Creativity, innovation and experimentation sets a new pace for the Ugandan visual arts
With a host of art spaces and projects springing up, all designed to foster creativity, innovation and experimentation of the arts, and extending art to the local people, art in Uganda is evolving in a new direction.
By Dominic Muwanguzi
Weaver Bird Arts Community
About 6 kms from Masaka town (140 km southwest of Kampala) is a small village called Ndegeya. Here you will find Weaver Bird, an artists’ community in the making, which hosts several art projects like an artist residency, a camping site with a sculptural park, handicrafts centre and more.
These projects are community based; this is to say the local community is directly involved in each of them. Hence, it is no surprise to see that a group of both young and old women are involved in weaving crafts under the tutorage of one artist, Sheila Nakitende.
The Vipaji Arena, another artistic project whose theme is to nurture young talent at the centre, is run by artist Collin Sekajugo and world music artist Maurice Kirya.
This Weaver Bird Arts Community which encompasses all these multitude projects was started about two years ago by artist Collin Sekajugo as a community initiative, borrowing from his earlier idea of the same project in Rwanda, Kigali.
A little later he invited all Ugandan artists regardless of age or background to join him. Today artists like Ronex Ahimbisibwe, Sheila Nakitende, Donald Wasswa, Hassan Mukiibi, Sanaa Gateja to mention a few, are involved in developing Weaver Bird into becoming one of East Africa’s major art projects.
“I started the Weaver Bird Community for the arts as a way of giving back to the community and also create local awareness of the arts,” Sekajugo explains.
On the day we visited, the local community showed that this youthful and industrious artist has already achieved more than he set out to achieve. It was an ’Open day’ – a sunny Saturday afternoon and locals at the Ndegeya trading centre cheerfully participated in a variety of activities like stage performances, music, dance and drama, and a bicycle race (Tour Weaver Bird).
“This is a lifetime opportunity for us to explore our talents,” says one cyclist when I ask him how he has benefited from the Weaver Bird Community Arts projects.
“We are able to use our free time profitably. Every evening after our routine household chores, we sit in our group and we do crafts which are sold, and the money is given back to us for our self-sustenance,” says Ms Mbidde.
With this bulk of success, Sekajugo still insists that he has a long way to go, especially when it comes to funding.
“I am funding the arts village using money from my own savings. It is not easy, but I am glad I am doing it because I would like to encourage other artists to always invest their money in activities that are developmental to the arts in Uganda,” Sekajugo says.
He nevertheless invites other artists to come and partner with him in the development of art in the local community.
“Weaver Bird is not exclusive to a certain group of artists. Its open to every artist who wants to learn or share what he already knows with the local community,” he says.
Fasfas Art Café
But he is not alone in his quest for spurring creativity, innovation and awareness in the now very competitive industry. Fasfas Art Café, another arts project initiated by the seasoned conceptual artist Ronex, has already elicited excitement among the local and expatriate community of art patrons.
Located off the main Kampala-Bugolobi Road, Plot 12 Katazamiti Road, Fasfas operates as a café and an open environ art space where artists and art lovers are freely welcome to share ideas and at the same time create beautiful – and conceptual – art.
“This space is unique in the sense that it is open to every artist to come and install their ideas,” Ronex says.
An interesting element at the space is “Pimp your Property” where everyone is welcome to bring their clothes (shirts, jeans, shoes etc) and use the colors and paintbrushes provided to add art to the property.
According to the manager, Robinah, this activity has become something many guests to Fasfas look forward to: “It is very exciting and you should find time and be part of it,” she tells me in an animated tone.
Besides the “Pimp your Property” fad, I am most enthralled by the rawness of Fasfas. The setting and presentation of art is natural and simplistic here and makes a visitor very comfortable without necessarily feeling out of place. I would liken Fasfas to a typical working studio.
Interestingly though, Ronex tells me that the rawness sometimes scares away some people: “For someone who’s not an artist, they find the rawness too much here and it scares them away.”
But Ronex is not deterred by those who think that his idea is too conceptual for them or by the little pool of funds at his disposal (he funds the project essentially from his own pockets). He is otherwise determined to make Fasfas the epicentre of creativity, experimentation and innovation.
“An idea I intend to install here is an artist directory (Find the Artist). This will help art lovers identify the artist of their choice either a colorist or sculptor. I also want to bring live poetry performances and music – for example a Drummers Duet happened on 16th December – to the people,” Ronex says.
Design Agenda Café
Design Agenda’s niche is one that can be described as to inspire all types of artists to work creatively but also create a market for their work in an exotic environment. The café is located on IPS building, Parliamentary Avenue. Because of its location, it is often frequented by the elite businessmen who are looking for a rendezvous from the hectic office schedules and a venue for meetings.
“Us being exotic means we are reaching out to more clients and also a different type of clientele,” Muzira Job Joram, publicist to the venue tells me in an interview.
But it is not only about creating a local clientele here. In pursuit of fostering experimentation and innovation, the gallery-cum-café has already held a series of fashion and art shows. One such particular show is “Masters Reloaded”, which fused fashion and art by two interesting artists: Sanaa Gateja (jewellery paper beads) and Xenson Ssenkaaba (avante agarde fashion).
“We intend to have more shows – especially fashion shows – to provide a platform for the ever growing number of fashion designers around town,” the publicist tells me.
