Nudity? It is Artistic Expression and Free Speech (part III)
On 15 April 2012 Fas Fas Gallery hosted Nude 2012. Unlike Nude 2000 and Nude 2001, Nudes 2012 did not have a catalogue. However, Ronex Ahimbisibwe and startjournal.org preserved its visual archive which is enough to guide my discussion. I have also held discussion with Ronex Ahimbisibwe for further guidance and information.
By Angelo Kakande F.J 2012
This is Part III of the essay,
Nudes 2012: Trekking the Complex Journey beyond Private Parts
The show was organised by Ronex Ahimbisibwe. From our discussion, it emerged that Ahimbisibwe was concerned that “…everybody feared the subject” of the naked human body. He however wondered “why is it so easier to show the face which is so detailed than the other parts [of the body] which are [considered] private?”[i]
The objective of the exhibition was therefore to “invite the public to discuss” this question. In other words the show was premised on the old question dating back to Nude 2000. The show was intended to dymistify The naked body and make it public.
Now, David Mpanga is an Advocate of the Uganda Courts of Judicature. On 2 June 2012 he published an interesting article in Daily Monitor[ii] in which he analysed the import of Brett Murray’s painting, titled The Spear. This painting was part of a body of works Murray exhibited in his the Hail to the Thief II Exhibition (2012). The artist appropriated the image of Jacob Zuma, the President of South Africa, for political expression. In the process the representation of an individual became the representation of a poorly governed and corrupt regime. The painting attracted controversy. The artist was sued in defamation; The Spear was attacked and damaged on the 22nd May 2012.
Mpanga also reminded his readers of Robert Mapplethorpe’s exhibition in which the photographer used erotic subject matter in his compositions. He was correct. In the early 1990s Mapplethorpe held a travelling exhibition, The Perfect Moment, in which he used explicit erotic images thus blurring the line between pornography and high art.
Citing the arguments for the right to free speech (to which I referred earlier in my discussion), and the need to tolerate differing views and satire in a free and democratic society, Mpanga made a case for the need for restraint. He asserted that accepting dissenting, eccentric, silly, obnoxious, ignorant, frivolous or vexatious opinions expressed by others demonstrated political maturity and democracy. For Mpanga denying the expression of such opinions is an affront to the right to freedom of expression which is a universally recognised right and can only be limited under exceptional circumstances provided for under Municipal, Regional and International human rights law. In this context Brett Murray’s The Spear was an object of free speech which is legally protected and Mpanga vowed to protect.
However, Mpanga warned that not everything which is lawful is right. As such, individuals must ensure that they enjoy their right to free speech in way that is right, fitting and socially acceptable. He suggested that Brett Murray had crossed the thin line between satire and gratuitous obscenity. He contended that The Spear was offensive to South Africa’s Head of State; it was demeaning and racially charged. Put simply, although the artist’s right to freedom of speech must be protected, the way he expressed his political opinion was immoral and inappropriate.
I am not entirely persuaded by Mpanga’s case for morals. The argument that minority views must be seen to fit into a view acceptable to the majority (this being Mpanga’s “many”) is democratic. But it is problematic in Uganda where what is right, fitting and socially acceptable has often been subject to the wishes of the regime in power. For example it was wrong, unfitting and socially unacceptable for women to wear short dresses (and skirts) during Amin’s era. He made a decree to protect society. As we read in Tumusiime (2012, 70-71), the decree was draconian and intended to subjugate women and police their bodies.
Secondly, Mpanga is imagining a market place of ideas where opinions are freely exchanged. However Uganda’s history has taught us that the regimes in power have often lacked good debaters who can advance their positions. They have deployed state institutions to shield themselves against dissenting opinions.
For instance in 2009 the National Resistance Movement (NRM)—the regime which has been in power since 1986—failed to defend its position on the conflicts between the Kingdom of Buganda and the self-styled king of the Banyala. To win the debate, it used institutions like the Uganda Communications Commission, the Uganda Police, the UPDF, prisons, etc. to block debate. Government’s actions caused an uprising which was marked by loss of life and property. Radio stations were closed down. In fact government reopened CBS radio 2010 when it became clear that its continuous closure was going to cost the incumbent the February 2011 elections. Open talk shows, called Bimeeza, which were broadcast live on radios, were permanently outlawed. This blocked the popular forum in which citizen openly challenged public policy and governance.
The State has deployed similar harsh treatment to shield itself against criticism from writers. For example Major Kazoora is a veteran of National Resistance Army (currently Uganda Peoples Defence Forces). He also served in other capacities. Like many others, Colonel Kiiza Besigye being the most notable, Kazoora fell out with the regime. He is now a member of the opposition Forum for Democratic Change (FDC) and a critic of the government in power.
On 13 August 2012 Kazoora launched his book titled Betrayed by My Leader (2012) in which he recounted his personal memoirs. Justice Kanyeihamba attended the occasion. In an article published in Daily Monitor of 2 September 2012, Kanyeihamba explained ways in which the whole occasion was enveloped shrouded in fear of being attacked by agents of the State. At least Kazoora’s launch was not disrupted. Bookstores are free to sell it, at least for now.
However in October 2010 Olive Kifefe Kobusingye, Kiiza Besigye’s sister, launched a book titled The Correct Line? Uganda under Museveni (2010) in which she contradicted the official account of the rebellion which brought the ruling NRM to power and questioned its democratic and human rights record. The book was declared treasonous and “outlawed”[iii], its launch was blocked, bookstores refused to sell it under fear of State repression.
