Do art festivals matter?
Art festivals like the recent LaBa! Street Art Festival give visitors a chance to get away from the struggle of life and indulge in something more pleasant; arts and entertainment. Kudos to the many who involves themselves by bringing wares to the tables and performances to the tents, but where does the street that hosts an art festival lead us?
By Samuel A. Lutaaya
Festivals in Uganda have been with us for much longer than I can remember. They focus on diverse issues; traditional dance, food, women, human rights, film, and the arts—of which there are many more than can effectively be mentioned in this article. The execution of the different events is diverse, and the size—and the prominence—is also varied, with the well-funded ones obviously gaining a short time prominence.
Two good examples of such art festivals are the annual LaBa! Street Art Festival and the Bayimba International Festival of the Arts.
In this article I will give a brief overview of the festival culture in Uganda and its impact on contemporary society. One crucial question is; does our society really need these gatherings?
Maybe what we should try to understand the origin of the festival concept. By doing so, we can decide for ourselves if the intention to throw another public get-together is a result of a fundamental need.
An organizer’s view
According to Faisal Kiwewa, the Founder and Director of the Bayimba International Festival of the Arts:
“The concept of festivals started many years back by some of the great artists and composers of whom we now believe led the festival revolution. If you study the history of Europe, countries like Greece, France, Britain and many more had quite a lot to celebrate in terms of cultural achievements.
About 80 to 100 years ago, we can see traces of the modern festival concept, from pioneers like Igor Markewitch and the great philosopher Denis de Rougemont, who in 1952 founded the European Festival Association goo. This association at the time had its first members from Aix-en-Provence, Bayreuth, Berlin, Besançon, Bordeaux, Florence, Holland, Lucerne, Munich, Perugia, Strasbourg, Venice, Vienna, Wiesbaden, and Zürich.
In Africa, there is the National Arts Festival of Grahamstown in South Africa, one of the oldest festivals on the continent, and this tells us that festivals have been around for quite a number years also here. Most of them started as community celebrations, deeply engaged in the issues of social responsibility, but they have now become international events which attract travellers and benefit local businesses.”
Entertaining the crowds
All festivals have one thing in common, they offer people an escape from everyday life and a way for artists to express themselves. In other words, a way to vent their resentments by some form of entertainment.
The communities have something to look forward to, a celebration and a display of its ability to put on a good show. Festivals addresses the artists’ need for expression and give them context within their society.
Art is an integral part of culture, for some social groups it is an essential communication medium. Without culture, we are lost. I believe that the arts have the power to transform the minds of the citizens.
“If we fail to use creativity as a force for social justice, transformation and the articulation of human need, we may unwittingly find that we are letting down the very people in whose name we work,” states the Commonwealth Foundation in its paper Culture: What is Development Missing?
Growing out of potholes
This June, the Goethe-Zentrum Kampala organized the 6th edition of the annual LaBa! Street Art Festival. According to LaBa!’s website, the festival started in 2007 with the slogan Pot in the Hole—a tribute to the numerous potholes on Bukoto Street. Artists and spectators were invited to transform the concrete Swiss cheese into playful, colourful pieces of art.
Visual artists Daudi Karungi, Henry Mzili, and the former Director of the Ugandan German Cultural Society (UGCS), Roberta Wagner, were involved at the initiation, and it was designed as a platform to create exposure for artists in Uganda. The projection was to have a small festival, with artists working on a theme conceptually more than commercially.
In the beginning the organizers didn’t require the artists to make a financial contribution; it was a small event and the UGCS was able to meet the costs of making the event happen. The Street Art Festival also incorporated performing arts—mostly music to bait the audience further to attend—thereby creating more visibility for the participants.
In the subsequent years, the festival grew and with the growth came the necessity of affordable registration fees to make LaBa! possible. The themes have included football (thanks to the 2010 World Cup) and 365 days of celebrating arts (2011). Artists have in turn been challenged to think outside the box.
