Why Art? An essay by Doreen Baingana
A woman, or was it a man, dressed in a white suit, slowly got up from her front-row seat at the National Theatre, moved up the stairs and onto the dim dusty stage, and proceeded to gyrate slowly, achingly, as though creeping up-right, from one side of the stage to the other and then off it with a deep bow. What were we, the audience, to make of this? Was this another example of the “irrelevance of the arts” as espoused by our political leaders?
Written by Doreen Baingana
Anyone with an open mind would disagree. The difficulty of a subject is not proof of its lack of meaning. It’s a pity that the very people who need to be persuaded about the value of the arts do not attend these artistic events such as the one described above, by a Japanese dancer, on the last day of the contemporary dance festival, Dance Transmissions, last October. She shared the stage that same evening with the Ugandan troupe Keiga Dance Company, whose director, Jonas Byaruhunga, an expressive and dynamic dancer himself, organised the three-day event.
This is not a review of it; my aim here is to answer back those who question the relevance of the arts using the example of one other performance of that evening, by the South African dance troupe Mhayise Production. I am convinced that the arts are essential to our psychic health as individual Ugandans and as a nation.
It feels somewhat ridiculous to even have to defend the arts, whose value speaks for itself, but in today’s climate here, sadly, it is necessary. I’m also aware that I am preaching to the choir by writing this for an art magazine, but hopefully it will encourage those of us who love the arts to re-affirm why we do so and to pass on the word.
I actually came to the contemporary dance performance expecting to see enigmatic pieces like the Japanese one, which, like a poem, may take some effort to decipher but this effort is rewarded by the depth of meaning garnered from it.
So I was pleasantly surprised that the South African performance was clearly accessible and this did not take away from its depth and beauty as it enacted and interrogated the pastoral traditions of the Nguni people of South Africa.
The dance showed how cows as symbols of status and wealth were central to the traditions of that community, particularly those surrounding marriage, family life and gender relations. All this was shown through graceful body movements of only two dancers, a man and woman, who used simple props: cow horns, a huge brown drum, a flute, and their clothing, but to such an evocative effect.
A Spiritual Experience
This had nothing to do with religion, but I came out of that performance a changed person. Without moving from my seat, the dance took me through what felt like a life-time of emotions; it was a journey from which I emerged new, fresh, having learnt so much about myself through this opportunity to see myself and my community reflected back at me in all its beauty and ugliness, in a way that got to the essence of things.
What a refreshing break from what we normally see reflected back at us: newspaper and TV stories of endless corruption scandals and other crimes: murder, defilement, inefficiency, stupidity, lies, the list goes on, telling us daily, insistently, relentlessly: “This is who we are. This is who we are.”
And what are we to do with this information? Feel helpless and full of despair as we detach from public life, leaving it to the criminals.
Art does not avoid these tragedies, exemplified by how the couple fought fiercely as part of the dance, but it also gives us a glimpse of redemption, of a way out. This catharsis is not simply an emotional reaction, but an inner shift that helps you see your world and its challenges in a new way, leading you to the possibility of light at the end of the dark tunnel.
It is no surprise that so many of us Ugandans seek redemption and catharsis in churches, which are ever-sprouting and spreading like a pestilence. Art, however, can do this work without the dogma, not to mention the suspect pastors and practices.
To see again
For me, engagement with the performance began with curiosity: how come they were they showing a video of a rustic scene: lush green fields in which cattle grazed peacefully, as background when this was a contemporary dance performance? Beneath this, two figures lay prone on the stage floor. When they got up, the woman’s arms were encased in the longest hugest cow horns I had ever seen; in fact I whispered to my neighbour, “Are those elephant tusks?”
To see those huge horns, detached from an actual cow, on the arms of the female dancer as she swayed and turned gracefully, was a powerful visual embodiment of the symbolic value and significance of the cow.
We know all about the cultural importance of cows and drums and the related disturbing idea of women as property, but we generally don’t think about it much. However, to see it elevated to the stage and enacted out gracefully could not but strike one with its deeper significance. It was especially striking for me because, even though I am a Munyankore, it had not occurred to me that I actually felt anything for the long-horned Ankole cattle, least of all pride.
It took an artistic act for me to see again, as if for the first time, what I knew so well that I could no longer see it. Familiarity breeds something worse than contempt; the familiar in effect ceases to exist. Familiarity kills, while art, through the electric shock of recognition, re-creates the thing and gives it life.
Another way I saw again was to see something unusual: a woman on stage who was not gyrating her hips and waist enticingly or exposing herself, all breasts, buttocks and bare legs, as nothing but a sex object. One can avoid the likes of the Red Pepper, but its images follow you to TV, and are standard in almost every pop music and dance performance.
