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.

Mzili convincing the audience at WAZO part II, Fasfas Kampala 2012.

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.

Market value

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.

Inside out

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.

3 thoughts on “Questioning ‘Salable’ Art at WAZO

  1. Immoral courage: the need for a little craze in the creative process.

    When I was a student at MITSIFA I recall my professor, Pilkington Ssengendo reiterating that for one to be an artist one needed to be at least sixty percent mad. Little did I know that 15 years later I would still have his seemingly nonchalant joke ringing at the back of my mind; Truth be told, Ssengendo might have hit the nail spot on its head.
    Let’s consider what makes a creative artist. In my view this is one who brings into existence new experiences by organizing familiar elements into new and unfamiliar patterns. This often calls for a lot of courage on the part of the perpetrator as it often involves the need to shunt one’s thoughts and mannerisms away from the more conventional arena of ethically and morally acceptable conduct. In a country like Uganda where so much emphasis is placed on the outward semblance of moral astuteness, where an entire ministry of ethics and integrity exists, the artist often finds him/herself suffocated. Tribes like the Baganda have their own strict code of ethics (Enono ne mpisa za Baganda) which might restrict or nurture free expression.
    This paper seeks to throw some light or shadow on the major areas of discourse (whether myth or fact) around the subject of creative genius and how it has affected the development of Visual Art in Uganda over the past ten years. Anyhow, I hope to raise more questions than yield answers!

    How often have we had artists who have graduated from art schools admitting that they did so contrarily to the wishes of their parents? Most parents in Uganda (you can disagree) wish their children to become lawyers, doctors or engineers, the latest craze being accountants and bankers. When creative artists like Vivian Mugume, Samson Ssenkaaba (Xenson) and Geoffrey Mukasa (RIP) rebelled against their parents’ wishes and joined the art fraternity, they did the industry a great favor. I often wonder what the Kampala art scene would be with out such artists! Where would all the shallow-minded scavengers operating in the visual art industry get material to regurgitate in their mimicry of art? Perhaps from the numerous text books from the rich western art tradition!
    The need for rebellion against the established practices is vital for growth to occur in the Visual art industry. In fact, the current constriction in the art market has been perpetuated by conformity. Many artists have concentrated on what sells; namely, small (often not exceeding 100cm by 120cm) brightly coloured paintings mimicking the works of impressionist painters such as Claude Monet. This formula has rendered all other media and styles redundant to a large extent since these lame ideas and techniques are laundered from one artist to another in a bid to catch the buyer’s (or booker’s as one artist pleasantly put it) attention. Despite the attempt to develop some authentic themes and subject matter, such as Ismail Katteregga’s busy street scenery or Dr. George Kyeyune’s ordinary Kampala dwellers going about their lives, artists have found themselves imprisoned to painting as the medium of choice. There is a need to rebel against this consumer driven attitude towards production and allow oneself to wonder off into seemingly unprofitable terrain, even if it means encountering devils and demons like in the case of Henry Mzili Mujunga’s fiddling with sexual-spiritual innuendos. There is also a shallow attempt to randomly flaunt pieces of bark cloth on each and every canvas produced in a misguided attempt to authenticate the paintings as truly Ugandan products. Bark cloth is a material with a visual language of its own and a rich traditional usefulness. To use it as a supporting material for an acrylic or oil painting certainly changes it into an unrecognizable piece of material, often mistaken for leather!
    True rebellion in this context may be exemplified by the Ugandan artist Julius Katende’s lack of a need to objectify his creative impulses. He would rather delve in the realm of ideas and words, a tendency which has recently been amplified by Invisible: art about the unseen 1957-2012 exhibition at London’s Hayward gallery. This show has brought together invisible artworks by such Art classics like Andy Warhol and Yves Klein. But in my view Katende out classes all of them in that while Warhol had to “perform” by stepping on and off a plinth and Klein’s is a white neon lit room, he sees no need to objectify his ideas at all and remains true to the adage that art is about firing the imagination!

    “When talking about geniuses, the conversation inevitably strays towards topics of eccentricity, or even madness. One needs only to look at the lives of artists such as Vincent Van Gogh and Mark Rothko, or to mathematician John Nash—whose battle with paranoid schizophrenia was made famous in the film A Beautiful Mind—as examples of the thin line between brilliance and insanity.
    “But is there really anything to this idea of the “tortured genius”? Or is it just a romanticized notion exaggerated by film and literature?”

