Robert Ssempijja

– Alienation 2022

Robert Ssempijja is one of the artists whose contribution is based on the proximity of the French border. Much to his amazement he discovers that border is not only easily accessible but also just as easy to cross. To his thinking this is completely unusual and almost utopic. That is why he decides to share his own experience crossing borders with the inhabitants and visitors.

To be able to understand his project thoroughly, it is crucially important to gain a deeper understanding of the city of his birth: the Ugandan capital of Kampala. The city has over 4.4 million inhabitants and is the economic heart of a country that is home to no fewer than 56 tribes and whose population is growing lightning fast. The city is sprawled across 176 km2 north of Lake Victoria. Before the colonisation the seven hills in this area were the hunting grounds of the king of Buganda.

Under British rule, German urban planner Ernst May was commissioned in 1945 to design a city, for which he drew inspiration from the garden city model. He created a city in which each of the hills had its own centre and was surrounded by spacious agricultural lands. Although Kampala has long outgrown the name of ‘city of seven hills’, they are still crucially important to the city and they also have unique landmarks that are of religious, cultural and colonial value. As in many other modern African cities, Kampala was designed against a background of racial segregation, with a clear separation between the colonial rulers, the Asian population and the indigenous peoples.

Ssempijja’s installation is part of his research project ‘Alienation’, which consists of four parts: a dance movie, an art installation, a performance and a live act. His project is a search for the true meaning of the word ‘home’. The circle in the installation symbolises the city, whereas the red soil represents the land and the people who live there. The surrounding walls are the border. The street names refer to Ernst May’s design of Kampala. In the centre is a hill that symbolises the place where the colonial rulers lived.

The dance film records how the public moves between the walls and the circle. The projection on the walls makes them the ones who are excluded from the city’s central circle.

‘Alienation’ is about artificial or imposed borders and structures, and by extension about exclusion in all its forms. Because of the colonial origins of Kampala’s urban architecture, Ssempijja has never truly felt at home there. After all, how can people feel at home in a city that wasn’t built by or for them?

1994, Uganda

Foto: Iwert Bernakiewicz

Robert Ssempijja is a Ugandan contemporary artist and dance researcher who is having a career both through formal and informal setting experiences, whose practice is marked by the era of post-colonialism and decolonization, Ssempijja’s work is composed of research projects that reproduce into dance films, installations and performances. In his practice, he presses against the body’s physical limits to create work that is utterly sincere. Ssempijja is searching for “a regenerative art practice” which moves away from exploitative relationships. Through dance, he makes a bridge between the distorted past and the digital present. Ssempijja is also curious to know how the body creates and transfers information and secrets into a movement that builds up the body’s own vocabulary. He assumes that our bodies are comprised of archives of information which are activated when it comes to movement.

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