Curving a niche in social transformation through Art

Ugandan visual artists want to help the slum-dwelling communities of Kampala to express their views artistically. Through creative media like painting, sculpture and printmaking the artists hope to start a dialogue on issues that affect the communities. Nathan Kiwere of the Uganda Visual Artists Association explains the slum art project.

Written by Nathan Kiwere, Chairman Uganda Visual Artists Association (UVAA)

Nathan Kiwere, UVAA.

Peter Drucker, the famous scholar of management, said that we are in an “age of social transformation”, a period of our lives where social order is drastically transforming the human condition and what it means from what we have previously known it to be.

This age requires us to reflect differently than before about our relationships, about how we resolve intercultural and social conflicts, and the consequences our actions produce when we are not mindful of our intentions.

Similarly, Daniel Pink, in A Whole New Mind, speaks about a conceptual age where empathy and emotional intelligence are essential in business; where stories and storytelling are powerful tools to create unity, develop trust, and resolve unsettled business; and how using play can help us find life’s meaning and a deeper alignment to our core values.

This school of thought continues to postulate that the changes we see in societies around the globe necessitate a new and different paradigm for how we come to think about culture. All this makes it harder and more challenging to think and practice cultural competence in the same way.

Howard Gardner says we need to approach the challenges that differences bring through acceptance, respect, and learning—a frame that he calls the “respectful mind”. We must engage in intercultural situations and activities fully; we need to immerse ourselves and experience the “flow” in order to harness the emotions needed to perform and learn from our cultural interactions.

Leaders must be willing to explore and create new ways of thinking and interacting with the flow of culture.

From aesthetic to utilitarian function

Be that as it may, the notion of culture is increasingly shifting from its erstwhile back seat to the frontline of nearly all facades of life. In Uganda, like elsewhere on the developed world, art, which is a function of culture, has over the years transcended its aesthetic value and taken on a more utilitarian function useful in solving some of the social problems.

It is in this wise that the Uganda Visual Artists Association (UVAA) proposed to employ the power of art to tackle some of the challenges faced by the local slum-dwelling societies. UVAA is the supreme umbrella forum that unites all visual artists in Uganda for the purpose of promoting and protecting as well as creating wealth and related opportunities for artists.

Founded in the 1950s and rejuvenated in 1989, UVAA is a non-profit organization that remains the only plausible body at the forefront of promoting and protecting the interests of Ugandan artists. The association welcomes artists of all shades without discrimination of age, sex, educational background or otherwise.

Besides focusing on the interests of the artists, the association is increasingly exploring its relevance in grassroots community transformation and empowerment through the power of art. This has come as a result of the realization that art boasts of a boundless ability to influence society through its creative potential without discrimination.

Photo by Paul Lumala, from the Mu Katanga-project 2011 hosted by Bayimba.

Changing mindsets

Slum-dwelling communities have always been ranked at the bottom of the social stratum in nearly all societies. This is partly because it is imagined that those that live in these typically filthy environments are actually akin to their very surrounding in terms of their thinking and as a result have nothing much to offer to social progress and development.

Thus, this social group that usually constitutes a critical mass in a poor country like Uganda is always left out of the politics and policies of the state.

The concept by UVAA is premised on the transformation of mindsets of this group of people in such a way that will empower them to confidently take on an active role in all facets of society.

Notwithstanding the negative labels that have been used to describe slum-dwellers, the association believes this group has a lot to contribute to the national dialogue in terms of how to confront challenges and to seize opportunities.

This project seeks to rechannel the immense and yet usually misguided energy exuded by especially the youths that call slum their home, which energy has often been directed towards unproductive and harmful activities such as substance abuse, redundancy, very low self-esteem, among others.

Photo by Douglas Aaron Musunga, from the Mu Katanga-project 2011 hosted by Bayimba.

A slum art project for social change

There is of course the old saying that goes “a picture speaks a thousand words”. It has been reinforced by the conviction that art is among those few mediums that transcend age, sex, race, geographical location, education or social background. It is a language of expression that has limitless potential to touch both the artist and the observer alike and to influence hearts and minds.

UVAA holds a belief in cultural and creative expression as a means to affect deep and lasting social change. Through art, many of our society’s deepest assumptions can be challenged, built upon the power of artistic creation and expression.

Their notion holds that through empowerment of the individual it is possible to provide accessible spaces for creative development as part of the personal development and directly or indirectly the ability to facilitate sociopolitical articulation and participation.

The slum art project therefore seeks to inspire a conscious effort to facilitate and participate in social change, based on the belief that there are creative solutions and various forms of communication that touch people on deeper levels of consciousness. The interaction of artistic and social work is also of great relevance here.

Photo by Pretty Verone, from the Mu Katanga-project 2011 hosted by Bayimba.

Lobbying for better conditions

In the long term, the association also plans to engage in lobbying through concerted efforts designed to have influence on typically government authorities and elected officials. It will consist of the outreach of legislative members, public actions or combinations of both public and private actions.

It will also include the designing and implementation of initiatives in collaboration with networks, alliances and other sectors in order to deepen the possibilities of raising the concerns of the slum populace, particularly, the connection of artistic and social work towards social change.

During the execution of this project, the artists seek to become actors of transformation processes by formulating their perspectives uncompromised by political or economic influence and by creating spaces for discussion and opinion building for the slum public.

Often they will make their audience become actors as well through active participation in the artistic process.

Photo by Okuyo Joel Atiku Prince, from the Mu Katanga-project 2011 hosted by Bayimba.

Community members expressing their views artistically

A group of willing professional artists will be mobilised from within the association, who will be taken through some orientation on the project. Activities will be undertaken on a volunteer basis with minimum facilitation of transport and related expenses.

Slum community participants will then be engaged in dialogue on topical issues that affect their person and community and be asked to express their views and opinions in artistic medium: painting, sculpture, printmaking, photography, and the several available creative mediums. Works will be executed by both individual and group approaches that will include group installations.

The initial area of operation will be the Katanga slum, one of the largest in Kampala and located on the outskirts of Makerere University.

Therefore, as local artists attempt to align their vision with this age, reflecting on more creative means to resolve intercultural and social conflicts, there seems to be no limit to the possibilities latent in slums.

Photo by Ibrahim Mudathir, from the Mu Katanga-project 2011 hosted by Bayimba.

Nathan Kiwere is a cultural activist, chairman Uganda Visual Artists Association, writer and Program Manager, Amakula Kampala International Film Festival.

All photos were taken in the Katanga-area in Kampala during a photo workshop organised August 2011 by Bayimba Cultural Foundation. would like to point out that this photo workshop has nothing to do with the project described in the article.