Teesa Bahana

Teesa Bahana is the director of 32° East, an independent non-profit organisation, focused on the creation and exploration of contemporary art in Uganda. As director Teesa is currently overseeing a major new building project, helping to raise funds for the first purpose-built art center in Kampala. She has also been at the forefront of new arts initiatives such at KLA ART Labs, where artists, thinkers, writers will explore new ways of working together, looking at research and critical thinking through public practice. Teesa also runs the KLA ART festival, and international residency exchange programme with partners from across the world, including partnerships with Triangle Network and Arts Collaboratory. With an academic background in sociology and anthropology, Teesa is particularly interested in the intersection between art and Ugandan society, and how artistic environments should be protected and nurtured. You can help support 32° East here.

I would like to start by asking how you got into the arts and how your development within the field led you towards the role of director at 32° East? 

It’s all down to one person, Rocca Gutteridge, who was one of the  founding directors of 32° East. We were friends and hung out in the same circles. I remember she approached me saying that 32° East was always looking for good people and that I should consider applying for a position that had opened up. Turns out, she was looking for her replacement.When I found out, I remember thinking, that’s crazy, I’d never imagined myself as a director, well not at this stage of my career but I’d just read The Confidence Gap, which is an article about the difference between men and women’s confidence. One of the things they talk about is a study that shows that when men  look at a job description and they meet 60% of the criteria, they will apply for the job and not think twice. A woman would look at it and be like, I’m missing the other 40% or I need at least 95% of the criteria to apply. That really stuck in my mind. With 32° East I thought, how often do opportunities like this come along? Let me just go to the interview and see how it goes. 

I remember expressing a lot of those reservations during the interview. I did not come from an arts background at all but had worked on the first Nyege Nyege music festival in Kampala. I studied sociology and anthropology, peace and conflict studies. At least with anthropology there’s a strong connection to culture. I remember saying, I don’t know anything about visual arts and Rocca saying I could learn but what’s most important is caring about the artists. For me, it was more about 32° East being a really nurturing space for people who often are told that what they do doesn’t matter. I had an overwhelming feeling that I needed to protect that. I remember thinking what a privilege it was to have this opportunity and to be part of 32° East. I was very lucky to have someone like Rocca in my life. 

Did you have quite a create upbringing?

Not entirely. My mum was a teacher and used to write children’s books in her spare time. I have this dream of eventually publishing some of her work. She was very passionate about literature. Reading, for us, was really big at home. We all grew up as big readers. My dad was really into music. Growing up, we always had access to music at home. In school, art was the subject I was not good at. I couldn’t figure out how the system worked, I had no idea how to be good at it. It was either you’re creative and talented or you’re not. It was not for me. I remember being in awe of people who were really good at art and also really good at other subjects like science. 

In that sense, I’d say, my family was somewhat creative. If we had grown up in a place with galleries around us we would have gone, but we unfortunately didn’t.

I’m really interested to hear more about your studies. Has that work influenced how you run 32° East?

I chose to study those areas because I was interested in those particular topics. That interest and area of research carries on into my work at 32° East. That’s a big part of my thinking. I realised recently that my learning philosophy plays a strong part in the work I do at 32° East. A lot of people within our community, in a similar way to me, don’t have a conventional art background; maybe they don’t have a BFA/MFA, they haven’t had the opportunity to attend a residency programme or haven’t been exposed to the art world, or rather the conventional “art world”. In a way, that allows for a lot more possibilities because you’re not so restricted and confined to the way the art world is or how it speaks. For me, it provides room to grow because I’m constantly learning through the job and through the people I meet on a day to day basis. Also, the process of unlearning is very important to the community at 32° East.

One of the things I thought about studying was education. I find what it does for society really interesting. For me, I bring those interests to 32° East as well, because I’m interested in what art does for society more in terms of how it makes us think and look critically as well as provide opportunities to imagine a different world around us.

I want to ask about running a space like 32° East, the challenges around fundraising and advocating for the arts in Kampala. What are the most difficult parts of running a small art space?

I think we’re small, but we do big and ambitious things. We’re small in terms of our programming team, we are three people. For me, that’s almost deliberate as I always want to pay people well. Pay is always complicated, but if we had more people, we’d be forced to pay less. It’s hard.I always feel strange about it but the budget at 32° East is just so tight. It’s always the biggest expense, and so feeling like we need more people, but not paying them properly, I feel is not ethically right.

I know we could increase our workforce because we’re in a situation where there’s so many people looking for jobs. Finding the right people as well is really hard. You don’t have this pool of people coming through, having studied arts management who also have work experience in the arts. That’s really hard. That’s really, really hard. I think all three of us, individually, are probably doing the work of two to three people. It’s exhausting. You’re doing the jobs of all those people, but do not necessarily have the skills of all those people too. That’s probably the hardest. You also have to figure out how to take care of yourself, which is really difficult.

I started working at 32° East when I was 26, I’m now 30 and am in the middle of trying to build a new arts centre in Kampala. There’s a lot of stuff in my life that I just never get around to doing, but on the other hand, it’s so amazing I get to accomplish these things at my age. It’s difficult to have a work-life balance when you run an arts organisation, it’s a difficult thing to manage.

