Interview by Hadijjah Natasha Sebunya
EA Scene sits down with Acaye Kerunen the other half of the pair that will be representing Uganda at the Venice Biennale. Acaye is a multimedia artist and storyteller. She has been engaged in working with craft materials as a base of her work since 2010.
When I was about 16 I encountered the Outsider. I really hope English teachers are still doing that to adolescents. For three pages, Camus painstakingly describes a hot day. Hot enough to provoke Mersault the protagonist into murder. Today is the kind of day that excuses Mersault. The heat is punishing, the air is thick and stagnant and I am panting up the three flights of stairs to Afropocene. I have grown up here and I use this road almost everyday, I know the mosque, the Kabalagala police station, the machinery building opposite and yet I would have gone my whole life never having noticed the little door at the edge of the building that leads to the studio. I walk in, trying to catch my breath, and there is Acaye on a lunch break. She commands me in her way to do a round around the studio.
There is music and endless sunlight streaming in. I am a Muslim and a Muganda so I have had a lot of uses for mats. I have spent hours staring down patterns during prayer, I am familiar with the bibo and the bikapu we take to the market. The life-long quality, the precision of hand-made things, and those colors, at meals, at prayers, at funerals, how they have carried us through life. All of this is here, but not like I have seen it before.
It’s a lot of work?
Acaye: But I enjoy it.
Okay, quickly what is the Venice Biennale to a layman?
Acaye: A bi-annual international art exhibition. This will be the 59th Biennale ever. A convening of art players, art makers, and art programmers from all over the world in Venice. There is usually the main exhibition that is curated by the Biennale itself and then there are other small exhibitions which are all programmed around it, the point of it is to showcase diverse art from all over the world so the who of art-making is there, and while this year the biennale is for the contemporary art scene there are also biennales for theatre, film, music all happening in the same place alternately. It is important because it is the Olympics of art. Being visible at the biennale is the equivalent of Uganda making it through to the World Cup Finals. That is the enormity, that is the significance of Uganda going there in its 59th year. How did I get to represent Uganda? The universe willed it. That’s it. What’s important though is that there is no one else in the great lakes region doing the art that I am doing. Not in Kampala, not in East Africa. I am the first of my kind- as a woman.
Are men doing it?
You are the first person.
Acaye: Yes… so in that sense, that is my legitimacy on the scene. It’s a tough act to follow. To whom it may concern; you will have to really step up, because after they have seen something this rich, this diverse, you are going to have to work harder.
I believe her. You have to understand that the woman I am looking at is in my opinion unprecedented. Her resolve, her demeanor, believe you me! So I am looking at a black leather skirt with subtle lines running up and down it. A fishnet top with open shoulders, her chest protected by an all-black top. This is who I am talking to, she has on blue what I should know better than to call African sandals, sky blue nail polish and a shaved head save for black braids that grow on only half of her scalp. None of this causes shock, none of this seems out of place as an outfit so unique would usually in Kampala. Then she has on these silver jewels. I think about the tiny door that I nearly missed and I move on in childish wonder and curiosity about this new world I have just found.
How would you describe your art?
Acaye: Lit by the spirit of community. The communities of women grouped around wetlands in different regions of Uganda and followed through generations and generations of an observed culture of tile making by other women. I come from many women in that sense. The patterns, the colors, the ways of enriching the natural fibers and how to create the matrixes that are within the work and the patterns that have been passed down… all of those have been here long, long before us. I simply come into this place to refocus attention on this very rich mode of storytelling and I do that because I am tired of seeing the usual crafts, which were tainted by colonialism and the patriarchal notion that subjects the artisanship of women to functionality. Do you want to make this? Make a mat for the home. Make a basket to store food. Make a fishing basket. Mold a granary, thatch a roof to store food…
It cannot just be a thinking thing.
Acaye: No, it cannot be. You must focus it to serve a purpose within a home. This is not to say that there haven’t been amazing sculptors and artists coming out of East Africa and the great lakes region but pay attention. Where the men are concerned, it is okay for their art work to be elevated to deities, to goddesses, to wood carvers… you will find that there is a higher ethereal value that is placed on them, a value never extended to women’s art. Both traditionally and contemporarily… so for me this is a first. First, I have to work with the women to deconstruct, and the deconstruction for me… is the point of the renaissance. Forget what you know! Let us start a new and that is why I deconstruct the bibo rings, together with the mats. I cut it, I trim it, I re-weave it, I re-design it.
I reposition it to everything except as a mat to be sat on…This is my entry point and freedom for the woman. Mental, psychosocial freedom and emotional freedom is not something that will be given to us, it is something that we will have to rise up and take, and for some of us even when we are not aware of it, it is simple acts like this that strike different bulbs, that encourage us to think differently, to be valued and that is our point of self-actualization. In my case, it brings me great satisfaction to posit new questions and reflections about art-making from an African sense which is not necessarily a white box, and apart from going with the rhetoric of decolonization. I ask; Exactly how can we decolonize? We decolonize art-making by making, by exhibiting in the truest form that we can find.
Is it an all-woman team?
Acaye: Pre-dominantly women. In most cases, there are only one or two community craft makers who are men. Basketmakers, drum makers, or stoneworkers, but so far it’s mostly women because they work with very versatile natural fibers like the raffia, the palms, the banana fiber…
Do these women consider themselves artists in the contemporary sense of the word?
