The language of art

Cultural diversity finds its amplification in the knowledge of languages. Art is not reserved for a small circle of people. Art is for everyone. Often times we are given the chance to express ourselves in various ways and as such find it necessary to develop these media to give us the opportunity to further communicate our ideas and concepts with our society.

By Samuel Lutaaya


There are many who would argue that art and language cannot possibly be connected or related in any way and who could argue that this statement is not true? However, we cannot also rule out the fact that art and language are both modes of communication and can be powerful tools that complement one another, thus creating richness and texture in our daily lives. I went by the various stalls at the LaBa! Street art festival in Kampala to figure out whether there actually is a link between language and art.

With the advent of the regular exhibitions that take place in galleries across the city, artists both visual and otherwise have more opportunities to take the art to the public with even greater frequency. MishMash gallery in Naguru has monthly showcase of art that is for now still exclusively attended by the expatriate community. This is still a step in the right direction and things are looking good for visual artists.

The fifth Street Art Festival

The annual Street Art Festival organized by the Goethe Zentrum is another regular event on the Ugandan arts calendar. Codenamed LaBa Is a unique event for the art scene and debatably the largest showcase of consumer art. A record 250 artists who included painters, musicians, dancers, sculptors, fashion designers, writers, photographers and actors transformed Mackinnon Road into a big open air art space. Our very own START Journal was on scene monitoring the proceedings as well with their very own stall. What better way to connect with the artists than under these conditions.

The festival is an attempt by the organizers to make art accessible to the public since most Ugandans find it out of their scope of interest. There were various attempts, by the visual artists especially, to ensure that the public got a piece of their work in their houses. Ronex Ahimbisibwe and Andrew Ludigo had their works in form of prints that went for a fraction of the price. Joel Nsadha and Abdul Muyingo had photographs transformed into postcards while Sheila Nakitende had bookmarks that were discounted and gave buyers an opportunity to take art into the intimate space of a book.

A visual buffet

Many artists utilized this opportunity to sell items at a lower price. I noted that this took a lot out of the snob value that seems to plague artists in Uganda. This was not just a visual buffet but also a chance for the public to be affected on a very personal level.

There also seems to be greater interest and support from the private sector for the arts. Coca Cola, DMARK Mobile, Moonberg Lager, Orange Telecom, Fotogenix and the Independent magazine were some of the companies that were present and gave their support at the event. Is this a sign that the corporate sector has finally come around? It would really nice for the fraternity to receive this much-needed support that has been going solely to mainstream musicians. Watch this space.

It also seemed to me that after four editions, the Goethe Zentrum felt that a number of innovations were in order for the fifth edition of the festival. Maybe this was aimed at baiting the audience or possibly that the ideas are also running out. Too much innovation may not be a good thing. I guess this is a personal feeling in that regard.

Language without borders

Language without borders was one such innovation at the festival. Different embassies were on location to present the languages native to the various cultures that were represented. I was curious to see how the festival connected the two aspects of culture.

Francis, a student of Spanish assisting at the stall, said that language and art both developed from ancient backgrounds and have evolved over long period with various influences affecting the development of vocabulary, which affect the phrasing and construction of words and sentences that the people use to communicate different ideas. Art has also evolved from basic rock paintings for example to sculptures, paintings, buildings, monuments, crafts et cetera. The evolution of man and the circumstances surrounding him allowed him to explore different possibilities that have enabled him to express himself.

Thomas at the Norwegian stall explained to me that the relationship between language and art is the fact that both of them come from an extremely personal space, a part of us that cannot really be expressed fully. The different modes of expression are a shadow of what is resident within. Arts and language are rooted in our hearts and the expression of both can come from a very intimate place within us. Love, joy, pain can be felt in an instant just by experiencing language and art.

Rodney, at the British Council stall told me that art is language in visual terms. Artists use their work to communicate different concepts to their audiences. Sometimes the public ‘get it’, other times they do not. At this point, the artists need to find ways to describe the motivation and inspiration for the creation of the works. This is where language comes into play and also the possibility for the artists to share with a greater number of people. This increases the potential of impact by the artist. Language also assists artists connect with the market place.

Benedetta, the Cultural coordinator at the Alliance Francaise took a much simpler approach to the question by saying that language, like art is a form of expression. The more languages you know, the more ways there are to express. There are also certain languages that are better at describing things intrinsic to certain cultures. Poetry is a very good example of this. Usually, when we translate verse from the original languages, we always lose something because different languages contain vocabularies that are unique to the diverse settings. There are different figurative expressions in these languages that allow the artist to develop verbal landscapes that are registered on a conscious and subconscious level.

Different use of language

Different art forms use different languages to classify the terms that are exclusive to those fields. For example, music uses words in the Italian language, dance picks from French and so on. This means that learning the language that is used in that art form gives one a greater understanding of the elements in that form. Whenever someone describes a scene in words, then there are mental pictures that are painted that allow us to understand and connect with what is being said.

Art and language are a subset of culture which has various aspects to it. The identity of different members of a society can be best seen within their culture. Culture can be described as the customs, arts, social institutions, and achievements of a particular nation, people, or other social group. We also need to consider that for culture to exist there must be components that exist to provide it with life. Language being a very fundamental facet of culture and so is art because these are tools with which a collection of individuals can communicate who they are.

A personal experience

When I experience different art works, a lot happens within me. As I walked by the Afriart gallery stall, I saw on sale the photographic biography of Kaddu Wasswa which was an exceptional portrait of a man who had developed an archive of his life over the years. As I looked through the book, which happened to be expertly published with a vast number of beautifully captured photographic moments, I could not help but think about my own life and how it had unfolded over the years. It was almost like I was going through a time machine. That is how affected I was by the pictures and that is the power of art. It is an unspoken language that can transcend words and take us to a place where the human mind only can understand.

After a long hot afternoon, I was ready to head home to ponder on the rather interesting knowledge I had gathered that day. The organizers may not have known it, but there was something intuitive going on as they set up the different activities for thee day. Everything in this life has a relationship, whether we are aware of it or not. My conclusion on this is that there is a reason for the happenings and until the next edition; I believe that the growth of the art industry will continue to be of interest to both the private and public sector.

Samuel Lutaaya is a freelance writer with a varying range of interests namely; dance, film, theatre, music, photography, fashion.

All photos sampled from images from the LaBa! Festival posted on Facebook. would also like to point out that ‘Thomas the Norwegian’ being quoted is the journal’s current editor.