On a late afternoon, Bruno Sserunkuuma is seated on a wooden stool with a small tin of paint and a brush in his hands, decorating the surface of an earthenware vase at the Margaret Trowel School of Industrial and Fine Art studio at Makerere University in Kampala.
Sserunkuuma is the head of the Ceramics Department at the university.
He is putting the final touches to the painting of humans and flowers. The painting is called The Ganda Young Ladies. The decorative vase weighs between 28 and 30 kilogrammes, and is a planter for indoor or outdoor potted plants.
Sserunkuuma has been a ceramicist for the past 25 years. He describes his works as ornamental. They are inspired by nature, and the social and political environment, he says. Most of the works have traditional Baganda designs symbolising peace, culture, gender, heritage and theology.
“The surface of my pots is a canvas. I make pots with simple shapes then I paint the surface for decoration,” Uganda’s award-winning ceramicist says.
Sserunkuuma says that in his work he values the position of a woman in the family. “Because they raise the children and provide income for the family. They play a major role in the day-to-day affairs of the family. If it were not for my mother, I would not be where I am today. A lot of my work represents what my mother did for me; it is an appreciation of her.”
About The Ganda Young Ladies Sserunkuuma explains: “I have been exploring Baganda women because of my mother’s contribution to my education.
“I came from a poor, polygamous family. My mother was the first wife in our home, and when my father married a second wife he abandoned his first wife and her children, which is common among polygamous men. My mother made some income from weaving and selling mats, and with assistance from her relatives she put me through school up to university level. I started out as a painter, and that is why I use my pots as a canvas.”
Medium of expression
He studied physics, chemistry, biology, and fine art for his A-levels. “I wanted to become a medical doctor, but I did not perform well in biology. So I wasn’t admitted to study medicine. I was offered fine art, which I had passed well.
“Unfortunately, my mother passed on before I completed my Bachelor of Fine Art degree at Makerere University in 1987,” he adds.
“Clay is a fantastic medium of expression because of its characteristics and properties. You can make three-dimensional forms that are both functional and decorative. It also gives opportunities for self-expression. Although it is fragile, it sets permanently after firing.
“The firing process is interesting, especially the final stage of glost firing, when the glaze is fixed to the surface. Working with clay allows the potter to apply both chemistry and physics to the process,” he says.
There are other techniques of ceramics like incorporating colours, marbling, spraying, and brush painting.
“I use imagery as social and cultural commentary. It is contemporary ceramics with a narrative, and each piece has a story. I make simple oval, cylindrical and spherical forms and decorate the surface using slip (or engobe) decorations.”
Sserunkuuma’s works have earned him praise. He has won various pottery and ceramics prizes, including the second Unesco Crafts Prize for Africa (Ceramics) in 2000 under the International Arts and Handicrafts Trade Show of Ouagadougou in Burkina Faso.
The Glocal African Art Gallery in Aalborg, Denmark has sold between 80 and 100 of Sserunkuuma’s ceramics, director Frede Hansen said.
Sserunkuuma has participated in many solo and group exhibitions since 1993, in Uganda, France, Burkina Faso, The Netherlands, Oman, and the International Biennale for Ceramics in Cairo, Egypt, among others,
His solo exhibition titled Retrospective: 25 Years of Bruno Sserunkuuma's Ceramic Philosophy was held at the Makerere Art Gallery. The exhibition ran from October 5 to 31 last year, and was curated by Philip Balimunsi.
“Sserunkuuma is a prolific artist and lecturer who has practised in the genre of ceramics since 1993. He has authoritatively shaped the medium into a weapon to tackle social challenges,” Balimunsi said. “The exhibition gives us a glimpse into 25 years of studio practice as a critique of society and social ironies.”
Future of ceramics
“The future is bright. So many artists, especially my old students, are coming on board having been inspired by my work. This form of art is now represented in galleries, with different techniques of making and decoration. The only challenges are the lack of studio facilities like firing kilns and the potter’s wheel.
“I have been invited to schools to give talks about ceramics, especially in international schools. The response is always positive. At Makerere Art School, ceramics is becoming popular, the only challenge is the limited studio facilities and materials.
“However, some parents have a negative attitude towards art courses,” he says. “They discourage their children from taking art courses because they think art is for those who have failed to be admitted to the ‘prestigious courses.’ In the Western world, art and design is highly valued because it promotes creativity and innovation,” he adds.
What types of ceramics are popular among his buyers, I ask.
Sserunkuuma, says: “The choice of ceramics varies depending on the interests of the buyer or collector. Some people are interested in individual pieces telling stories, others prefer functional ceramics. The techniques of decorating and glazing are popular.
“Both Ugandans and foreigners buy my work but the majority are foreigners, especially expatriates.
“I make what people want and can identify with, simple forms using the different traditional and decorative techniques, glazing and firing ceramics forms at higher temperatures to withstand wear and tear. Exploring Ugandan themes makes my work uniquely African.”
“This is a celebration of my achievements since I started working as a professional studio ceramics artist. With this exhibition, I wanted to inspire fellow young artists to follow my approach and all those interested in ceramics and pottery as professionals, and also those in the art and design field in general.”
“Being an internationally renowned ceramics artist from Africa, and especially being invited to participate in international exhibitions, biennales for ceramics and ceramics conferences. At times, I would be the only participant from Africa and all the focus would be on my work.”
As to the current state of art in Uganda, Sserunkuuma observes: “It is extremely promising as the government and the people’s attitudes are positive. Art is being recognised as one of the sectors that can contribute to income generation. The art industry serves as a nursery for technical development and is fundamental for industrial development. The art sector can also be developed to promote national identity and as preservation of indigenous knowledge.
Sserunkuuma holds a Bachelor of Industrial and Fine Art degree, a Post Graduate Diploma in Art Education (Industrial Design, Pottery and Ceramics) and a Master’s in Fine Art in Ceramics from Makerere University.
He has taught ceramics, technique and drawing at Makerere University for more than 30 years.
He has been consulted in formulating art and design teaching programmes for higher education institutions, including Kabale University. He is involved in a number of research projects and has published papers on the potential of art and crafts as a cultural industry in Uganda and East Africa.
He is also involved in programmes to promote and develop arts and crafts in Uganda. He is a member of the Design Education Forum of Southern Africa, Uganda Visual and Design Artists Association, and the National Association of Cultural Crafts of Uganda.