“Being Modern”: Identity Debates and Makerere’s Art School in the 1960s
Sunanda K Sanyal
(Published: Monica Visona and Gitti Salami eds., A Companion to
Modern African Art. Malden, Mass.: Wiley-Blackwell: pp. 255-75)
Ulrich Middeldorf was a historian of Renaissance art. A student of the legendary Heinrich Wölfflin, he headed the Art Department of the University of Chicago. On 16 May 1950, he wrote a letter to his contact at Uganda’s Makerere University College, thanking him for sending an exhibition of student paintings to Chicago. “I have seen many things coming from curious outposts of civilization,” Middeldorf wrote:
From Asia, from the Americas, from our city slums,…..but the material which you lent us is really the most surprising and most satisfactory which I have ever seen. What seems to me so remarkable about it is that it seems altogether developed from genuine feelings and interests of the students, with little or no reference to European conventions. That gives the work an amazing freshness and makes it……excellent study material for the psychologist of art, on the same level as good children’s drawings or genuine primitive art.
He also felt strongly about the artists’ choices of palette:
I very much hope that the modern magentas, greens, purples and reds and yellows never will come to your corner of Africa before this particular color taste is firmly established. I have seen so many good folk arts completely ruined by them.
The unequivocally essentialist and paternalistic tone of Middeldorf’s remarks shouldn’t surprise us, since it was the norm of colonial culture. Rather, what we should find odd is that his “curious outpost of civilization” was actually an art department of an African institution of higher learning. Why, then, did Middeldorf find “little or no reference to European conventions” in those images?
Margaret Trowell, an English artist and educator trained at London’s Slade School, brought formal art education to Uganda in 1937. Having accompanied her doctor husband to Kampala, she organized art classes first at her house, and then at Makerere College, which, in the following year, became the Higher College of East Africa. This art training enterprise was soon recognized as the college’s informal art department, a status that became official after the institution became Makerere University College..