

Called Birdman Vicky, it is one of the highlights of a stellar show by 10 Ugandan artists at the Circle gallery on James Gichuru Road, Nairobi, until May 14.

The exhibition, curated by Nicola Elpinstone and Robinah Nansubuga, serves as a welcome introduction to Ugandan painting, and follows last year’s Circle show of works from Ethiopia.

What is immediately clear about these artists is their technical competence. Their drawing is accurate, they paint with clarity, and photographs are properly exposed and in focus. In other words, they get the basics right.

Unlike Kenya, Uganda’s schools make art an examinable subject; seeds when planted in the young bear weighty fruit.

Eight of the artists shown at Circle went on to study at Makerere, one graduated from Nkumba in Entebbe and the other took her degree at Kyambogo in Kampala.
And it shows.

That they are East African artists is demonstrated by their concerns — among them being identity, colonialism, governance, corruption and the power of the Church — not by their reliance on village scenes designed to attract tourists and UN workers whose low expectations are duly fulfilled.

These are adult works, appreciated by collectors with a telling eye and sought too by international curators.

They represent part of the region’s central core of artists examining contemporary issues in a stimulating and imaginative way.

Denis Mubiru uses kamunye (Kampala’s matatus) to explore activities that surround them — fighting, flirting, gossiping — with a jumpy cartoonist’s line, while DJ, MC and whatever Samson Ssenkaaba, known as Xenson, uses a bright palette and masked figures to question identity.

Immy Mali offers a 22-minute video loop Dancing with Myself that projects her wish to sidestep conformity, while Henry Mzili paints everyday life to examine happiness — are his dancers leaping with joy or is it the Danse Macabre?

Eria Nsubuga’s collages challenge Western artistic presumptions through the ironic use of magazine icons. They are perceptive and witty.

For sculptor Stacey Gillian Abe, a cascade of bottles hung from the ceiling represents misconceptions about gender equality (and I am grateful to the catalogue for explaining that) while Timothy Erau uses torch light and colour gels to create contrast in his dramatic photographs. Papa Shabani’s photos strip back city life to examine the beauty beneath.

Paul Ndema, already well known in Kenya, like Eria Nsubuga, puts himself in the picture in his continuing polemic against what he sees as the corrosive hypocrisy and intolerance of the Catholic Church.

In Private Blessing, he is a priest, dog collar awry, standing pop-eyed behind a beautiful women who is barely wearing a towel. She looks like Grace Jones.
To quote my soul mate Leonard Cohen: Hallelujah!

Frank Whalley runs Lenga Juu, an arts consultancy based in Nairobi.