David Kaiza on Ugandan Arts: Substance or airy pursuits?

The editor of the newspaper I was writing for ten years ago accused me of writing Mickey Mouse stories. I had been writing about arts and culture since 1996. But presumably a news item is neither news nor item unless it is about a man in a suit and is riddled economic facts and figures.

A paper presented at the Wazo Talking Arts by David Kaiza (26 June 2012, Gattomatto, Bugolobi, Kampala)

The editor used the words “story” and “news” to imply that art was not a narrative of human experience, that as non-news, it lacked currency, not urgent enough like the results of the Euro Cup finals a bomb threat to wake you up at 3 in the morning with on the red telephone.

His words channeled judgment about estimation of value, relevance, and personally, career prospects. Perhaps if I had been doing important things, which in his case meant writing non-art articles, I would today be the editor of a big newspaper.

I say this with certainty because the same editor told me that I had talent but I was wasting it on nonsense. When he said that, he had the face of a father sending a son off to the big world to do big things. As is often the case, I—as figurative son—did not want to do big things and the big world held few attractions for me.

I went rogue. I became a fulltime writer. And it is as an utter failure that I stand here today talking to an audience I presume is full of utter failures at a time when the world of money, production, sales and profit figures is roaring with success. Had I chosen to be a banker no one today would be calling me a failure.

Image from the first WAZO - Talking Arts.

Crisis? Which crises?

Widening the circle of that chat with the editor, what our talk spoke to was a history which if localized to within East Africa or the continent itself, stretches back a century and a quarter. It is a century and a quarter of crisis, conflict, decline and uncertainty. I am not talking about the crises and conflicts in which names like Apollo Milton Obote, Idi Amin, Yoweri Museveni, Muteesa II, the British Empire, the Cold War, and global finance are the lead actors in.

I am talking about a crisis of self-definition, if you like, a spiritual crisis spanning a century in which the cosmological roof over our heads has collapsed. It is a span of time in which not only others have consistently told us that we are nothing, but we too have come to believe, if not believe, then live as though we are nothing.

To be full human beings, we have had to masquerade under foreign names. We have come to believe that only foreign investors can answer the questions of poverty, which now means that locals don’t know how to sell toilet paper, chips and chicken, matchboxes and razor blades.

Artist of the month

At the time I had that chat with the editor, which chat was the beginning of the end of my career as a newspaper journalist, an art exhibition was held at Alliance Française. The director of Alliance Française at the time, Didier Martin, a visionary the likes of whom you don’t meet on a daily basis, created a program called Artist of the month.

As a writer on art, Artist of the Month was more precious to me than any program I can remember at the time for the artist was his and her own curator, a program that made you see the artist as the artist wanted to be seen.

Visua artist (and Founder of Start) Henry Mzili Mujunga.

One of those artists was Henry Mujunga Mzili. His exhibition which was held at the National Theatre touched upon tradition and belief systems. Among his pieces, were two titled Gnome I and Gnome II. These two pieces more than the paintings of birds, affected me deeply.

At the time, I described his work in these words:

‘To do Gnome I and II, (Henry) visited shrines, gathering irizi or traditional talismans and also tried to learn what values are attached to them. Mujunga is using these two pieces as part of a thesis. He therefore takes on the role of an anthropologist, studying the talismans to probe what shapes the psychology of the culture of the people who use them.

Gnome I and II feature sisal gunnysacks nailed to a wooden frame as the working surface, with pieces of bath sponge or ekyangwe sewn on the sisal. Talismans bound in bark cloth are then sewn on to the sponges.

The colour scheme is impressively understated. Beige like the colour of rotting wood and the far from bright red-brown of the bark cloth. Bark cloth is traditionally used in making burial shrouds in Buganda among other important rituals.’

But what I have since not forgotten was what he said in conclusion: “When I took this to a gallery, I was told ‘Come on, Henry, Be Sophisticated’.”

He said: “The kind of art I do is very successful as far as Western concepts are concerned. But the people I want to speak to through my work, the Ugandan people on the streets, do not understand it.”

An explosion in the arts

As an artist, writer, and not too long ago, as a musician, you were constantly reminded that you were less than adequate. Get serious, get a proper job. It is the anxiety of parents the world over that their brilliant daughter and son might not become an aeronautical engineer. In poor countries, this anxiety can be overpowering.

Image from the first WAZO - Talking Arts.

