Kampala’s starving art scene

Kampala boasts some great art, but without government support or the support of their fellow Ugandans, Kampalan artists are forced to go it alone (with a little help from some muzungus).

By Kampire Bahana

Moses Serubiri’s parents expected him to be a Computer Manager. They were not impressed when, halfway through his degree in Malaysia, he told them he wanted to make photography his career.

Nowadays, Moses Serubiri is part of a budding generation of young Ugandan artists, trying to make it in an unfriendly world.

“I wanted to ask myself questions, to find out more about truth,” said Seruniri, explaining his change of heart, “So that’s what I want everyone to do, that’s what I want everything to be.”

His soulful photographs have a way of staying with you long after you first see them. You can find visual expression of his artistic philosophy in each one.

Parental attitudes are just one of many barriers to be faced by any young Ugandan with the audacity to try to make a living through art. Although artists like Ismail Katerega and Nuwa Wamala Nyanzi have managed to make a name for themselves, they stand out as exceptions to the rule that art is not a fruitful career path in Uganda. Yet for every Katerega, there are a thousand Ugandans giving new meaning to the term “starving artist.”

It is not unusual to walk into Nommo or Afri Art Gallery and find only tourists and expatriates viewing and buying the art on display. This general indifference extends to other areas of the arts. Uganda does not have a national symphony, and you must search to find contemporary and classical dance training or performance. Plays performed at the National Theatre are often written by Ugandans in the diaspora, and funded by foreigners. (“Cooking Oil,” a play which ran last month, was funded in part by the City of Los Angeles.)

Take Franco Mpagi, a painter who splits his time between Nairobi and Kampala.To him there is no comparison between attitudes toward art in Kenya and here in Uganda. In Nairobi, as he put it, even the layman is pressured to at least pretend that he understands art.

Many Ugandan artists look to the Kenyan market for the exposure, opportunities, and welcome they do not find in their own country. Kenya boasts of a superior GDP, more vibrant tourist industry, and larger upper class, all of which are elements that have produced “high art” over the ages. Historically, a sophisticated urban-based elite often patronized local artists so that they could achieve their vision with as few practical limitations as possible. For instance, could Michelangelo have painted the Sistine Chapel without the support of the Church?

It is easy therefore, to claim that Ugandans are incapable of appreciating art and are not sophisticated enough to nurture and patronise their homegrown talents. However, this was exactly the justification that was used to strip many African countries of their artistic heritage during the colonial era.

In many other countries, developed countries in particular, the government funds programs to support the arts. The American National Endowment for the Arts has a diverse portfolio ranging from grants to individual artists, to funding festivals, ballet troupes, and jazz tours.

Their $160 million annual budget is not even the largest worldwide. The Italian government spends almost 10 times that on its major opera houses alone. Of course, Uganda cannot compete with these numbers, and as is the case with health, education and other sectors, where the government cannot fully contribute, donors fill the gap. The recently-held annual Bayimba Festival, had a number of partners, including the Swedish Foreign Ministry (SIDA).

Despite the festival’s profile as one of the country’s premier cultural events, and its lively attendance, the government did not contribute funding. Meanwhile, the upcoming Amakula Film Festival is sponsored by Ugandan companies and foreign partners like the Dutch Doen Foundation.

The government pays lip service to the value of national art institutions, as with our Ugandan National Cultural Centre (UNCC), but even the UNCC receives little public funding. A source at UNCC stated that monthly they receive 2.2 million shilling from the Ministry of Gender, Labour and Social Development (MGLSD) and make up the shortfall through their activities. With this money they coordinate both the National Theatre and Nommo Gallery. That low figure, and the fact that art falls under a ministry often attacked for its institutional failings and catch-all nature, reveals more than the government’s words about the official attitude toward art.

So is the problem art itself? Serubiri believes that Ugandan artists have a responsibility to produce art that adds value to a culture or society.

“It’s not that the art people make is irrelevant. I think it’s just the goals and the way it engages people is just kind of wrong. I mean, you can’t just make art to look at,” he said.

African art historically is a product of culture: the masks used in funeral ceremonies or the pots given to the bride at Kwanjula to begin her new home. Art was and still is a social component of our culture. The musician Phillip Lutaaya, who turned around attitudes during the worst of the HIV/AIDS crisis with a single song, and the writer Okot P’Bitek, who made Acholi pride possible, are but two examples of Ugandan artists who are internationally renowned and manage to balance social relevance with artistic innovation.

Raymond Ojakol helped to found the Lantern Meet, a poetry group that aims to nurture Ugandan talent and popularise poetry. Attend one of their biweekly meetings and you will be amazed by the number, talent, and passion of young Ugandan writers.Attend one of their biannual recitals and you will observe the full house to which these young poets perform. Perhaps then you will not be so quick to conclude that Ugandans do not appreciate the classical arts.

At any given poetry meet, you may stumble upon a lively discussion on the merits of classical poetry of the likes of W. H. Auden and William Blake in our tropical, postcolonial context. Ojakol believes that in order to create our own vibrant and meaningful poetry we have to learn from the classics, rather than be, what he calls, “Rebels without form,”

The Lantern Meet, a self-sustaining organisation now three years young, has experienced the challenges that many new groups face in trying to access space in the National Theatre. The theatre must fund staff salaries and pay for its own maintenance; consequently, when designating performing space it cannot act only out of charitable and artistic impulse. Ojakol states that this is where the government should be doing more to support art.

“Government should chip in to amplify art because it contributes to development; any art that sensitizes people, allows them to understand their problems and how to improve their lives,” he said.

Artist Mpagi has sought out new artistic strategies that have direct bearing on the growth of our young nation. He is currently exploring Applied Art, which he describes as “where art gets off the canvas and is used for more than just aesthetic purposes.”

Yet artists and visionaries such as these will never get the chance to flourish without societal and government validation.

The future of art in this country lies with artists like Moses Serubiri, Franco Mpagi, and groups like Kampala Contemporary Ballet and the Lantern Meet. If you ask Serubiri what he wants from his government, he will tell you.

“Support for exhibitions, support for people talking positively about art. That’s what needs to happen, because through the government, people can change their attitude towards the arts