Mnemonic Technologies

My name is Emma Wolukau-Wanambwa, I was born in the UK. My parents were born in the Ugandan Protectorate. I first studied literature and went on to work in the theatre for a long time. Then I had a “crisis of faith”, at the end of which I found myself working in the context of fine art. I make artworks but I am also involved in some very long term more or less open-ended research processes. (This might be another one, I find them hard to turn down.)

By way of an introduction I should state that I sometimes do things with video but I have never worked with film and I do not consider myself to know very much about the medium. And my work at the moment is much more focused on the late colonial period in Africa than it is on independence movements or post-independence periods.

I have been interested for a very long time in how we know what we know, where our beliefs and values come from and how those beliefs and values are disseminated and how they become authoritative. A big part of that has been to do with narrative and storytelling – which is where my practices conceptual connections with processes of editing might start to emerge.

One of my colleagues, Kitto Derrick Wintergreen once said to me You know, Emma, Ugandans never let the truth get in the way of a good story. This is a phrase that I think has had a lot of resonance for me in relation to such questions.

It occurred to me, that this talk might be a useful place to revisit my MA Dissertation from 2008. I wrote about revisionist Second World War memorials [in London]. To give you some background: during the New Labour government, British national identity appeared to try to redefine itself. This period also coincided with the sixtieth anniversary of the end of the Second World War. The Second World War, often popularly referred to as ‘the People’s War’ functions culturally, I would argue, as a proxy ‘war of independence’ for Britain, and in the early 2000s, there was a concerted government-led effort to expand the number and kinds of people who figured in its public commemoration.

I worked on the Women at War Memorial, which went up in 2005, and the Commonwealth Memorial Gates which were erected in 2002 to commemorate the five million soldiers from British colonies who fought in the First and Second World Wars.

The Women at War Memorial was sculpted by John Mills. It is placed in the middle of Whitehall, which is a ceremonial processional space in central London between Trafalgar Square and the Houses of Parliament. When this memorial was originally designed it was meant to go in front of the Ministry of Defence which is a large building on one side of Whitehall. In front of the Ministry of Defence are statues of the major Second World War generals dressed in military fatigues. The plan had been to place the Women at War Memorial on one side of that building and at that time the design included, at the top of this pylon, a figurative sculpture of a female air raid warden protecting children during the Blitz. This was going to be its primary image of women’s active participation in the Second World War.

Now, when they started to excavate this site they found a massive gas main – a huge gas pipe – underground and it was going to cost them something like 300,000 pounds to move it. The organisers of the memorial did not have enough money to do this, so they approached the government and sought permission to build this statue in the middle of Whitehall instead.

The Cenotaph, which is Britain’s national Second World War Memorial, is situated in the center of Whitehall. It was designed by Edward Lutyens and erected in 1921. The organisers of the Women at War Memorial asked the government if they could build their memorial in the middle of Whitehall like the Cenotaph. And the government said yes, provided that they got rid of the figurative sculpture at the top. So, the statue of the air raid warden and the children was abandoned and what we are left with is the pylon, that it was supposed to stand on.

According to Dame Betty Boothroyd, the senior Labour politician who chaired the campaign for the Women at War Memorial, the pylon was a symbolic representation of a cloakroom and hanging on the hooks were the uniforms that represent the jobs that the women did in the service of the nation in the Second World War. So there’s an air raid [warden], there’s the army, there’s the air force, the fire service, and so forth. Many different kind of jobs.

As my friend Andrew Walsh pointed out to me at the time,

a commemorative statue always commemorates a particular historical moment.

That is why, for example, even though the celebrated [Second World War] generals standing in from of the Ministry of Defence are all depicted in their military fatigues, even though they probably all died very old men in their pyjamas. That is why the former Prime Minister Winston Churchill is portrayed in his First World War grey coat in Parliament Square. And what is interesting then is that, as a result of bureaucratic and economic decisions, Britain’s national memorial for women’s service in the Second World War commemorates not their active service but the moment AFTER they gave up their public roles and returned to the domestic sphere. If you follow Andrew’s logic, that’s what the memorial commemorates: the fact that they went home.

Now the second memorial, one that I’m going to mention, is the Commonwealth Memorial Gates, which are at the back of Buckingham Palace Garden, which is the largest private garden in the city of London on the approach to Hyde Park Corner roundabout, which is full of military commemorative statuary. This memorial was chiefly organised by Baroness Shreela Flather, a senior Conservative political. And every single diplomatic mission of Britain’s former colonies formally endorsed it.

