24 February 2022

Buluma Ochungo Mordecai (Class of ’62)

By Nantume Violet

A young man sits with his arms crossed, leaning back against a bright green wall. He is wearing red wire frame glasses, a warm pink shirt and blue jeans.

Buluma Mordecai, Self-Portrait, 1962, oil on canvas, Mount Allison Collection of Fine Arts Graduate Self-Portraits (c. 1940-1965)

I first crossed paths with artist Buluma Ochungo Mordecai on March 14, 2021, nine months after a seemingly futile search that took me to central and eastern Uganda. Fisk University Galleries (Nashville) had invited me to contribute an essay to the catalogue for an exhibition that included Buluma’s work. Unfortunately, I found very little information about him or his whereabouts. The first few hints came from Makerere Art School (Kampala, Uganda), who informed me that, after retiring from his role as Director of the Uganda National Cultural Centre (UNCC), Buluma had relocated to the Uganda-Kenya border town of Busia, where he was now living a quiet life. My research did not reveal much more information about the artist’s work, except for a reference I found in an essay situating his painting, The Rocket Kiln (c. 1960s), within a discussion of modernization and urbanization in paintings from the collection of the Makerere Art Gallery/Institute of Heritage Conservation and Restoration (Kampala). There were, however, several copies of faxed messages in Fisk University’s archives, which Perrin Lathrop, the curator of the exhibition at Fisk University Galleries, shared with me. The messages dated from the 1960s and documented correspondence between Buluma and the Harmon Foundation, a philanthropic organization based in New York that actively collected and exhibited his work in the 1960s.¹ Nine months of intense and seemingly hopeless research finally led me to Mbale District in Eastern Uganda. In March 2021, I received confirmation that the artist had indeed retired to his hometown of Busia and I decided to travel there. I told artist and friend Piloya Irene of my plans and she put me in touch with her former art school classmate, Nabwire Constance, an artist and teacher living in Busia. By a stroke of luck, Nabwire’s eldest sister happened to be Buluma’s daughter-in-law.

Buluma Mordecai and Nantume Violet sit both leaning over a table to read a book. Several more books are scattered on the table and chair behind them.

Buluma Mordecai and Nantume Violet look through the artist’s archive, 2021, photo courtesy of UNDER GROUND, Kampala, Uganda

On March 13, 2021, I set off to meet Buluma in Busia. In anticipation of my arrival, the eighty-seven-year-old artist set up a display of his archive in his living room. Books, magazines, and catalogues were spread across a table, chairs, and the floor. We went over most of his collection, discussing what it contained and why he had kept it, while also reading through some of his writings. All the while, Buluma actively reflected on the specific events that inspired many of his artworks. A sophisticated storyteller, he shared memories of his travels, jobs, and time studying at Mount Allison University.

Buluma is currently an elder and cultural leader in Bugwe kingdom. He was born to Wabwire William Ngakayi and Nekesa Janet in Busumba in the county of Samia-Bugwe, Uganda. The second of seven children, he attended Busia Primary School before joining Budo Kings College. It was at Budo that Buluma first studied art with his English teacher Margaret Carney, who offered art classes at least four hours a week. Six years later, Buluma obtained the Cambridge School Certificate and, in 1956, he was admitted to the University College of East Africa, now Makerere University, in Kampala. He joined the Makerere Art School at the age of twenty-three and studied painting with Margaret Trowell and sculpture with Gregory Maloba and Cecil Todd.

Buluma took great inspiration from Cecil Todd, who joined Makerere University when he was in his fourth and final year. Todd taught art by demonstration. He paid attention to detail and encouraged his students to master figure drawing and color theory, while also exposing them to art histories and practices from other parts of the world. In fact, it was through Todd that Buluma was introduced to the Harmon Foundation.

After graduating from Makerere University, Buluma applied to the Royal College of Arts in London. Three months later, in the fall of 1960, he received a Commonwealth Scholarship and Fellowship and instead joined the Fine Arts Department at Mount Allison University, where he studied painting, sculpture, and English for two years. In 1961, he received a Fine Arts Certificate from Mount Allison. It was in Sackville that Buluma had his most active years as an artist. Indeed, many of his most celebrated works date from this time and were exhibited in galleries and museums in the United States (primarily New York) and East Africa.

