Taking art back to communities: The Mabarti Street Art project
In Uganda we are not short on visual culture. We are surrounded by visual impressions of all kinds – adverts in different sizes and forms, persuading us to buy products we may never even use in our lives. From large and neatly designed billboards announcing the arrival of a superior industrial product to simple and often crude road side signs publicizing a hair salon, merchants of all sorts of products compete for the financially hard-up Ugandan buyer.
Review by Dr. George Kyeyune
I noted recently that product advertisers are gradually regaining their spaces after the January 2011 presidential and parliamentary elections when, most if not all the urban and rural environments were awash with campaign posters.
Alongside the production and display of this commonly referred to as applied art, is the fine art. Fine art is unfortunately most times confined to galleries and private spaces. Although admission to galleries of fine art has always been free, they are very rarely visited by an average Ugandan.
The modern practice of galleries
The tradition of exhibiting art in gazetted spaces with formal openings is a modern practice. Modernity has changed the way we practice, display and consume art. The founding of modern Art Schools in Africa, (including the Makerere School of Industrial and Fine Arts) at the beginning of the 20th century, also brought along certain behaviors and standards in disseminating art which by virtue of their opulence and snobbishness have tended to exclude the lower sections of society.
Yet Art Colleges in Uganda have always emphasized attention to local communities in their teaching and research.
From galleries to communities
In the recent past, the Uganda-German Cultural Society (UGCS) has made efforts to take art out of the white intimidating walls of the galleries to the communities For example in mid this year, Mackinnon road, behind Fair Way Hotel in Nakasero, was cordoned off and artists displayed a diversity of art forms. This one day exhibition code named LaBa! was important in the following ways:
First, it de-emphasized and promoted an interaction between art and craft when all artists are exhibited together. Second, it brought in its fold other forms of art like dance and theatre. And third, it encouraged the exchange of ideas and information among the exhibiting artists and among the artists and their audience.
The high level of attendance was a milestone in UGCS’s aim at improving the visibility and value of artists among their local audience as well as renewing the relevant aspects of traditional approach to art dissemination.
The role of Sadolin Company
Sadolin Company is also aware that Kampala environment lacks art with a broader view of the world and a critical angle to our life experiences, currently a privilege of the art gallery visitors. Taking a different and rather more comprehensive approach than the LaBa! Project, Sadolin chose to make art accessible to a wider audience by sponsoring the creation of art in the streets of Kampala painted on Mabaati.
Mabaati is plural for Baati, a vernacular word for corrugated iron roofing sheets. With the growing construction industry in Uganda, there are many spaces in town fenced off with Mabaati to ensure safety and privacy of the construction sites. Sadolin noted and agreed that the exterior of Mabaati fencing were perfect spaces to accommodate the proposed eight by four feet paintings.
To generate the needed creative mood and visual debates and to give the project an artistic panache and excitement, Sadolin coined a catch word Mabarti, by manipulating Mabaati. This helped to a) retain the vernacular tone of iron roofing sheets while at the same time introducing a semblance of art which is at the core of this project and b) engaging with the local audience in a friendly and intimate way using a local and therefore more accessible language was ensured.
Color your world
Working in conjunction with the Uganda-German Cultural Society, Sadolin identified 30 artists for the Mabarti project who turned up on a Tuesday for a briefing. The manager of Goethe Zentrum Kampala Mr. Sebastian Woitsch explained that Sadolin is a company that produces color for the Ugandan market and beyond. Sadolin wanted to give back to the community, he continued, by partnering with artists who in any case have traditionally used the products Sadolin manufactures.
Artists have the capacity, to enhance and extend the visual experience of Kampala city. The theme of the project was Color Your World which was open enough to accommodate a diversity of thoughts, approaches and styles.
Artists indulged their passion with unprecedented abandon. They were competing for the first three positions. Ssenkaaba Samson (Xenson) took the first position which attracted a cash prize of Ugs 500,000 as well as a chance to hold a fully sponsored art exhibition in September 2011 in a prestigious space, to be agreed on. The first runner-up, Damba Ismael, and second runners-up Edison Mugalu and Paul Kintu, who on this occasion tied, each received a cash prize of Ugs 250,000.
In the adjudication exercise, the adjudicators were looking for an open and honest interpretation of the theme Color Your World, evidence of commitment to the task, freedom exhibited in the execution of the piece as well as sense of freshness in terms of ideas and physical object expressed. I must add that it was extremely hard to spot a winner as there were very many deserving paintings.
The winning paintings
In his characteristic style of tightly knitted compositions with schematized figural motifs, Xenson looked at a typical social life in Kampala squalors where women who dominate the composition are depicted as bearers of social burdens.
