Painting a Story of My Time: Interview with Eria ‘Sane’ Nsubuga
Eria ‘Sane’ Nsubuga is a Ugandan artist and lecturer. He graduated from Makerere University in 2008 with a Masters in Fine Art (Sculpture) from the Margaret Trowell School of Industrial and Fine Arts.
Since 2002 he has had several solo exhibitions in Kampala as well as participated in numerous local and international group shows, biennales and exhibitions. Among other places his work has been on display at the Milan Triennale, the Franco Namibian Cultural Centre, Rahuset Exhibition Hall in Copenhagen, the Art Museum in Shanghai, and the Centre Pompidou in Paris.
Sane currently lectures at the Department of Art and Design at the Ugandan Christian University in Mukono, and practices painting, illustration and sculpture. Since the beginning of his career in 1999, he has constantly been challenging himself and his art by experimenting with techniques. Often he has been confronting viewers with new and difficult subjects such as human rights, social privileges and responsibilities, and most recently political affairs. Coming from a background in sculpture, he works within a variety of media. From drawings, paintings and illustrations to sculpture and installation he always tries to relate his art to viewers by using or depicting familiar objects and symbols as well as experimenting with local materials. His work contains multiple layers of meaning that often comes ahead of aesthetic considerations, and, as he admitted recently, he has had to learn to enjoy his own work without waiting for other people to like it.
On the occastion of Sane’s recent show, Abenene, at the Afriart Gallery in Kampala, Anna Kućma rounded the artist up for a chat about the character of his work, the downsides of contemporary Ugandan society, and issues of censorship among other things.
How do you explain the concept of Abenene, and why have you chosen that title for your new exhibition and body of work?
Abenene is a Luganda word (the language spoke by the Baganda tribe) and it means big people. Omunene (singular) can mean somebody who’s big in structure, but also in a more indirect sense someone important. It’s a slang term for ‘important’ people, but also used offensively to describe someone fat.
The term for me came out of Ugandan pop star Bebe Cool’s lyrics. He began to use words such as ‘omunene’, ‘big boss’, ‘big is big’ and ‘big size’. He uses those terms to describe someone more important, more talented, someone who people should look up to. It’s a way of the culture in Uganda right now. Some people like to inflate their sense of importance and other people love that. People love people who show off pompous and big cars. So what I’m talking about is this shift in the culture, where everyone is inflating themselves.
Your previous work, such as the project that you executed for KLA ART 012, addresses topics including rights, privileges and responsibilities and the basic human rights of the individual. Is that still the case or are you focusing on something else in your newest body of work?
It is somehow related, but I’m not talking only about that anymore. I’m talking mostly about the mindset that drives what one sees in Kampala. Like why you have to steal money? Why do we have to talk about corruption? We have underlying reasons for that. People don’t want to work hard. They do this or that because they want to sustain an unsustainable way of life really. So I’m just questioning- why do people posture like turkeys?
What caused you to become interested in this subject and take this approach to commenting on Ugandan life?
I was invited by 32º East | Ugandan Arts Trust, to do a residency there. I stayed 6 months longer than expected. Loads of interesting stuff happened while I was there.
I was already looking at these big people consuming everything that belongs to us small people. The idea became clear to me after what my wife and I went through while she was giving birth to our son. The hospital she gave birth in had been taken over by one of Kampala’s richest businessman, and since that time the service has become really bad. People like him [the business man] just want you to pay your insurance money but don’t want to treat you. It’s about money nowadays. She was in labor for 27hrs in very difficult conditions and after my son was born he developed jaundice and became very sick. He didn’t receive proper treatment even though we were paying a lot of money for the insurance. After what happened I focused all my frustrations and fear towards this system that is wrong and not working as it should. It’s not about service to the people, and that is the mindset I’m talking about. People just wanting money. That’s why I’m showing oversized and overfed characters in my images.
What is the technique that you’re using?
The Tanzanians call it bicycle paint but it is acrylic lacquer paint, a kind of outdoor paint for metal [or wood]. You mix it with turpentine, and I was always trying to stay away from this kind of paint because of the smell. But I like it because of its glossiness and because it has very, very bright boosted colours and it shimmers. I think it’s very powerful.
Could you tell me more about your collaboration with animator Eric Mukalazi?
