Kampala Art Biennale: “Rock Starra”, Censorship and Heartbreak.

Screen Capture of Kampala Art Biennale

The Kampala Art Biennale is one of Africa’s most anticipated arts events, the biennial brings together international and local artists (Ugandan to be specific) to Kampala for a workshop based endeavor that has established artists titled “masters” who lead the participating artists referred to as “apprentices” through a process to produce projects that are exhibited in the biennale, Simon Njami the biennale librettist came up with this concept of master led studios that would be a knowledge sharing tool with apprentices using their master’s expertise and networks to learn, improve on their craft and collaborate better, and for two iterations the biennial has kept this format, the interactions artists have had with the event has given feedback on power dynamics and relations of hierarchies in the art world, Njami’s aim with the studios was to have a more “African” community based ways of creating art through a pedagogy of continued transmission of skill and knowledge as opposed to the lone geniuses that the west usually celebrated, but two editions later has he figured out that the artists thirst after the title of genius, does he see that they also want to be the savior like him?

The Biennale presupposes that the apprentices have agency and are free to exercise it and that the masters are aware of their role as “educational facilitators” since there is no defined curricula in which the studio sessions are conducted the negotiation on how the learning occurs is left to the master and apprentice and of course as any relationships go perfection cannot be achieved, but what if this pedagogical approach is in conflict with the vision of the biennale, what is the resolution where do we go from there and who fixes it? I ask these questions as an artist who participated in the Biennale that did not live up to the artistic freedom it promises, in the librettist’s note he paints a picture of agency and expression by the artists “with the help of their masters the students of this second chapter of The Studio will be asked to invent a language of their own, a language that could allow them to stand up for their beliefs and ideas”

Screen Capture of Kampala Art Biennale

I do believe that Simon Njami meant this and that he wanted to see it happen, I believe he genuinely wanted to see experiments and new visual vocabularies forming, it didn’t matter that the pedagogical outlook through which the artists would operate was not in their favor, the idea was solid and the intent is unassailable. So what happened? Why did some artists succeed in this quest of “getting up and standing up” and why did others fail so badly that they were censored by freedom incarnate?

I have watched the Biennale multiple times and studied each studio, paying close attention trying to decipher the quite complex and inventive visual and other (audio-visual) languages built up by the artists and what I found is that while most artists seemed to flail around justifying their usefulness to the biennial project they missed the essential component of the project, they forgot what had brought them together, but I may be overstepping my bounds in assuming to know why they were there in the first place, but for artists claiming to champion expression and to “fight” through their work for more agency the irony has to be bitter. That one of their fellows left the biennale because the project they chose to pursue did not amuse the sensibilities of the librettist and the fact that no one questioned the librettist’s decision (except for maybe the “master) who also eventually caved, shows that none of them benefited from the environment created by the biennale, the clamor for global acclaim by some (mostly African) artists has led them to translating their practices into clever meaningless catchphrases that are search engine optimized to coast through biennial open calls and residency circuits. In some studios the artists completely lost their spines and it showed in their work, the studio that had the most of these was “holding up the sky” led by Dana Whabira, most of the work exhibited was derivative and lazy, mostly because the artists here wanted to present something they thought would be understood by the traditional biennial audience. The librettist must have been so disappointed, he would have preferred rebellion even mutiny to what was actually shown.

But not all was gloom some studios managed to produce very interesting work, my favorite being “Rock Starra” this studio had very interesting work “Dialogue of a Shifting Nomad, Adrian Fortuin” was one my favorites the work showed some amalgamation of organic conscious memory or a simulation of it and a digital intelligence communicating and sharing experience, I found the work intriguing on very many levels, the symbolism was so potent, he combined the familiar images and sound of the digital with bio-inspired formations to create a sight that was so surreal that the ensuing debate almost seemed to happen in the viewer’s subconscious, Martin Tokolu also had an interesting piece “gaze of time” a bit raw but the commitment to executing his recreation of entropy and its effects on the human body is praiseworthy, on the whole “Rock Starra” succeeded in rising up to the librettist’s concept note.

Screen Capture from Kampala Art Biennale

The issue that may have held back the success of the apprentice-master approach in this iteration of the biennale was a support system that did not know its artists and thus failed to protect them, the librettist almost birthed all these children but the artists and studio coordinators failed miserably in their role to nurse them to intelligible adults, the power dynamic is already skewed in this master-apprentice dynamic and that is not a bad thing because these dynamics exist everywhere but the coordinators had and have to mitigate the influence the librettists and the masters have over the apprentices if the format is going to be successful as the experimental cultural machine it has set out to be. And for the artists who participated and lost their spines to the pressure of advancing their careers and the allure of global recognition and acceptance, the concept still beckons to you; get up, stand up, create your own language and fight for the things you believe in.