The festival is now in the hands of another German cultural foundation; the Goethe-Zentrum Kampala (GZK) and its Director, Carolin Christgau. I spoke to her prior to the event to get some insight into the further development of the festival:
“The growth up until now has been self-motivated. The momentum picked up as a result of greater awareness and project partners developing an interest in the philosophy of the festival. I am looking forward to experience the festival myself, discovering the essence of the event, and learn whether the theme is assumed by the artists or not. Already now, I am quite sure that the festival cannot continue to grow without a clear direction; it may risk losing the focus on the arts itself,” Christgau stated.
Why LaBa!? Is there any specific message to the visitors of LaBa!?
“In my opinion, art in Uganda is currently only accessible to an exclusive part of the society and therefore risk remaining an activity for the elite. We feel arts and culture should be accessible to the common Ugandan because of its importance in education and general development. LaBa! is a great way to start a dialogue about the arts and the necessity of artistic expression.”
What are the main challenges in terms of organization of the festival?
“GZK attempts to listen to the needs of the local artists, and as foreigners working in a local organization, it would be a big mistake for us to become self-important. LaBa! is organized by GZK together with an artist committee consisting of a number of local artists. They represent the current visual arts scene and provide a greater insight into how such a festival can be organized to work best for the participants.
Another major challenge is the limited amount of time we have available. An increased number of participating artists means more coordination and administration, sometimes at the expense of being visionary and shaping the event for the future.
Finally the financial side of it; a growing festival means a larger budget. These expenses are financed by local sponsors, diplomatic missions and media partners, but the money is not raised without any effort, of course.”
What kind of impact has the LaBa! had on Ugandan society?
“According to what I have heard, the festival has created visibility, both for the individual artists and the overall arts scene. It has become a platform for connecting numerous stakeholders to artists.
The growth of the festival has mostly been positive, but as mentioned earlier, it must be somehow controlled to maintain the quality. Growth could be seen as increased number of exhibitors or visitors, but it is more important that participating artists grow professionally and artistically due to the event.”
Relevance to society
Artists must now use these possibilities to connect with the audience and get new ideas through creating synergies within the scene. Goethe-Zentrum Kampala uses the LaBa!-platform to show these possibilities, for instance the festival tries to bring arts to communities through interactive projects.
In this year’s edition, LaBa! partnered with Kampala City Council Authority (KCCA). The latter provided 50 dustbins, and the decoration of these dustbins represented a unique opportunity for artists to set their signs around the city. Dustbins are associated with unwanted things and give people the possibility to liberate themselves by throwing old things away and creating space for the new, all in accordance with the theme Liberation. Arts. Participation.
The Goethe-Zentrum also sees this partnership as a way to support the KCCA’s citywide cleanliness initiative, Kampala City Yange. This way the festival offers creative solutions to the everyday challenges in the society.
According to Christgau, the LaBa! Street Art Festival is a unique event which unites more artists and art lovers in one day than galleries get visitors in a month. This is a hard and sad statement, but true.
LaBa! will continue to exist in a closer relationship with the artists, who will take more responsibility in responding to the actual interests of the art scene. The festival will still be a showcase of the Ugandan art scene, but the focus will be more on the presentation of the arts and the networking of the artists. LaBa! will develop a more interactive character, perhaps with more art studios, workshops and participatory projects replacing the art market stalls.
GZK would like to promote the scene by showing the dynamics of it, which will require more innovative art projects. The new concepts are not yet finished, but LaBa! will get another touch next year.
From my interview with Christgau and by witnessing the event myself, I have been convinced that such events are an absolute necessity in order to get different stakeholder together in more informal spaces.
One question remains unanswered: Is this thematic focus really necessary, and does it help the artists to grow?
I am still on the fence with regard to the LaBa! Festival. But I will try to answer these and other questions in a following article that will focus on the Bayimba International Festival of the Arts.
Samuel Lutaaya is a freelance writer with a varying range of interests namely; dance, film, theatre, music, photography, fashion.
All photos from LaBa! Street Art Festival in Kampala June 2012 taken by Thomas Bjørnskau, startjournal.org.