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Interview with Robert Ssewanyana

On the 4th January 2021 an event dubbed as a “Research Dissemination Exhibition”, was launched at the Makerere University Art gallery. Read our interview with the artist and PhD candidate:

Could you tell us a bit about yourself?

I am an applied sculptor and Lecturer at the College of Engineering, Art, Design and Technology (CEDAT) in the Margaret Trowel School of Industrial and Fine Art (MTSIFA), Makerere University, Kampala, Uganda (1999 to date). I teach drawing and applied sculpture in the Department of Industrial Art and design (DIAAD).  For the last 15 years, I have worked in collaboration with local artisans, on projects ranging from designing Igongo museum in S.W. Uganda to television studio sets (e.g. NTV, NBS and Spark Television studios in Uganda).

I grew up in a small village Ssumbwe which is 9 miles from Kampala city, wakiso District, Uganda. I attended my High school at Lubiiri Senior Secondary School in Kampala from where I Joined Makerere University in 1995 for a Bachelor’s degree in Industrial and Fine Arts (BIFA), which I completed in 1999 with a first class. In 2000, I pursued a postgraduate diploma in Education (PGDE) at the School of Education, Makerere University. Then I enrolled for a master’s degree (2002) in applied sculpture at the Margaret Trowel School of Industrial and Fine Arts, Makerere University and received the MAFA award in 2004. In 2018, an opportunity to pursue a PhD under the sponsorship of the ‘Global challenges Research Fund’ (GCRF-CDT) at the Centre of doctoral Training, Durham University came Knocking and fortunately I qualified to join a cohort of 26 other selected candidates from different overseas developing countries to study in Durham University at the beginning of 2019.

What made you decide to apply for the GCRF-CDT scholarship at Durham University?

First and fore most as a lecturer in Applied sculpture at Makerere University, it is mandatory to have a doctorate to remain academically relevant. Secondly, I obtained all my first qualifications from the same University i.e. Bachelors and Masters Degrees and to minimise academic in-breeding I took the opportunity as it presented itself. I had waited for over 10 years for this noble chance. When my Colleague and mentor- Dr. Lilian Mary Nabulime informed me about the advertisement of this studentship, I did not hesitate to apply. In November 2019, I received the award and now the rest is history. Otherwise, this doctoral studentship offered me the chance to begin a new academic journey, explore new life opportunities outside my home country.  Besides, it is every young man’s dream in developing nations to travel overseas for a better life opportunities. However, soon after this PhD programme, I will resume my duties at Makerere University and perhaps pursue a post doctoral course in due course.

Why engage art & creativity (applied sculpture) in the fight against pandemics?

Applied sculpture, which is a form of art and creativity meant for generating 3-D functional objects such as beds, tables and benches, is a potential tool in engaging and creating awareness on critical social issues in the communities, especially at the grassroot level where there are limited opportunities for formal education. The artworks, co-produced with young people on HlV/AIDS prevention under the research title “Art and creativity for HIV/ AIDS prevention and empowerment of young people in Uganda”, re echo this reality. The applied objects which were co-produced in a collaborative enterprise with young artisans during the eight months of field work in peri-urban spaces in Kampala (Bwaise, Katwe and Ndeeba), sought to raise questions and answers on key issues that surround the infectious diseases (HIV/AIDS and COVID-19), stereotypes and stigma. It is such open encounters with the disease, facilitated by familiar applied objects that can potentially lead to the increased awareness and eventual reduction in the scourge. Several visual activists (Berman, 2017; Wells, 2012) particularly in South Africa, argue that art-based practices potentially provide formal spaces for making sense of ordinary everyday experiences, finding meaning and crafting clarity of young people’s lived experiences in the context of HIV/AIDS. Besides, Research has demonstrated that art can be effective in breaking down taboos, enabling dialogue about sexuality and challenging HIV/AIDS stigma, with potential to change sexual behaviour within communities (L. M. Nabulime 2007; L. Nabulime & McEwan, 2011); Considering the complexity of the epidemic, applied sculpture can appropriately contribute to the HIV/AIDS fight by placing a greater emphasis on the creative process, engaging young people (both infected and affected by HIV/AIDS), and focusing on contextual barriers to prevention and care (Boneh & Jaganath, 2011). The on-going exhibition at the Makerere art gallery is an evidenced-based platform for demonstating the potential of applied sculpture in promoting a sense of empowerment among young people with (out) HIV and stimulating community dialogue about the structural and cultural obstacles to HIV/AIDS prevention[1]. This exhibition arguably affirms the essence of using applied sculpture as a viable tool in comprehensive education regarding HIV/AIDS prevention and empowerment for sustainable livelihoods among young artisans in informal spaces.

