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Art, Grief, Space, and Everything in Between navigates the experiences and process of art and the space in which the art is made, following the first cohort of artists in residency at 32° East's new home in Kabalagala, Kampala. The following narration is from the perspective of Rebecca Khamala, one of the artists, as she takes us through her process of creation, to her interactions with the other artists in residence and their work.

The works include Living On by Rebecca Khamala, rest in time and space by Birungi Kawooya, Layers of life by Natnael Ashebir, and In my Solitude: I feel. I think too much ...I like it by Dan "Ngaara" Ngalamulume. The four studios all turned out to have a reflectiveness to them, with the artists looking backward and inward as they sought to heal and identify themselves and the world around them. The articles are; The Art Space: 32° East, Studio 1: A Tale of Broken Clocks, Studio 2: Learning To Breath Again, Studio 3: A Time-Space Continuum, and Studio 4: A Moment of Silence.

The Art Space: 32° East

"The more living patterns there are in a place - a room, a building, or a town - the more it comes to life as an entirety, the more it glows, the more it has that self-maintaining fire, which is the quality without a name."

The Timeless Way of Building _Christopher Alexander

My Residency at 32° East

I started my residency at 32° East on the 16th of January 2023, after a long week of funeral preparations for my big sister Martha who had passed away on the 7th of the same month. As you can imagine, I went into the place broken in ways I could not articulate, and yet I had to join anyway.

Whenever I shared that I had just lost my sister, people wondered why I did not take the time off to properly mourn, and I would wonder the same. But in all honesty, I was just on autopilot trying to catch up with the rest of the world, as my own had disappeared. I had one thought in mind while going into the residency, that I would have some room to grieve.

My sister was diagnosed with Leukemia earlier in February 2022, and we spent the year nursing her as she went in and out of Uganda Cancer Institute. The atmosphere at home and in the hospital required everyone to be as optimistic as possible, carry our worries under what we wear, and hope as much as the dress that covered them.

There was no room to cry. And when she left this world, the little space we had to ourselves as a family was occupied with the extended family, friends, and neighbors who had joined us to send off our beloved. That was definitely no environment to process the death of my childhood hero. I needed space away from duties and obligations and "nga kitalo" (a luganda expression that loosely translates as "sorry for your loss").

I needed some emptiness and quiet to merely be, to ask questions, to ugly cry, to feel defeated, to break down, without having to worry about anyone or anything. Although I was not entirely conscious when I packed my bags to go for the residency, I found sanctuary in my studio space at 32° East.

Kampala’s first custom-built community art space, 32° East | Ugandan Arts Trust, is an independent non-profit organization established in 2011. It focuses on the creation and exploration of contemporary art in Uganda and the wider East African region. The multi-purpose resource center provides studio and exhibition space, accommodation space for artists in residence, an art library, and communal working space. 

Completion of 32° East phase 1. Source: Rebecca Khamala

A Feel of Practical Grind

Our residency started while phase one of the Trust's new home was in its completion stages. The noise from all the construction was trying, but it was a privilege to experience that process of completion for something that had been seven years in the making.

The site had interesting adjacencies, with two of four shipping containers that made up the campus of 32° East's former home spilling into the courtyard. This along with an old roughcast finished building block that was found on site, and the new earth building in all its redness. The site resounded a change, a transition, a shift in times that scared me a little more than I cared to admit, because I was going through a transition myself that I was not ready for, that I probably could have never been prepared for, but was bound to happen anyway. 

The buildings at the art center spill into a central courtyard. Source: New Makers Bureau/Timothy Latim.

The new earth building, phase one, comprises four studios, restrooms, and an art library, part of a multi-purpose café space to temporarily function as a gallery and workspace until the completion of phase two. Phase two is anticipated by the end of 2024, and it includes a gallery with a mezzanine, four artist guest rooms, two artist studios, offices, kiosks, and a walled courtyard garden.

In his book Spirit and Place, Christopher Day states that the thing that roots substance (flow, mood, and spirit – the principles of earth, water, air, and fire) into time and timelessness is its ability to manifest sustainable solid components, and materials close to their natural origin. Perhaps that's what gives the new earth building its artistic quality. The building is made from materials taken from the site itself. 

The earth building is inspired by Lalibela churches of Ethiopia. Source: New Makers Bureau/Timothy Latim

The rammed earth and earth brick structure is supported by foundations made of solid local sandstone, the earth bricks composed of the rich, red-colored earth extracted directly from the site and sifted and pressed into blocks. This, in addition to leftover materials from two redundant demolished buildings reused for fill and as aggregate, and local eucalyptus timber used for the rammed earth formwork, were reused to make the roof trusses and shingles.

Designed by London-based architecture practice New Makers Bureau in collaboration with Kampala based architecture design and build firm, Localworks, the building stands tall like a fortress, taking cues from the idea of archaeology and excavation, inspired by the medieval monolithic churches of Lalibela, Ethiopia. 

Bete Medhane Alem - House of the Saviour of the World, Lalibela, Ethiopia. Source: Bencinto the traveller

Finding a Sense of Security in Fine Architecture

The building did feel like a sanctuary from the time I got access to my studio. The earthiness of it had a grounding effect that gave me a sense of security at a time when the world seemed unsafe when I couldn't expose my vulnerability.

The space came to life as a well of light beamed through a polycarbonate slit on the roof. I could trust my brokenness to it, give it my pain and it provides comfort in return. There was never a dull moment, but a balance and play of textures throughout the building envelope. 

Skylight in the studio. Source: Rebecca Khamala

The materials came together so lovingly, the space holding me amidst my loneliness. It filled the silence with warmth, and its portal-like window transported me to different worlds when I was burdened with thought. 

Portal-like windows. Source: New Makers Bureau, photography by Timothy Latim

Portal-like windows. Source: Rebecca Khamala

A Place of Rebirth and Networks

One architect claimed that an architect's most important skill is empathy— the ability to understand one's client or user's pain points and design a solution. I don't think the architects particularly had me, a grieving artist, in mind, but they sure created an environment, an art space true to its users.

My studio space ended up becoming a part of my installation, a space that bore my soul and permitted me to let others in on my vulnerability. The built-in seating right outside the studios, shaded by the building's sweeping roof, naturally became an extension of our thought process. 

Completion of phase one celebrations. Source: 32° East /Instagram

We had numerous conversations, developed bonds, and found inspiration from the interactions there. I was encouraged and supported by the community of artists at the center throughout my process of material exploration and grief, something I'll forever be grateful for. I left the residency with a new burden; to extend the empathy I experienced as a user of the space in my spatial design projects. 

Poet Ssebo Lule talking about his book during 32° monthly artists meeting. Source: 32° East Instagram

Our open studios happened alongside the launch of phase one of the art center on March 23rd - 25th, a celebration of a milestone for the trust, the artists, and art in Uganda, East Africa, and Africa as a whole. The art center is an inclusive space that welcomes local artists and visitors to work, socialize, gather, and exchange ideas.

Interested artists can subscribe to an annual membership, apply for a three month residency, rent studios, or exhibit their work at the center. Check out 32° East's social platforms to be updated on the programs and opportunities available, as well as contribute whatever you can to the realization of phase two. 

Rebecca Khamala

Rebecca Khamala is a designer and writer who is enthusiastic about people and culture. She is very passionate about telling stories and meeting people through her travels. Poetry, photography, art and design inspire her. She is now exploring the spheres of short stories, film, and performance. She shares bits of her work on her social media platforms and YouTube channel (The name is kara_카라).