Do we really care about our Arts and Culture? Ugandans speak out at their 2nd national conference
From the 16th to the 17th of May newly elected parliamentarians were being sworn in Parliament amidst colourful performances by a variety of cultural groups representing the regional diversity of Uganda. How significant that across the road from them, the National Theatre played host to the 2nd annual conference on Arts and Culture at the very same time.
This gathering brought together art organisations, individual artists, cultural activists and other interested stakeholders under the engaging theme “We don’t care about Ugandan arts and culture!”. Its aim; to raise the importance of arts and culture in Uganda to the social and economic development of the country and its people. Its target audience; the very same people being inaugurated across the road!
Is arts and culture a significant priority?
The nature of the discussions and the choice of speakers at the conference clearly attempted to challenge the perception that arts and culture in Uganda is not a significant priority to the people of Uganda. If anything the debates and discussions moved from the premise that indeed arts and culture is very important, but is fraught with several challenges that need to be overcome in order for it to be placed firmly on the national development agenda by the powers that be.
Prominent speakers and moderators at the conference were drawn from academia, NGOs, and several individual cultural promoters in Uganda.
A platform for defining a strategy
Faisel Kiwewa (Director of the Bayimba Cultural Foundation) highlighted the importance of the conference in providing a platform for generating a clearly defined strategy and action plan that is relevant to the public. Through the discussions and debates, challenges were raised as to how the profile of arts and culture can be elevated. In addition to this, the importance of arts and culture to country’s national and economic development was emphasised in order to be taken up by influential government decision makers and policy influencers in the next five years.
Mr. Jaffer Amin describes himself as an amateur cultural anthropologist who has undertaken to capture and record the intricacies of Ugandan art and culture, spanning across the length and breadth of the country while doing so. It’s a personal mission, and one that should be commended, for Mr. Amin has dedicated himself to using his research to help with reconciliation and reconstruction in Uganda given is turbulent history. Incidentally he is one of the offspring of the infamous Idi Amin.
His insight into what is meant by ‘everyday art and culture’ is driven by an understanding his own history, specifically his childhood growing up in exile and being influenced by a western lifestyle. Art and culture in the western sense these days are largely linked to the mainstream media – especially marketing blitzes, adverts and commercials through TV and radio.
Upon his return to Uganda, he embarked on discovering what it means to be Ugandan by exposure to variety of cultural activities such as weddings, funerals and other cultural and religious events. It is through these events, he believes, that one is able to discover stories, values and traditions that date back more than sixteen centuries ago.
Arts and culture in Uganda reflects the historical and regional cultural and traditional forms, for example cave art, Nubian crafts, and the aesthetic and spiritual significance of the Kasubi tombs. But more importantly than merely admiring these works from a distance, we must acknowledge that art in the African paradigm has utilitarian value, and not is used for more than just display. For instance, African folklore passed down through generations for centuries through oral tradition, was a set of stories that imparted a set of moral codes and thus upheld a political and legal system! The value of communalism versus individualism, for example, was entrenched as a result of such traditional story telling.
The wisdom circle
He went on to explain that identity is often defined by those features of life that are ingrained and embedded through one’s upbringing. For instance inter generational roles, distinct tribal cultural practices, religious rituals, language, dress, cuisine etc.; all existed to tell people apart and place them into distinct ethnic or tribal categories.
But the ‘wisdom circle’ of elders that propped up this system is gradually disintegrating (only 2% of Ugandans are over 65 years of age) and their wisdoms are slowly evaporating too. The standard definition of an elder is changing, in that a 45 year can now be considered an elder. Therefore a gap exists in society today where typical and traditional culture used to be maintained and reinforced by the circle of elders.
A clash of cultures
So when modernity and westernisation enters the picture, the gap left by the disintegrating wisdom circle is now filled. The youth grab on to this as a means to break down the barriers that have caused their alienation in the first place. However, the youth in this generation is caught up in a clash of cultures. Their general alienation from various spheres of society has made them determined to prove their worth and assert their identity. In doing so they have become seduced by a western oriented paradigm to art which has created a dominant ‘hip-hop’ culture, whilst simultaneously abandoning traditional, historical and normative values once held dear by their forefathers.
Mr Amin reiterated the importance of working feverishly to capture and document the teachings from the wisdom circle. By doing so, we are able to answer the question of ‘who am I?’ that people grapple with in their search for a common identity. If not, a severe injustice will be done to our youth if they lose this wisdom.
Practically what needs to be done as a way forward is to focus the arts and culture sector on creating and producing for export, whilst building associations of people that come together and consolidate its strengths in the sector. By doing so, an entry point into disseminating information widely would be created, communities of like-minded people will be built, a set of values would be entrenched and preserved for generations to come, and much needed income will be generated.