I am all for women making money in whatever way they can, but their choices are far too narrow in our sphere of popular culture. The public image of female performers (except comedians) is overwhelming that of a sex object. Since we cannot help but be influenced by these public images, they are terribly harmful to women’s efforts to be treated with respect and equality.
So it was like a blast of fresh air to see this female dancer who was not using her body to sell sex. She was strong and graceful, flexible, expressive and still feminine. This was a rare and rewarding opportunity for us, both men and women, to see a woman move this way as a woman on stage, thus adding to our knowledge and experience of the more positive ways women can be in the world.
This is the power of art: to help us re-imagine the world. If there is any value in differentiating between art and popular culture, this is definitely part of it.
Split personalities and wholeness
The South African performance also helped me override the western-educated part of me that considers all this cow business a rather quaint, if not backward, tribal value system that we should have left behind a long time ago. All of us post-colonials cannot help but have this double perspective, where we value our traditions and culture, but at the same time view them from the outside as a white person would (say, an English colonial administrator or teacher and their present day replacements), as simple, superstitious, impractical or just plain wrong.
A part of me thinks it is absurd to keep one’s wealth as cows; what if they got rinderpest or some such disease and were all wiped out? A modern person, we think, should keep his money in the bank and invest it in stocks (though we all know where that word came from), which is more sensible and civilised. We shall, for the sake of argument, ignore the instability of stock markets.
We live with this split personality, similar to the “double consciousness” described by the great African-American thinker, W.E.B. du Bios, and it a precarious position to be in. It is like having one foot in one boat and another in another: they will invariably move apart and into the deep water you will fall. But for the duration of the performance, at least, as I watched the two dancers lift every day acts and movements and rituals into things of beauty and grace and dignity—even what was harsh, like the power play and fighting— I was allowed to step with both feet firmly into one boat; to enter wholly and experience one particular perspective, and reconsider its value as it was enigmatically explored.
There are very few experiences outside artistic ones that can achieve this inner shift, this change of perspective, whose impact holds long after the performance itself. I moved a little closer to being one with myself.
Tradition and modernity as one
My description above may give the impression that this was a traditional dance. It wasn’t. It defied this false dichotomy we are trapped in, that the traditional and modern are completely separate and are at odds. We do not live this way, but continue to think this way as it is easier than tackling or analysing the reality of a complex continuum.
This performance did not shy away from this complexity but embraced it. It used the language of contemporary dance to explore the traditions of a particular ethnic group, thus giving old rituals and symbols meaning in the here and now. So, although the man and woman at various intervals stamped their feet in ways I recognized from various southern African traditional dances, and the man played a flute like a traditional cattle herder, the dancers were free to manipulate these traditional moves and music to express something new.
The performance linked the past to the present, and honoured this past by borrowing from it, reflecting on it, and re-interpreting it using contemporary dance language, thus breathing new life into it.
Compare this to performances of our traditional dances here today. The main purpose, apart from entertainment, is the preservation of the culture: this is how we—the Basoga, or Acholi or Banyoro—danced in the old days and we will replicate it as closely as possible, without any corruptions. While there is a role for preservation, it is much harder to speak to our present reality through unchanged traditional dance, thus limiting its relevance.
One way the dance questioned the categories of tradition and modernity was in the way the dancers adorned themselves and used this clothing as part of the dance. Both the man and the woman started out wrapped in cow skin, but it was arranged to look like an avante garde leather designer jacket, and underneath they wore bodices with lots of strings, which added a rather Victorian touch.
Later, he took off her leather skin, revealing a long purple gauze skirt, so frilly and feminine, that she later pulled over her head to become a veiled bride. Underneath this “western” dress, which almost every African bride now wears, her lower legs were tightly wrapped in coloured cloth that looked like the beads traditional dancers wear to make music with each swivel and stamp of the feet. After the wedding, she lay down and he slowly unlaced the strings of her bodice, symbolizing the release of the gift of her body. She later untied his too, equalising the gender roles. It was a spectacular fusion of traditional and modern dress, movement and meaning.
Thus, in this completely accessible and uncomplicated way, the dance spoke to who we are now, recognizing the present that came out of a particular past and influenced by elements from all over. Art can help us recognise this, that our Ugandan reality and culture is fed by all our tribes plus British, Indian, Caribbean, American, Congolese—you name it—influences. Simply copying elements from elsewhere does not do much, however, and this applies to all artistic forms.
However, when one sees an artistic performance that integrates all these elements and interprets them intelligently, owns them and makes something new out of them, one is better able to recognize and acknowledge and understand who one is, and in turn manipulate all these elements in one’s life more deliberately, intelligently and without shame.
Musicians, for example, do not seem affected by false notions of cultural purity. They enrich their work by picking, borrowing and stealing from all geographical and historical zones at will and artfully incorporate them with what they have to start with. The creative ones, that is. We do this with our food too, for example, having no qualms at calling chapatti Ugandan and then inventing the ‘rolex’.