    In his now mythologized exhibition Culturallycolourful at the then Uganda German Cultural Centre in Kampala in 2001, Xenson kept his audience waiting for hours gazing at blank walls. This prompted the hosts to move the guests into the compound for the cocktail party. But this was interrupted by an over speeding taxi bearing Xenson perched in one of its windows screaming kikumi-kikumi; phrase often associated with hawkers peddling cheap merchandise in Kampala. Spewing canvases allover the grass, he plunged into a tirade of poetry criticizing the people for not recognizing his presence in absence! From their facial expressions and the conversations that ensued after, many in the audience were convinced that the artist had lost his marbles or as Artist Eria Nsubuga put it in a whisper to Xenson, “you guy, you’ve lost it!”

    In Wandegeya I saw a mad man making imaginary phone calls using gadgets he has assembled from discarded wire and radio parts. He seemed lost in his little world completely oblivious of his ‘audience’.

    What is to be construed from these two situations? Are we inclined to agree with the audience and label these as acts of madness or should we marvel at the level of creative genius displayed there of? I am inclined to assert that thinking and acting abstract can lead to clarity or obscurity of interpretation depending on the level of the audience’s analytical ability. A case in point is the absurd fact that while nudity is no longer novel and shocking in Western art; Ugandan artists still refer to it whenever the need for controversy arises!
    Madness and creativity are often linked in the minds of those who would oppose new ideas than in the minds of creative people. Useful madness is the craziness of being different, of doing things and thinking up ideas that more traditional people would steer clear of.
    Cognitive psychologist S.B Kaufman thinks that without the ability to transcend immediate reality, art would lose its creativity.
    “Far from insulting artists, I think it makes us appreciate artists even more, and their ability to show us worlds that may not exist but are possible. I do believe that if the mental processes associated with psychosis were evaporated entirely from this world, art would suck. But so would a lot of other things that require imagination.”
    There is a need for the artist to be eccentric enough to shock society towards new levels of appreciation and to develop new tastes for new aesthetics. But Kaufman while acknowledging the need for a bit of craziness cautions on excessive indulgence. He notes that psychosis is on a continuum:
    “Too much psychosis and one is at high risk of going mad. But everyone engages in psychosis-related thought any time they use their imagination. This type of thought activates particular regions of the brain and is especially prominent while day-dreaming and night-dreaming.”
    He emphasizes that debilitating psychosis is not a prerequisite for art and that severe mental illness could make it very difficult to produce art.
    He explains further,
    “I do not think a ‘psychotic episode’ is necessary for art, but mental processes such as a reduced latent inhibition can be very useful for art. The continuum aspect is crucial. Extreme psychosis can lead to a psychotic episode, completely detached from reality. That isn’t very adaptive. But there is a sweet spot in which you still use your imagination but have a healthy foot in reality. That sweet spot is one which is heavily conducive to flow, a state that many artists seek.”
    How many visual artists in Uganda today are willing to embrace such risky paths in the quest for new levels of creativity? During the most recent Laba Street Art Festival, Daudi Karungi and I did a performance piece entitled Art inclusive –xclusive in which we indulged in the consumption of cigars and alcohol while regurgitating nonsense about Art and money. I could swear that three quarters of the artists present steered clear of our performance area lest they too be mistaken for mad men!

    Cigars and alcohol are but a mild example of substances that could stir one into creativity. One of the greatest innovator of our times Apple co-founder Steve Jobs admitted to drug use while filling in an FBI clearance form, saying he had used LSD, marijuana, and hashish. He said he had no words to describe his use of LSD other than that it was a “positive life changing experience” and one that he was glad he went through. Jobs either smoked the marijuana or ingested it through brownies and said it made him feel “relaxed and creative.”
    One wonders as to what Ugandan singer/ performer Bobi Wine would be without marijuana. Or what would have become of the late lyricist Paulo Kafero in the absence of alcohol. Even the visual art fraternity is not short of examples. We have also heard of artists elsewhere dying of drug overdose. I will not attempt to examine at length why creative people seek out drugs but I will mention a few examples extolling the value in this socially abhorrent practice. Drugs if taken mildly (and here lies the problem!) can help the user transcend immediate reality or engage in lateral thinking which is vital for creativity. I have often publically criticized my fellow artists for their ability to attract bees with their sweet drinks at exhibition cocktails. Perhaps this could explain the lack of really meaningful upward growth in subject matter with in the visual arts in Uganda; too few users!
    In 2001, several 17th-century smoking pipes were found in the garden of William Shakespeare’s English home. The pipes revealed traces of cannabis. I wonder what this tells us of his ability to create such great works! The question might then be to use or not to use!
    By Henry Mzili Mujunga
    (Artist and teacher)

  2. I have attended one WAZO talk and liked the urgements put across. big ups to David for starting such an initiative.

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