I was very interested in this collaboration. We met at 32º and I had this idea, so I came to him and said: ‘Hey, can we do an animation based on the characters from my paintings’? Reaching the final outcome was a very long process, because many people had an opinion on it. So we had to keep changing it and in the end it became a simple story about art and meeting a curator. The result is an interesting piece with a real point; because people don’t know what galleries are and what are they here for. The curator is asking the bodaboda guy to take her to Afriart, and he takes her to all of those other places instead because he doesn’t know what a gallery is.
There are loads of other themes that we are hoping we can make. We would like to make a series of sorts if we can find the funding, Eric’s drawings and my ideas. I have a lot of drawings with fat people, personalities, and caricatures of people running, pissing, basically doing everything. The idea is to make all the characters from my paintings speak, come out, walk, talk and be a part of this animation. So this project for me is not yet fully developed.
So that takes us to the next question – what’s next?
The animation idea is an open and ongoing project that I’m definitely going to follow. Eric’s part is quite interesting and he uses the Rotoscope technique. He takes several photo frames; it’s not a video, yet it simulates motion because of the several pictures taken following each other in sequence. He then adds and animates a drawing of his character. I hope we can continue. I still want to do something about these fat people and what they’re doing.
How do you feel about making political art?
Well, I think people should do what they want to do – what they really want to do. What has happened in Uganda is that we feel helpless, we are afraid. You censor yourself. Self-censorship – that’s the first thing. Second thing – if you don’t censor yourself then the galleries will censor you, because they also need money and they can’t risk being hunted down or something. Most Galleries often want to show everything apart from the real issues and for me that’s frustrating. The artists here are afraid, so they use a lot of symbolic in their work. I used to do that as well, but in the end I thought that it wasn’t direct enough, which was finally confirmed to me recently. A lot of my work is getting more direct, because I talk about some personalities in the paintings.
This particular painting is about those who have power here, in the region, say: Kenya, Uganda, Congo, Rwanda, etc, and the tribal undercurrents in the region. We are extremely conscious of where we are coming from, and the solution would not be for us to pretend that we possess no tribal identity; the solution would be for us to accept and respect each other’s individuality and identity. My mother is from Kigezi (South Western Uganda) with some roots in Rwanda, my wife is Acholi and I’m a Muganda. So I have all those identities in me, and I am very proud of that. My son has all those identities coming together in him and he represents all those groups. A kind of new hybrid Ugandan.
And which painting is your favorite?
It’s called Omunene and it represents best what I was trying to show. A caricature of a big guy, a very fat guy. I make fun of him because in his eyes and in the eyes of people like him, they are important and feel important. I expose them like naked fat people. They exist, everybody sees what they’re doing, they know what their story is.
There is another personality among my paintings who is pregnant. It was partially inspired by my wife, but in political terms it depicts expectation – promises made by people. They promise fundamental change, promise peace and land, and we are all waiting. So in a way I’m saying: this is what you’ve promised, are you going to deliver? It’s titled “Burden of Patriots I”.
What criteria do you use while picking medium for your projects?
I’ve experimented with scratching images onto paint using sharp objects and it’s a technique that is very close to my heart, but the whole time I was using acrylic for it. Now I’m using bicycle paint. You will see that I will scratch again at some point. I don’t buy the idea that my work should be generic. I always try to challenge myself and try to find something else. For instance, I would like to start with 3D modeling.
How do you see changes happening at the art scene in Uganda at the moment?
Artists here are starting to mature. There are people now who feel comfortable in their own shoes and comfortable pushing in one direction. They just keep trying to grow in what they are doing without constantly looking at what other people are doing. And I think the circumstances are demanding that. Last year we had several curators visiting Uganda, and I think it was Simon Njami who said that there is nothing in Uganda to write about. And why is that? We are very busy trying to get tourists here, producing art for tourists, but we are not making art for the Ugandans. We ignore the people we live with.
I have to think about my work, what someone is going to say about it in 20 years time. Now that I’m getting older I feel that it’s important for me to tell the story of my time. Unfortunately that is when it gets more dangerous. I started to become more personal with my work, to tell specific stories – about e.g. corruption and money.
I think that my work over time has become more meaningful because I have changed my way of thinking about my audience. I try to send my messages using language and symbols that they will understand. My work is now talking about the people. And people respond it. I think it’s because I’m listening to what ordinary people are saying. Because they want to see themselves in this work.
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