By Bamuturaki Musinguzi
Published April 6, 2017
A Ugandan multi-media experimental artist has first-hand experience of the sadness and loneliness and other complications that come with long-distance relationships.
The mobile phone, says the artist known as Immaculate (Immy) Mali Anderu, is the only tool of communication between her and her fiancé who has migrated to the Arab world for greener pastures.
“I’m only able to see a misty image of him on Skype, hear his voice in long-distance calls and chat with him via WhatsApp and Facebook,” she says. “My cellphone is the only presence of him that I can touch. Our entire relationship is now imaginary, worked out by the brain then translated to the heart. Happiness, sadness, laughter, grief, fights – all expressed and felt—on this tiny device.”
“Over time my mind has created an ideal man: broad chest, 6 feet tall, well-built biceps. Images fed to me by television. A man greater in stature who provides a sense of security and hope that I jealously cleave to,” Mali says.
Turning his back on his university qualification at home in Uganda, the fiancé travelled to the United Arab Emirates (UAE) to work as a security guard.
“I am here for the money, not the comfort,” is his reply when Mali asks about his living conditions.
“Family, friends and I were left behind,” she says. “He made promises of returning – and between us, as two lovers, more promises of waiting for each other.”
This delicate long-distance relationship is captured in Mali’s mixed media installation titled Virtually Mine that is made of glass phone screens with printed messages between Mali and her fiancé. It is mounted with strings shaped in the form of a man. Some screens are blank, capturing the moments when there is no network connection in Uganda or when she lacks data bundles. The jumbled-up screens cover the period from July to December 2015.
Virtually Mine was part of Kabbo ka Muwala (The Girl’s Basket in Luganda), an international travelling exhibition bringing together 20 contemporary artists from southern and eastern Africa as they tackle the controversial issue of migration; it was held in Zimbabwe, Uganda and Germany in 2016.
Speaking during the exhibition walkabout on April 15, 2016 in Kampala, Mali disclosed that she had long discussions with her fiancé to convince him to share their intimate phone conversation with the public.
“I knew the discussions were going to be difficult but he accepted the idea. I felt it was a representation of the feelings I was going through as it is the only way to link with him,” she says. “I am in a long-distance relationship. It is not easy. The phone conversation is the only contact that I have with him because we only see each other twice in a year.”
Mali, who was born in Arua in northern Uganda, lives and works in the capital, Kampala. Her work revolves around personal narratives of living in Uganda. She creates precarious installations in an attempt to digest the pain of childhood incidents and offer perspectives on human resilience and what can be overcome by representing pain as an emotion that can be touched. She holds a Bachelor’s degree in Fine Art from Makerere University.
Also taking part in the travelling exhibition was Emma Wolukau-Wanambwa, a multi-media artist born of Ugandan parents in Glasgow, Scotland and who lives and works in London, England. Her installation, titled Paradise, is about the largely forgotten story of the 30000 Polish refugees who were sent to live in refugee camps in Britain’s East African colonies during the Second World War. The work is a meditation on erasure of this history.
East Africa was home to 21000 Polish refugees. Uganda kept around 6400 Polish refugees in two camps: Nyabyeya in Masindi District in the west and Koja in Mukono District in central Uganda.
Wolukau-Wanambwa says that when she got to the Polish Refugee Camp in Koja there was almost nothing to see is for when it was closed in 1952 it was systematically dismantled. Every brick, bench, lump and tool was either sold for profit or given away to the locals.The inmates themselves were forcibly resettled abroad. Sixty years later, old people weep openly in Warsaw as they describe the trauma of being made to leave this home, Emma Wolukau-Wanambwa says.
The photograph of Kiluanji Kia Henda from Angola, titled The Merchant of Venice, pays homage to British playwright William Shakespeare’s work set in late 16th century Venice. The male figure photographed in the interior of the Istituto Veneto per le Scienze, Lettere ed Arti, is a Senegalese musician who, like so many other immigrants, is forced to accept whatever job comes his way just to survive, even at the cost of the proverbial ‘pound of flesh.’
The Merchant of Venice arises from the concern for the lack of representation of the ‘outsiders’ in classical art. Beyond the issues of migration, the portrait is more concentrated on the question of the Diaspora, already present in Shakespeare, and on how history becomes a doorway to better understanding the actual situation.
Kabbo Ka Muwala, that focused on migration and mobility in contemporary art in southern and eastern Africa, was held at the Makerere Art Gallery at Makerere University in Kampala from April 14 to June 12, 2016.
Curated by African and German partners, the exhibition then traveled to the Städtische Galerie Bremen in Germany from September 24 to December 11, 2016. It had started at the National Gallery of Zimbabwe in Harare from February 4 to April 4, 2016.
The exhibition explored perspectives on the multitude of contemporary migration processes in and from eastern and southern Africa, primarily through the eyes of 20 contemporary artists from this region. A wide range of media, including photo works, videos, mixed media, and installations proposed alternative reflections to clichéd representations of a mass exodus to the Global North.
This itinerant project is based on the collaboration between Carl von Ossietzky University Oldenburg, National Gallery of Zimbabwe, Makerere University, and the Städtische Galerie Bremen, and is funded by the TURN Fund of the German Federal Cultural Foundation that supports projects which focus on artistic exchange and debates between African countries and Germany.
The expression Kabbo Ka Muwala, taken from Luganda, refers to the practice of a bride taking a basket full of goods with her when joining her new family, but also when visiting or returning to her family of origin.
The basket might also be understood as a metaphor of the mental and material luggage of migrants: expectations, hopes, successes as well as disappointments and failures. Additionally, the metaphor emphasises the gender dimensions which are at play in migration processes. The artistic perspectives address topics which are often neglected: migrants’ agency and initiative in (trans) national spaces, modes of cohabitation in local and regional contexts, and also point out social political processes which encompass violence and xenophobia.
The exhibition aimed at identifying clusters of artistic expression regarding migration and mobility in, from and to eastern and southern Africa – to contribute to their visibility and to discuss and potentially strengthen intended interventions. The project intended to present the outcomes of on-going research as conducted, in close collaboration, by the scholarly, artistic and activist participants.
The Kabbo Ka Muwala exhibition addressed current issues in migration and mobility by looking at the aesthetics and ethics of migration, experience in the Diaspora and geographical borders.