In a previous life, before we arrived in Northern Uganda as VSO volunteers, I had been an artist and art historian and taught the same. Since my first days of excitement at the equatorial light and vivid vegetation, I have been trying, without success, to get something down in a sketchbook. Somehow it all turns to Matisse pastiche or mock Gauguin without the monumental self belief.
There is no local tradition of image making, The Uganda Museum in Kampala (a beautiful building designed by German architect Ernst May, much of the other urban architecture is fascinating too) has examples of decorated surfaces and ritual objects but no images. The contemporary art galleries in Kampala show vague approximations of western painting styles from the 1950’s and 60’s and a lot of postcard type paintings of zebras. Some of the sculpture, especially that shown at the Makerere Gallery inside the Fine Art Department of the university, really uses local traditions to make something interesting.
Living in a radically different place means resetting your default, redefining ‘normal’; some cultural templates are deeply embedded. Unchanging seasons and constant day length feels very odd for someone from the Northern Hemisphere. Those of us used to brisk exchanges and ‘getting on with it’ find the formality of introductions and meeting protocols take some getting used to. The western obsession with timekeeping and making plans is brought up by everyone you meet.
Painted pictorial space is just such a style set, stuck irretrievably within my own operating system, upgrades do not seem to be available for this model. I always knew that using geometry, scale and colour to make a flat board appear as a window frame onto an illusory three-dimensional world, was a western conceit. What I hadn’t realised was how irrelevant that system would be here and how difficult it would be for a western trained artist to get away from it. I also hadn’t thought about how much western art, post 14th century and pre-Cubism, depended on being inside; on being hung or painted on a flat wall. One of the many reasons why it never developed here.
Students on our training programmes, motor vehicle mechanics and brick layers for example, are often taught isometric projection as a way of understanding construction; they are very good at that sort of drawing. But the full creation of infinity, horizon lines and virtual architecture invented to display the wealth and power of Renaissance ultra high net worth individuals; never happened here. Sadly it seems that today’s western equivalents spend their money on yachts and football clubs, rather than anything that we in the development world would call, sustainable. There is a very good article in the Guardian recently on this.
And that is the point of an art form depending on a believable pictorial space; it is about those western obsessions: time and planning, I suppose displays of power are common throughout the world. In the western climate, oil paint, egg tempera and frescoes can last forever, those renaissance images which established this visual language are also about planning for the timeless hereafter that all your wealth (and maybe at a push, spiritual wealth) will give you. No wonder nobody here developed anything like it.
All this is really a rambling excuse as to why I don’t think these sketchbook drawings are up to much. See what you think.
I have written about Pictorial Space in the past, If you are interested in the theme (unlikely I know) then these posts might be worth a look