Emma Wolukau-Wanambwa: Colonial Legacies in Uganda

Emma Wolukau-Wanambwa shares the stories and surprises she's come across in the ten years of her longterm artistic project, Uganda in Black and White

Article by Adam Benmakhlouf | 25 Oct 2019
  • Emma Wolukau-Wanambwa - Promised Lands

Emma Wolukau-Wanambwa’s exhibition, Promised Lands, currently in Collective Gallery (until 24 Nov) is the latest instalment of works as part of her longterm project, Uganda in Black and White. This is an ongoing series of installations, photographs and films that Wolukau-Wanambwa has made over the past ten years around “the legacy of colonialism and what you might call colonial hangovers in contemporary Uganda.” 

For the Collective exhibition, Wolukau-Wanambwa in part builds a film work around footage of a sunset from a 2010 research visit to Uganda, the very beginning stages of the overarching project Uganda Black and White. During her initial research visits, she intended on making a work about two houses built by men in her family, after anecdotally understanding some of the social importance of these practices. This was a means of developing her longterm interests in “how societies remember, and how memory is organised collectively.” While there, she came to understand in greater detail that there is a “fascinating and complex relationship between building and burial practices, practices to do with memory and land ownership.” She stresses that this is the case “along the North shore of Lake Victoria, I’m not talking about the entirety of the country.” 

At the same time, she had an equally strong intuition against her original plan: “I realised that I couldn’t make [the work as first imagined].” This was a feeling that she recognised and has had before and since. “Every few years I have this very strong desire to make some kind of film and it never really works. It always breaks down and something else happens which is more interesting.”

In the years since, Wolukau-Wanambwa has devoted her attentions to the way that colonialism has been through time shown and sold visually by government and other interested groups. She describes, “the centrality of representational practices to the project of colonialism, because of the amount of propaganda, the amount of images of 'there' that had to be brought 'here' in order to build political support for the project, which is not self-evident. At this point, we tend to assume that everybody in Britain was sold on the idea, but actually governments had to put an awful lot of work into persuading people of the... value of these places for British citizens. And through this process one starts to discover that East Africa is a particularly potent site in the British colonial imaginary.”

Over the period that Wolukau-Wanambwa has been working on Uganda in Black and White, she has returned to these myriad misrepresentations and fantasies that have been projected onto Uganda by colonising influences, especially over the previous 150 years. Drawing out some of the complex histories of Uganda, Wolukau-Wanambwa explains: “This is where Joseph Chamberlain, in 1905, proposed to the British Zionists that they could found the state of Israel in what is now Uganda.” She also notes that it’s where the oldest homo sapiens skeleton was found, which means it's often considered the site for “the origin of human life in some way.” 

She continues: “It then becomes this fantasy playground. 500 miles to the west in Kenya, there was Happy Valley, which is where all the British aristocrats… who couldn’t conform to pre-War [social] conventions, used to go to live to have multiple partners, take drugs, so there’s this idea of being a free space where a white person could do what they wanted.” It was in researching the trend of the eccentric colonising expat that Wolukau-Wanambwa came across Theodor Hertzka, an Austro-Hungarian economist. His book Freeland proposed creating a colony in British East Africa, and against fact he proposed that there was no one there and that therefore a colony could be set up. At the time, it was infiltrated by Austrian and British spies so Freeland remained unrealised. 

Wolukau-Wanambwa features parts of the book in the Collective exhibition. “The book is very fascinating for the way it reinscribes the notion of terra nullius (land owned and inhabited by no one, the implication being that it has been discovered and can be claimed) where palpably it was not terra nullius, but also this fantasy of colonising without violence […] They’re so proud of themselves because they don’t kill anyone but actually what they do is they just blow up stuff next to people to demonstrate the power of their guns… as a way to intimidate the locals into acquiescing.” Crucially, for Wolukau-Wanambwa, “Hertzka stands for many”, including figures like Winston Churchill who wrote an entire memoir about his time in East Africa. “It’s a longer story, but [East Africa] has a particular place in the British colonial imaginary, and 'imaginary' is the key word there... what’s being projected onto this landscape, and what’s being enacted in service of those projections.”

On the evening that Wolukau-Wanambwa set up a camera to document the sunset that features in Promised Lands, there was also a gathering of some of her family who were excited to see her, keen to learn what her plans were and why she was filming. Her uncle’s voice becomes a central part of the soundtrack of the film, as he gives an extensive and idiosyncratic tour from afar of the different areas around. It was specifically in her uncle’s description of, and deliberate mispronunciations of place names, that Wolukau-Wanambwa identified a further layer of mythologising that complicates the many visions of different European writers, and political powers that crafted misleading visions and propaganda about East Africa: “There’s not only the colonial fantasy, there’s also another level of mythology that the people who live there bring to their own environment.” 

Wolukau-Wanambwa refers to some examples of the different naming practices around the place where the film is shot. “The Bagisu people are giving everyone Baganda names, and the Baganda are the people from the centre after whom the country was named because the British [favoured] them.” In the film, her uncle deliberately mispronounces the Tororo region as Toronto, and calls where they live Penderosa, “because of the name of the ranch in Bonanza [American radio and TV programme that ran from the 1950s to the 70s]. My father and their brothers love Bonanza, so to this day they still refer to my grandparents’ farm as Penderosa, which is a misnaming. It should be Ponderosa, but they’re very good at repurposing language. There’s multiple layers of projections, with different levels of power and agency attached to them. Not everyone makes these fantasies with equal amount of agency.” So the uncle’s voiceover “turns out to be completely brilliant as he renames this environment.” 

Though the interview includes discussion of the work currently on show in Collective Gallery, Wolukau-Wanambwa describes the “long processes”, many people and relationships from which her works emerge. Ending the interview, Wolukau-Wonambwa shares part of her schedule for the week, including a visit to an older woman, who Wolukau-Wanambwa met last year, when the older woman first granted her access to an archive of materials kept by the older woman’s father. As Wolukau-Wanambwa continues her open-ended research, she makes very clear: “It doesn’t just end because you’ve made an exhibition.” 

Promised Lands, Collective Gallery, Edinburgh, until 24 Nov