Damba Ismael on the other hand observed nature and painted a richly decorated butterfly. This composition echoes the dazzling colors and energy of the bustling Kampala and its suburbs, while at the same time sounds trumpets of warns about protecting the fragile ecosystem around us.
Mugalu’s approach was lucid and non-committed with restless figures in motion arranged equidistant from each other. The painter seems to have spared his brushes in favor his hands to develop this intriguing painting. (Edison Mugalu has been interviewed in startjournal.org).
Paul Kintu also drew on his childhood memories and made of gesturing stick figures. These are flanked by floral and architectural motifs on either side.
Other participating paintings
Daudi Karungi experimented with color in a non-figurative approach. The geometric shapes make reference to the anonymous high rise buildings of Kampala which in the recent past have taken over Nakasero hill.
David Kigozi is angry with the level of theft and corruption that have infested Ugandans to the core. In his painting, a multitude of footsteps crisscross moving somewhere but going nowhere. One notes a sense of chaos, confusion, yet there is potential for sanity. The large figure in Kigozi’s painting, is burdened by a heavy debris – carrying it high over its head as if poised to stone the transgressors.
Paul Ndema returns us to the 70s and early 80s with a vividly morbid subject. A large human skull is distinctively painted in white in the centre, outlined by bold black paint. The skull is hemmed in by the familiar V shaped patterns on either edge of the ‘canvas’. Paul’s frustration and anger (wherever it is coming from) can be compared to that of David Kigozi.
Edopu Rita’s figures are highly schematized. Her stick like figures are a reminiscent of kindergarten art. With this approach, the painting retains a sense of innocence and simplicity. Perhaps Edopu’s thoughts about Kampala are about people who are impressionable and gullible.
Farid Mahfudh has grouped together common sights of Kampala. Birds, women, butterflies and cows [and goats] freely roam the city.
Abusharia painting says so much with so little. Richly colored and busy attenuated rectangular shapes are placed within a vast space of saturated red as if making reference to the contrast between well planned spacious spaces and the congested squalors of Kampala.
Anwar’s style is related to that of Abusharia particularly in terms of color application and treatment of the surface. There is in some cases recognizable figural motifs – animals, trees, birds and human figures populating Anwar’s paintings.
Christopher Bigomba has created a cityscape in orange and red tones as if in the process of melting down. Christopher is probably making reference to the strained living conditions.
In a related rendering, Amos Ssentongo painted colors dribbling down the ridges of mabaati as if to emphasize their verticality. Their apparent static positioning is eased by the varying heights of the colored ridges.
Collin Ssekajugo is lamenting about something that he does not go ahead to elaborate His painting of the city’s skyline bears a text in bold letters Imagine Kampala.
Perhaps his restlessness is explained by Ismael Kateregga who presented a pictorial view of Kampala’s skyline with the omnipresent and erratic minibus commuters in dust and muddy downtown.
Geoffrey Muhumuza’s painting is simple and basic dominated by colorful curves and ovals. Sali Yusuf too makes a delightful grouping of colors with simplified geometric inspired by the Kampala cityscape.
Juuko Hoods has used fish and sun flower to bring across an important message of love and tranquility. The motifs are used embrace each other in an intimate and passionate manner.
Yet another warm and positive painting is that of Tindi, whose portrait of a richly decorated ‘African’ woman in profile celebrates the state of womanhood.
Kaspa’s trees are clearly showing marks of old age. They are set within a landscape where perspective is emphasized. Kaspa’s trees point to the need for preservation and restoration that Kampala badly needs.
Mathias Tumusiime is well known for his child like figures which ignore perspective and anatomy. Their gazing frontal faces are attached for feet set in profile. While Mathias’ paintings are naïve they retain a sense of glamour and spontaneous raw energy which is commonly visible in Down Town Kampala where manual work is a common sight.
Ro made explicit graphical figures of nude women which he accompanied with protesting text, LET’S ALL REJECT PONOGRPHY. Ironically, the figures themselves may not be necessarily hard pornography, but to the puritan, they are offensive.
Geoffrey Muhumuza chose to be simple with his bold and distinct multicolored shapes dominated by ovals and curves. Like Muhumuza, Sister Elisabeth is interested in color and its psychological-emotional impact. Her painting is dominated by ovals and circles. Her design has a lot in common with the Sadolin Color Your World signage.
The need to recognize Sadolin was also Wasswa’s concern. Wasswa clearly responded to the promoter’s support and benevolence. In bold letters WASSWA vs SADOLIN the artist made his presence felt. Sadolin has provided Wasswa a voice to be heard and as such Sadolin’s might must be extolled for the public to know. (Startjournal.org reviewed Donald Wasswa’s last exhibition).
