A Studio conversation: Pamela Enyonu

Asinasi 1 (Pamela Enyonu)

Writer and art critic Matt Kayem sat down with multidisciplinary artist Pamela Enyonu in her creative space …

It’s only been two years since Pamela Enyonu quit a nice office job to jump into the hot saucepan that is the art world, but her career has been sky rocketing. She had a residency in 2017 at 32° East –  Ugandan Arts Trust, won the inaugural Mukumbya Musoke Art Prize in 2018 and was part of Segou Art Festival in Mali early this year. She was also one of the Ugandan participants in the travelling exhibition, Future Africa Visions in Time (FAVT), a series of workshops and conferences looking at fictional representations of the future, Afrofuturism and the internet, all of which showed at Kampala’s Makerere Art Gallery in August this year. I caught up with her at her home studio in Najjera, a Kampala suburb and we chatted about African art, female artists and the future of Africa.

Did you always think you would be an artist?

Yes, I made that decision in Grade 4. I’m a maker. That’s what I discovered within myself when the teacher brought a yam and put it in front of the class and told us to draw it. Mine came out very life-like. I come from a hyper realistic background and I thought, this is so easy, I could do this for the rest of my life. Since then I’ve been inclined towards things I could draw. Even when I went to high school, I didn’t do the usual graphic design or fabric decoration. I did nature and life drawing.

You were a copywriter and marketer before becoming a full-time artist. What made you take what seems to many people, an irrational decision?

I was in copywriting for about six years because I joined it as soon as I came from the tabloid Red Pepper, and I absolutely enjoyed it. As I approached my 30s, I went through what I call a quarter-life crisis. I knew I could only stay in the advertising world for another 5 to 10 years. So, I started to think about alternatives, like writing, but then I’m not patient. I prefer short stories and poetry and can’t do long novels. I started going to exhibitions after work to relieve myself off the stress and I thought wait, I’ve got an art degree and I’m not using it. I started to think about doing art on the side but then realized that it is a very demanding mistress. I started making a gradual plan to leave advertising and make art full time

Gaudesia 1 (Pamela Enyonu)

What is your creative process like? 

Usually something jump starts something. Sometimes I have a story I want to tell and that’s when I look around [for the best materials] and I think if I use this, what will it represent? My creative process is very sober. I work a lot with music. I only recently realised that sometimes if I smoke a joint and write, the ideas come out a bit more free and looser; more expressive. That’s only when I’m writing, but with the artwork, the day I did that, I ended up lying on the floor and sleeping. So, if I’m doing mental work, yes, I can smoke a joint but when I’m doing some of the finicky stuff, I can’t. It requires a certain level of concentration.

‘It doesn’t matter what your craft is and what materials you are using, there is an audience for them’

You were part of the exhibition, Future Africa Visions in Time (FAVT) at the Makerere art gallery. How important was it for you to be part of this project?

It was very important for me because the truth is that as a mixed-media artist, I go through a lot of self-doubt. I know I have the skill set to follow the trends, but I’m torn between following [them] and expressing myself. The fact that Martha Kazungu (curator of FAVT) would see something I do, for pleasure, for me, and say, you know I can actually put that in a gallery, was a moment of affirmation. It was like saying, it doesn’t matter what your craft is and what materials you are using, there is an audience for them. FAVT giving me that audience and space was very important especially to re-affirm myself and my belief in my craft. 

What sort of messages are contained in your work?

I like to provoke or make people angry ­– or sad. I also like to empower people. I question the idea of future leadership. One of the things I feel sorry about as an African, a Pan-African and an Afro-Pan-African Feminist, is the fact that our history has set us back about 500 years in terms of slavery and colonialism. We have a lot of hurdles to overcome and most of us fail to overcome [these]. I imagine a future whereby everything is at equilibrium after a certain point and we’ve managed to get over these negative perceptions. Could there be a time when I can just exist on my own merit and talent, or do I need to qualify myself or have a sob story, or have lived in a slum to be considered a true artist? Thinking about the future is freeing for me because nobody has set the rules yet so I can be anything I want to be. If dreaming is what makes things possible, then it’s the beginning of a dream for me.

‘I was interested in [whether] we Africans know the power we have and how we will exercise it’

You were previously invited to Bamako to facilitate a workshop where part of the theme was “Africa is the future” and also you encountered the same concept at the FAVT project. How important is this theme to you?

When I started to think about Africa and the future being female, it’s like two demographic phrases. As an African woman, I asked myself what these phrases meant to me because I’ve seen them everywhere. By 2021, we will be the youngest population and if children are the future, so by extension, Africa is the future. The renewed interest in Africa’s middle class means we’re going to have a bit of the spending power that the rest of the continents enjoy, so you can see why the economic people are interested in focusing the lens on us. I was interested in [whether] we Africans know the power we have and how we will exercise it. Consumption too comes with its problems, like pollution, environmental degradation and hyper capitalistic-fascist organizations which are responsible for the problems we have today.

What does the future of Pamela look like?

Hmm, I don’t know but I do hope I will have the same drive that I have now. I don’t want to get to a point where I’m old and stuffy and only care about is the bottom line. I just hope I care in the same way I do now with much conviction and passion.