The memorial comprises these 4 pylons and little pagoda off to one side. Underneath the pagoda here you can just about see names of some of the particularly valiant colonial subjects who died in battle. Then on the front of each pylon is a list reading India, Pakistan, Sri-Lanka, Bangladesh. On the back of each, the list reads Nepal, Africa, Caribbean.

First of all, Nepal was never a British Colony. It had never had that legal status. The British had been going there to recruit mercenaries and soldiers for centuries, but it never was a colony. And then of course Africa? Caribbean? When did Pakistan come into existence? 1947. And Bangladesh? 1975.

When I interviewed Baroness Flather, I put it to her: Well, Nepal was never a colony so why is it on the Commonwealth Memorial Gates? And she said: Well you know, at that time [she was referring to 2004/2005] all those Gurkha veterans had taken the Ministry of Defence to court [because they were not getting the same pension benefits and the same rights of abode in the UK as British veterans even though they had done the same job. They had been fighting the government to get same rights with British military veterans.] And the Ministry of Defence came to me and they said, you know it would be really helpful to our cause if you could mention Nepal on your memorial. Would you mind? And Baroness Flather said fine!

And I said, okay... well, you know obviously in 1945 India, Pakistan, Bangladesh weren’t separate nations and she said something like Well I know but things have got so difficult, so tense since then, we thought it would be better if we separated them out.

And so, I asked, what about Africa and the Caribbean? Because that’s quite a lot of different countries. I have this on tape somewhere. She said: Oh, there were so many of them we were bound to forget someone.

I want to repeat that. She said: Oh, there were so many of them we were bound to forget someone.

I just wanted to throw in these two examples of the ways in which particular narratives can be shaped.

... never let the truth get in the way of a good story ...

Researching these memorials was a very insightful experience of looking into how public histories end up being constructed. It’s this weird mixture of the arbitrary and the political. And there’s also often an awful lot of people who are involved in these processes who maybe don’t have the tools or the interests to ask some of the more complicated questions. That only seems to happen, in the context of public histories in the West, when the history itself to be commemorated is itself a controversial or contested one, for example the Vietnam War in the US or the Holocaust in Germany.

Public memorials are massively underresearched in the UK – academically, art historically. Nobody writes about these. You will find one or two news reports about the unveiling, but unless it is made by a particularly famous artist, you won’t find much literature. Even though there are very often extremely eminent curators and art historians involved in awarding the commission.

And what these processes also do, almost immediately, is to erase their own archive. Because actually the archive for them is the statue. The processes that brought that statue into being are of no interest to memorial organisers. The decision making, who has agency, who decides, all of this stuff is not considered to be of any interest for posterity or for discussion. So, for example by the time I submitted my MA Dissertation in 2008 but by the time I did that the only records I had of [the memorial organisers] websites were the printouts that I had made. They deleted everything and thrown all the paperwork away, leaving no paper trail. But they don’t have to because within their logic, it’s the statue that is the archive.

I am interested in unearthing these decision-making processes.

(I’m using the term decision making, wondering if it can serve, in this context, as a synonym for editing.) What are these decisions, these moments of choice where we go, we don’t want this we do want this? The Italians suppressing reports of their defeat in Abyssinia, the Allies deliberately sending all of the soldiers of colour away when they were filming the liberation of Paris, so it looked like Paris was only liberated by white men.

There was a choice. There was a moment and a decision was made and those choices can be illuminating.

Sometimes, as in the case of the Commonwealth Memorial Gates, those choices are really politically cynical, or sometimes extremely arbitrary. So those coat hooks become the memorial because the other, allegorical, idealistic mothering woman saving children thing couldn’t happen. And so something else happens.


What’s interesting in the Ugandan context is that one of the reasons that the current President Yoweri Museveni was able to win the civil war was that he made a deal with women.

He sent his representatives to the women of Uganda and said: We know we can’t win this war without you. We need you to feed us, to dress our wounds and to fight with us. And if you do this, in exchange we will give you political representation.

After the National Resistance Movement won in 1987, Museveni kept his promise and this has meant there has been a huge number of women in politics and in relatively high positions of power in politics in Uganda for a comparatively long time. (This is why his first vice-president was Dr Specioza Kazibwe.) But this has been an extremely fraught process because Ugandan society is very misogynistic – it’s not a good or safe place to be a woman in so many instances. But at the same time this is a quite interesting tension because the nation has to officially acknowledge the place of women in the narrative of post-civil war Uganda, but in the context of a society where most men appear to be uncomfortable with women enjoying that a degree of power or wealth or autonomy.