Return to antiquity
With his rustic figures Henry Mzili takes us back into antiquity. He yearns for a return to the pristine nature of things. As he expresses the essence of life, he makes a visceral representation of his experience not only as an artist with a deep critical resource but also a conventional member of the Kampala urban and suburban culture. (Henry Mzili is one of the founders of Start Journal. He regularly writes his Free Expressions.)
Ronex created a rather misty painting with no clear path and destination. The dominant white overwhelm the dimly painted spaces evenly distributed across the spread as if to say that Kampala is enveloped in a mist of uncertainty. (Ronex was recently portrayed in Startjournal.org, read this interview here.)
Rosario Achola is drawing on the ancient Egyptian imagery. Her work is intensely spiritual and mythical. The multiple hands on the central standing figure in blue recall Gaytri, a Hindu Goddess.
In a related rendering, Sane’s white and yellow multi-dimensional gazing figure allude to melancholy and bewilderment. But also, in it, one reads life as a vital element which must be respected. (Sane regularly writes for Startjournal.org, read his latest article here.)
Sheila’s tone did not differ very much. She talked about the ‘street queens’ as the text accompanying the ‘tribal’ figures reads. Sheila is touched by the pathetic conditions of children begging on the street. They form an important part of Kampala’s social mosaic- Kampala would be incomplete without them.
Not far apart is Zuena Nabukenya who has reconstructed a classroom situation. The waving hands in foreground and responding to female figure who might be a teacher- poorly fed and resourced. Today they are agitating for more pay. The table which she is using as a support to scribble things is incongruously positioned, as if waiting to drop on her feet. Zuena’s world is random and unplanned.
Challenges and opportunities
Given that the participating artists were regular exhibitors in the Kampala art galleries, majority of whom being graduates of art education institutions in Uganda, they share similar ideals and fears in their art careers. Their motivation to make art in their everyday practice is not altogether detached from the taste and desires of the intended audience who are by and large the expatriate community.
The monotony of this market-oriented art indeed precipitated the mounting of Controversial Art. So uneasy was the Ambassador of the Netherlands in Uganda, who founded Controversial Art, that that he invited artists to step out of their comfort zones to create something unsettling and intellectually engaging. Now in its second year, Controversial Art permit artists to loosen up and make critical remarks on the prevailing social/political issues using any conceivable material within the artists’ surroundings.
The Kampala public who have scarcely visited art galleries, have been treated to Mabarti art which is a) allegedly pitched to the Western audience and, b) is intended to stir intellectual debate and imagination. They are invited to respond to ‘Uganda’s modern art’, which they have not been prepared to embrace.
Yet, if artists have been seeking for recognition and respect, it is the Mabarti or such projects that will liberate them and link them to their local audience through constructive feedbacks.
Causing public uproar?
There is more. Given that Mabarti project operated within a broad and unfenced thematic terrain, it left much room for artists to create unregulated compositions. Some artists such as Ro presented paintings of nude women.
Nudity is not accepted and allowed in the Ugandan society. The annual nude exhibition which run from 1999 to 2001 in the Nommo Gallery was stopped because women who were most frequently depicted felt demeaned and disrespected. Several women organizations and champions of women emancipation condemned the nude exhibitions.
Other artists like David Kigozi made overt political statements expressing disgust for their corrupt political and religious leader. Fortunately in our adjudication work, we did not come across paintings that could be characterized as sensational as to cause public uproar.
Sadolin’s part in directing the project
It also noteworthy that for some artists, Sadolin played a role in directing their thoughts and ideas. Sadolin is a commercial enterprise with a philanthropic spirit and it is reasonable to argue that it approached the Mabarti project from that perspective.
The promise of rewarding the winning artists was naturally an important consideration in the conceptualization and execution of the paintings. It may not have been discernible in the winning pieces, but for some artists like Wasswa, the temptation of pleasing Sadolin was so obvious. He overtly and unashamedly made Sadolin an intricate and integral part of his painting.
Keeping art to the privileged few has outlived its time and is no longer sustainable. In Uganda’s liberal economy, disciplines that do not demonstrate apparent benefits to the masses run the risk of becoming extinct.
The project of taking art to the street that Sadolin is spearheading will give artists and their ‘new audience’ the opportunity to dialogue. The artists will cast their nets beyond the gallery visitors to include local audiences. They will understand each other better and gradually develop images that match their expectations.
Mabarti art project has confirmed to the Kampala dwellers and visitors that there is a community of artists in Uganda actively and devotedly practicing art and that these artists would like to reach out to them.
Dr George Kyeyune is an associate professor at Makerere University art school and definitely Uganda’s leading expressionist, who has helped many local artists and viewers find themselves in his simple narratives about urban life in Kampala. (The visual artist George Kyeyune was interviewed in startjournal.org’s Issue 005.)
All photographs (except stated) by Roshan Karmali, used with permission from Goethe Zentrum Kampala.