Questioning ‘Salable’ Art at WAZO
Is good art the art that sells the most? What about madness? Is it an ingredient of great art? How about art donors? These ideas all made up the WAZO Talking Arts edition of July, led by a paper on the subject of Immoral Courage by Henry Mzili Mujunga.
Review by Serubiri Moses
The end result of the Wazo Talking Arts meetings, in which a chosen speaker reads a paper on the arts, followed by a response from an authority on the subject, will be a book publication that captures the zeitgeist of Ugandan art in the new millennium.
Several art practitioners as well as those curators of culture are invited to attend; as in the Wazo that took place in the first week of July. Wazo, is a word from Swahili that means an idea, and is associated with the sharing of ideas.
The original wazo or idea, as conceived by David Kaiza was “Moral Courage of Art”. However, when Henry Mzili Mjunga, the chosen speaker, heard this, he instead fashioned it as “Immoral Courage: The Courage of going a bit crazy in the Arts”. A tweak that expressed his stance on subjects such as education, history and mysticism even. He was responded to by Doreen Baingana, author of Tropical Fish.
Great minds discuss ideas
As you can already tell, this was simply a sharing of ideas. It was not a reading of the scholarly paper on which direction Ugandan art should take, as the speaker failed at even verifying anecdotal evidence with background information. When one discussant reproached Mzili for this, he defended his paper, saying instead that he was not interested in academic writing.
Then what was this Wazo about exactly? (Now that we had come to the conclusion that we weren’t students in a psychoanalysis class by Henry Mzili.)
The Wazo, like the TED talks which boast ideas worth spreading, is a way of catching ideas for keepsake, and the July edition felt more like a flux of ideas thrown into the air, than a feasible, agreeable discussion on a particular subject.
Why was it important then?
Exactly because its motive is simple and effective. By the end of the night, several artists, some whom have been fancied rivals, were laughing over a beer. A network of ideas was being formed. I cannot quote anyone better than Eleanor Roosevelt who said, “Great minds discuss ideas; average minds discuss events; small minds discuss people.”
Art is a guarantee of sanity
It was a room full of people in a heated discussion about the determination to be an artist in the midst of war and illness, led by Xenson, who deflected my argument when I spoke about the effect of HIV/AIDS on fine arts. I was saved by David, who mentioned that the reason we were having this discussion was because we cared about the uplifting of both the arts and artists.
Xenson, real name Ssenkaaba Samson, had been described as “mad” by the speaker, and as the perfect example of what artists should strive for, followed by an anecdote that described his first exhibition at Goethe Zentrum Institut in the early 2000s where he made an entire audience including press and the German ambassador wait for hours staring at blank walls, before he emerged in a taxi yelling out the window “Kikumi Kikumi!” Then, dashed his canvases on the floor before the guests as he lost himself in a storm of spoken word poetry.
Needless to say, the room was struck by what was being said, including Xenson himself, who seemed spurred into reflection. This specter infuriated me. The glorifying of madness was ludicrous, I thought. Was madness as mental illness understood enough to relay any sort of intention as it was applied especially to the creation of art, and the well-being of artists?
I thought of the brainwashing characteristic of American entertainment media magazines, which tell people, for example, that Hip Hop is bling, fast cars, and nice watches. I felt like this is what the speaker was doing; turning an innocent art form for the impoverished inhabitants of downtown neighborhoods of Black Americans and Hispanics, into a high, unreachable standard that he then used to market the art form. It all felt like propaganda.
Having lived with a grandmother who suffered from mental illness for over 30 years, I knew clearly that mental illness was not something that needed to be pandered with. It was a disease that needed to be contained, and controlled. It was a disease that fights like a wild beast, at once estranging even those who are most fond.
“Though I had success in my research both when I was mad and when I was not, eventually I felt that my work would be better respected if I thought and acted like a ‘normal’ person,” quote John Nash, who was depicted in the film A Beautiful Mind.
Credit is though due, in especially how the speaker weaved a narrative of escaping the norm of academic art. He instead thrived on the individual in making his own path, and choosing “to go mad” if that is what made him more active as an artist.
In this same way, the conversation was reflected at art donors, and how perhaps they have shaped the very insubstantial market of art, which places limits on certain kinds of art, and therefore produces copycats of artists.
The speaker made an allusion to the recent success of Edison Mugalu, who was not in attendance, saying simply that he is not the best painter in town just for the number of paintings sold, challenging the commercial model of art curators that tend to want more of the same thing or style.
Tukei, a well-travelled artist, mentioned that, “If you’re selling paintings, then there’s something wrong.” It seemed in perfect symmetry with Mzili’s view. The painters were questioning success, as seen through those who buy the art, and especially those who have monopolized the fine arts market.
The same can be said for the promoters that run shows in Nakivubo Stadium where they charge 5,000 UGX entrance fee. A study by Edgar Batte recently mentioned that the budget for such a concert is over 250 million Ugandan shillings.
Julius, an art entrepreneur humored me when he said that a promoter gave in his own home as security for a bank loan. As usual, they can make this money back, but the conditions that surround this funding all seems very stiff and too anxious to allow any kind of development for artists, except in terms of money earned.
Going back to the argument of madness and celebrity artists, the more money they earn, the less work they produce. Vincent Van Gogh, famous for having the most expensive art work ever, produced art works fervently until his death, in dire poverty. This is what Tukei alludes to. He goes back to the fact that Van Gogh could hardly sell a painting, and that, plus a combination of his madness, kept him busy.
It all made that art is the inward journey that can easily be interrupted by outside forces, such as even the buyer or the patron. This process cannot be undertaken, except if the artist has summoned up enough of, as Mzili calls it, An Immoral Courage, which they require to discover a kind of artist manifesto for themselves, from which more art can be born; from which creativity can evolve.
The Art Room at FasFas created a provocative atmosphere for debate, as we sat down on little stools in a neat comfortable space surrounded by art. It made for some contradiction to certain views expressed that negated the existence of art spaces. Soon afterward, we hang around in passionate groups of discussion eating snacks from Katja’s kitchen.
Several artists were determined to move forward with their art, Ronex notably, mentioned how he would go on an underground survey to study black magic, a study based on actual people and actual histories. There was in the event of this, sharing of ideas (Wazo), a resolve to embrace history and strangely renewed determination to develop the visual arts.
To be continued…
So what came out of it? This is still to be found out. A financial circle or an artists fund was suggested at the last Wazo that I attended. For such a practical idea, it has produced scary impractical dream-like results, in which artists have favored flights of madness and even big bank accounts funded by artists themselves.
Perhaps, the larger undercurrent will be that a manuscript of such serious and passionate debate can draw attention to the art scene in Uganda by those who are interested in funding.
In reading this book that comes out at the end of the three of four Wazo’s, there will be a collection of not only ideas, but more importantly, proof that there were any such ideas in the first place, even though we all understand that only a few of these ideas will eventually yield feasible results in our day, but it is left to those in the future to start off, where we left unanswered.
Serubiri Moses has been published in The New Vision reviewing live music. As a poet, he is featured on the pan African website, Badilisha Poetry Exchange.