What in your life has made you so interested in this field of research?

Interestingly, for the last 15 years of applied practice in Kampala, I have been engaged in producing functional works for companies and individual in greater Kampala in collaboration with young artisans (carpenters, wood carvers, welders and sanders). This was achievable because of the expert knowledge, skills and wealth of experience exhibited by these young artisans as we executed different projects. Through sharing skills and continued social interactions in their informal spaces I often confronted immense social, economic and health challenges they endured as tried to make a living, including the devastating effects of epidemics such as HIV/AIDS. So pursuing a research that focuses on HIV/AIDS prevention and in line with sustainable development goals (SDGs) –End to poverty, Good health for all, Education for all and establishing sustainable partnerships for development, was a potential platform that could offer them a ray of hope for improved livelihoods.

[1] During his tour of the exhibition of the co-produced applied objects for HIV prevention by young people, Professor George Kyeyune, the Director of the Makerere Institute of heritage conservation and Restoration (MIHCR) noted that; “they have produced and continue to produce visual expressions, where they are being liberated to openly and honestly voice their thoughts on the scourge of HIV/AIDS”.

What are the biggest challenges in your research?

I have encountered several challenges in this research but below are the three major ones;

  • Abrupt interruption by covid-19 in March up to August when government swiftly imposed a countrywide lockdown paralysing all economic activities including a total ban of public transport. I could not reach my research sites as planned. But later, I improvised to conduct lockdown art and creativity workshops with young people under strict observance of the covid-19 standard operating procedures (SOPs). It was a blessing in disguise!
  • Working in informal space meant dealing with diverse cultural and ethnic groups as these spaces are dominated by migrant workers who come from all over the country in search for casual employment opportunities. Choosing a language that could effectively engage young people was problematic even when Luganda (a more familiar dialect) seemed cross-cutting for most participants in the study
  • Achieving a true “community-driven” agenda; this was particularly challenging because previous researches conducted in these spaces did not offer hope and sustainable solutions to local problems. Most local communities (informal) are largely marginalized and often excluded from government development and health intervention programmes which makes it hard for local to embrace new research activities in their spaces.
  • Many positive young people still face discrimination and stigma in the work place which makes it hard for them to openly participate and share their everyday experiences in the context of the epidemic. They often preferred one-on-one conversations usually at the end of the ‘art and creativity’ workshops which affected the action groups’ shared output. NB: Stereotypes and social barriers are still a huge impediment to the economic progress of young people living with HIV/AIDS and are a key driver to increased HIV transmissions among them in informal spaces.

What are the advantages of an international collaborative PhD?

  • Provides opportunities for less-priviledged overseas scholars to focus on academic discourses that can help address the problems faced by the less developed countries(LDCs), whilst developing their own abilities to deliver cutting-edge research skills applicable and transferable to their local context
  • Promoting global solidarity, cultural diversity and shared goals pursuant through the involvement of internationally shared Sustainable Development goals (SDGs) in research. A collaborative PhD primarily embraces international development agendas
  • Besides, social networking and cultural exchange helps build life-long friendships, as well as laying the foundations for future networks, and important business, political and diplomatic bridges.
  • Strengthens institutional partnerships and collaborations leading to further joint problem and solution-based researches with mutual, inclusive, social, economic and academic benefits. This may involve staff and student exchange programmes through research and supervision e.g. Makerere University and Durham University)
  • Additionally, it’s imperative to point out that international collaborative PhDs under the Official Development Assistance (ODA) funding contributes and significantly impacts on the academic, professional and social lives of less-privileged individuals from developing nations as they realise their personal and institutional ambitions

What has or who have inspired you during your research project?

