By Stephen Ssenkaaba
SHE is all these: mother; academic, researcher and painter: But in an ongoing art exhibition, Amanda Tumusiime grapples with a difficult question.
Does art really mean much to the women’s emancipation struggle?
The answers lie as much in her life experience as in the varied shades of blue, yellow and grey in her emotive art show at the Margaret Trowell School of Industrial and Fine Arts (MTSIFA) gallery in Makerere.
“From the 70s to the 80s, women have since moved on from simply being mothers and homemakers to army combatants and influential leaders. They have broken the glass ceiling,” she says.
Tumusiime’s work is serialised, under different subthemes. One is called the Long Stride in which she explores the long struggle that has seen women come from the background to take on important leadership roles in society. In the Graduate series she presents an interesting take on how many girls have been attained life-changing education opportunities.
The paintings here show a gradual increase in women’s opportunities to excel, occasioned by the enabling political environment ushered in by the National Resistance Movement government’s emancipatory policies on affirmative action.
Tumusiime celebrates the ‘new woman’ whom she renders in a sea of passionate, vivid blue hues and sprinklings of yellow, red and black her work thrives on a masterful depiction of the human form in blurred, thick glazes of paint, various shapes and geometric patterns.
Contrast, spontaneity and space play a major role in a palette that oozes colourful energy and artistic freedom; that pays nearly no attention to orderliness and predictable line patterns.
In a sense, Tumusiime’s painting alludes to the energy and passion that characterises the women’s emancipation movement.
Artist Amanda Tumusiime
You will enjoy the familiar scenes of girls clutching their school bags, and, hand in hand, walking to or from school, the apparent forward movement that the somewhat cryptic images in her paintings seem to be taking.
Geometric patterns of a broken glass ceilings act as powerful symbols of new broken barriers to give way to windows of opportunities for women in different sphere of life.
Tumusiime’s work employs telling symbols such as the rising sun across a bright horizon, against shadowy backgrounds to depict brighter times ahead of dark difficult backgrounds. She steers away from overly sexualised ‘female form’ that dominated contemporary Ugandan art through the years, lending fresh look to the subject matter of the woman.
“I would like the viewer to look beyond the aesthetics of this work to reflect on the message in them,” Tumusiime says.
Speaking from experience
Tumusiime’s work is partly informed by her own life experiences. “I grew up in a family where gender roles were clearly defined,” she says. She was a young girl when her father died. She would later be told that her father’s bequest belonged to the “only child” in the family.
“I asked my mother which child was being referred to here, seeing as there were more than five of us.” “It is your brother,” her mother told her. This greatly troubled Tumusiime. It also opened her eyes.
“I realised that I would always have to work for my own property.”
It also set her on a mission to understand the essence of such inequality. Tumusiime worked hard through school, first attending Comboni Missionary School in Rukungiri before moving on to Mary Hill high school in Mbarara.
Through school, she pursued leadership roles as a sports prefect and secretary for the Red Cross society. She would later represent her district at the 1992 international Red Crescent Movement youth Expo in Seville, Spain.
But it was her undergraduate days at Makerere University’s Margaret Trowell School of Industrial and Fine Arts that shaped her resolve to stand out in a male — dominated environment.
“I was one of only 11 girls in a class of about 30 boys. We studied hard and did well in class. Whenever we stayed late to work in the art studio, some of our male classmates threatened to attack and rape us.”
Today, she is one of only two practising artists out of her entire class of more than 40 students.
Tumusiime graduated with an upper second class degree and was retained as a temporary assistant lecturer in 1997 before being promoted to full lecturer in 2002 and later took two masters degrees in art — at Makerere University in 2001 and at the University of Witwatersrand in South Africa in 2004.
Her time in South Africa marked a turning point in style and outlook.
“My research on gender and art opened my eyes to the often skewed projection of women and gender issues in art,” she says.
Her work took an interesting twist from the safe predictable images of women tilling away in the fields or performing daily household chores to exploring what she calls the “new woman”— emerging from the political turbulence and the traditional attitudes of the 70s and 80s to play a key role in socio-political life of this country.
Tumusiime suggests that art was for long complicit in subordinating women and engendering age old gender stereotypes, which she is out to demystify.
She has over the years established herself, along with Lilian Nabulime, Maria Naita, Rose Kirumira as part of the strong movement of women visual artists seeking to educate the public, emancipate women through their art.
Tumusiime’s work has been the subject of national and international critical appraisal and will inform a great part of her upcoming books on women emancipation and gender stereotypes.
She has so far participated in over 30 exhibitions, conferences and is now working a series of books that look at the shifting gender roles in Ugandan society, while presenting new ways of looking at women in our society.
She remains with a challenge of stretching the debate beyond the elitist emancipatory rhetoric that tends to cloud activist like her from the realities of the ordinary woman.
How far she goes remains to be seen.