Buluma went on to have a rich career in his home country where he worked as a practicing artist, teacher, and public servant for six decades. Known in Canada and the United States for oil paintings and colored silkscreen and woodcut prints, his artistic abilities were evident in childhood in the caricature drawings he did of his classmates, as well as the clay models he made of bulls and human figures. His first titled artwork, a drawing of a store building he called Imperial Standard Pound (1946), was done on a classroom black board. It depicted the artists’ personal take on a local chief’s impressions of a set of standard weights and measures he encountered on a trip to London.

A black and white photograph of three men standing in a gallery. Two rows of paintings hang on a wall behind them.

Buluma Mordecai with Christopher Pratt and Ken Tolmie, 1960, Mount Allison University Archives, Picture Collection, 2007.07/2555

Alex Colville, who taught painting when Buluma was at Mount Allison University, once observed, “Art springs out of [Buluma’s] own experience of life in Africa, without any trace of sentimentality, melodrama, or exoticism. His work pays homage to his realities. His paintings and prints are certainly plastic rather than literary, but they have an extra ordinary intense and poetic evocativeness.”² In Buluma’s work Man with a Bulldog in the Evening (1961), the artist explores the themes of confinement and animal rights. He attributes his love of animals to his grandfather, who he helped herd cattle during primary school holidays, and he continues to keep pets and other domestic animals. The oil panting The Abandoned Hut (1961), on the other hand, vividly critiques the erosion of family ties in a modern world in which people are forced to migrate to cities in a relentless pursuit of new economic opportunities. The painting captures the human struggle and the repercussions of the labour flight to the city: the breakdown of the family support system as siblings shirk their responsibilities to each other and children stop caring for their parents. The toll this takes on the family unit—the guilt of unmet promises, the scourge of absentee fathers, and the struggles of urban life—are visually symbolized in the painting as crumbling huts. In the artist’s words, “I paint a picture of absent fathers and the dissipating struggle in the city in crumbling hut houses.”

Two students stand at easels, and one sits on a chair while drawing a figure wearing a large fur coat. The figures wear simple and colourful clothing.

Buluma Mordecai (Ugandan, b. 1934), Sackville Studio, c. 1960, oil on canvas, Fisk University Galleries, Nashville, Gift of the Harmon Foundation, 1991.1175

Buluma left Canada in September 1962, after receiving a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree from from Mount Allison in the spring, and just as Uganda was gaining independence from the United Kingdom. That November, he joined the Uganda Museum as a trainee Education Officer. At that time, colonial directors were handing over management of many public institutions to African leadership. As an education officer at the national Museum, Buluma played a significant role in developing new art education initiatives, including exchange programs between school children in Uganda and other countries. He developed art school programs, promoted visual aids and briefcase exhibits, and supported the construction of a film library, as well as the development of an art curriculum for school children.

Buluma eventually became active as a curator, featuring the work of fellow artists in the region in collaborative projects presented across East Africa. He was part of the curatorial team for the Independence exhibition at the Uganda Museum, and co-curated other exhibitions at the Nommo Gallery (Kampala) with Cecil Todd. As a museum and cultural representative, he travelled to several countries, including Mexico, Yugoslavia, and the United States. He was intensely engaged with the Ministry of Culture from 1962 until he retired from public service in 1989. During his career, he promoted artists, wrote cultural commentaries for the New Vision newspaper, and published two children’s books, Cheche and Taaka (1996) and Cheche the Monster (2003), both with Fountain Publishers.

In 1968, the Ugandan Ministry of Education appointed Buluma as a teacher at the National Teachers College, now known as Nkozi University. He later served as a Fine Arts and English teacher at the Kampala Technical Institute (now Kyambogo University). He was Curator at the Nommo Gallery, Director of the Uganda National Cultural Centre (UNCC) under the Ministry of Culture and, in 1970, served as a director at the Uganda Museum before retiring to full-time studio practice in the 1980s. Buluma continues to draw and paint and is currently working on a new body of work for a solo exhibition.

Nantume Violet stands, smiling next to Buluma Mordecai seated. They are outside, in front of a large tree on a sunny day.

Nantume Violet with Buluma Mordecai, 2021, photo courtesy of UNDER GROUND, Kampala, Uganda

Nantume Violet is an artist, curator and director at UNDER GROUND, a contemporary art space in Kampala, Uganda. For this article, she conducted interviews with Buluma Ochungo Mordecai between March and April 2021.

¹ Active from 1921 to 1967, the Harmon Foundation is recognized for collecting, promoting, and exhibiting the work of African and African-American artists in the United States.

² The Vision of Alex Colville, CBC Television interview, aired January 23, 1962