Though the former two art venues may be jostling for funds here and there, Design Agenda’s source of funds are the clients who come to this space to have a drink and something to eat, plus the monthly shows organized here every end-of-the-month sponsored by a host of corporate organizations.
Now nestling in the leafy neighbourhoods of Kololo, MishMash is an events gallery/café that blends art, food, music and fun in one space.
“MishMash’s mission is to make art accessible to people. We do this by presenting art in a nice atmosphere where people can have something to eat as well as interact with artists and share ideas about art,” says Genevieve Williams, one of the directors of MishMash.
MishMash’s idea of presenting art in such an interactive manner is very interesting. The space which boasts of an exotic ambience hosts an exhibition in its lounge every end of the month by a group of artists. The exhibition is usually theme motivated and allows artists to work creatively and experiment with new ideas.
Another interesting element at MishMash is bathroom painting. There are three bathrooms; Sheila Nakitende’s, Kaspa’s and Edison Mugalu’s, and each of these is decorated with the artists’ work.
“It’s a surprising and quirky way of celebrating art,” says Genevieve.
More to the fun and personal attachment to the artist’s work is the concept of the decorative tables, which are used as sitting tables at the restaurant. According to Genevieve, the idea was to create a personal relationship between the guests and the artists who decorated one of the 20 tables.
“Each time people come to eat at MishMash they can choose to sit at a different table, painted by a different artists such as Jjuuko Hoods or Ngula Yusuf,” she says.
But MishMash is not only about bringing art to the people or creating interesting and exciting ways of appreciating art alongside fostering creativity. It also thrives as an art enterprise where people can come and buy local art.
This element is catered for in the craft shop located adjacent the exhibition lounge. Here there are hand-made crafts from local artists and artisans.
32° East (Ugandan Arts Trust)
A more practical art space in the offing is 32° East. The setup is similar to the Kuona Arts Trust in Nairobi, and its mission is to foster creativity and innovation in the visual arts using different elements like studio spaces, a resource centre, local and international workshops and artist exchanges.
In its proposed location on Kasanga-Ggaba Road, 32° East’s primary target audience will be emerging and contemporary artists in Uganda. The emphasis will be on freedom of artistic expression and to provide artists with educational and professional resources and information.
“The project will encourage artists to work in groups and not in isolation such that creative ideas can be born. We will have eight studios which will be filled on a project proposal system so that artists can realise specific projects or work with a particular medium. We will also have a resource centre for the artists to make research on different techniques, ideas and styles of art,” says Nikki Elphinstone, founder and curator of 32° East.
Not only will this project seek to create an interaction among artists and also provide them with knowledge to improve their work, but it will also in a way promote the concept of art in public space.
“It is also important that we bring art to the local community through exploring public art,” says Nikki.
She elaborates that they are very eager to create art on run-down buildings across Kampala in order to promote regeneration and reach a local audience. The credibility of this project is so much in the way it is going to operate as a non-profit entity, hence artists have no reason to worry of being exploited.
“The project is registered as not for profit and we are getting our core funding from the UK based African Arts Trust, although we are working towards 32° East being self sustainable after 3 years of operation,” says Rocca Gutteridge, founder and artistic director of 32° East.
Kampala Contemporary Art Festival KLA ART 012
Not detached from the noble cause of fostering creativity and innovation in the arts, is the first Kampala Contemporary Art Festival (KLA ART 012), planned to take place in October 2012. Its vision is to create a forum where creative ideas can be set free, bring art to the people and be innovative in art production as well as presentation.
“We are going to be working with 20 artists before making the final selection of 12 contemporary artists to be showcased in the festival in October. The ideal motive is to get artists to push their limits and create something totally different from their regular artworks,” says Katrin Peters-Klaphake curator at Makerere Art Gallery and one of the organizers of the festival.
One of the most exciting elements of the festival will be the use of shipping containers as additional exhibition space.
“Containers are objects which many Kampalans are familiar with. They are used as homes, shops and offices in many parts of the city. However, at the festival we are going to use them as exhibition space as well as a way of bringing people closer to art,” Katrin reveals.
The 12 containers will be located near all the art galleries namely; AKA Gallery (formerly Tulifanya), Afriart Gallery, Nommo Gallery, Makerere Art Gallery, Goethe/AFK, and Uganda Museum.
Aside from the exhibition space, the festival will offer workshops for artists as a way of promoting educational moments for them: “The festival is also concerned with the personal growth of artists, moving the artist and their work beyond borders. This can be achieved through workshops,” Katrin says.
Through external funding, the participating artists will be provided with materials to work with in the festival.
Though all these art spaces may have an overlapping objective – fostering creativity and experimentation vis-à-vis bringing art to the local people – this is a healthy form of competition which will help the art industry in Uganda grow. However, it remains to be seen how different artists will respond to these creative ideas; especially with the Kampala Contemporary Art Festival and 32° East projects, which are demanding in terms of experimentation and creativity.
If the artists affirmatively respond to the task, it will be a leap in their career and will also increase their fortunes on the international stage of the arts.
Dominic Muwanguzi is a freelance art Journalist with a strong dedication to uplifting the visual arts in Uganda.
Startjournal.org would like to mention that its editor, Thomas Bjørnskau, is volunteering as the secretary for the working committee of KLA ART 012, and its founder, Daudi Karungi, is a member of the working committee of KLA ART 012.