My paintings of northern Sweden and my paintings of western Uganda are hanging side by side at Uppsala University during the fall semester of 2019, contrasting against each other. Thank you professor Mats Utas, for making it possible. The following text can be seen on the walls beside the paintings:
Different but similar painted ruralities
Two specific rural areas have inspired me as I painted these acrylic pictures. One of them is located in western Uganda, the other in northern Sweden. In both of these areas, people experience both benefits and hardships of modernity. People in these areas think progress is there, but that it is limited and unevenly spread out, the old and the new exist side by side, and very few jobs and services are offered in both places.
The main difference, however, is perhaps the way inhabitants have responded. While most people living around the villages of Ekträsk and Åsträsk, in Västerbotten, northern Sweden, moved away to other places at the same time as jobs and services started disappearing, most people in Kisoro district of western Uganda have not had the opportunity to move to some other area were such things could be found. So while this particular Swedish rurality has lost about 90 percent of its population since the 1950s, the Ugandan counterpart today has more inhabitants than ever before, who struggle with subsistence farming and various informal jobs – such as motorcycle-taxi driving – to make a living.
In northern Sweden, those who stayed are mostly the elderly, who can only remember the times when they still had local shops, schools, post offices and train services. The few who still work often have to commute with their private cars to other areas, since most local forestry jobs have been taken over by machines. They can see how various resources are still taken from this area, but with the help of new technique, rather than manpower.
In western Uganda, people suffer from economic inequality. Nostalgia concerning disappearing opportunities for the poor, and imports of manufactured products such as phones and motorcycles instead of local production and manufacturing, are there too. At the same time, people in both places have hopes that the benefits of modern society will dominate over the hardships in the future, and many changes which have already taken place are in fact seen as at least partly positive; access to internet and new asphalt roads, for example.
Of course, these paintings cannot represent objective realities. They are my realities based on my observations and conversations in the portrayed areas. When I painted western Uganda, I did it as a way to illustrate my master thesis in cultural anthropology. It enabled me to have informative pictures without disclosing identities, and it made it possible to capture feelings in a way which would probably be harder to do with photos. In my paintings of northern Sweden I have allowed even more feelings to be incorporated, especially my own feelings, as I see this place as my home.
Alexander Öbom, artist and former student of cultural anthropology