MULTI-TALENTED: If Xenson is not sketching, writing music and poems or at a live graffiti performance, he is co-directing music videos and hip-hop shows, reciting his poetry on stage or measuring, cutting and immersed in creating outfits. For a man who got a government scholarship to study Engineering, it is amazing how he is soaring in his passion – creating art in many forms. Musinguzi Bamuturaki writes.
“Everyone should teach another. It is important to share knowledge and experiences with the next generation of creative, so as to keep learning and for continuity. Young people need mentorship and role models.”
Those are the words of Samson Ssenkaaba, known to many as Xenson. The successful multitalented artist enjoys giving back to the community through his Art-Club where he teaches art to students and persons with or with no artistic background.
In 2019, Xenson opened the Xenson Art Space — a multi-disciplinary curated space aimed at nurturing the new creative generation and providing a space for artists to exhibit their works.
Although Xenson laments that the lockdown has affected artists that were supposed to hold solo shows at the Xenson Art Space this year, he managed to launch the “Look One Group Exhibition” on September 5 and will run until November 30.
The exhibition is showcasing works of five emerging young artists; Remmy Sserwadda, Bob Archist, George Wasswa Kabonge, John Bosco Muramuzi and Trevor Aloka, each with a distinct and profound story to share through their art forms.
“The lockdown disrupted our programming and finances. We are optimistic and looking forward to a complete unlock so we can resume work.”
As to how he has spent his precious time during the Covid-19 lockdown, the 42-year-old artist said, “I was writing, painting, drawing, sketching, experimenting, reflecting, and meditating, brainstorming, creating and resting.”
Hasn’t Covid-19 come with a silver lining for artists to be able to reflect and create more works during the lockdown? “Yes, in a way,” he replies. “But also a major disruption of synergies created through exhibitions and performances, which in essence antagonise and minimise the level of dialogue and debate. It has significantly reduced the potential to generate ideas born through interaction with masses, not forgetting the reduction in artistic supplies.”
On his latest works, Xenson notes that his works are always a work in progress, always going through a kind of metamorphosis, “a renewed transition and a developing methodology depending on the prevailing social, political circumstances. In this context, I am making work that reflects the Covid-19 pandemic.”
If Xenson is not sketching a work of fine art or writing music and poems or at a live graffiti performance or co-directing music videos and hip-hop shows or reciting his poetry on stage, then he is measuring, cutting and stitching pieces for his latest fashion outfits.
Xenson’s outstanding and much acclaimed artistic process includes working with a synergy of installations, sculptures, videos, performance, poetry, fashion, photography, and painting.
As to how he manages to execute his multidisciplinary approach, Xenson, said: “I look at art as a synergy of various forms of expression. I have trained my mind to constantly conjure up a multitude of concepts and ideas at the same time. A Xenson creative thought process. The execution and final expression depends on the immediacy, impact, complexity, inspiration of the intended outcome and target.”
For Xenson, sometimes a poem could transmit an emotion louder and faster than a painting or fashion concept. Sometimes, they overlap to form a synergy. A video, for instance, can be a formation of music, poetry, fashion and painting. There is no recognisable distinction.
Would you feel incomplete without your multidisciplinary approach?
“For sure,” he says.
Xenson makes use of both indigenous and synthetic material, and benign symbols borrowed from everyday life to engage with the complexities and contradictions of contemporary culture in Uganda.
Asked how African culture influences and inspires his works and creativity, Xenson, said: “Conceptually, my departure point for most of my work could be a Ganda idiom, an African saying, ancient poem, ancestral folklore, traditional dance or poly rhythms of a drum beat which are immensely rich in indigenous knowledge. Most of our ancestral expressions are complex and futuristic.”
He says his works explore the contemporary themes of identity, consumerism, multiculturalism, immigration, corruption, human excess, neo-colonialism, exploitation, material culture, and global circulations of culture.
“An artist’s expression is the mirror image of its society. My assumed role is to document the prevailing social political state of my society to stimulate dialogue and archive it for posterity. There is a paradox created by multiplicity of identities, politics or power play and visibility of certain narratives.”
His body of work titled Barakoa (the Swahili word for mask) explores humanity’s obsessive tendency to hide behind facades, visible or invisible. It highlights but also demystifies pre-conceived and stereotyped identities. The artist intentionally creates a perceived aesthetic of flowers, patterning and bright colours around this otherwise unsettling subject matter. This superficial adaptation mutes the fear and disguises the impending tension that waits silently beneath the surface.
Xenson’s project “Nakivubo Channel” at the 2012 Kampala Contemporary Art Festival was a visual and conceptual analysis of the dumping phenomenon on a variety of different levels. On one level, as indicated by the title, the project looked at dumping processes that take place in Kampala where majority of the city’s waste ends up in the Nakivubo channel, one of the waterways that contributes to the pollution of Lake Victoria.
He reflects on a time in the Buganda Kingdom when the community assumed responsibility for their environment, acted out in bulungi bwansi community works.
Today, littering has become a common and unhealthy habit in Kampala and the pending gross repercussions are seldom taken into consideration. By drawing attention to this problem, the project created awareness of the dangers of dumping and addressed the importance of society’s waste management.
“Today we are seeing a huge dumping phenomenon of second hand products and cheap Chinese made knock-offs in many African cities. At first sight, this gives the false impression of charity and affordability,” he said.
