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Ugandan artists interpret Muteesa photograph

Two weeks ago the History in Progress Uganda (HIP) exhibition – Ebifananyi – opened at the Fotomuseum Antwerpen in Belgium.

The exhibition was a collection of pictures the founders of HIP, Andrea Stultiens and Canon Griffin, have used to document Uganda’s history.

This brought together pictures that have in the past been exhibited in Kampala through serialized events like Ebishushani, Ebifananyi, All the Tricks and Picha.

The pictures were taken by Elly Rwakoma, Musa Katuramu and Deo Kyakulagira, among others. In the works that were exhibited was Ekifananyi Kya Muteesa, a picture said to be the only photograph of the kabaka.

Earlier this year, in a multimedia art exhibition titled Ekifananyi Kya Muteesa, at Makerere University’s Margaret Trowell art gallery, the blurred and unclear photo taken by Henry Morton Stanley, a Welsh-born American journalist and explorer, inspired diverse artists to create and give it their own interpretation.

This brought together artists Matt Kayem, Henry Mzili, Irene Piloya and Johnmary Mukiza, among others, with curators Robinah Nansubuga, Martha Kazungu and Stulteins who challenged them to interpret the historical picture.

“My motivation to bring the photograph here is because it is very little known in Buganda,” Stulteins says.

She says since the picture had been modified to make Muteesa look ‘less African’, inviting Ugandan artists to make their own interpretation of the photograph was a response to the misinterpretation.

With varying multimedia styles, the artists took on the picture using photography, animation, sculpture and video. Kayem’s sculpture, for instance, was a replica of the picture complete with the blurry incomplete edges; Piloya, with help from friends, did a human- size installation that would allow those that came to the exhibition to take positions of the kabaka and his chiefs.

Piloya notes that the stories she has heard about Muteesa inspired her installation; for instance, it is rumoured that he was half-Arab thus she had a white tone in the mask she designed as the Muteesa character, while the other part of it was a bark cloth to represent his Africanness.

Mzili in his painting and video installation imagined the power of the king and the decrees he would pass in those days. Posing as the kabaka in one of his video installations, Mzili addresses the Ugandan sexual orientation question by ‘okaying same-sex practices’.

But it is the re-imagination of the photo by photographers that is breathtaking.

With 10 people dressed in Piloya’s masks, the photographer manipulates light and shutter speeds to recreate a modern Kifananyi Kya Muteesa; unlike the original, the new ones are clear and artistic. One is in black and white, while the other is in colour.

According to Stulteins, the exhibition was to help the current generation own the photography in a way they know best, but also learn about the original; however, even when the exhibition was given the green light by Mengo, there was very little interest from the kingdom as none of the officials turned up for the exhibition or knew a thing about the photograph when contacted.

© 2016 Observer Media Ltd