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Robert Ssempijja: A journey of artistic transformation and self-discovery

You Judge (cc) fazil on yu

Photograph: You Judge concept and performance by Robert Ssempijja (fazil on yu)

Pushing the boundaries of creative discovery with the Cavendish Arts Science Fellowship

Thanks to the vision and generous support of Girton College alumna Una Ryan, Girton College welcomes a Visiting Fellow Commoner in the Arts each year through the Cavendish Arts Science Fellowship, delivered through a partnership with Cavendish Arts Science, an initiative of the Cavendish Laboratory. 

From exploring the formation of our universe as we know it, to zooming into interactions and symmetries in particle physics, the University of Cambridge’s Cavendish Laboratory has been at the forefront of experimentation and discovery in physics since its opening in 1874.

The one-year Fellowship supports artists to experiment and develop their practice through encounters with physicists and those working in other fields.  

We caught up with this year’s Cavendish Arts Science Fellow, Ugandan contemporary artist, dancer and researcher Robert Ssempijja about his work and time in Cambridge so far. 

Tell us a bit about your art and how you discovered this calling?

I am a Ugandan artist and dancer. I don’t really know how I discovered dance - I’m not sure if I discovered dance or if the artform discovered me. Where I grew up, there are a lot of NGOs and organisations working with communities whose main focus is to nurture talent. So, when you grow up surrounded by these organisations, they introduce you to a lot of different art forms, from drawing to singing and dancing and other genres of arts. Through that, I think by the time I started understanding the idea of art, I was already part of this circle of organisations doing what I love.

I used to be a break dancer when I was very young. I think that was my starting point. Then, I also got introduced to traditional Ugandan dances and from there my work has been influenced by the people I have been meeting. I've had the opportunity to meet and work with a lot of artists, choreographers and directors and attend a lot of different trainings from different countries in West Africa and East Africa. This has also shaped my way of approaching dance and looking at art. 


Can you tell us a little bit about your work and career so far, how your art has changed and developed and where it's taken you? 

My work usually starts with an idea, and from an idea I progress to doing research. This research usually leads me to create a film, then from a film, I love creating installations. I then do performances. For the past three projects, I've also been interested in writing about my work to give me an opportunity to reflect on what I'm doing. 

When it comes to my career, I have to say that I'm surprised by how far I've come. I did not imagine being able to take my art this far. As a young boy, I was doing dance as a passion. In Uganda, there are not a lot of people who are able to pursue arts as a profession and make a living out of it. So, I did not expect to make a career from it, and I’m excited about what is yet to come. 


What led you to apply for the Cavendish Arts Science Fellowship? 

I think that was curiosity. I'm a very curious person. At first, I have to admit, I was a little scared. I thought, no, this is not something for me, because first of all, it was Cambridge, which is not somewhere I thought was for me. Also, the Fellowship is based at the Cavendish Laboratory, and I have no idea about physics. 

But I found myself going back to the application. I visited the website and I read that you don't need to have an idea about physics, and I thought ‘that is me’. I'm also someone who is very interested in conversations with people that come from a different discipline than I do to see how that can affect my way of looking at the world and my art and hopefully share my view of the world with others, and that’s what the Cavendish Arts Science Fellowship is all about. So that's why I applied. 


What projects are you working on while you're in Cambridge? 

I've been here for a month almost and I've been having conversation with people working on a range of different projects at the Cavendish Laboratory. One of the most impactful interactions I’ve had so far, has been Suchitra Sebastian introducing me to the work of Dr Robert B. Laughlin. In his book A Different Universe, he calls on us to consider the context of that which we cannot measure precisely. This idea really caught my attention because I'm someone who doesn't have a linear way of thinking and working, especially in my art. I love improvising and experimenting, and that's what he calls for. 

My work deals a lot with decolonisation, and I think that's another reason why his work speaks to me, because I’m often thinking about what limits us to imagine in our world, and what is beyond our understanding and control. In my time here, I’ve been thinking about what limits us to imagine a world that is beyond our capacity of imagination? What are our limitations and how can we recognise them? How do we even find out that a certain thing is our limitation? My work at Cambridge is probably going to focus on that. But, of course, there are more conversations still coming up. Maybe next week, if you ask me the same question, I will give you a different answer.


How are you hoping that this experience in the Cavendish Laboratory and in Cambridge more generally will complement your practice and craft?

I think being here is already impacting my craft. I’m having conversations with people that are opening up a new world of artistic possibilities I’d never before imagined. For example, I recently got to talk to an expert in astronomy about the stars and galaxies, which would have been unlikely to ever happen if I hadn’t been on this Fellowship, being introduced to lots of different people working in the Cavendish Laboratory. I think these opportunities are already deepening my creative process and I cannot wait to see the impact this will have on the work I produce in the future. For me this is both a journey of artistic transformation and self-discovery.


How has your experience been at Girton College so far? 

That’s an interesting question. To be honest, the first few weeks I was here, I suffered from imposter syndrome. The first day I was here, I thought this was not the place for me. I remember calling my brother to tell him this. I think being an artist, I’m a person who loves breaking rules and creating new ones, and I realised here, customs and traditions are a key part of daily life. 

However, the people here are really friendly and helpful. I get to learn something new every day and if I’m ever confused about anything, there is always someone who is happy to explain it to me. The Girton community has made me feel very welcome and that has made my time here special. I’m adapting to daily life in this new environment and now I am having a great time. 

Who knows, maybe by the end of my time here I won’t want to leave. 


This interview was also captured as part of our Girton Fellows video series on their ground-breaking research and projects. You can watch the video below:



For more information on Ssempijja, please visit