“Ask me what belonging to Paradise feels like,” reads Martin Kharumwa’s Instagram bio. What could easily be a lyric from a Lana Del Rey track takes on a deeper meaning when scrolling through his feed, which paints a rich, jubilant and multi-faceted picture of life in Kampala and other parts of Uganda through gorgeously textured fashion portraits and candid daily snaps of friends and locals. As part of Uganda’s rapidly growing arts scene, Martin is working hard to make a contribution in both a creative and industrial sense. We had a quick chat with him about discovering photography, the local artists on his radar, and how his work has evolved since returning to his home country.
How long have you been taking photographs? What initially sparked your interest in the medium?
I was the family’s designated photographer growing up, mostly behind the camera documenting family gatherings with s small 35mm point and shoot. The push came from being encouraged by a creative director at a job I was working at who loved the images I would work on during my break.
How would you describe your work to someone who has never seen it?
That’s easy because I’m my biggest fan. It would go something like, “Hey, check out this whimsical collection of dope half-finished photographs… I love them!”.
Living in Uganda, how does your immediate social and physical environment influence you as an artist?
I really love living here at the moment. Like most places there are things about it that are undeniably unique, like BodaBoda rides at 5pm. Uganda hasn’t become a huge tourist hub yet so you can still enjoy moments of absolute seclusion on a crater lake in the middle of nowhere which is inspiring and significant. For some reason I’ve found it easier to collaborate and connect with artists who take that leap of faith to pursue creative careers in a developing economy, as we share that same struggle to engage a premature creative economy.
Have you noticed any recurring themes in your work?
The most predictable was ‘identity’; back in the beginning when I was a diaspora African trying to figure me out. However right now I would say the closest recurring theme is ‘innovation’. I’m drawn to the innovative response to not having all the pieces and still making things work in some unique inventive way. I would like to take a cynical swing at the afro futurist theme soon though, I have some ideas to contribute to that conversation.
Tell us a bit about your process. What balance do you endeavour to strike between structure and spontaneity?
My first obligation is to bringing to life the images that live in my head! I have to help them come to life so they can stop haunting me. For example there was this set of painted pineapples that was haunting me for about two years, and I eventually just went out and bought pineapples and spent a few days building up the courage to make them.
Give us your take on the creative scene in Uganda right now. Who are the young artists to watch?
I can’t afford to collect their work, but if I could, it would be Xenson, a talented multimedia artist, and Wasswa Donald, who had this amazing painting that I bartered my TV during the World Cup for. We are growing our art scene so fast and because of the support of residencies and art trusts like 32degrees East, I’ve gotten to meet amazing young unconventional artists who are transforming my perspective of the arts like Mirembe Musisi, who builds great installations and incorporates permaculture design theory in her work.
Do you feel a compulsion, or perhaps even a sense of responsibility, to use photography to portray a lesser seen side of Africa?
I used to feel that way when I identified more as a diaspora African. Back then my sense of fulfilment came from creating work that countered the usual narrative. But my focus now is on being able to photograph work that communicates within the continent. I would like to engage an East African audience and create work that contributes to, or resonates with our collective perception. The goal now is create work that contributes both in the creative and the industrial arts here.
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