This writing by David Kaiza is imaginative, musical and a new wave within Africa, tapping out a new breed of artist from the East. David's writing is as creative as the artwork he writes about. Congratulations on a wonderful piece of work.
How Wood learnt to sing at Makerere
By David Kaiza
Art by Christopher Kahuma
The sculpture studio at the Margaret Trowell School of Industrial and Fine Arts of Makerere University in Kampala, Uganda, is a large but frequently morose place. It is like a warehouse – a large room that might have felt cavernous but for the air and light that come in from the rafters. Rather it is the constant gloominess from all the clay and dust that, admittedly, will be companions to any art-work environment which make it look sad:
There are the easels, the tables and all the clay – and you will always find a student or two with their hands on grey, wet, sticky earth here; made as if to be perpetually pre-formative, this it is a perfect place for inspiration. Hence entering it with the unfinished wood sculpture of a fire place by Henry Ssegamwenge in one corner, a contrast forces itself:
“Sumptuous” is the first qualifier that jumps to the mind. “Intricate” follows as the eye starts to see details. “Damn”, “damn”, “damn”, the word echoes the footsteps carrying you to it. The grace, beauty and technical achievement of the piece is too overwhelming:
There is the polished terracotta at the top, white oven bricks inside – elements that with the odd lighting inside the studio, serve to illuminate the woodwork. Essentially, the piece is two carved boards of wood on both sides with the bridge overhead – just like a fire place should be constructed. But as fireplace, there is something scarily fragile about it for in the moments when the word “sumptuous” jumps in it’s this frailty that comes across first. The fear is that the terracotta top is too heavy to stand on what looks like delicate strips of wood arranged by someone with a lot of time.
At first impact the work seems to be a pastiche of asymmetric forms, truncated shapes and oddities picked up here and there, glued together and then vanished. “Intricate” comes when the eye sees that this fragility is just an illusion. It is not pastiche. It is a persuasive beauty wrought from dedication, almost like faith.
“Damn”, is it really possible to do that with wood? That, anyway, is how people and the media react to Henry Ssegamwenge’s work. A young man only 28, who has also established his name in the city as a mould maker of some talent, he is the kind of product you will find coming out of this art school – energetic, confident and technically gifted.
The woodwork is extremely rare. It is an interpretation of the mostly coastal (East African) old art of door-carving. But the techniques they are experimenting are so far being done by only three artists. The man who started it, Mr. Romano Lutwama, died in 2004.
Famously, one member of the remaining triad, Mr. Expedito Mwembe has done a large mural for the All African Conference of Churches headquarters in Nairobi using this technique. He has also created the same for the Serena Hotels in Nairobi and Kampala.
The technique is immensely sophisticated. Essentially it gets an extra in by overwhelming the eye with how much can be crammed in, which has the downside of making it hard to immediately engage with; the technical wizardry maybe in danger of either concealing the art or preventing it. What regales about the technique is the surprise it throws, for you see done on wood what the mind does not even begin to imagine possible. The magic lies in the three dimensional cutting of the wood which from a distance gives the impression that the different wood pieces were nailed one on top of the other. The precision they achieve is so to speak, un-sculptural.
At any rate, it is very clever. Henry’s studio contains his and his colleague, Christopher Kahuma’s work. The use of precision machinery – the rotas and grinders - contributes to the fineness of form, giving it the straight lines and flawless surfaces which are hard to achieve with the traditional hammer and chisel. It is an awkward comparison, but its distance from the old hand tools is the difference between cuneiform and digital writing. They compose in lines, shapes and forms that run into each other. As Henry explains, it begins with the traditional pencil sketch across the wood. Hence the cutting begins. The first layer – or “first dimension” is a simple one, mostly a broad cut that describes at the most, two simple elements. The second layer, which when finished looks as if thrust under the first, is more ambitions, the cuts deeper. It is this that exposes the first layer. But it does so in a way that suggests the wood was melted down and then cast in lost-wax.
Henry is a caster and also as a serious machine maker, he often approaches even sculpture with the same scientific scrupulousness, something that is always in danger of over-reach. It is the third layer – the deep one – that brings all the magic out. This stage is deepened to render the top two. But it is more intricate. Take African Rhythm, by Kahuma: It is a 3 by 1 ft piece on a ¾ inch thick Elgon teak. The subject is music instruments – a thumb piano at the base of a lyre, behind which is a tube fiddle. The lyre, whose base is also a drum, is essentially the first dimension and the positioning of the tube fiddle makes it seem like you might take the lyre off to expose the fiddle. The lyre is done in broad, un-worked cuts. The action starts with the fiddle. Lying less than a centimeter deeper than the lyre, it runs diagonal from the middle of the wood to the top-left hand corner. It is here that subject and theme stop, for beyond this come the action that makes this technique riveting. In patterns that repeat broadly the themes of the first dimension and second dimensions, the artists really get down to work.
The fireplace is a complex application of the three dimensions – one on which the artists did not work with a composition in mind. They just intended it to be beautiful. Henry says that the technique works best with Elgon teak, albizia, mvule and mahogany – woods with tough, grain fibers. “Elgon teak has a cream of wood, and it has a chocolate – it is a zebra.”
The etchings and ridges they create on the wood are sometimes just a millimeter across hence the need for wood tough enough not to flake off. The rota machine came as a gift for Henry and once he learnt to use it, a new world was delivered to him.
“How can you bring back the beauty, the drama plus the rhythm?”
Henry asks rhetorically, working his hands, gesturing in ways to suggest music.“We use symbols,” he answers his own question. “We use these spirals, these zigzags, these wavy patterns that give the sense of movement. These are symbols of creativity which give life to the piece.The rota machine gets to the deepest layers and down there, does what the hand would not have found room to accomplish. It is how even at depth, precision can still be achieved that works the magic.
“We use these elements to make sharpness, differentiations and definitions.”
More than that, African Rhythm is not just a piece of work about music. It is itself a music instrument, for the steel tines on it, which Henry introduced to Kahuma, when you pluck them, produce the harmonic tunes of an actual thumb piano.
Intricate woodwork carvings of the Serena hotel doors by Expedito Mwembe
However much they may want to say something, the charisma of the technique means that it is mostly the technical that stands out. They are possibly the only ones doing it and the difficulty involved means the number of artists working at this level is bound to be limited. More than that the exacting labour means that forms may end up stylized, which was a feature of ancient African sculpture. As such, it becomes inevitable to scrutinize the execution.
Nascent and budding for now nascent, as long as the lines are straight and layers deep and motifs therein consistent, whatever they do is bound to be accepted. The good news for them is that Expedito, Christopher and Henry cannot produce fast enough to meet demand.
“We borrowed it from the coast, from Zanzibar Swahili wood carvings,” Henry says. “It is mostly an Islamic art for you find it a lot in North Africa.”
He is turning his attention to creating doors with these beautiful complexities – going so far as to say they are starting a movement called The Door, to get people to “rethink what their doors are” – not just entrances, but works of art. The possibilities once they have gotten wood to sing like this now appear endless. The important part is that people pay – giving commissions that are several times what they would get doing gallery rounds. Henry has started work on an 80 kilogram door. For it, he traced patterns off the attractive monstera leaf, its big, shapely punctured surface creating the patterns he has started cutting into the door. There is something iconic about this technique. Nearly scientific, it is mathematical, an irreducible dialogue with creativity which is almost noble. For now, Henry and Kahuma are planning a grand projection of what they have learnt and are laying down a massive door, nearly three meters across, to be completed in five years time.