During the 1970s heady days of then President Idi Amin’s political upheavals, many artists of means fled into self-exile. Prof. Francis Xavier Nnaggenda, arguably the greatest sculptor Uganda has produced, moved in the opposite direction. After a stint in Indiana and Texas in USA and Nairobi in Kenya, Nnaggenda returned to Kampala in 1978.
Many people thought his return to be an act of insanity because this period was the height of all-around tension. The Makerere Art School he returned to was bereft of all basic working tools because Uganda was under global economic isolation following the isolation of Asians (who traded in art material and tools).
But Nnaggenda was undeterred. He turned to nature and scrap – turning dead wood into animated works of art festooned with defunct metal sheets. He effectively pioneered a new movement, the legacy of which some notable disciples carry on to date.
The Nnaggendan art form can be categorised under the rubric of “neo-traditionalism” because of its inclination towards ancient African masks and figurative sculpture that was prominent in West African nations such as Mali, Nigeria, Benin, Ivory Coast and Congo. This art bearing the accent of Western visual languages but is reminiscent of pre-modern traditional ritual African art.
Its appeal seems to suggest that the African artistic creators, be they college trained or informally-self-taught harbours nostalgia for the past or that which was lost to the West. It seems they harbor a determination to pursue it, even at the risk of alienating their audience, earning less monetary gains, or simply appearing to lag behind in a fast-changing arts world.
Nnaggenda received his college art education in Germany and Switzerland where he was introduced to the study of ancient African civilisations and their visual art cultures, particular the West African masks. When he returned to Uganda to teach at the Makerere art school, his approach contravened the established academic templates.
His mask-like facial expressions and combining metal and wood did not only cause an uproar among his teaching colleagues but also turned into physical and verbal clashes that forced him to seek refuge in Nairobi University as a part time teacher before proceeding to the US.
This pioneering post-Independence art luminary was vilified and demonised for toeing the “wrong” path, only to be vindicated a decade later by the same people that crucified him. He rescued the art school by pointing it to another direction for answers that the “cherished” system could not provide. He even went ahead to become head of the art school between 1981 and 1982. In 1987 he unveiled `The War Victim’, one of the most celebrated sculpture works of all time in Uganda’s history of modern art, purchased and donated to Makerere University by the Rockefeller Foundation. He also did countless works that sit in different corporate spaces in Kampala and around the world.
Now retired, Nnaggenda’s creative banner is still being carried by his former students, among them Dr. Lilian Nabulime and Dr. Rose Kirumira, both practicing professors at the Makerere art school. With many of their students picking a leaf from them, Nnaggenda’s legacy of neo-traditionalism could live to challenge the established and overrated imperialist art.