Everyday is different
Mr. Joseph Walugembe (Director of the Ugandan National Cultural Centre) spoke at length of what he understood everyday arts and culture to be. For him, everyday arts and culture takes on a particular peculiarity because every day is different and significant in its own special way.
Further to this, when we are dealing with everyday arts and culture, we are in actuality dealing with the individual mind that affects decisions. It is the mind that is the main driver of every day culture, as this is the nature of the human. Therefore, art and culture in one’s everyday life will be different depending on the state of mind one is in at a particular point in time. For instance, the way we dress, the food we eat, or the way we behave represents one’s culture and what’s important for them.
Everyday goings-on bears a society’s culture or artistic expression and it evolves over time. Everyday arts and culture defines who we are and is therefore important for our survival. In reality what this implies is that we must undertake critical thinking in order to have an everyday arts and culture that we love and appreciate.
There seems to be a dichotomy of thinking and understanding of what art and culture is and what purpose it serves in contemporary society. In order that a viable strategy and plan of action be designed for the public good, a common understanding and agreement must be reached as to what we understand by culture and arts in the first place.
For many of the so-called elders in society, Ugandan arts and culture is represented by long- established practices, ancient folklore and stories, and the rituals that we see in traditional events such as weddings, funerals, births and other such ceremonies. These customs serve to protect a people’s history from dying out, to maintain a sense of identity, and to preserve a set of important values and moral codes handed down from generation to generation so that a society survives.
On the other hand, we have the younger generation whose understanding of arts and culture has moved away from the latter typology of thinking, towards an acceptance that modernity and technology has entered their ‘everyday culture’ and is here to stay. They have consequently adopted and adapted elements of westernisation into their art forms and created a hybrid culture that accommodates both the western influence and African values.
However, unlike the traditional elders whose main motivation is to preserve and protect what has always existed, the youth want to use art and culture to generate income, create a source of livelihood, build an industry and ultimately for commercial purposes.
Furthermore, the understanding that the mind controls the decisions we make and thus the culture we create, to some extent is valid. How else would stories and practices be passed down and cross generations if someone is not actively motivated to do so? However, the mind does not operate in a vacuum. It is largely influenced by the very same culture and its surroundings that it is also seeking to change and influence.
Most often the mind reflects the dominant ideologies that spread through society at a particular point in history. A case in point is that the art and culture that arises during times of conflict and oppression is likely to look starkly different to that created during times of peace and stability. The messages that are portrayed through the various forms almost mirror and echo the conversations and beliefs that people value at that particular point in history. Therefore it is important not to view arts and culture through an ahistorical or apolitical perspective.
Upon critical reflection it seems that Ugandan arts and culture stands at a crossroad, despite admirable attempts to strengthen the sector. Any strategic formulation of how to advance the sector needs to acknowledge the tensions that exist between the various groups of stakeholders in the sector, and therefore seek to build a common understanding of how to move forward.
Key questions still remain unanswered. For instance, how do we deal with a global situation of dwindling support to the arts, especially financial support? Over the past two decades fewer funds are being pumped into teaching, training and establishing facilities for arts and culture promotion.
As a result we are faced with a condition where talent is rudimentary and unrefined. At this point mediocrity sets in, and the public is compelled to ‘take what it gets’. Naturally over time the public becomes disillusioned and are less likely to give support to local artists. It is a vicious circle we face and one that needs urgent debate and strategy.
In addition to this, we cannot set aside the value that the older generation brings to the challenge that we currently face. In an African context the respect adorned on the elders is derived from their strength as keepers of knowledge, wisdom and memory. The expression of this history is usually through traditional art forms such as music, dance, poetry and prose, storytelling and folklore.
Yet we cannot expect these conventional and customary forms of media to be sustained in the 21st century as it was centuries ago. Modern society is typified by fast moving and ever-changing technological advancements. Arts and culture have not remained immune from such technological revolutions. Thus we are faced with another significant challenge; how the generation before us can embed their traditional knowledge into modern day innovation, and by doing so ensure that the generations after them continue to maintain their identity and historical wisdoms.
Over the next five years the Ugandan Arts and Culture association has embarked on a task of expanding the sector. This is to be done through facilitating greater networking and mobilising resources to profile the sector so that it gets government attention by the end of this period. However, extensive lobbying and advocacy efforts need to be activated during this period, not after, so that its contribution to national social and economic development can be seen and felt.
What better time to take this opportunity whilst our newly appointed parliamentarians are being affirmed as the bearers of public good…
Thevan Naidoo is a South African Social Scientist with a deep interest in the arts and all things cultural. She is now based in Kampala.
(Conference photo’s by: Raphael Khisa)[facebook-like-button]