INTERVIEW: How Ugandan artist Ronald Nnam built a battlecruiser out of wire in 5 years

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On Saturday, May 7, 2022, the Ugandan Embassy in Washington DC showcased a 34-foot work of art, a breathtaking model warship constructed entirely of wire by Ronald Nnam, a Ugandan artist.

Nnam, like many Ugandan children, grew up making his own cars and bicycles out of wire, the knowledge he applied to build the battleship imitating a Russian battlecruiser Pyotr Velikiy, the fourth Kirov-class battlecruiser of the Russian Navy.

The real ship was originally named Yuri Andropov for Yuri Andropov, the former General Secretary of the Communist Party, but the ship’s name was changed after the fall of the Soviet Union.

SoftPower News editor Rogers Atukunda sat down with Nnam about the project, which appealed to Washington, and here are the excerpts.

So who is Ronald Nnam?

I was born in Lira District, now Alebtong, to Ambassador Alfred Nnam and Mrs Ruth Nnam. I am the fourth of five children.

Ugandan artist Ronald Nnam at Washington exhibition

The name Nnam confused me a bit. What does it mean?

Ahahaha, of course, Okello or Otim would sound more accurate, but Nnam with double ‘n’ is a northerner’s name. It means a body of water.

What is your level of education?

I am currently pursuing research, design and manufacturing interests in aeronautics, marine, robotics, ballistics and artificial intelligence, space and planetary motion.

I went to Mbuya nursery school for kindergarten, then to St. Kizito Bugolobi primary school from P1-P2 and P3-P5, I was in Kiswa primary school.

In P6 I transferred to Kalinabiri Primary School and sat my Primary Leaving Examinations at Reverend John Foundation School.

Piotr Veliky

I then joined St Mary’s College Kisubi for O level and completed my A level at Bishop Cipriano Kihangire.

I then joined Makerere University Business School where I completed a Bachelor of Business Administration (Major in Finance).

I have IT certifications from Maryland, USA.

How did you come to DC and what are you currently doing?

My father was on a mission in the United States when I graduated from business school in 2013. So he asked me if I wanted to visit the United States. It was an opportunity I couldn’t refuse.

I communicate with the embassy from time to time. They are a very wonderful group of people.

Tell me about your project. What is the name of the ship?

The battlecruiser on display is actually a 3D model based on the Russian Kirov (Pyotr Velikiy) or Peter the Great class nuclear-powered missile cruiser. Flagship of the Russian Northern Fleet, it is currently the largest and most powerful surface combatant in the world in active service.

It displaces 28,000 tons at full capacity. It is 252 m (827 ft) long, with a beam of 28.5 m (94 ft) and a draft of 9.1 m (30 ft).

It’s mind-boggling to imagine that given the size of this display model, the actual monster is 24 times longer.

PESA (Passive Electronically Scanned Array) radar next to the radar above the horizon

Why did you choose to make a boat?

Very good question ! The original inspiration was to create the largest variable wing supersonic military strategic bomber, but my biggest limitation wasn’t complexity, it was space, as is always the case when building planes. They always get bigger than the hangers that are supposed to house them. Ask Boeing or Antonov and unfortunately I was no exception. So, I contented myself with the boat. This is what my space could accommodate.

What materials did you use and how did you get them?

I used Mason Ladder wire commonly used in American block construction, PVC pipes, Styrofoam beads, perforated metal tubing, metal rods, wire mesh, brushless motors, batteries, ropes and chains.

There are two famous home improvement/hardware stores in the US where I purchased these items. One of them is The Home Depot and another is Lowes. I am very grateful that these stores exist because without them the cost of building such a project would have been quite huge.

Other retailers are; Joan’s Fabrics in Wheaton City for styrofoam balls, Michaels Arts store in Silver Spring City. I also buy quite often from Amazon, Ebay and other online retailers. I also tend to keep empty containers in stock.

The embassy also exhibited barkcloth and Ankole cow horns

How does the ship work? Tell me about its components and how they work.

There are 10 simulated active radars which are driven by a combination of brushed motors and a new generation of brushless motors, all powered by rechargeable batteries. The other three radars were built to operate in stationary mode.

And the choppers? How do they connect to the ship?

