Interview: Word with Ugandan artist Matt Kayem

Matt Kayem is probably that regular guy you meet on the streets but, that would not completely describe the young artist; a little eccentric with a fiery energy, an inventor, and experimenter. The boisterous Ugandan artist took a sit back for a minute for an interview with Afroway art writer Musungu Okatch. Matt walks us through art, culture politics and the ordinary life in Uganda and perceptions about art in the global market
“My mama swallowed an art brush when she was 8-months pregnant with me, a month later, I was born with the tool in my hands, Ieft some masterpieces on the walls of her uterus.”-Matt Kayem

Let’s begin with the obvious, who is Matt Kayem?
Well, Matt Kayem is a Ugandan contemporary artist, born on June 5, 1991 to Mr. and Mrs. Stephen and Christine Kayondo Bagunywa. I was raised in a small town called Mityana, about 60 km from the capital, Kampala. My family moved to the capital in 2005 when I was finishing my primary school at Budo Junior. I went to Mengo Senior School for my high school. I then joined Michelangelo College of Creative Arts for my advanced art education, attained a certificate and diploma and left in October 2015….So here I am now, this is my second year as an artist.
Where are you from and how has it contributed to your art? 
Well, I grew up partly from Mityana but never went to schools there. My mum was bent on having us attend the best schools in the country which were closer to the capital. My parents owned a bookstore in the heart of the town which meant that I would get introduced to books, writing tools and stationery at an early age. While other kids played with other toys, me and my siblings often played with pencils, pens, crayons and paper. So by the time I joined kindergarten school, I was already ahead of my peers as my drawing and writing skills were better. So I owe my art to that bookstore and my dad who taught me to draw at a young age.

What role did your parents play in shaping your career in the Arts?
Like I said earlier, my mum ensured that I was fixed into the best schools in the country which would mean that I would get quality education. My dad was my first art teacher I should say because he taught me and my siblings to sketch and draw before we joined nursery school. My parents have been supporting my career and still do up to now, financially etc.

Do you have mentors in Art? Who are they?

Yah I do have lots of mentors, my mum is one of them, my young brother Simon (very intelligent guy), a couple of friends, yah, I’m a good listener and would listen to anyone with some good for me. Well, seriously though, Henry Mzili Mujunga, a veteran Ugandan artist is a close friend and mentor, Paul Ndema, Daudi Karungi too. Robinah Nansubuga too.

What is your understanding of African art? 
I think African art is art produced or created by an African artist. It should be that simple to define.

Ask some modern day artists about their art and who they are inspired by, they will mention names like Vincent Van Gogh, Basquiat, Michelangelo, among others. What does this say about African art mentors, would it mean we have none or they are just not good enough?
By African art mentors, you mean African artists that we are supposed to look up to?…..To me, art and especially contemporary art is young on the continent and the fact that it is quite an imported profession or industry so these could be the reasons why African artists still admire western guys…there are no African artists who have done much or so big to be revered or much sought after.  But don’t worry, we are coming…haha, the coming generations will mention Matt Kayem’s name. On a serious note though, of course we have African artists making news and those worth mentioning on the globe like El Anatsui, Kemang Wa Luhelere, my favs like Jane Alexander, the diasporan kind like Yinka Shonibare, Wangechi Mutu, Akunyili Crosby etc. But personally I’m also very much moved and influenced by western artists and artistes like Damien Hirst, Jeff Koons, Salvador Dali, Picasso, Andy Warhol, Kanye West, Lady Gaga etc

Now, why do you do art?
I do art because it is what I can do best, it’s not that I love being an artist. I always tell people to pick careers putting their ability to do them first rather than the love. So art is like a calling. I was born for this shit! I have this quote, “My mama swallowed an art brush when she was 8-months pregnant with me, a month later, I was born with the tool in my hands, Ieft some masterpieces on the walls of her uterus.” Well, I love to take this whole art thing as a profession rather than just a hobby so I don’t like to put passion and art in the same sentence. I rather have money and art in the same sentence so to answer your question, I’m doing art to make money, probably become stinking rich and famous.

You can be looked at as a dynamic artist. Tell us about the fields you cover in the arts. Is it a challenge to you? How do you manage that?
Professionally and contemporary speaking I’m concentrating on painting, sculpture, installation and a little performance art. But I can do graffiti, figurative painting, ceramics, hand graphics etc. I went to art school and I was exposed to a lot of areas so it’s only understandable and besides since I’m a good draughtsman, because all art starts from drawing meaning that everything else can weave from that. It’s not a challenge.

In one of our correspondence you mentioned that as a contemporary artist, you have introduced a style known as Roughism. Let us in on that Roughism? 

Roughism is an expressionistic style I invented last year, you know, the paintings on jeans, roughly and childishly painted with patches, holes and the surface burnt and the sculptures haphazardly done in terracota bearing holes. It was me trying to angrily say stuff, like as a struggling young artist, I just took it to the art, the work is very authentic, open and emotional but it wasn’t much appreciated in Kampala. I’m working on something relevant to the market, something possibly better that they could relate to.

How many exhibitions have you held? What lessons did you learn from them?
Roughly, I think they’ve been four exhibitions or five including my first solo last July. And I’ve learnt a lot like what the market wants, where I should put my work, presentation, aesthetics still matter a lot etc.

