Insights From Matt Kayem On Identity, Pop Culture And Symbolism


Matt Kayem, a contemporary visual artist hailing from Uganda, was born Michael Matthew Kayiwa on June 5th, 1991, to a retired teacher and midwife in the quaint town of Mityana, situated 60 kilometers from the capital, Kampala. Growing up surrounded by his parents’ bookstore in the heart of town, a young Michael was introduced to handwriting and drawing at an early age.

In 2016, Matt Kayem embarked on his professional career with group exhibitions at the Makerere Art Gallery and the Laba Festival. His inaugural solo exhibition, “Pop-Rap-Hip,” took place at the Underground Gallery in 2016, and he participated in the Kampala Biennale the same year. The following year, Matt was part of the traveling exhibition, “Ekifananyi Kya Muteesa,” showcased at the Makerere Art Gallery, The Photo Museum in Antwerp, Belgium, and the National Museum in Nairobi, Kenya. His artistic journey also included an artist-in-residency at 32° East | Ugandan Arts Trust from January to March 2018 and a finalist position at the Mukumbya-Musoke art prize in 2018. Notably, he exhibited at the Kampala Biennale in 2018 and participated in the AtWork workshop hosted by Simon Njami. In 2018, his second solo exhibition, “Cool Afrika,” was held at the Design Hub in Kampala.

Continuing his artistic endeavors, Matt presented “Cool Afrika volume 2” at the Kioko Mwitiki Gallery in Nairobi, Kenya, in 2019. In early 2020, he engaged in an artist-in-residency at Modzi Arts, Lusaka, Zambia, culminating in his fourth solo show titled “Notes About The Times.” His participation in the group show “African Identities” at AKKA Project in Venice from April to June 2022 and the “Shout Plenty” show at the African Artists Foundation in Lagos, Nigeria, showcased his evolving artistic presence. Notably, Matt’s work is part of the Schulting collection at the Kunsthal KAdE museum in Amersfoort, Netherlands, featured in a show titled “Africa Supernova.” Additionally, his work is currently exhibited in the group show “Silent Invasions” at Amasaka Gallery in Masaka, Uganda, until early January.

Exploring themes of identity, race, African history, decolonization, black consciousness, religion, sexuality, and pop culture, Matt’s art often revisits pre-colonial Africa or Buganda, his place of origin. He incorporates elements from daily life, particularly the bark-cloth, a traditional fabric crafted by his ethnic group for generations. Merging this cloth with denim and modern items, he comments on his position as a young, ‘modernized’ African seeking to reconnect with a depleted past shaped by colonialism. The African wax print fabric (kitenge) in his works symbolizes the contemporary African, struggling with a distorted identity post-colonialism. Denim represents Western influence, a constant presence in African life, while bark-cloth signifies the traditional and original African ways. Matt’s art alludes to the ongoing process of decolonization and conscious integration of cultures foreign to the African experience.


Question 1: When it comes to interpreting art, especially your own work, what factors do you believe play a significant role?

Matt Kayem: Interpreting art is a nuanced process influenced by various factors. I’m hesitant to impose a specific perspective on people. Art, with its constructs and foundations, isn’t meant for universal appreciation. Let’s be frank—it’s not meant for everyone. Imagine someone in Owino Market, striving to earn a daily wage. How do you convince them that your artwork matters when their primary concern is survival, putting food on the table? Art, to them, may seem like a luxury item. It all depends on the audience and where you position your work on the artistic ladder. As an artist, you identify your audience, and those who resonate with your work will naturally gravitate towards it.

Question 2:  Your insights on the audience and positioning are fascinating. Moving on to the inspiration behind your artwork, particularly addressing identity issues in Africans—could you delve into how you seamlessly merge themes like decolonization and pan-Africanism with pop culture?

Matt Kayem: Certainly. I am deeply interested in exploring identity issues in contemporary Africa. Post-colonialism, we find ourselves in a state of confusion—cultural and political. My artwork aims to address this confusion by bringing high-level academic themes like decolonization and pan-Africanism into the accessible realm of art. I believe these complex concepts, usually confined to lecture rooms, can be made more relatable and interesting, especially to the younger population across Africa. By merging these themes with elements of pop culture, such as those seen in hip-hop and urban fashion, I aim to create narratives that resonate with the youth.

Question 3: Your ability to bridge academic themes with pop culture is intriguing. Could you shed light on how you navigate the intersection of seemingly contrasting visual languages, such as traditional African symbols and pop culture elements, in your artwork?

Matt Kayem: The contrast between traditional African symbols and pop culture is a deliberate choice. I find beauty in juxtaposing elements that aren’t conventionally associated. My familiarity with both worlds—the academic concepts of decolonization and the vibrant pop culture of today—allows me to seamlessly merge them. For instance, I use materials like denim to represent Western aesthetics, which have persisted in Africa post-colonialism. Back cloth symbolizes the original identity of Africans, rooted in traditions and cultural heritage. Dutch wax prints, while not originally African, carry motifs stolen from the continent. These materials form layers of meaning in my work, creating a rich tapestry of symbolism.

Question 4: Your use of symbolism adds depth to your work. Are there specific symbols or motifs that consistently carry significance in conveying your message on identity and colonization?

Matt Kayem: Symbolism is integral to my work, with each piece carrying various layers of meaning. Notably, the fabrics I use—denim, bark cloth, and Dutch wax print—represent distinct aspects. Denim signifies Western influences persisting in Africa, while bark cloth represents the continent’s original identity. Dutch wax print, though not originally African, carries stolen motifs. Each material contributes to the overarching narrative of identity and colonization. However, the symbolism in my work evolves, and each piece may introduce new symbols or reinterpret existing ones to convey different messages.

Question 5: Balancing the global appeal of pop culture with a focus on African identity is a challenge. How do you ensure your art remains relatable on a broader scale without diluting its cultural narrative?

Matt Kayem: While pop culture has a global appeal, my primary focus is on African identity issues and decolonization. To make my work more engaging for a broader audience, especially the youth, I incorporate elements of pop culture. This adds an accessible layer to the depth of my narrative. The goal is to attract attention through relatable aspects while ensuring there’s a profound message beneath the surface. It’s a delicate balance, making the art enjoyable on the surface yet thought-provoking for those who delve deeper into its meaning.

Question 6: Your work has gained international recognition. Could you share some of the challenges and opportunities you face as an artist, particularly in the context of Uganda’s art scene?

Matt Kayem: In Uganda, the art scene faces challenges such as a shortage of art critics, writers, and institutions like contemporary art museums. However, the opportunities for African artists, especially Ugandans, are immense. There’s a growing interest in African art globally, with international platforms showcasing our work. I’ve had the privilege of exhibiting internationally, collaborating with galleries like Archive Gallery in Dubai. Now is an excellent time to be an African artist, as the world seeks diverse cultural expressions beyond Western norms.


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