By Phiona Okumu

23 March 2015 - 04:47

'Fashion designer and entrepreneur Gloria Wavamunno (pictured) learned her trade in London.'
'Fashion designer and entrepreneur Gloria Wavamunno (pictured) learned her trade in London.' Image ©

Martin Kharumwa.

Recent British Council research suggests that East Africa's creative economy is taking off. Phiona Okumu, journalist and editor of AfriPOP, looks at some of the players emerging out of Uganda. 

Most Ugandan professionals born in the 1970s and 1980s will have grown up knowing, at least subconsciously, that their tertiary education subject choices either set them up for revered careers as doctors and engineers or – in the case of arts and humanities scholars – for a life of struggle.

That divide still lingers on in the attitude of the country’s policy makers and explains much of why the potential within Uganda’s creative economy remains largely unexplored.

There is, however, an emerging class of creative practitioners whose successes hint at this potential. Not surprisingly, a few of them reside abroad. Many of their parents were political or economic refugees, having emigrated during Uganda’s post-independence periods of instability.

Others are part of the wave of optimistic African returnees lured not only by the promise of a growing economy, but also by the opportunity to use their acquired skill to effect change in their native country’s cultural landscape.

Where, in the past, high travel costs were a barrier, the current generation seems in tune with its audiences both local and in the diaspora.

While the challenges within the East African region in general loom large – namely corruption, bureaucracy, censorship and weak infrastructure – the brave few stand to gain from its opportunities, detailed in recent research commissioned by the British Council.

The following five are just a handful of the noteworthy names – some based in Uganda and others not – whose outstanding contributions to the creative sector are gathering acclaim across the world and bringing much-needed attention to the emerging scene being built by young Ugandans.

Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi - literature

In this interview, novelist and short story writer Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi expresses surprise at the amount of focus on colonisation required of her when she attempted to take up a PhD in African literature in the UK. 'To me, colonisation was my grandfather’s quarrel. My concern was post-independence demoralisation,' asserts Makumbi.

Ever on the pulse of literary Africa, Kenyan-based Kwani Trust had a hand in introducing this important voice to the public by publishing her doctoral novel The Kintu Saga, (later simply titled Kintu) in 2014. Jennifer was the 2014 winner of the Commonwealth Short Story Prize for her work Let's Tell This Story Properly.

While there are a few publishing houses springing up in Uganda, Fountain Publishing was the only local mainstream publishing house in the country up until as recently as 1996.

Kibuuka Mukisa - photography

Renowned photographer and director Nabil Elderkin (Kanye West, K’Naan) wrote and directed ‘Bouncing Cats’, a film documenting the Breakdance Project Uganda (BPU), a non-profit which employs hip-hop culture – and specifically its dance aspect – to empower Ugandan youths. Hip-hop photographer Kibuuka Mukisa Oscar, just 22, is an alumnus of the project. Besides photography, for which he received honourable mention in the story category of the Uganda Press Awards in 2013, Kibuuka is a gifted graffiti artist and events entrepreneur. He is the co-founder of Breakfast Jam a premier bi-annual event that showcases urban culture in Kampala.

Lakwena McIver - visual art

You just can’t miss the larger-than-life murals by London-based visual artist Lakwena Maciver whenever you come across them on street corners and in galleries in Los Angeles, London, Miami and other cities. Her previous installation at the South Bank’s Africa Calling was inspired by her first visit to her father’s home in Uganda as an adult. The bold colours and geometric patterns that she uses, she says, draw on the things she remembers growing up in the UK, Ethiopia and Uganda.

Gloria Wavamunno - fashion

Uganda’s under-resourced fashion industry has its work cut out with the heavy competition it faces from the second-hand clothing imports (mostly from China) that flood the market - that, and the fact that the formal training for careers in this business is limited. Fashion designer and entrepreneur Gloria Wavamunno learned her trade in London. Here, she studied and interned for British men’s designer Ozwald Boateng, and has participated in fashion weeks in New York, Paris and Johannesburg. Having run her own label since 2009, Wavamuno is well aware of the odds and determined to fight them, having taken part in several immersive fashion business and production events in the run up to Kampala Fashion Week, which she launched in November 2014.

Solomon King Benge - (creative) education

If you asked Solomon Benge which field he belonged to, he would most likely identify the sciences. But what he does with his social enterprise, Fundi Bots, demonstrates the best case for multi-disciplinary collaborations.

It provides school programs, as well as out-of-school ones, for young learners. They are placed in groups of four to six and taught the basics of building robots. They are then asked to use the same principles of problem identification, brainstorming, collaboration, construction, programming, final deployment and system feedback to solve real-life problems. It’s an ambitious venture with designs on revolutionising the education system in Uganda and the rest of Africa (so far schools in Rwanda have been receptive to proposed collaborations). With support from the likes of education non-profit Oysters & Pearls, and of Google Rise, Fundi Bots hopes to be established in five African countries by the end of 2015.

Find out more about the arts in East Africa by downloading our reports: Scoping the Creative Economy in East Africa and Scoping the East African Music Sector.

Image © Martin Kharumwa, used with permission.

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