For a very long time, in my work, I have been looking at how societies remember – how public memory is produced and maintained. This is a social process in which the arts, I think, have historically frequently been complicit or active participants. Just think about history painting. When I was working in Uganda (2010–2014), I was looking at technologies of public memory that had been under colonialism. One was the museum, one figurative art, but one of the ones I was most interested in was public cemeteries. There are still very few of them in Uganda, because most Ugandans are buried on family land.

So in Uganda public cemeteries serve migrant or foreign populations. They are highly exogenous spaces, even today. And there are very few of them; they all have strange stories. One of the things I have observed is that memory is something that is practised. It is an active practice. What’s interesting about these public cemeteries they are generally not practised in the way in which small family cemeteries or historical burial sites in Uganda are currently practise. For example, where my father comes from in the east near the Kenyan border, they have elaborate rituals to do with male puberty and circumcision and as part of this, young men have to visit all the places where their ancestors were buried.

These public cemeteries obviously have a very different relationship to contemporary Ugandans. And they’re often sited on what is now on very valuable land. The government would like to sell them off, but there are many British people buried there – mainly soldiers – and so the British Government and the Commonwealth War Graves Commission puts a lot of pressure on the government to preserve them. And in recent years the government seems to have realised they might potential be tourist attractions.

And so in 2011/2012, I read about a cemetery here, a little Polish World War II-era cemetery. Kampala is the capital city, the national airport is here. To drive from here to there takes about three and a half hours. It’s a very long drive, you pass your last electricity pole somewhere around here and then you just keep going. Even today, even though it is relatively close to the capital, Koja is a very remote place.

This cemetery that was all that remained of a refugee camp for Polish refugees, mainly Polish and Ukrainian refugees, which had been operational from 1941 to 1953.

These people were part of a group of 30,000 Polish and Ukrainian refugees who had been sent from the Gulags in Siberia overland to what is now Iran, and then onto India, and then from India to East and South East Africa. As I understand it, these were people who had been deported from Poland after Russia invaded Poland in 1941. And then when Russia changed sides and joined the allies, it was not possible for them to return to Poland because the Germans had invaded. However the British said, we have all this space so you can come and we can put you up until the end of the war – to be reductive and humorous. It was an extraordinary journey. There is archive newsreel footage of these refugees. They walked. They mainly walked from Siberia to Iran. An extraordinary journey.

7,000 of them were sent to Uganda at a time when the entire white population of the colony was just 2,000. (Uganda was a ‘protectorate’ which was, if you like, the ‘diet’ version of colonialism where the British delegated the administration as far as possible to the indigenous populations and had a small white population, as opposed to, say, Kenya next door which was a large settler colony.) The British didn’t want these refugees to stay [in Uganda] and so, they managed them by keeping them in these two camps, one here at Koja and the other is further in the North near the border with Congo which is called Nyabyeya. But Nyabyeya was much smaller. There was 5,000 people living in Koja, which is really a town. 5,000 people is a town, a respectable town.

I wanted to see this place

and with a bit of help from the Polish Consulate in Nairobi, I was put in touch with a man called Waikiku Edward, who runs the Poland-Uganda Friendship Foundation, and through him with a historian called Sam Lwanga Lunyiigo. They took me to Koja for the first time in 2012. This is a very brief introduction to the artwork that emerged. It is called Paradise, and it is an installation of four light boxes (3 images, 1 text), which I created to be exhibited in a shipping container at the Kampala Contemporary Art Festival in 2012. This is the text:

The fact that when I get to Koja there is almost nothing to see is by design. For when the camp was finally closed in 1952, it was systematically dismantled. Every brick, every bench, every lamp every tool was either sold for profit or given away to locals.
The inmates themselves were forcibly resettled abroad. Sixty years later old people weep openly in Warsaw as they describe the trauma of being forced to leave their home.
But it’s sex that the old men seem most keen to talk about today. Specifically, the sex that was had in secret by Polish women and local men. (Of intimacies between Polish men and local women, I note, they make no comment.)

The camp commandant maintained, they say, that there were never any illegitimate children. But it was common knowledge, they tell me, that whenever a Polish woman fell pregnant by a local man, their baby was killed at birth, its body discarded as medical waste.