32° East has a really strong international reputation when it comes to building support and recognition but I wanted to ask about the level of support that is provided locally. 

There isn’t really much support from the city. Hopefully with the new arts centre we might have more of an impact on the city and have more presence within. Part of that is also how we push our artistic programme. Right now, we could be doing more within our local area. I’d say the festival has a much larger presence within the city. The very nature of the festival is to show visitors different artistic practices across a number of different days. The festival has a much greater impact within the city, with both artists and audiences.

Let’s talk about the KLA ART festival, in which you’ve curated the public and artistic programme. How did you approach the idea of working with the format of a festival?

2018’s edition of the festival was the first edition that I had been part of. The festival prior to that one was in 2014, so it had been a while. We had been putting pressure on ourselves to do it. For a lot of the artists, it meant so much to have the city pay attention to arts and culture. They’re so used to music being a really big deal and people turning up in the thousands for musicians, with many visual artists feeling like no one understands or pays attention to what we do.

In 2014, the previous team invited the Global Crit Clinic to work with the KLA ART artists. It was this really great collaborative project that would go around hosting workshops for artists. That experience, for a lot of artists, was really transformative in terms of how they feel about their practice and thinking about audiences. I think the Global Crit Clinic has disbanded now. I don’t think they’re doing work anymore. We would have wanted them to come back, but it’s so nice knowing that the festival in itself is a platform for artistic development, and making sure that art is accessible, relevant and approachable and that people get to see it, those things are really important. The festival is such a huge learning opportunity for artists. In 2018, again, it was really important to just make it happen and feel like we can do this, and we did.

The festival takes place across a month. This year, we’ve decided to reduce it to three weeks as we found a month is just too long. It’s just exhausting and so much work. A huge part of how the festival happened in 2018 was because of the hard work of my colleagues, Nikissi Serumaga and Rasheeda Nalumoso, to find so many brilliant and different artists from the region. We ended up having Jared Onyango who came from Kenya, the Maasai Mbili Artists’ Collective who also came from Kenya, Christine Ayo who was based in the Netherlands, Karis Upton from the UK and so many more great artists. It was really nice that these artists had a connection to Kampala somehow, but were also international. They did a lot of work in terms of partnering with different organisations and different festivals that were happening around the same time. I think that’s one of the main reasons why the festival ended up having a lot of programming throughout the month long festival. The multidisciplinary nature of the festival was driven by the artists backgrounds and experiences. This was a huge part of the programming and excitement around the festival.

As diverse as the public is, responses also varied widely, there was everything from intrigue to dismay. It depended on the person and on the day. I feel like the festival was definitely noticeable. It created a dialogue and made the audience really think about what they were seeing. There were quite a few works that invited a lot of conversation. Some of the works were set up so that some of the performers were trained to be in dialogue with the audience. It was really engaging.

You have developed a number of really interesting artistic platforms at 32° East outside of the festival and the residency programme, including Artachats and KLA ART Labs where artists get to debate and discuss the role of art in society – what do these programmes offer emerging artists?

With KLA ART Labs, we programmed it differently this time around. 2017 was the first Labs that took place, which was pretty much born out of convenience, or born out of a lack of resources, if that makes sense. We didn’t have the funds for the festival. It was based on conversations around art and audiences. It was really good and lots of really great things happened. 

We had an opportunity to apply for funding for a three-year programme from the Prince Claus Fund. The criteria was to build a new programme. I decided at that point to relaunch the Labs programme. It was really taking into account what we learnt from running the last festival and noticing what an incredible platform the festival is for artists; how artists work, how they develop their practice, how they think about their work and how they think about audiences. I noticed there were a lot of gaps within our art scene, especially the lack of opportunities for artists. You start to notice that for quite a few artists, when it came to things like research and how to go about developing their content, there are some major weaknesses. However, saying that we found, when it came to how people documented their work, there was so much opportunity to explore this further. 

We also wanted to think about curation and the role of the curator. When you’re asked to name a Ugandan curator, you can name maybe five, with only two of them who have remained in the country. That’s it, I think, maybe even fewer. We don’t have any curatorial programme in this country. Curating, in general, I think in quite a few places, is viewed with suspicion for quite a few artists. There’s a lack of trust. Curators are seen as gatekeepers. I try and encourage artists to acknowledge that curators are a really important aspect of the ecosystem. It’s funny because I remember some time ago working on our strategic plan to specifically develop our artistic ecosystem. That’s exactly what the Labs have ended up doing; really thinking about what these different gaps are in terms of artistic development. 

The Labs focus on specific individuals,like writers, curators and artists but also focus on what it means to develop certain skills. It also recognises that for quite a few artists and their practices, they’re doing and learning a number of different skills, which have never previously been acknowledged. They could be doing elements of curation within their practice but have never called it that or never saw it as that. How can you highlight those things for the betterment of our higher ecosystem that goes beyond the personal experience and really boosts certain artists and their skills?