Given the immense explosion in the arts in Uganda over the past decade, it seems there are many who no longer care much about what society thinks of them.

Under the velocity which the colonial economy carried in the 1960s, Uganda for a while seemed to be an important centre for Art and Literature. Names like Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Okot P’Bitek, Elimu Njau, Gregory Maloba, Odoch Ameny, who started out in Uganda, went on to become influential around the world. The Makerere University Literature Conference of July 1962 and the pre-eminent magazine of Black discourse, Transition, started here and have acquired mythical status.

Yet Uganda was not in any meaningful way central.

The collapse of the colonial state, which I believe was a good if tragic event, put a stop to that. But now, a revival of the Arts is undeniable. Hundreds, maybe even thousands, have willfully painted themselves into a corner with a do or die mentality which will ensure permanence.

The new cultural entrepreneur

If you are returning to Uganda after 12 years, you will be struck by the fact that a new kind of person seems to have been invented. This culture specie is a young, well-travelled, sometimes formidable, fashionable, cultural entrepreneur, a festival director with global links, has won the commonwealth writers’ prize, awards for a continental fashion show, has a book of poetry published, has had a play performed in New York on sexuality Ugandans feel uncomfortable about.

Cue back to the late 1990s and the culture entrepreneur was not only mostly a contradiction in terms, but applied to the director of a theatre group or the bandleader of one of two music groups.

Back in the late 1990s, dance referred to creative dance; film to material from abroad; music was what Congolese, South Africans and Americans did; fashion was what you watched on CNN Style with Elsa Klensch; literature was Song of Lawino, Chinua Achebe and Shakespeare; street theatre was not heard of; festivals were what schools did on exhibition days.

The terms “Culture” and “Culture Entrepreneur” were themselves not in application at the time, meaning that a categorical development has taken place in the course of the last decade.

Image from the first WAZO - Talking Arts.


Culturally then, Uganda is literally living in a new millennium. The changes have been both profound and visible.

It is an uprising; there is a deepening of sectors, an expansion of participation, and co-option of pre-existing fields that used not to be thought of as “Art”.

The essential ingredient in this acculturation is first, “artization”, the injection of imagination, collapse of categories and structures. Next to it is professionalization and thirdly, and most potently, risk-taking.

The co-option referred to above seems one of the central planks of this development, for we witness this transformation in the manner in which old “entertainment” and occupations like fashion and dance are now seen, not as businesses, but as elements through which art can be expressed.

These shifts do not apply to all the arts. It would seem that the context as it exists now, cultivates fertility on the grounds of some art forms and not others and this difference, dependent on the levels of complexity of a particular field so that Fashion fuses much faster than Literature for reasons explained below.

Where an art form benefits from already existent processes, and where its very form is malleable, such as in Fashion and Performance Arts, there certainly has been marked change. Where gratification is immediate, such as in Film and Music, the high interest levels seem to continue from before the period of proliferation. Where the process from ambition to self-actualization is more complex, such as Fine Art and Literature, the growth witnessed is at a stately pace, to put it mildly.

This does not apply to the number of new entrants. Were the number of practitioners alone adequate as criteria, Fine Art and Literature would seem to be more flourishing than Dance and Fashion. Literature and Fine Art, although most immediately associated as “Art” in popular imagination, seem trapped by age although some courageous individuals like Beverley Namboozo and the Lantern Meet of Poets are giving us clues to renewal.

Change drivers

Hence, it is those energetic individuals who are turning old forms into Art or providing large platforms, like Bayimba, who are driving change.

All around, there is emerging a language of consummate complexity. Art has become art; abstraction and a complex interiority of content characterize the production.

Side by side is growing complexity of organization. The Bayimba Cultural Festival displays management processes as elaborate as any regional corporation. Femrite, African Writer’s Trust, the Lantern Meet of Poets, the Xenson fashion show to name a few, have a labyrinth of national and international connections which cannot be called casual.


The evolution of dance from creative dance to contemporary dance is more than a categorical switch, for it transforms dance from entertainment to critical exposition.

It required the sheer personally courage of people like Julius Lugaaya going into uncharted territory, to set a foundation which today contains the names of groups like Mutumizi Arts, Keiga Dance, Footsteps Dance company, Tabu Flow Dance Crew, Yutta Koncvitz, Beautiful Feet, Latin Flavour, Break Dance Project Uganda, Kika Troupe and others.


