In a modern pop culture where adapting to trends is the norm, the desire to preserve culture, or at least blend the indigenous with the exotic, has been a rare thing to find over the past few decades. From boomboxes and Walkman cassette players to CD players and ipods and (eventually) the smartphone, the cultural shift is hard to fight. Apart from a recent trend among the youth to wear African-inspired designs, there has been pretty much a degeneration of African culture.
Michael Matthew “Matt Kayem” Kayiwa, a Ugandan contemporary visual artist, believes that if the African culture won’t be preserved in its entirety, he’ll at least make sure it’s never forgotten amidst the societal adaptations to “cool” Western ways of life. 27-year-old Kayem works for Africanah.org, a platform that promotes African, Afro-Caribbean and African-American contemporary art. He writes for the Start Journal, a Kampala-based online publication that documents art, and is also working with an artist-led publication called Nairobi Contemporary. He’s also a graffiti artist.
Kayem’s work is inspired by his profound interest in aesthetics and pop culture, and his ability to use his work to relate the two with societal themes like power, fame, death, religion among others.
“I express my hopes, dreams, desires and my perspective on the human experience in my work. Sometimes, I also play an activist role and add politics and racism in there. My style has been largely influenced by surrealism and pop art,” says Kayem.
The artist sources his concepts from mass media and the internet, and uses a maximal approach to merge ideas from various sources and fit them into his ideologies. He created a concept he calls Afropop, merging the Western with the African in his work. The surfaces of his paintings are not your regular canvas, but rather a creative mix of denim, barkcloth, Kente and Dutch-wax print (kitenge).
“Dutch-wax print, Kente and barkcloth stand for the African. Denim provides the Western touch. Together, they represent an ideology that represents my persona, and also mirrors the present-day African society around me.”
The Open-minded Artist
Kayem believes that artistic expressions should not be limited by societal or institutional constructs. On that account, his art explicitly explores the taboo themes where many would rather not tread; race, religion, sexuality among others.
His most recent exhibition called Cool Afrika displayed a nude self-portrait called Brilliantly Endowed. It also showcased a painting of an African vagina called The True Origin of the World, with the objective of portraying Africa as the home of civilization and ipso facto the origin of humankind.
The artist also showcased at the same exhibition a painting called Afrikan Baller, that portrays the Western media reporting negative news about Africa, ironically misrepresenting the good life the young adult African in the painting is actually living.
Matt’s vision is that the African mind can be decolonized. In shaping his vision, he stresses through his work that while decolonization might not mean total disposal of the Western education and culture adopted so far, it can be integrated with our African values to create an African generation that is not only educated, but is also conscious of their identity as Africans, and relates with that identity and owns to it.
Matt’s work has featured in various exhibitions, including the Laba Arts Festival, the 2nd and 3rd Kampala Biennale, East African Visual Art Connect among others. His sculpture Kanyesigye also made him finalist in the ArtPrize by Mukumbya-Musoke Advocates in August 2018. His work is available for purchase, and he can be reached on Instagram and Facebook. You could as well book a studio visit with him on +256 701295591.