Students reconstruct the spiritual identity of the goddess through the appropriation of indigenous objects in the artworks
Kampala, Uganda | DOMINIC MUWANGUZI | The Nakayima fable, a story of a royal princess who disappeared behind a tree in pre- colonial Buganda, has for centuries become a subject of diverse cultural and academic scholarship.
Cultural studies, based on traditional mythology rooted in Buganda culture, reveal that the princess had mystical powers that translated into her ability to give live. Nakayima is therefore conferred on the title The Giver of Life or the goddess of fertility in Buganda. In this, different people from different parts of the country frequently flock her shrine of a gigantic tree perched atop a hill in Mubende district, for spiritual blessings and healing. Within the framework of academic study, visual artists and academics are similarly fascinated by both the aspect of cultural and artistic heritage that pervades the tale. While the folktale dates back more than 400 years, it is a representation of a strong indigenous culture with unique norms and practices that still exists today. Such a vibrant culture with its respective artifacts and norms and practices- visible through a myriad of spiritual activities that take place at the shrine- is justification to the diverse exploration and examination processes undertaken by different artists from different backgrounds.
The exhibition that showcased sculptural installations by third year fine art students of Makerere School of fine art, is an example to this routine academic study and artistic exploration. The artworks on display reconstructed the Nakayima folktale through the use of bark-cloth, beads, baskets and gourds. This represented the traditional aspect of the tale and the mystical quality of the subject ( Nakayima). Traditionally, barkcloth was used as a dress attire, but also importantly imbues the idea of cultural conservation in an era of post modernization. The gourds in various shapes were arranged in different forms and represented the idea of nutrition. While Nakayima is a spiritual goddess, it is commonly believed that she eats and drinks in order to maintain her vitality. As such, her food, primarily milk, is presented to her in milk gourds (Ebyanzi). The other small sized gourds that are found in her abode, represent the identity of other deities including Mukasa, Bamweyana and Lubowa who are believed to have similar mystical attributes and are her allies.
One mid- sized installation that occupied the center of the gallery space, clearly demonstrated the type of relationship between the spiritual goddess and the “guardian saints”.
The small gourds, with names of the respective deities inscribed on them, were placed at the foot of the installation and formed a circle around it. This was symbolic to the belief that there’s a spiritual connection between the other gods and the goddess Nakayima. It also hinted on the form of hierarchy shared by the gods at the shrine. In this case, this is Nakayima’s abode therefore, other gods take after her but are equally central in providing spiritual intervention. Conversely, the installation was built with two aluminum shields at the top and the three metallic legs that supported the shields vfrom the top, were wrapped in bark-cloth. The shield is a representation of protection that the goddess provides her children.
Besides offering fertility and wealth, the goddess is believed to offer spiritual protection to the multitude of worshippers that throng her shrine.
Similarly, the spiritual image of the deity was represented by a 4 feet tall white figurine decked in white costume and a crown of bark-cloth resting on its head. The white garment was symbolic to the purity of the goddessshe is able to give life because she’s
pure-and the crown of barkcloth with cowrie shells decorated on its face, is a representation of the hallowed identity.
Through the appropriation of traditional objects like bark-cloth, cowrie shells and beer gourds, into the sculptural installations they built, the students were able to bring to life the mystical nature of the goddess.
As such, this artistic exploration was responsible for the construction of a visual narrative that is authentic and familiar to the public. The objects, largely bark-cloth and cowrie are highly synonymous with conversations on cultural heritage and conservation in both formal and informal spaces.
Conversely, the process of working with these artifacts in such a gallery space with the participation of youthful student artists, underscored the marriage between the traditional and contemporary. In as much as the exhibition, fronted the theme of working with indigenous material in visual arts, it also opened up possibilities of pushing the boundaries of art making which is critical at this stage of art learning.