Portfolio by Bruno Sserunkuuma/Introduction by TWR

As a young man, Bruno Sserunkuuma hoped to qualify one day as a medical doctor. This was so that he could look after his mother, who was sickly. At Kibuli Secondary School, where he studied the sciences as a high schooler, administrators were in the habit of forcing students to play soccer in the afternoon after classes ended, something he didn’t like to do. Sserunkuuma would hide in the art room while his classmates played in the field, and eventually he took up fine art as an examinable subject. It proved to be a momentous decision. Although he didn’t gain admission to medical school, “I ended up here in art [school] and I don’t regret,” he told TWR.  He enrolled at Margaret Trowell School of Industrial and Fine Arts in 1984 and graduated in 1989. In 1992 he earned his master’s degree in fine art, majoring in ceramics, from the same institution. 

Sserunkuuma, who turned 60 this year, grew up poor in a polygamous family. His mother left his father when he took a second wife, and Sserunkuuma was briefly raised by his step-mother before being reunited with his mother in a rural part of central Uganda. A bright student, he depended on the financial support of his maternal relatives and others in his community to stay in school. But it was his mother, above all, who made him the man he is, and Sserunkuuma said recently that he rues her death before he had come into his own as a distinguished artist. 

Sserunkuuma describes much of his work as paintings on the surfaces of ceramic vessels, and over the years the dignified figure of the African woman has featured prominently. If his creations are delicate things, then the women they often portray are vessels of grit and of sustenance. He told TWR that the major theme of his oeuvre as a ceramist is the role of African women as anchors of society: not just their hard work, but also their resilience even when they are up against the world. He was speaking from experience, having seen how his mother was badly treated but also as the citizen of a country in which more and more women are empowered to jump over hurdles that previously blocked them.  

“Mostly my work is talking about the strength of the African woman,” he said, adding that his work is effectively dedicated to his mother, the downtrodden woman who “made a big contribution towards my education.” Not surprisingly, many collectors and connoisseurs gravitate to his work because of this motif, connecting with it emotionally “because of the love of their mums, the love of the African woman,” he said.

The studio at Makerere University in which he has worked for years is crammed with examples of his finest work: pots, vases, planters, lampshades, everything. These mostly earthenware works, which he fires in a kiln outside his studio and personally decorates, have strong ornamental value. Many are exquisite, one reason they have been exhibited widely in shows at home and abroad. “Pumpkin,” a ceramic sculpture he made in 2002 and which is cover art for this issue of TWR, shows his technical prowess. Despite its lack of embellishment, this minimalist piece shines no matter which angle one looks at it from. Sserunkuuma’s awards over the years include second prize in the 2000 edition of the UNESCO Crafts Prize for Africa in ceramics. His submission to that competition, held at a trade show in the West African city of Ouagadougou, featured his work on the “Ganda Woman,” a category of which his mother was, for him, the finest specimen.

In 2018, to mark a quarter-century of Sserunkuuma’s career, Makerere University art gallery gave the artist a retrospective exhibition. There’s more: for many years, as a lecturer in drawing and ceramics, Sserunkuuma has been a loyal servant of Margaret Trowell School of Industrial and Fine Arts, from which his retirement became due this year. Some of his students remember him as a kind and thoughtful mentor, not one who tried to interfere with their artistic visions or criticize what he had no right to criticize. When Sserunkuuma spoke to TWR, in early June, he was thinking about his impending retirement from Makerere University, an event that would allow him to focus on his studio practice. “I want to practice as a professional ceramic artist. That is my target,” he said. Sserunkuuma is, in the view of TWR, among the leading artists of our time, albeit one who is yet to be widely appreciated.  ▪ 

Pumpkin 2002 glazed earthenware
The Fruit 2008 earthenware stained opaque glaze Bruno Sserunkuumas collection
Ganda Women 1999 unglazed earthenware underglaze colors
Ankole Cows 2000 glazed earthenware Sgraffito with underglaze colors e1720346235649
Ugandan Birds Lampstand 2010 earthenware underglaze colors e1720346148303
My Village 1999 earthenware Sgraffito with underglaze colors e1720346343773
Ganda Clans Vase 2015 earthenware underglaze colors e1720346447952
Planter 2024 earthenware painted with Hobby colors e1720346383575
CHOGM Lampstand like a Medieval Jug 2007 earthenware matte glaze e1720346016807
Hope Closed Bowl 2002 unglazed earthenware with underglaze colors
Wide Bowl 2020 glazed earthenware with underglaze colors
Bowl 2018 glazed earthenware
Pumpkin, 2002, glazed earthenware
The Fruit, 2008, earthenware, stained opaque glaze (Bruno Sserunkuuma's collection)
Ganda Women, 1999, unglazed earthenware, underglaze colors
Ankole Cows, 2000, glazed earthenware, Sgraffito with underglaze colors
Ugandan Birds (Lampstand), 2010, earthenware, underglaze colors
My Village, 1999, earthenware, Sgraffito with underglaze colors
Ganda Clans (Vase), 2015, earthenware, underglaze colors
Planter, 2024, earthenware, painted with Hobby colors
CHOGM (Lampstand like a Medieval Jug), 2007, earthenware, matte glaze
Hope (Closed Bowl), 2002, unglazed earthenware with underglaze colors
Wide Bowl, 2020, glazed earthenware with underglaze colors
Bowl, 2018, glazed earthenware
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