Film like music, is so prodigious that it needs an elaborate list the names of its makers, for it is done in places and in forms you would not imagine possible. In the past, film and music seemed possible to make only on a continental level, or to put it more accurately, it took the sheer industriousness of Nigerians, Congolese and the infrastructure of South Africa to get it going. Film was felt important enough for the high and mighty of the continent to get involved.

The Union of Radio and Television Organisations of Africa (URTNA) once underwrote the production of film on the continent, coming from the fractious UNESCO debates of the 1970s which sought to counter the impact of foreign film or what at the time till the early 1990s was called “cultural imperialism” on the continent.


Literature was Pan-African, but non-Statist. The African Writers Series (AWS) which produced the Literature called African Literature, was a commercial venture driven from London, a commercial venture which while propagating African identity, produced a generation of writers at odds with the respective African governments.

Needless to say, URTNA no longer exists, for the drop in costs of producing films has led to a “golden age” of film production, Nigerian films being by far the most successful.

The Africa Writers Series is now doing re-runs.


Fashion would seem an odd man out but for the pioneering spirit of four energetic Ugandans. Starting barely 10 years ago, the idea that “fashion” was a concept that could be slapped on to “dress” came with the excitement of a society newly acquainted with global television.

It would be interesting for this forum to commission research on the evolution of dress and body culture in Uganda for a future presentation and discussion. Via two prominent women, Silvia Owori and Santa Anzo, dressing up—even for a country as stylish as Uganda—was not about wearing something. You had to look classy.

But it took the enormous energy of a true Ugandan genius, Xenson Ssenkaba, to whom Uganda owes a lot, to transform fashion into Art. I will one day present a paper on Xenson for this forum.

Along with Stella Atal, Xenson has produced such technical competence that it is hard to believe that Fashion has barely been acknowledged as an Art. Nonetheless, it seems to have connected rapidly, for both Ssenkaba and Atal have won continental awards for their works, and tellingly, Atal was given the honor in 2010, to cloth the contestants at the USA African beauty show.


Doubtless, much is happening. But is it Art? This is a fraught question, a question of value. Doubtless it is. But we have not yet brought in the scalpels, hammers, tongs and microscopes to tell if it is, how it is and what it is.

The power of art is only second to the power of religion, and much of what makes us believe in religion itself is art—the dome and flying arches of a cathedral, the stately presence of a grand mosque, the positioning of icons in a shrine, the cut of a bishops regalia, the mellifluous cadence of a muezzin calling the faithful to prayer.

Arts’ capacity to bewitch, to penetrate our in-built resistance to influence, to make what it says instantly true, so that when a musician belts out “in heaven there is no beer,” and you run for the bar in case life tells you it’s closing time, is boundless.

When a poet stands up and announces: “And the time when we got on the plane and flew to Paris, I did not do that to impress you, I had never seen that beautiful city either,” we see how it is, it makes us see it.

Or when Sam Cook belts out “it’s been long time coming but change’s gonna come,” we actually see that change coming. Art manufactures and imposes facts.

We yield to art. It says sit and we sit. It says dance and we dance. Art may refresh, but mostly, it unsettles, it disturbs. It is a disruptive technology that frightens tyrants for it is more tyrannical than they are.

Creativity takes courage

My suspicion is that we in Ugandan arts are chasing air. Are we producing art? There are financing mechanisms, gallery systems, dependence on expatriate markets, and educational systems that hold us back. But these are also precisely the challenges that should offend us enough to try and overcome them.

We have had social turmoil for decades, through the 1970s, 1980s to the present. Are we using our talents to create entertainment rather than taking society to task? Do we feel in the content of our art, the same anguish we feel on the streets, in an IDP camp in Pajule?

Are the traumas we feel about tribalism and history too haunting or daunting for us to admit to in our art? Are we so ashamed or afraid of the histories that produced Luwero or the Rwanda genocide to which we Ugandans have never admitted our role in?

Perhaps if we talked about these raw facts, our audience would pay greater attention, for then we would be relevant. So this suggests that we Ugandan artists lack moral courage.

We are talented, but talent is not skill. It is not moral courage. It is not intellectual vigor.

We are yet to reach a point where the body-mind balance is found, where form and content march each other pound for pound till our art does not walk to work.

David Kaiza is a Ugandan writer.

All photos and images by courtesy of WAZO.