Published 16 July 2022 in News
Henry Mujunga aka Mzili is a legend in the local art scene of Kampala. Having attended Makerere Art School from 1993 to 1995, some of the great modernists of Uganda’s post-independence period have been his teachers or his teachers’ mentors. With this in mind, I was excited to sit down with Mzili to dive deeper into the backgrounds of his practice and into the roots of it’s underlying perspective, which he coined Indigenous Expressionism as early as 2001. Did the modernist mindset of his predecessors leave a mark on Mzili’s thoughts and practice? Can we find consistency? Disrupture? Agreement and disagreement? And lastly, how can we contextualize his practice into a local and eventually into a global art history? While these are big questions that might not all be answered in this article, I’d like to offer a space of inquiry, hoping to invite different ideas and ways of connecting the dots.
Henry Mzili Mujunga (center) in Bagamoyo in 2001
An event that undoubtedly sticks out in Mzili’s iterations is an artists’ workshop he attended in Bagamoyo, Tanzania in 2001. Six years after graduating from Makerere University, for the first time he travels to a neighboring country to meet fellow artists and age-mates from different African countries. This exposure and engagement must have led to a realization that many young artists from the continent had been grappling with similar issues. They re-discovered and identified with the ideas of Pan-Africanism and Afrocentrism and later-on Mzili and some his peers founded the collective Index Mashariki, meaning Indigenous Expression East.
Expressed in Kiswahili, a language that has been a major vehicle for the first president of Tanzania, Julius Nyerere, to turn Pan-African thought into political practice, the piercing questions among the young artists in Bagamoyo was: „What is msimamo wako?“, meaning „What is your point of view?“ and in a less literal sense: What is our perspective? What is our standpoint as young artists working on the continent?
Fuelled by the energy, spirit and confidence from Bagamoyo, while trying to find his place as a young artist, Mzili realized, there was no category in which he felt fit, and if there is no category for you, you don’t exist – especially with the persisting eurocentric gaze at art from Africa at the time. So instead of being forced into what had already been there, he came up with a category of his own: Indigenous Expressionism.
At the same time African and diaspora scholars started to theorize what has been coined African Modernism. With no reference to their thoughts yet, Mzili and his contemporaries still grappled with a eurocentric gaze at almost all art coming from the continent and the exclusion from a contemporary global art history. There was hardly any literature to refer to, no academic, no journalistic or even archival knowledge was available, apart from knowledge that has been accumulated around stolen objects in Western ethnographic museums and accounts of missionaries, anthropologists and Western ‚explorers’. Research around modern and contemporary art from Africa – and most of all knowledge production from within the continent – with a critical perspective on colonialism, post-colonialism and major power imbalances within the local and global art scenes existed but were still in their early stages.
„Indigenous means coming from You“
To better understand Mzili’s approach and choice of words, let’s take a look at the word indigenous. Merriam-Webster defines indigenous as „produced, growing, living, or occurring natively or naturally in a particular region or environment“, as for instance indigenous plants or indigenous cultures. While there is an obvious focus on locality and origin in this definition of the word, Mzili takes the gist of the term and expands it’s meaning to the locality of our minds, and perhaps our souls. „Indigenous has to do with your nativity, where you are rooted, where you are coming from, what your background is“, he proclaims, but then adds a metaphor that extends beyond locality: The window through which you perceive the world, and perhaps also the window looking inwards, framing how we perceive our own existence. Imagine standing inside a building and looking outside, through a window. What we see cannot be seen by any other person. Nor does the same person looking out of the window at different times will see the same. Perceptions changes with light, shadow, flora and fauna growing and decaying, changes in weather, and so forth. In Mzili’s accounts, indigenous therefore means your personal point of view, as it is shaped by your locality, culture, upbringing and personal experiences.
What does Mzili’s definition of the term indigenous become, though, when combined with the, in Western art history heavily charged, term Expressionism? Just like there was little to no literature on African artists at Mzili’s at art school, the curriculum centralized Western references and art history. During and after his art school years, he was drawn to the style of Expressionism as it’s been coined and practiced in Western, mostly Western art.
At this point, let’s take a quick detour into European art history. „Expressionism (is an) artistic style in which the artist seeks to depict not objective reality but rather the subjective emotions and responses that objects and events arouse within a person.“ While depicting their „inside world“, the European expressionists commonly used formal abstraction, distortion and bold brush strokes. As much as the term expressionist it can be descriptive for any artist’s work at any point in time, it is commonly used for certain artists and art movements around the 20th century in Europe. As industrialisation and urbanisation was moving at a tearing pace, Expressionism emerged „as a response to a widespread anxiety about humanity's increasingly discordant relationship with the world and accompanying lost feelings of authenticity and spirituality.“
Henry Mzili Mujunga, African Odalisque, 2016, Courtesy of the artist
The meaning of Expressionism within Indigenous Expressionism, can be looked at from two angles: First, there is Mzili’s interest in the style as taught in art school and it’s obvious influence onto his work and incorporation of stylistic and expressive features. The connection is still evident in Mzili’s „African Odalique“ from 2016, where he re-appropriates Picasso’s cubist distortion of bodily features inspired by masks stolen from Africa during colonial rule.
Pablo Picasso, 1908, Oil on canvas, 185x108cm, Courtesy of The State Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg
Pablo Picasso’s techniqual studies of visual distortion is a problematic appropriation and decontextualisation of sculptural artistic expressions from the African continent. The masks are, in fact, not mere sculptures, but de-contextualized and often incomplete spiritual objects, many times belived to be subjects with their own agency and traditionally not regarded as „art“ in the Western sense. However, the cubist influence is found in many East African artists’ works, especially artists trained at Margaret Trowell School of Industrial and Fine Arts from it’s beginning in the early 20th century up to today. As much as the shift from sculpure to painting took place through Picasso and his peers, re-appropriation of the style by African painters is proof of the many synthesis that took place over time. Instead of simply copy-pasting a style, Mzili and his contemporaries asked themselved how their own existence is deeply interwoven into the history of particular styles they studied.