The unprecedented outbreak of COVID-19 was a form of inspiration that immensely helped me to rethink my research methodology but also strengthened my understanding of social engagements in the context of two colliding pandemics- HIV/AIDS and COVID-19; drawing on lessons both contextually and structurally to further my field work up to the end- personal resilience

Individuals who have been at the centre of fighting the epidemic over the years; First and foremost Dr Lilian Mary Nabulime, a mentor, colleague and supervisor, who lost her husband to AIDS and soldiered on with resilience to pursue her career against all odds, pushing on with life beyond the confines of fear, stigma and social discrimination. Her PhD research “The role of sculptural forms as a communication tool in lives and experiences of women with HIV/AIDS in Uganda” (Nabulime, 2007) is testimony: highly empowering and reassuring among young women, especially single mothers, as she struggled over the years to overcome social stereotypes and stigma towards self-reliance and economic freedom- a transformation that has made her successful today. As we speak, my research is tangential to her effort in engaging men and women using everyday objects to fight HIV/AIDS in Uganda.

Secondly, the local artisans who immensely contributed to my development as an applied sculptor in the greater Kampala district. For the last 15 years, I worked with a several skilled young craftsmen (artisans) on different commissioned projects whose success I owe to them. Unfortunately, they could not measure how resourceful they were to all the projects we did together. Their way of living, casualized form of employment, low education attainment deprived them of the ability to bargain for better pay, exposing them to exploitation by unscrupulous businessmen and owners of workshops. They would then resort to alternative forms of survival including sports betting, gambling, drug abuse and alcoholism out of frustration. This made them and continues to make them vulnerable and at high risk of getting infected with HIV/AIDS. It is this constant reminder that has translated into a social responsibility to give back to them through practical engagements in the context of research (“Art and creativity for HIV/AIDS prevention and empowerment of young people”) to help transform their lives through skills development, behavioural change and economic empowerment. GCRF-CDT-Durham University is at the heart of this drive, having offered me an opportunity to pursue PhD in geography (2019-2022).

Perhaps most crucially, I am also driven by the words of a renown Brazilian theatrical practitioner and director of the 1970s, Augusto Boal, who once said “…..the purpose of art should not be to provide aesthetic pleasure or an escape from reality, but to contribute to society’s on-going attempts to solve its problems”(Prentki & Preston, 2013).

Do you have a message for young people wanting to pursue research in the realisation of the Sustainable Development Goals?

As young people, our future lies in them! But sadly, the social, cultural and economic factors including their low socio-economic status, vicious circle of poverty, gender-based violence, alcohol and drug abuse, general moral decay, community and leadership complacency continue to disrupt their journey towards economic empowerment and social development whilst driving HIV transmissions especially among adolescent girls and young women[1]. I therefore, urge those interested in pursuing research in realisation of SDGs, to focus on aspects that will address key social challenges and most importantly contribute to the universal efforts to confront the devastating effects of the two colliding pandemics- HIV/AIDS and COVID-19.

[1] “Without fighting poverty through empowerment, you can’t stop HIV/AIDS among young people; Women, in particular, must be economically empowered, otherwise they will always be susceptible to contracting HIV/AIDS” Lilian Mary Nabulime, 2007 (PhD Research -” The role of sculptural forms as a communication tool in lives and experiences of women with HIV/AIDS in Uganda)

photo credit Lukwago J

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In 2015, world leaders agreed to 17 goals for a better world by 2030. These sustainable development goals have the power to end poverty, fight inequality and stop climate change. All of the Durham Global Challenges – CDT projects are linked to one or more of the UN Sustainable Development Goals, to work together to build a better future for everyone.

The Durham GCRF-CDT students focused on productive writing at Dove Marine (Newcastle University) on the coast of Cullercoats. They used their time to prepare for their Formal Progression Review. This requires the students to submit for assessment a substantive piece of work as defined by their departments. The structured programme included a break with an outdoor activity.

A member of the Durham Centre for Academic Development facilitated the event for the CDT.

The Durham Global Challenges CDT Trip 2019

On 1st July 2019 the Durham Global Challenges-CDT organised a trip to the Angel of the North, Bamburgh, Seahouses and the Farne Islands. The trip offered a unique cultural learning experience of English heritage in North East England and provided an opportunity to network and socialise with the cohort.

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The video visualizes the yield comparison of rice production after flooding in rice fields, to the left IR64 including sub1, to the right IR64 without sub1

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