Those women, they were prostitutes. Kasule smiles, his sightless eyes twinkling, his grandchildren crowding round, staring and eavesdropping with all their might. “Prostitutes.” Also how these women were described by the regional director of refugees and the camp commandant – he who remanded two women from Koja on this very charge to the penitentiary at Makindu.

I think about this story as I take Kasule’s picture. A picture he will most likely never see. I think about it again later as I stand looking at the ant hills and the lake.



This is farmed land, but I was just mainly struck by the vast numbers of huge anthills that were on this landscape. The text is an account of what happened the day that I took these photographs. I went and I met a man called Kasule who had worked at the camp as a young man because, as is often the story in the colonial context, even though the British wanted to keep the indigenous population separate, they relied upon their labour nonetheless. Any contact or interaction between the two groups was to an extent inevitable but heavily policed. The story he told me appears to be true. When I looked into it at the Ugandan national archive, there were six refugees who stayed in Africa after the forced resettlement in 1952: three boys who were sent to reform school in Dar es Salaam and three women who went to a mental asylum with a diagnosis of nymphomania. (According to Sam Lwanga Lunyiigo, this was the medical diagnosis for a white woman who had sex with an indigenous African man.) But the only people who’ve told me this story are the two old men who once worked at the camp at Koja. I could find no similar story from Nyabyeya further North.

Two years later, Waikuku Edward confided that the cemetery you see here is actually empty.

The original graves were all bulldozed in 1952. That hill in front of the cemetery is where all the bones actually are. So, this is a cemetery that contains nothing. And then there’s a hill which is totally anonymous and that’s actually where the bodies are.

Kathrin Peters-Klaphake, who was the director of the Makerere University Art Gallery when I was doing a residency there in 2012, brought to my attention the fact that the UK National Archives had a Flickr album for Uganda. Back in 2011/2010, they, as part, I think of an open archives movement, set up a huge Flickr account now. All the press releases have gone now – so the paper trail is itself disappearing – they announced one collection they called The World Through a Lens. It had subsections, called things like Africa Through a Lens, Asia Through a Lens, America Through a Lens and so on. Now the story behind this is that budget cuts had forced the UK Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which is called the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (formerly the Foreign and Colonial Office), to get rid of its archive. They didn’t have the money to maintain it anymore. So they donated it to the UK National Archive, where it was re-catalogued. The FCO had a huge photographic collection, so after this collection had been re-catalogued the National Archives started to promote it. I think if I remember what the press releases said at the time, they admitted that while they generally had good records of the white people in the photographs, but they didn’t know so much about anyone who wasn’t white. Therefore part of their aim in putting the archive into the public domain was to enlist people in helping to flesh out the available information about the images. There are 134 photographs in the Flickr album called Uganda Through a Lens. The head archivist of the photographic collection later told me that the pictures on Flickr had been chosen by the marketing department.

When looking through these pictures what struck me was that almost all of these photographs were taken in prisons. Luzira is Uganda’s largest prison. It’s on the edge of the Kampala. (Interestingly, it’s also the place where, when they were building the prison, they found the only precolonial example of figurative art – sculpture – from the area, which was promptly donated to the British Museum where it’s been ever since.) These photographs seemed so staged to me, and I wondered why anyone would need so many pictures of a prison and why something like 70% of the pictures in this Flickr album were all of prisons. Why not photographs of anything else? So, I went to the UK National Archives and discovered that indeed 70% of the image collection that they have is photographs of prisons mainly from the 1950s. I became very interested in what it means to photograph a colonial prison – from a position of institutional authority. I mean, I think it’s easier to make oppositional images of prisons, to say “this is what’s really happening”. But I think for a government to make photographs of a prison is an extremely complex undertaking.

These photographs are all taken with a large format camera by the way. Many of them have titles written on the back in English, French and Portuguese. They have pinholes in the corners and they’re mounted on card which means they were made for exhibition. And I to this day am still fascinated as to where one would go to look at photographs of prisons. This photograph is a particular favourite. You can see pictures of [Prince] Phillip and [young Queen] Elizabeth on the wall. There is a radio, there is a bunch of flowers. The door is open and every single prisoner is reading a book. So anyway, without getting into it too much, you can see why someone like me would become interested in this collection of photographs, it’s pretty obvious.

In 2014 I was invited by Elena Aguido and Bonaventure Soh Bejeng Ndikung to present my research into colonial prison photography as part of an exhibition, called Giving Contours to Shadows at SAVVY in Berlin, which was about the historical record. The post-coloniality and the historical record.

