January 2, 2024

In Memoriam: Emma Wolukau-Wanambwa, 1976–2023

Emma Wolukau-Wanambwa. Photo by Lineo Segoete.

Written collectively by members of Another Roadmap Africa Cluster, members of the young people’s group Oi! that Emma worked with in Bergen, and also by Bodil Furu, Claudia del Fierro, and Alessandra Ferrini.

Emma was a passionate and relentless knitter—not only of intricate patterns of the fine wool that she loved so much, but of unlikely, subversive, and beautiful linkages of images, hi/stories, and theories. She was a knitter of networks for many, of safety nets for some of us. She knitted from a blended yarn, composed of fibers of humor, love, care, emotional wisdom, words, laughter, aesthetic rigor, knowledge, critical mind, warmth, stamina, anger, willfulness, personal/political commitment, and so much more—no one knew the complete mix.

—Carmen Mörsch, Founding member of Another Roadmap School

Born in Glasgow to Ugandan parents, Emma was an inspiring artist, an exceptional thinker, and a painstaking researcher, educator, and activist. She read English Literature at Cambridge University and worked as a theater scriptwriter for several years before obtaining a Master in Fine Art from the Slade School of Art in London. Emma’s hard work got her international grants, scholarships, and recognition: she lived in Germany and she worked between Uganda, South Africa, England, and Norway, amongst other places. Committed to creating networks, connections, and communities of care, Emma’s loss is indeed very deeply felt by many people, groups, and realities across the globe.

Emma is known for her radical and generative engagements with colonial archives, memorial practices, art education, and collaborative formats, as well as for her commitment to anti- and decolonial thinking and practices. A testament to this ethos is her work Carrying Yours and Standing Between You, which she presented at The Showroom gallery in London in 2018–19. Within an installation that she kept interacting with and changing throughout the length of the show, she displayed a large body of work, carried out with her characteristic rigor and curiosity. Bringing together a wide array of documents, photographs, and records from her interactions with archives, people, and landscapes, Emma pieced together, with thoroughness and thoughtfulness, the life of the pan-African anti-colonial activist Amy Ashwood Garvey, restoring her legacy and salvaging it from oblivion. In doing so she revealed the pitfalls of archival categorizations and the sustained erasure of Black women from History.

Emma skilfully navigated incredibly different environments, systems, and challenges (personal, professional, and political) with great care, determination, and charisma. This has made her an inspiration and reference to different generations and contexts. In 2015, in Kampala, Emma founded Another Roadmap Africa Cluster and was its primary convenor and tireless engine. This work also became part of the premise for her PhD at the University of Bergen, Norway that she was still working on at the time of her passing.

Another Roadmap Africa Cluster (ARAC) is a research cluster of the Another Roadmap School and comprises eight working groups based on the African continent. There are active ARAC working groups in the cities of Kampala, Johannesburg, Maseru, Cairo, Nyanza, Lagos, Lubumbashi, and Kinshasa. The collective convened for the first time in July 2015 at the Nagenda International Academy of Art and Design (NIAAD) in Namulanda, Uganda at Emma’s invitation. The delegates present were handpicked by Emma for their unique pedagogical approaches to arts education in their respective disciplines. They then spent four days presenting their work and planning a joint program of theoretical and practice-based research into artistic education in their respective locales.

At the time of ARAC’s inception, the working groups adopted, as an additional research aim, a commitment to making critical knowledges accessible in their respective locales and to sharing their deep understanding of local histories of art education. Internationally, ARAC has been part of conferences, festivals, meetings, talks, and exhibitions hosted by the greater Another Roadmap School, collaborators, and institutions in Spain (2015), Vienna (2017), Zurich (2018), Utrecht (2018), Stockholm (2018), and, most recently, Documenta 15 in Kassel (2022).

Emma’s vast knowledge of local practices, critical writings, and historical as well as contemporary discourses of art education in various African locales was of incredible value to the group. Bridging very different contexts in her work and life, she valued less visible and slow education and community-based initiatives dedicated to critical art education in communities away from the buzz of the art world. For example, in 2015, in collaboration with educators from the ARAC network, she organized a workshop with the staff of NIAAD that used the history of art education in Uganda to explore the decolonization of art education, including of course materials used by the teaching staff.

Emma was concerned with the decentralization of epistemologies and the importance of knowledge-production modalities that surface locales often overlooked by mainstream art discourse. As a result, the NIAAD staff workshop privileged oral histories, research into “local” alternatives, and the generation of research questions, debates, and documentation. The zine Decolonising Arts Education: A Research Manual, produced as both a record of the workshop and a “manual,” is an example of generating knowledge from the ground up (the first version of the zine was launched at ARAC’s first convention, held at NIAAD). The zine was also an example of what would become a recurring modality of practice and discourse in ARAC.

Many branches grew out of ARAC—many connections and friendships, sometimes with other collectives or initiatives that shared concerns and interests with the group. An example of this is Oi!, a project for young people from minority backgrounds who are interested in telling their stories. Emma initiated Oi! in connection with a 2019 exhibition at Bergen Assembly. It was a gathering place for young people aged nineteen to twenty-five who have experienced racism. The project was a platform to meet and to discuss topics of importance to the group on their own terms. Based on these discussions, the group developed public projects and a series of RISO prints that addressed social and environmental issues.

Emma always shined for the humbleness and sensibility that she displayed in these works and relations, never letting her impressive accomplishments (academic, artistic, professional) feel intimidating to others. Instead, she generously shared her incredible knowledge, experiences, and contacts, gifting so many people and projects with her precious insights, always doused with her signature wittiness.

The breadth of work—artistic, intellectual, political, collective, pedagogic—that she has left behind is a testament to her brilliance, generosity, and uniqueness. Her life has profoundly impacted and transformed many lives and, while her passing leaves us with a major loss and deep sorrow, we rejoice in the knowledge that her legacy will have a long-lasting impact. In the words of Malebona Maphutse and Simnikiwe Buhlungu, members of the Oi! collective in Bergen:

You really had a way of embodying change in this world in a way we had never witnessed before. Your warmth, care, and attention to every detail made sure we felt seen as artists for the first time in our lives. We were in complete awe at how mindful and intentional our experience with you in Norway was. This surely made it difficult to accept anything outside of that warmth when we met with other organizations and people afterwards.

Contemporary Art, Education
Memorials & Obituaries, Africa

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