Acaye: They are yet to do so. They consider themselves craftsmen but they are not yet at the point of saying, I am an artist full stop. It’s beginning to get there but not yet.
About how many women do you work with
Acaye: (laughs). So the rain installation, the one called “sacred rain” is made of about four mats. Those are four different women and on top of those four women, there is someone else that sold them the colors that they used to dye and there is someone else who helped them to do those dyes and process the materials, so add another four women to the first four women. Those are nine women. The kibo rings, the deconstructed kibo rings that intertwine are two different women Which brings that number to 11. Then these trains here are made by six more women. Two women who also commissioned younger girls to do it. Then you come to us, myself and Ethel who is my assistant. So for each work, there are close to 20 people that have touched it and contributed to its essence.
Is that picture part of that installation (I am talking about the replica of Malick Sidebé’s Nuit de Noël hanging above some baskets)
Acaye: The picture is by Sidibe, it is the inspiration for one of my pieces; Myel which is dance in Alur. It is created with respect to the theme of radiance that our curator Shaheen Merali chose. I am looking for all the different ways in which people start to radiate. We radiate when we dance, we radiate when we orgasm. We radiate when we are healing. In all different stages of healing, we radiate, we shine, we glow, we become beautiful. So over there are the Medusa eyes. I am thinking about an omnipotent, omnipresent symbolism of time as the great marker of everything. It mimics the sun, the moon, it mimics the eye of a stone, it mimics so many things. It mimics the pathway. An expanding vision.
Medusa’s eyes is beige with the occasional black, the colors of banana fibers but when I look at it I first think of fungi, how mushrooms grow in the wild, particularly the way the cap folds and bends. Its big and high touching the ceiling and the floor. There are three parts to it, the centre is made of two circles. Think of a basket opened up and laid out. To the side of the piece hanging on each side like ovaries to a uterus or balls to a penis is two smaller circles. If they are also from a basket, this basket would have been for winnowing. But they also resemble eyes, a centre for an iris and the surrounding conjunctiva between the iris and the lid. Really, what I am looking at it is original and to place in our reality would require projection.
Who do you want most to experience your pieces.
Acaye: She is over there, she is here. Do you remember what I told you? Can you write it from memory?
I had met Acaye a few days ago. On her birthday between an interview and an evening soiree, we sat at wine garage, one of Muyenga’s kaleidoscopes. Muyenga is a suburb in Kampala that has maintained its nickname as a rich man’s slum. We are gathered under the moonlight and also in the middle of a mosquito harvest. Acaye is across from me, wine glass in hand and when she is not blowing me away with her wisdom we are sharing hairstyle tips.
It’s evening, just before we all lose ourselves in the drunken glee that comes with the night time in Uganda.
“Collin actually cried when he first saw sacred rain.” Collin is the other half of the pair. “what is it?” my curiosity overruling any etiquette.
“Sacred rain is one of my installations. An installation but also like all my pieces a prayer. A prayer for rain. Rain here is the wetness, the euphoric release in women. Not just through sex. I mean I orgasm when I have good food, when I am in an intellectually stimulating conversation, I can get myself there because that is how in tune I am and how natural this expression is. You know, I found myself recently in conversation with one of Uganda’s prominent activists. I asked her when was the last time you had a real orgasm? She declined to answer then and there but later she admitted to me that she owed her hesitance to the fact that she could hardly remember. See many women are struggling with this new dictate of women under colonialism. With its revision, it ordering and fake moralities, women are lost and repressed in marriages and broken homes that do not allow them to seek the relief that men can find from casual, selfish, “meaningless” sex. That makes me sad, because there is a deeper psychological implication to that, that I pray will return to us, us . Freedom is not something that will be given to women, its something we have to take and we cannot take it if we are not fully actualized, and part of that actualization comes from being our full selves and recognizing and responding to our full selves.
I stand underneath sacred rain. Looking above it is an imitation of clouds, I notice red, green and blue. Falling from them is rows and rows and rows of palm. You can move them around and in there, I let myself pray and experience her vision.
How long does a piece take?
Acaye: Six months, but there is also the process of growing the palm, grinding it , stripping it, and weaving. If you are to time it from the garden to this moment, each piece takes about a year.
Precolonial world, where do you see you art belonging, is it going to Venice, on a wall, in the city square?
Acaye: I wasn’t there. I hear things, I hear triggers about what people think art is. What white art is , how it should fit into a certain box and when I make art I do not think about formal structure, I think contextually and thematically about what is inspiring the moment and that in turn takes its own shape, set of color, pattern etc.. The work informs the space and the habit it is going to take.
Where do you get your inspiration from?
Acaye: I am looking at the theme of course. Radiance: Dreaming in Time…but I am also looking at women and a society in transition from oppression to a place of liberation. Liberation of feeling, spirituality, the liberation of self psychologically and emotionally, and the liberation of the earth because when we start to be aware and conscious, then we realize we need to protect the earth, be conscious of our actions around water bodies and earth spaces.
Whose crafts are you using?
Acaye: There are the Nubians from Bombo, the West Nile Women, Padiha, Buganda women from Mpigi, Masaka… the sisal and dyes from Kisoro and so on and so on, but altogether it is a representation of all regions in Uganda.
Feeling tired myself that night in Kampala, I asked Acaye if she had hope for the country. Without hesitation, a yes came to her.