Initially, Pyotr Velikiy was supposed to work as still life art, but halfway through the project I thought about incorporating some situational awareness into it through simulated radar and helicopters to make it quite relatable and more fun and engaging. It operates three Kamov Ka-27 anti-submarine and electronic warfare helicopters and two Kamov Ka-29 naval assault combat ships as part of the operational suite.

An AESA (Active Electronically Scanned Array) radar powered by new generation brushless motors in the bottom. These motors cost $250 each. Over $1,000 was spent on these. The bottom container with holes has been drilled to allow engine cooling during extended use.

How long did it take to do it and why did you never give up?

It took me five years of intermittent work. While this project was in progress, I had to report to work to meet my basic needs, as it was not a source of income at any time. Rather, I had to devote an enormous amount of time, research, creativity and resources to it. Some materials, particularly mason’s ladders, would be out of stock at hardware stores for several months, halting all work on the project.

One of life’s greatest tragedies is what dies in a man while he lives. Every successful person you see anywhere in this world is where they are because they made the decision not to give up.

What was the purpose of this ship?

I wanted to use the ship to showcase Ugandan art in the United States and inspire artists to new ways of thinking about art. I’m optimistic that inspiring artists to explore and create new content like this and better will go a long way in overcoming the financial hardships and stereotypes that many of them face. Building this ship also helped me hone my skills for the project.

Voskhod MR-800 (Top Pair) an over the horizon radar on the main mast also powered by brushless motors.

How did you get the chance to exhibit it? Tell me about your experience at the exhibition.

I must warmly thank the Minister-Counsellor at the Embassy of the Republic of Uganda in Washington DC, Ms. Margaret Awino Kafeero. Together we explored ways to promote Ugandan culture through pictorial art, textiles, literature, Ankole Cowhorn products, children’s storybooks and cartoons. We also hosted events at the Embassy to showcase Uganda’s uniqueness to the general American public. A big thank you to Ms. Anne Babinaga, in charge of commercial diplomacy and tourism at the Embassy of the Republic of Uganda, and to all the diplomatic staff who were very supportive of the idea. It was easy to present the project.

How did you feel and what kind of feedback did you get from viewers?

Ahahah, very relieved but just normal every day. It was in my apartment for five years, but seeing it there complete and working has been very rewarding, to say the least. It is a very heavy and complex ship that was delivered by truck and had to be assembled on stage.

Kamov Ka-27 helicopter. The ship is armed with 5 helicopters. 3 Kamov Ka-27 anti-submarine and electronic warfare helicopters and 2 Kamov-Ka 29 naval assault helicopters in its hangars.

It drew so much attention at the event due to its length and size, not to mention its simulated radars, helicopters, and torpedo cart. The feedback was very positive and I made new friends and contacts instantly. I have often been asked if I succeeded and how long it took. I can only thank God for this project.

Do you plan to market this innovation?

Yes, I will market it through exhibitions and rentals. I don’t intend to sell it.

What opportunities do you see in the future and what challenges do you face?

There is a huge market for new types and forms of art that are highly relevant and stimulate the imagination. As projects grow in size and capabilities, the need for space also increases.

Surface-to-air missiles aboard the ship against enemy aircraft or incoming missiles

So what happens after the ship?

It’s good to have suspense but if the operating space and funding are available, it will be one of three; a heavy cargo helicopter, a gunship or a strategic fighter-bomber, probably completed in time for the next event. One thing I have to say is that whatever I go with it will be something that has never been seen.

Do you need help from the government or anyone? What kind of help?

Help from the government or someone with the means is welcome. If I can acquire a large floor space and consistent funding, it opens up so many possibilities for projects that can be done. With a collection of such projects, the tourism potential and positive publicity for Uganda is enormous.

Kashtan CIWS, the best in the world (Close-in Weapon System). The ship is loaded with 6 of these menacing beasts for self-defense against incoming missiles and rocket fire.

What are your future goals? Where do you want to be in five years?

Create enough projects to give huge positive publicity to Uganda through new art forms. I’m already where I want to be in five years, building projects.

Ronald Nnam can be contacted on tel: +1 240 701 9950 or by e-mail: [email protected]



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