It is clear that we do not live in an either-or world, although some insist on thinking in an either-or way, for example those who harp on about how we are indecently affected by “western” “corrupt” values. Art exemplifies the beauty of cultural miscegenation and so helps us recognize and celebrate this fluid fact in our own lives.
Art provokes and questions. This dance was not merely a portrayal of the cultural norms and rituals of property, marriage, gender relations and so on, but rather it interrogated them.
For example, at one point the female dancer returned to the stage carrying a huge drum on her head which she put down and then she and the man sat on it. There ensued a struggle—a very graceful, elegant and acrobatic fight, almost kung-fu like—as to who would stay on top of the drum. Sharing was not an option. The woman ended up “on top” and the man went on to do a long dance that I interpreted as his attempt to find a way to deal with this new definition of manhood. As the drum meant the seat and symbol of power, in this case power in the family, it was clear, to me at least, that dominance by one or the other cannot bring contentment.
As I watched the dance and thought about it afterwards, I asked myself what was and is the value and impact of these cultural norms on the individual and her community? How can we engage with these norms and practises in new and better ways, as the dancers attempted to do?
These questions arose not in dry academic terms, nor were they preached from a podium, but gleaned by the audience deciphering the graceful language of moving bodies. Nothing was forced down our throats; instead, each one of us read the dance according to our ability and degree of openness to it.
Art finds you as you are and talks to you as an individual, considering your background, prejudices, influences and tastes. It is a dialogue between you, the rest of the audience and the artistic piece.
Thus, I could not help but relate this drum-dance to news stories at that time, following the death of Crown Prince Barigye of Ankole, about how he had asked for the kingdom’s royal drums to be removed from the Uganda National Museum and returned to the kingdom, whose power, similarly, had been “stolen” by the state. In a sense this story too, as a microcosm of the larger drama of Uganda’s history, was enacted on stage. Thus the performance gave us an opportunity to reflect on power struggles in the past and present, in private and public spheres, while in the safe territory of make-believe.
I would love to see more artistic explorations of our present-day political quagmire; perhaps this exploration could lead us to a way up and out.
It is not surprising that a South African performance commented on a Ugandan news event, thus declaring the universality of art. It helped, of course, that this particular performance used motifs and metaphors similar to those of many pastoral cultures across Uganda, so connections could easily be made.
It was eye-opening to realise how much we have in common despite our vastly different histories and the distance between us. I’m sure if there was more of this artistic exchange, thus increasing knowledge about each other, problems such as the deadly xenophobia in South Africa would diminish. There is not enough cultural dialogue across African nations, it seems to me.
Art can help us see beyond stereotypes, as it is concerned about what it means to be human, which goes beyond borders, tribes and nationalities. But by celebrating the particular, it paradoxically shows us that we are more alike than we are different. If we took art’s message to heart, it would inform and inspire us in this seemingly impossible task of living together in peace.
Even in more “far-fetched” cases, such as the Japanese performance, art can helps us understand “the other” by providing communication across cultures. The Japanese performer’s piece spoke to me, as obscure as it was, because it addressed universal themes. I was made to study how a body moves through space and think about what we are fighting against as we journey, whether across a room or across life: gravity, air, obstacles seen and unseen, our own weight and flexibility, or lack thereof, our internal resistance or will to move forward. And where are we going?
Her single figure moving slowly across the dark empty stage filled me with a sense of existential aloneness. “You are born alone and die alone” as we like to say here.
I’m sure her piece provoked as many reactions and questions as there were people in the audience. These are things we normally don’t think about in our busy lives, as we take movement for granted, but the dancer granted us a reprieve, a meditative moment to actually dwell on how we move and why. What our bodies are, each and every one of us who can move and even those who can’t.
It was so simple and yet so complex. I’m sure someone versed in Japanese culture and dance history, or a student of contemporary dance experienced her dance differently and perhaps more fully, but even I too was able to experience it and gain something from it. Art is generous this way; it can enrich anyone and everyone.
As Ugandan artists, we must ask ourselves whether we should strive to make our work more relevant to our communities and if so, how. Some would argue that it is enough that the work is relevant to the artist, and if it is coupled with genuine creativity, will automatically become relevant to the rest of society. My hope is that we can all engage in this discussion of what art can and cannot do for us as individuals and as a society. The public debate on the value of the arts and humanities must become a deeper and more intelligent one.
Doreen Baingana is a Ugandan writer and author of Tropical Fish: Stories out of Entebbe, which she won an Association of Writers & Writing Programs Prize for Short Fiction (2003) and a Commonwealth Prize (2005). She is now a member of Startjournal.org’s Editorial Board.