Xenson: Making elbow room for the arts

Saturday July 25 2020

Samson Ssenkaaba aka Xenson dons a face mask made from a recycled car tyre. PHOTO | COURTESY


Xenson: Prime mover, trail blazer par excellence

Xenson, who was born in 1978 in Uganda. After high school, he won a government scholarship to study engineering at Makerere University but switched to his dream course in fine art.

He pursued a Bachelor of Industrial and Fine Art degree and graduated in 1999 with a first class honours in Painting and Graphic Design.

His works are in many private and public collections including the Scottish Museum in Uganda, Niger, Burkina Faso, Kenya, Tanzania, Rwanda, Germany, the UK, Netherlands, Brazil, Argentina, France, USA and Canada.

Xenson is a founding member of Cream de la Mode Africaine, an association of designers from ten African countries seeking to promote African fashion, textiles and fabrics on the continent and overseas.

He is also the co-founder of Ugandan Hip Hop Foundation, an association that empowers the youth through urban culture and hip-hop music.


Xenson, who lives and works in Kampala, designs clothes for his Art for Wear fashion label “Xenson” inspired by African cultures, craftsmanship and authenticity. He has unveiled fashion collections such as “Baroque Afrique,” “Futuristic Past,” and “Afro Goth.”

In 2014 he self-published his debut poetry anthology titled Kizi Kiza. His other poems include Musisi and Ttonda/Ddunda (Not Jehovah).

He has participated in art workshops, residences and exhibitions, and fashion shows including: Gunflowermask, Afriart Gallery, (Kampala, 2017); Kabbo ka Muwala (Zimbabwe, Uganda, Germany 2016); Johannesburg Art Fair (2015), KLAART 2014 (Uganda); The Lubare and the Boat, Deveron Arts (Scotland 2014); Institute Buena Bista (Curacao 2014); Future of Africa Summit (Paris); Africa Now: Fashioning Person Hood, Minneapolis Institute of Art (2014) and Brazil, in 2016.

The Ugandan conceptual and visual artist, Samson Ssenkaaba aka Xenson, the fine artist, musician, filmmaker and poet speaks of passion for all things art. 


How do you execute your multidisciplinary approach?

Art is a synergy of various forms of expression. I constantly conjure up a multitude concepts and ideas; A Xenson creative thought process, so to speak. Execution and final expression depends on immediacy, impact, complexity, inspiration intended outcome and target.”

“Sometimes a poem could transmit an emotion louder and faster than a painting or a fashion concept. Sometimes, they overlap to form synergy. A video, for instance, can become a formation of music, poetry, fashion and painting. There is no recognisable distinction in my expression,” the multi-talented artist added.

Xenson makes use of both indigenous (bark cloth) and synthetic material and benign symbols borrowed from everyday life to engage with the complexities and contradictions of contemporary culture in Uganda.

How does African culture influence and inspire your work and creativity?

“Conceptually, my departure point for most of my work could be a Ganda idiom, an African saying, ancient poem, ancestral folklore, traditional dance or poly rhythms of a drum beat that are immensely rich in indigenous knowledge. Most of our ancestral expressions are complex and futuristic. Through juxtaposition, appropriation and correlations, they greatly inform and inspire my contemporary expressions.”

His body of work titled Barakoa (Kiswahili word for mask) explores humanity’s obsession with hiding behind facades, visible or invisible.

It highlights but also demystifies pre-conceived and stereotypic identities. The artist intentionally creates a perceived aesthetic of flowers, patterning and bright colours around this otherwise unsettling subject matter. This superficial adaptation mutes the fear and disguises the tension that waits silently beneath surface.

What messages do you convey in your poetry?

“My poetry is free verse inspired by spoken word movements and conscious hip-hop. It is thus socially and politically charged. It also advocates for the concept of Ubuntu. Hip-hop is an extension of my poetry. So the message is the same only that I rhyme over rich Ugandan rhythms,” he says.

He released debut album “Villanguage” in 2013 with 12 songs including hits Muwe Bulo and Kampala. His second 12-song album Yaaye has been pulled back due to Covid-19.

His other songs are Kampala Mbuza and poem/song Ziliwa ziliwa? Zibuze, ziliwa? Ensi Yaleta was a video and art installation performance done at Johannesburg Art fair.

Xenson's Art-Club promotes and teaches Art to students and anyone else.

“It is important to share knowledge and experiences with the next generation of creatives to keep learning and for continuity. Young people need mentorship and role models.”

In 2019, he opened the Xenson Art Space — a multidisciplinary curated space aimed at nurturing the new creative generation, providing a space for the artists to show case and exhibit their works on Kamwokya Kira Road in Kampala. He says the lockdown has affected artists that were supposed to hold solo shows at the Xenson Art Space this year.

What is the state of visual art in Uganda? Is it growing? Are there enough local buyers?

“Art in Uganda is in a paradoxical state. It is growing and the collector base improving but the content seems stagnant. I feel most art is oblivious to the social political issues within Uganda and Africa today. This points to a state of fear or perceived suffocation of freedom of expression. Self-censorship seems to prevail over critical onslaught of the status quo. Artists seem to be in a state of self-denial.”

How are you spending time during the Covid-19 lockdown?

“I am writing, painting, drawing, sketching, experimenting, reflecting, and meditating, Brainstorming, creating and resting. I am making work that reflects the Covid-19 pandemic.”

How should visual art be popularised in Uganda?

“Inculcate appreciation for art right from primary school. Formation of the Ministry of Culture will increase funding for the arts to market and promote physical and digital platforms. Annex and promote the arts in wider tourism initiatives.”