Art is activism: an interview with Ruganzu Bruno

 

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Last week I talked with visiting artist Ruganzu Bruno outside of Penland’s wood studio. It was Ruganzu’s second week at Penland—a time for making his own sculpture after a wild week of collaborative effort. During that first week, Ruganzu and volunteers handpicked by Penland and the McColl Center for Art + Innovation in Charlotte built an eco-friendly play area behind Penland’s Ridgeway building. The rapid evolution of the play area (which stars a soaring Luna Moth) can be viewed in the slideshow above.

Thanks to the efforts of Penland’s community collaborations team, Ruganzu and his volunteers attracted and involved the energies of many in the Penland community, including students in Penland’s Kids Camp. Their playground now includes the bamboo-frame Luna moth filled with recycled bottles and coffee cans and a new tire-swing structure.—Elaine Bleakney

 

How are you finding your time at Penland?

The space, the quiet, being away from the city and chaos—this is more like a world for artists, and I feel privileged to be here. Having come with students from Charlotte from different backgrounds for a week to work on an eco-playground was rewarding. We got here and we got moving and working together—and then the students found it hard to leave. The knowledge of people at Penland—everyone has so much knowledge and experience, it’s a rare feature.

 

How did you all decide on the works that would be part of the playground at Ridgeway?

It was a collective decision. I had visited Penland last December. I was making another playground plan in Charlotte for a neighborhood project called Brightwalk that had the same principles. In May I met again with parents and teaching artists, and they were so fond of the Luna moth that I switched my design, working in this idea. I consulted the kids in camp at Ridgeway too—they told us how they love to swing, and so we thought about how much of the playground we could create for swinging. I met Tom Dancer and Matt Anders—they knew all the types of wood and how lasting it was, even how old the wood was. So I call the new swings ‘The Dancer Swings’ after Tom: he’s the one who told me that locust wood might work instead of a chain I had designed for the tire swing. When he told me this I was thinking ‘Okay, how do I change my design?’ But in the end we discovered that the wood worked, and so there was new innovation.

 

How did you make the leap from studying painting, such a solitary act, to working collaboratively on public art?

I trained in painting and sculpture, and was finding collectors—it was selling. But it was not rewarding. Art needs to be in a community. Sometimes as artists we think that all we can do are pieces of aesthetic value for rooms, museums, galleries. For me, I got interested in environmental issues, especially in my country—Uganda is one of the countries affected most by climate change. It’s so hard because Uganda is so green; it’s hard to convince even a local person that we’re being affected. Most people don’t really care, so I was seeing art as an entry to activism. It also happened that when I was at university I saw that artists were communicating to other artists or to the people who collect art—the elite, people who have been to good schools—but it didn’t really go to a local person. So for me this was the realization.

 

What was your experience with art as a child like?

I grew up in a district of Uganda where the mountains and nature were all around. We had lots of potters—and that environment nurtured me. I had a really good artist mentor, teacher, and friend, so I started surviving on art. I grew up as an orphan. I was selling my small pieces, working on what I would call commercial art, and that was my background. I don’t know when it was I started drawing—I’m not one of those artists who can tell you that. For me, the economics in my district taught me about art because I could see that artists could actually make money. So I had a way of finding my feelings about my losses as an orphan and I knew that art would be my solace.

 

Is making art still a solace for you?

I think so. I think my need to make playgrounds relates to my childhood—there was something I was missing—it wasn’t play, it was more the economy, the need to have enough. I see a lot of kids in the U.S. with so much and they feel like they have no choices. I had so little and I saw that I had to choose what would make me happy.

I find in my work that I’m trying to address the consumerism. I’ll be doing a project in Denmark next year called What Is Eating You. I’ll be using some African rituals to show how we can solve issues. Back home, if I wrong you, it’s possible that we don’t rush to court, and we go to the chief. One of the tribes in Uganda actually uses food as conflict resolution. That’s what I’ll be doing in Denmark, in schools.

 

Thank you so much for being here with us.

I would love to come back. I want to try out everything here! I would love to see a Penland structure in Uganda, there would be so many people lining up to enter.

 

 

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