NMB meets
Teesa Bahana

Here’s the first of our new series: NMB meets. We will be meeting brilliant industry folk, innovators and futurists to discuss their views on what makes great sustainable buildings and places. In turn, helping us shape better buildings and places in response to the climate emergency. 


First up is Teesa Bahana, director of 32° East | Ugandan Arts Trust – Teesa, has been director since 2016 and has led the organisation’s drive to build Uganda’s first purpose built contemporary arts centre (with us!). She was recently named as one of Apollo Magazine’s 40 under 40 Africa.   


The arts centre is made from earth taken directly from the site and built with both rammed walls and compressed blocks. It includes artists' studios, a gallery, a café and artist residences arranged around a verdant central courtyard and will be a place to create and explore contemporary art for both artists and the wider public.   


Teesa, can you introduce yourself and what you’re up to at 32° East? 

I’m Teesa Bahana, the director of 32° East and we are a not-for-profit art centre dedicated to the creation and exploration of contemporary art in Uganda. This year we begin construction on the very first purpose built contemporary art centre in Uganda! 


What was the original idea for 32° East | Ugandan Arts Trust and how has it developed since then?

32 was founded by Rocca Holly-Nambi and Nicole Elphinstone as a gathering place for artists, centred around exploration and experimentation mainly through the residency programme but also other programming like Artachat and KLA ART. Exploration and experimentation are still core parts of 32’s DNA and in the years since its inception we’ve worked to broaden parts of the residency experience to our public arts festival KLA ART, and also now have a permanent new home! 


How did the idea for your new home come about and how has it developed since then?

Originally the idea for the new centre was to transport the shipping containers we’ve used since the beginning, and move them to the new site. The importance of the move was really about having permanence, and what it means to actually own a plot of land and not need to rent. After a few discussions we realised that having a plot presented an incredible opportunity, to design a home for artists that would be built with them in mind. No refurbishing spaces and making do, but actually creating something that makes a statement, that art is worth supporting and investing in, and completely deserving of its own space. 


It won’t be long until you move into your new home. What is your vision for this next chapter?

The home part is key. It really needs to be a place where artists have ownership and feel like it's theirs, and where people who maybe are completely unfamiliar with contemporary art can feel invited and welcome. We’re also taking a very integrated holistic approach to how the centre runs, so aspects of it that haven’t existed before will become income earners such as the café, accommodation and shops.  


As you know I’m passionate about making sustainable buildings. I’ve learned a lot from working in Uganda, with yourself, the artists and with Localworks [local design and construction collaborators] such as how to be inventive with the resources available and responsive to the local climate. What does making great sustainable buildings and places mean to you?


Responsiveness comes to mind - to the community that surrounds the building, and the building’s ability to respond to change over time.  


The arts industry is no saint when it comes to sustainability. What changes would you like to see within the wider industry?


Our work is quite outside of the “arts industry” in many ways, when I hear that term I think of art fairs and biennials and honestly a lot of international travel. And it’s difficult because travel can be life-changing, and international residencies for artists can transform their work and practices and radically shift how they conceive of their own geographies.  But at this point we also know that there is tremendous inequality in carbon emissions in that it’s a wealthy minority that is responsible for the majority of our emissions. So as in all industries I think that should be the focus, rather than focusing on travel more broadly, or individual responsibility without really looking at the nuances. 


Funding is the oxygen for arts organisations and that is certainly no different for 32. How have you funded your new building, what has been the biggest challenge and your biggest learning?


With a lot of help! Our biggest funding partners have been the Sigrid Rausing Trust who have been incredible in times of such uncertainty, and have really walked with us through this journey. We also have drawn a lot from the amazing networks that we are a part of such as Arts Collaboratory and Triangle Network, both in terms of direct funding and connection to potential funding. Unlike many arts organisations we don’t have infrastructure that supports arts and culture, and our leadership doesn’t have personal or generational wealth to pull on but what we do have is an incredible community and a willingness to learn and ask for help from people who are willing to give it.


What one piece of advice would you give to fellow Arts Directors who are struggling with funding at the moment?


Honestly these things are so specific to context, and I haven’t figured anything out so this isn’t advice but just what I’m continuously learning. Recognise that you’re not alone, and as much as you can collaborate, collaborate, collaborate. We have this fear in times of struggle that there isn’t enough and we need to focus on our own survival but instead of drawing inwards and being troubled by scarcity look outwards and aspire towards abundance. The things that provide you with motivation to come to work everyday are the same things that encourage people to join you and be a part of what you are doing. The things that the world is confronting right now: a lack of connectedness, insular thinking, closed borders...these are things that art has always been grappling with, so what are the things that we can share that speak to this moment and provide people with hope, tools and resources to believe that there are other ways of doing things.


Lastly, what is it about the finished project that most excites you?


Everything! Truly. Just what it will mean to exist, as a building that highlights sustainable architecture, as a centre that prioritises artists and gives them room to experiment, as a space that strives to attain financial resilience...it honestly doesn’t feel real sometimes, I’m so excited!


Phase one of the arts centre will be starting on site this month, with completion due by the end of the year. If you’d like to support the project fundraising for the second and final phase is currently underway, please click here.