The Labs programme focuses on looking at what individual artists have learnt from the festival. What resources we have at our disposal, what we think speaks to our unique strengths, the benefits and how lucky we are in some ways. I say this in a way that sounds like it was a purposely planned assessment. It wasn’t, really. The Labs developed quite organically and in conversations with a lot of people. We are so lucky to be a part of so many different networks that have developed from the Labs. It’s incredible.

For me, also, as the director I have an opportunity to travel and attend international network meetings, but I want other people and artists to have that chance and that opportunity as well. It’s an incredible moment to be able to step outside of your context, to be able to readjust your perspective. The festival has become a platform for meeting the needs of artists. Many of the artists then go on to many global contexts after being part of the festival. It’s a really amazing thing to see.

The level of professional development and individual mentoring must be an intense undertaking on your staff and your team.

Yes, it is. The artists, I suppose, come to rely on you as the professional, the knowledge-base. Sharing of knowledge can be, as we both know, something that never really stops. In some ways, we’re more facilitators than knowledge bearers and sharers. We will often point people towards other resources as opposed to be like, let’s sit down for an hour-long session and I’ll walk you through it. That can happen, but not too often.

I would say a programme like the Labs, as it is now, isn’t easily replicable, which I think is a good thing.This isn’t something that is scalable, sometimes these conversations happen when they need to happen. We were taking advantage of what was going on at the time and what was relevant to that artist, in that specific moment. You need to be able to respond to what artists need, when they need it.

32° East has a very international reach, particularly through its residency model and networks. I see you have worked with artists both locally, on a global scale and directly from the continent. How does the international compliment the work you are doing within a local context?

I’d say through activities like the Labs, through our international residencies and exchange programmes, only if and when the opportunity comes up to be able to carry out that activity because in all honesty it doesn’t always. If the funding comes available where we have the opportunity to carry out an exchange, then yes, we usually take advantage of it because we know how important it is to do.

The art world can be quite magical sometimes. The fact that artists get to have so many opportunities to travel and to exchange with people across the world is incredible. Not everyone, obviously gets to participate in these opportunities. For a lot of artists, once you have your portfolio, it’s important to seek out international opportunities. In the art world, as opposed to other industries, the level of international connection and exchange is really encouraged and promoted.

I think we’re so lucky to be part of a group of international networks. For 32º East, as much as possible, we try to extend that international knowledge to our local network, which isn’t always easy, to be honest. There’s not always the opportunity for exchange or the funding is not always available, or not always a natural fit, so we try to think creatively about how we can use these networks for the benefit of people we work with more regularly, which isn’t always beneficial or helpful.

I would like to ask you about the residency model. I am aware of the diversity of practices that you have through your programmes, which have included environmental artists, weavers, painters, performers, etc. What is the residency model and environment like at 32º East?

I think that the residency model in general was developed by learning from other spaces. It was Rocca and the other founder of 32, Nicola Elphinstone, who brought this model to 32º East. The nature of residency spaces is, if they work well then they should reflect their context. The artist will make work relevant to them if they’re given the space, the materials, the freedom and the support system to do that. We try to provide those things. The rest is up to the artist. We also look at a process of unlearning as well. Sometimes we’ll have artists who will report into us and constantly let us know what their schedule is. We try to show them that this is their time and it’s completely up to them as to how they use it. They don’t have to keep us informed of their movements. That change is interesting but also exciting to be able to give that to people.

There has been an increased global interest in contemporary art emerging from Africa, a phenomenon to which 32º East has contributed considerably, what do you make of this?

It’s hard to understand. For me, I’m always going to be skeptical of those things. It’s all very market-led. Often, there are a lot of motives behind that type of thinking, which you have to question. You don’t want people to be exploited. Any time something’s trendy, that trend will only go so far. Realistically for a lot of artists that we work with, they are happy this is happening, “we need the market to come, we need to be able to sell work, we need to eat and we want to be successful”. It’s also trying to facilitate connections for them. I don’t know how good we are at this, but we try to give them access to resources and knowledge about the market so artists can make better decisions and protect themselves more. That’s something we want to do at 32º East. I’m not sure if we’re there yet.

I think it’d be really great to be a role model for other spaces as well because the funding struggle is real for everyone. To be able to say we’ve done this in an area where there’s isn’t much structural funding, and for the arts, which is difficult everywhere in terms of funding, and that we did it this way. That would be incredible. It would be great to be able to share that with others as well.

It would be really exciting for 32º East to be able to make a statement that says, this is possible in an area where there isn’t much infrastructure for the arts, in a time in the world where I think culture is being dismissed even more, and being hampered, or efforts to support it, that would be really amazing. Building a new arts centre in Kampala is highlighting what we’re already doing in terms of providing a space for artists, and hopefully continuing to create community and facilitate connections between people that wouldn’t normally connect. Just being able to do that on a bigger and better scale, and by having the infrastructure that invites that on a larger level, that will bring in more investment, not even in terms of finances but just more care from a community outside of the arts, would be amazing. 32º East is a space that is centered around artists and contemporary art as well as providing new and exciting platforms for artistic practices and for people to engage with. I think this is really important, encouraging local people to support a local arts organisation, especially when you’re thinking about sustainability. 

– Laura Hensser, 2020