I really wrestled with what to do with this material and in the end, I decided not to show it at all, which is, I think, also something I do quite a lot. And I instead produced an installation which is called Nice Time that consists of two things: one is a file of photographs from the UK National Archive – the largest most substantial file from the UK National Archive’s Uganda image collection that isn’t of prison. It is a set of documentation photographs that I think were taken in a storage room in the Central Office of Information, which is the UK [government’s] public relations department. The British spent a lot of money producing a valedictory exhibition called the Speke Centenary Exhibition in 1962 as part of the celebration of [the] Ugandan declaration of independence. And it was first shown at the Speke Centenary Festival in Jinja, which is close to the [River] Nile, and then it was shown in Kampala, then it was toured round Uganda. And it’s a classic 1960s touring exhibition comprising portable panels covered with images and text. Its starting point is Captain John Hannington Speke’s “discovery” of the main source of the River Nile in 1862. And then it narrates the “development” of Uganda by Britain during the past 100 years ending with Uganda today.

The text on the first panel is fascinating. It says something like: this exhibition is about John Hannington Speke’s discovery of the source of the River Nile and the story of the close friendship between Britain and Uganda. Which I really like because it shows you the power of language: Uganda was not a preexisting entity but it is somehow instead produced through tricks of language and legislation. It turns into a fact. In their narration because the British completely fail to explain or articulate their own role in the “development” of Uganda as a colony. There is no discussion or reflection on what Britain was gaining from its interventions there. A bit like the films, the propaganda films they were making in the 1950s as well. Uganda is figured as a self-evident entity that is also a problem that has to be resolved. The exhibition carefully places Britain’s role in an extremely positive light.

In 2013, which was the year I was looking into the colonial prison photographs, I learned of a court case that had been brought by old men and women in 2009/2010 who had been tortured as young people by the British in Kenya in the 1950s in the context of the Mau Mau uprising. Their lawyers had subpoenaed documents from the UK Ministry of Foreign Affairs that they claimed demonstrated Britain’s involvement in directing these acts of torture. And the British government originally said I don’t know what you’re talking about, there isn’t any paperwork. But there was a small but committed band of colonial historians, l mean real colonial historians, and people working inside the Foreign Office who believed this wasn’t true.

After some extensive digging, they uncovered a bunker in Buckinghamshire, about sixty or seventy kilometers out of London, where they found a secret collection of 9,000 files. They were all that remained of what turned out to have been systematic culls of the colonial archives that Britain organised in every single colony as part of their preparations for independence. That is to say that one of the things they would do to prepare for a colony’s independence was to destroy their records. So, for example, when I was researching the colonial prison photographs, I went to Ugandan National Archive. Between 1900 and 1936, every year, the Ugandan prison service would produce an annual report that detailed things as granular as how many prisoners had corporal punishment – how many got beaten. And then after 1936 there is just nothing.

When this file was finally declassified in November 2013, I went to the UK National Archives and I photographed it. They may have destroyed the files, but British kept a record of their record of the destruction, which is quite an interesting thing to do. In Uganda, with what appears to be no irony, this was called “Operation Legacy”. And the purpose of Operation Legacy was to ensure that no materials is passed to the future government which may prejudice the defense of the commonwealth in the event of war, embarrass Her Majesty’s Government or any other government or lay them open to legal challenge or to charges of racism.

Half of the file is internal memos between various government officers talking about who is destroying what and when, and what can be kept and what it might be safe to leave for the Africans to use for the purposes of writing their history later, what constitutes a “responsible historian”. There is also an amazing subplot to do with a woman from Goa who was working in the colonial administration and whether or not she should be allowed to destroy documents. Because her children were studying in the UK and she was going to the UK some officials think she can be trusted. In the end they decide that only „authorised“ officers can destroy the archive – „authorised“ being a code word for white. So authority, legitimacy and race: it is quite interesting how it works in this document.

In Nice Time you can see two processes of narrative or narrative formation that were more or less unfolding simultaneously. Because at the same time as the Speke exhibition was touring, – that was the public face, the public explanation – behind the scenes, the paperwork was being thrown in the lake or set on fire.

What has been interesting about working on Ugandan protectorate history is that it’s not particularly interesting to most people. Nobody really cares about this archive. It’s not sexy, it has no particular political currency. And so in many respects it’s very easy for me to get hold of information because nobody is worried about the consequences. The stakes are so low.