Reviewing a monograph on Ugandan photographer Deo Kyakulagira’s archives
Image from the book Ebifananyi I: The Photographer: Deo Kyakulagira
Photographs often testify in the court of the real. In this case, the real is a more nuanced story of life in 1950s, 60s and 70s Uganda. Deo Kyakulagira’s photographs complicate various accounts of Uganda during the Amin regime. The book is part of Andrea Stultiens’ ongoing interest in the meeting of disparate narratives. It gives nuances of the colonial and immediately postcolonial history in Uganda. But what is a nuanced story?
In journalism, a nuanced story can better represent, or give insight into an event or biography. In Tom Wolfe’s extended journalism, a nuanced story is a detailed account of an event in fictional prose. Despite new journalism and fictional accounts on Africa, the story of Africa in the West remains biased. For instance, in the Netherlands, Stultiens’ home country, media accounts of Uganda remain dated. ‘What they know of Uganda (in The Netherlands) is Idi Amin,’ Stultiens said during a recent interview.
Back to the book The Photographer, it is of a striking A6-size. The book’s size and title make it seem more like a novel, or a work of fiction. In the overleaf Stultiens begins the story of her encounter with the archive. The photographer’s son insisted she look at the collection, after seeing her first book on Kaddu Wasswa. Stultiens goes on to ask siblings, and Kyakulagira’s widow about the collection.
She compiles the stories into a separate archive of collective memory. But how do the two archives meet in the book?
There is, at times, what appears like a tense relationship between the oral texts by family and the images by Kyakulagira. Nostalgia and myth-making make the narratives surreal. The speakers, at times, create fictions from foggy memory. A fashionable aesthetic charges the photographs. One image looks like a 1960s ad in Drum Magazine documenting young elites in the urban metropole. The photographer sits in the center of the shot. He positions his wife and two other young women around him wearing 1960s mini dresses and afros. He gazes on with a smile at his wife, who also almost giggles with a beer bottle in her hand.
Then, the account by Kyakulagira’s son Denis Kalyango, contradicts the carefree and light image with a haunting story. When a government official finds a portrait of his wife in a ‘suggestive pose’, he
viciously plots against the photographer. The story paints Kyakulagira as an action-movie hero who cheats death with his camera. It is a testament to his skill, and increases his renown as a
I notice Kyakulagira’s work as influenced by 60s fashion and advertising photography. I also take note of the black visual aesthetics shared by popular magazines such as Drum. Through his studio portraiture, Kyakulagira is a contemporary of Malick Sidibe and Samuel Fosso via props, fashion, and candid style. The book also includes photographs of daily life in the Kyakulagira household, and the timeline of Uganda’s politics in the 1972 expulsion of the Indians, and the 1986 inauguration of President Yoweri Museveni.
Such key political moments are interwoven with subtle, delicate, and candid images of daily life in Uganda. These together with the oral archive of stories forms a highly nuanced story in The Photographer. The book connects place and memory. Yet the absence of The Photographer is reflected in the lineage of photographers and his own resemblance in the faces of children and grandchildren.
The book will next be shown in Amsterdam in the upcoming exhibition, On the Move: Storytelling in Contemporary Photography and Graphic Design at The Stedelijk Museum from 29 Aug 2014 – 18 Jan 2015.
* Deo Kyakulagira (1940 – 2000, Uganda) produced a large body of studio portraiture, through decades of operating photo studios. Kyakulagira started his photography practice at Studio Africana with his brother. There after he open his own, Kisubi Studio, in Entebbe. Kyakulagira practice included photographic agricultural research and medical illustrations. In the late 1960s, he worked under the research institute of the Ministry of Agriculture. Then made medical illustration for the Makerere University Medical School. In 1972, Kyakulagira acquired the eminent Central Art Studio through the redistribution of businesses after Idi Amin expelled the Asian community. In the early 1980s, he supported the National Resistance Army in more ways than with his camera. Alas, Deo Kyakulagira did not exhibit his work during his lifetime. As with his contemporaries in Uganda, he was not recognized as an author of his work.
Not completely comfortable being called a photographer or artist, Andrea Stultiens prefers to describe her practice as ‘working with photographs’. She collects and makes them, writes about them, and reflects on their possible uses in understanding the way we present ourselves and try to represent others. In 2011 she launched History In Progress Uganda together with Canon Rumanzi. It is a platform gathering historical photographs from Uganda to crowdsource information about the subjects documented, and investigates if they can be used to nuance historiography. Andrea Stultiens teaches at the BFA photography program of the Royal Academy of Art and at the design department of Academy Minerva in Groningen, and is as a researcher connected to Academy Minerva’s research group Art in Context.
Written by Serubiri Moses.
All images from the book Ebifananyi I: The Photographer: Deo Kyakulagira courtesy of Deo Kyakulagira, Andrea Stultiens and History in Progress Uganda.
*Note | Deo Kyakulagira’s profile was revised on September 4, 2014 due to some factual errors.