Most of these second hand goods and Chinese products come by sea in the shipping containers that were used as exhibition spaces for KLA ART 012. Making use of two of these containers, one on top of the other, Xenson created an overwhelming sea of plastics and non-biodegradable waste that pours from the double story height onto the ground below.
Xenson’s “Nakivubo Channel” project was a formidable reference to hegemonic power relations within the global market. It drew attention to the potential double-sided character of charity and challenges the contemporary culture of consumerism.
Asked about what interested him in art, Xenson recalls: “I was always a bright student, top of my class. Subjects like mathematics, physics, chemistry, biology were a cup of coffee. What always gave me a challenge was art. I knew I wanted to be in the creative field – a naïve and innocent but universal instinct.”
He says his name Xenson is enshrined in an ancient African narrative of Ubuntu. “It embodies and orchestrates elements of harmony and balance with nature, son of Zen – the son being part of the natural eco-system and a symbol of its future progression. It also propagates the limitless creative potential of the human mind and resilience of the spirit that drives it, what I call the x-factor, x-treme, x-pressive, x-travagant, x-traordinary, x-perimental, x-perirntial, x-quisite, x-pensive, x-plicit, x-tra curricular, x-emporary, x-pontential, et cetera.”
Asked how he would describe the state of visual art in Uganda, Xenson said: “Art in Uganda is in a paradoxical state. It seems to be growing and the collector base improving but the content seems stagnant. I feel most art is oblivion to the social political issues within Uganda and Africa today. This is problematic and seems to point to a state of fear or perceived suffocation of freedom of expression. Self-censorship seems to prevail over critical onslaught of the status quo. Artists seem to be in a state of self-denial.”
For visual art to be popularised in Uganda then, he suggests inculcating a culture of art appreciation right from primary school. Formation of the ministry of culture to increase funding for the arts thus helping in robust marketing and promotion both physical and digital, annexing and promoting the arts as part of wider tourism sector and improving the political will and negative attitude towards culture.
Xenson’s Art for Wear fashion label is inspired by African cultures, craftsmanship and authenticity. He has unveiled his fashion collections such as “Baroque Afrique,” “Futuristic Past,” and “Afro Goth,” among others.
In 2014 he self-published his debut poetry anthology titled Kizi Kiza. His other poems include Musisi and Ttonda/Ddunda (Not Jehovah). He has also published poems on various digital platforms and magazines.
As to what messages he conveys in his poetry, Xenson said, “My poetry is free verse inspired by spoken word movements and conscious hip hop. It is thus socially and politically charged. It also advocates for the concept of Ubuntu.”
He released his debut music album “Villanguage” in 2013 with 12 songs including the hits “Muwe Bulo” and “Kampala.” His second 12-song album “YaaYe” has been pulled back due to Covid-19.
“Hip-hop is an extension of my poetry. So the message is the same only that I rhyme over rich Ugandan rhythms,” he says.
“Ensi Yaleta” was a video and art installation performance done at Johannesburg Art fair in South Africa.
Xenson, a pioneer of graffiti art in Uganda in the early 2000s, observes that this art form has tremendously grown with a number of upcoming graffiti artists. “There is Graffrika, a periodical meeting of graffiti artists and the Afri-cans an annual festival that takes place in Kitintate, a Kampala suburb. There is great support from Viva con Aqua which ships in professional graffiti cans. The future is bright.”
Xenson, who was born in 1978, attended Kako Senior Secondary School in Masaka District for his O-Level and Kibuli Secondary School in Kampala for his A-Level. He got a government scholarship to study Engineering at Makerere University but he chose to follow his dream and pursued a Bachelor’s of Industrial and Fine Art, graduating with a First Class honours in Painting and Graphic Design.
He has no regrets for his choices: “My impact and contribution to the arts is evident and cannot be over emphasised. I am proud to have made the decision to be in the creative field.”
He has participated in art workshops, residences and exhibitions, and fashion shows, including: Gunflowermask, Afriart Gallery, (Kampala, 2017); Kabbo ka Muwala (Zimbabwe, Uganda, German 2016); Johannesburg Art Fair (South Africa 2015), KLAART 2014 (Uganda); The Lubare and the Boat, Deveron Arts (Scotland 2014); Institute Buena Bista (Curacao 2014); Future of Africa Summit (Paris, France); Africa Now: Fashioning Person Hood, Minneapolis Institute of Art (USA 2014); Artist in Residence (32 Degrees East/Uganda Arts Trust, Kampala 2013); KLAART 2012 (Kampala, 2012); and the World Cultural Forum (Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, 2016), among others.
He is a well collected artist in Uganda, Niger, Burkina Faso, Kenya, Tanzania, Rwanda, Germany, United Kingdom, Netherlands, Brazil, Argentina, France, USA and Canada. His works are in many private and public collections, including in the Scottish Museum.
Xenson is a founding member of Cream de la Mode Africaine, an association of designers from 10 African countries seeking to promote African fashion, textiles and fabrics on the continent and overseas. He is also the co-founder of Ugandan Hip Hop Foundation, an association that empowers the youth through urban culture and hip hop music.
Xenson is a Jack of all trades, does he have a favourite? “My creative process is inspired by a synergy of various genres and forms of expression. A poem could inspire a film or a fashion idea and vice versa. This is very important and the very core of my practice. I seamlessly fly through these expressions, so I have no distinction.”