There is one Ugandan artist- Teddy Nabisenke- she is opposed to the use of the dollar in selling Ugandan art. What is your opinion on this matter?
My opinion? No I’m not with Teddy on this one. You know our currency is weak and art is usually appreciated by ‘westerners’ and most importantly art is not for everyone to be honest, art is for the cultured, elite and classy and to create that aura, those works should have dollar tags on them. And besides, we trying to cross borders, the Ugandan shilling can’t do that…it’s very sad though, this is a white thing, we should just do it white-like, we got no choice.

I have seen a video of you doing live painting. Do you find live painting interesting? Is it challenging? Do you always do it while listening to music?
Yah, live painting is interesting but it’s not something I often do. I’ve just done it on a couple of occasions, dates back to my art school days. So I had this idea and started to do it, did it at the last Laba Arts Festival and at my first solo. It’s just like an icing on the cake. It’s not challenging, man you should stop asking me this question…art is like my woman I married when I was in the womb so this shit is easy. Well, the music is supposed to supplement the performance, I’m thinking of better stuff in the future, like having me paint live with an orchestra!

What is your favorite music Genre? Favorite artist? 

I listen to a lot of music. My fav genres are pop, I love pop, resonates with my art which is popish too. I do hip hop, RnB, house, electronic, a little rock, a little jazz and classical and popular African music. Favorite artistes are Kanye West, Lady Gaga, Katy Perry, The Weeknd, Adele, and all those trending popular American artistes. Africa wise, I love the Nigerians, Sauti Sol, Micasa etc.

As an artist you handle issues affecting society. What do you feel about the latest African trends in consumerism that has led to decay in the local African industries?

Well this sort of thing is common in Uganda and it has had its effects. But this is out of my line of thought and interest so I won’t say much.

What is your take on millennials and their perception of art?
Well, millennials are not really interested in art. They’re usually taken up by the technology, movie or music industry. They often think that art is boring and for the old with all its scholarly kind of approach, this is for the case of the high art industry. But for the usual local, tourist kind of art, they don’t see value in that. Well they just see a bunch of craftsmen and artisans and weigh them in the same category as a boda boda man or a local carpenter. So certainly, they wouldn’t admire to be part of that. But the main issue here with the common Ugandan millennial is knowledge!! I mean, these kids don’t know that an artwork can be sold 5 billion Ugandan shillings or more. They don’t think that art is the kind of career somebody can take up and become successful and influential in society. 

What is the position of Ugandan art compared to the rest of Africa? What of African art compared to the West?  
The Ugandan art scene is not as established as in South Africa or West African cities like Dakar or Accra. But we are picking up. We have major art events like the Kampala Biennale, Laba Arts Festival and a few others, plus a few good galleries. Nairobi could be a little ahead of us because you have a major and strong auction house, Circle Art Auction to give value to art. Ours hasn’t picked up well. As for African art, like I said earlier, the industry is still quite young, the west of course is way ahead but African art is gaining ground on the global art market and looks like the spotlight is being flashed at the continent at the moment. I mean we have the Dakar Biennale in Senegal which has been around, Cape Town and Johannesburg are major art centers with well-established art institutions.

Have you heard any art residences? Which country do you feel, if given an art residence will stimulate your creative juices?
I haven’t done any residencies but I would love to do one if the opportunity comes. A residency in Cape Town, Johannesburg, London or New York would totally stimulate my creative juices.

Uganda has a number of cultural festivals; Bayimba, Nyege nyege just to mention a few. What do you think is the role of such festivals in promotion of arts and culture?
Well the festivals have really helped to create awareness of the arts industry probably increased appreciation of the arts. That’s what we need for the industry to grow. 

When do you think an African man should settle down and start a family? 
25 and above. It shouldn’t be later than 35 years of age. I think it’s not right for a man to stay unmarried for a long time.

You are known to be a rebel artist. Do you think Africa has matured politically? What more ought to be done to put Africa in a better place? What about the African moral code? 

Politically, I can’t say Africa has matured when we have had the same president since 1986! How many years has Robert Mugabe been president of Zimbabwe? Africa at large, I can’t propose a solution for every land needs different strategies. At least Uganda needs a federal system of governance. The African moral, I come from the Baganda ethnic group, some people don’t wanna call them tribes. But the Baganda have a strict and strong moral code which I really like but what I do goes against rules and caging. I mean, creativity has always been liked to open-mindedness or free-spiritedness. As an artist, I have to free my mind and soul, break those barriers to achieve greatness.

What does Matt do in his free time?
I watch movies, listen to music, play video games, party, go to the gym, Basketball but lately I don’t have free time and what I’ve done is to have my hobbies pay me. I mean to incorporate my interests in my art. For example, when I watch American pop music videos or movies, I make sure I steal ideas from there.

Your parents owned a bookshop? Did this in any way instill a reading culture in you? If it did, what are you currently reading? Who is your favourite author?
Hmm, The bookshop kind of instilled a reading culture in me but I’m not a book person. I just read relevant stuff. I usually buy newspapers to go through entertainment and show biz news coz that’s my area. I usually read art stuff on the internet but can’t pick up a book to read leisurely just for the pleasure.

Artists are known to be whimsical? What is your whimsy? 
I’m quite an eccentric person, usually humorous and playful at times. The rest you can find out if you spent some time with me but overall, I’m not a regular person and I’m certainly not the kind you would decipher just by looking at me, I’m gonna always surprise you.

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