Also, in January 2011 Dr. Ssejaaka published Summit Business Review. Its cover page had a visual representation of an elderly President of Uganda preparing to cut a cake and blow candles lit to celebrate the country’s 48th birthday (Uganda got independence in 1962). Some elements within the government felt that the image had insulted the President of the Republic. Also placed on billboards strategically located in the city, the illustrator suggested that the President was actually much older than what was officially acknowledged during the campaign trail. Now, I do not think the meaning of this image could be restricted to one, univocal meaning. In my opinion the image could equally speak of wisdom which comes with age. President Museveni has often been called Mzei—a Swahili word which means an old person. However the same word is commonly used as a mark of respect for many respectable personalities in Uganda.
This multiple meaning was not important in an election year when there was question asked about the President’s eligibility for another term. In this context the magazine was seen to contrast the official election posters on which a jovial, chubby, middle age, president was seeking re-election. As a result State agents vandalised the billboards. The magazine was confiscated. Together with his Editor Mustapha Mugisha, Ssejaaka the owner of the magazine was arrested and jailed for “allegedly publishing a caricature of the President that embarrasses him”[iv]. It is therefore my opinion that Mpanga’s opinion can in fact be explored to breach the very freedoms he vows to protect and promote.
Mpanga’s article is however instructive. It points to the historical circumstances in which Nudes 2012 was conceived and hosted at Fas Fas Gallery. Firstly, Mpanga confirms that in the eyes of the public (at least as it is captured in the local press) artists can sometimes cross the controversial line between satire and gratuitous obscenity. In my earlier discussion I have discounted this line of argument. I am however prepared to admit that this position has been deliberately explored as artists to explore the margins of controversy, art and sexuality while challenging conventions and the margins of the State. As a form of artistic expression controversy shaped two art exhibitions supported by the Embassy of the Kingdom of the Netherlands and organised by Afriart Gallery.
Opened on 4 February 2010, Controversial Art Exhibition Vol. 001 featured several artists and artistic comments. Some artists exhibited ambiguous statements. For example it is not clear what controversy Fred Mutebi intended in his Last Supper. Other artists used other forms of expression as a source of their controversial political texts. For example, David Kigozi’s Kabinika and Duniya were probably based on lyrics from popular songs. Some images were strongly political anchored in current debates on foreign aid (for example Daudi Karungi’s In the Name of Aid ), international conflicts (in Sane Eria Nsubuga’s Mentor and Protégé ) and regional wars (in Sane Eria Nsubuga’s Bashir’s Ghosts). Some artists used the opportunity to question the ruling NRM and its military foundation (and we see this in Henry Mzili’s The General Problem).
However, some artists were explicit controversial. They exhibited images with graphic details laying emphasis on the genitalia. For example, we see this in Henry Mzili’s General Happiness. According to The New Vision published on 18 February 2010, this work evoked thoughts about nudity[v]. It is my opinion that beyond nudity the artist used a stark naked male figure to link sexual gratification with (eternal) human happiness.
Enoch Mukiibi captured a picture space in which the artist attended to the virility of the male phallus measured at varied levels. However his Rose in bed needs specific comment for the reasons which are important for understanding the stance Ahimbisibwe took in Nudes 2012.
We see a figure playing a central role in a largely empty space. She is identifiably female. She emerges from the left to fuse into a generally polluted ground contrasted with a smooth greyish-yellow sky. The artist uses a limited colour palette which he explores in varied shades. He does not display a mastery of skill and media. This however does not affect the efficacy of the symbolic gesture captured in a nude figure in the centre of the picture plane. It spreads its legs wide open to expose the genital area. This painting could, more than David Salle’s The Disappearance of the booming voice (1984), be said to have been appropriated from what Schor (1997,3) calls “mass-media pornography….”
During our interview with Ahimbisibwe we specifically discussed the import of the visual vocabulary in Rose in bed. He noted that Mukiibi’s work is “provocative”. However, it is also a testimony to the fact that “artists can be predictable. When you talk about controversy artists go for the private parts which is the easy option. I do not think controversy is about private parts”[vi].
I find three issues with this statement which I need to attend to before I proceed with my discussion. Firstly, although he states what controversy is NOT about, Ahimbisibwe did not explain to me what it is about.
Secondly, his statement can be attacked on the grounds that it misses the boldness with which Mukiibi captured his subject and subject matter. There is suspense, in Rose in bed, created by the presence of an improvised object in the open sky above the central figure. This effect of this suspense can neither be predicted nor predictable. Clearly the symbolism in Rose in bed is not obvious; it is undeniably a product of an appreciation of visual vocabulary, experimentation, interrogation and intellectual input.
Thirdly, Ahimbisibwe did not clearly spell out for me what he meant by artists being “predictable”. However, there is an earlier characterisation of some artists as being predictable. Together with David Kigozi, Edison Mugalu, Daudi Karungi, Anwar Sadat Nakibinge, Yusuf Ssali, among others, Ahimibisibwe exhibited at the Afriart Gallery located at UMA Lugogo Showground in July 2009 (the UMA Show hereinafter).
Like many other shows in which Ahimbisibwe has participated, the UMA Show was not documented. Ahimbisibwe explained that the general lack of documentation is caused by the fact that artists lack writing skills. As such they “find it hard to write about their work”[vii]. I think this statement is probably too general. Besides it is only one of the reasons. The other reasons include Uganda’s problematic history marked by war, trauma and disruption. As a result of this tumultuous history the of country’s contemporary art has been lost (Sanyal 2000; Kakande 2008, 16). This loss however should not detract us because fortunately Stephen Ssenkaaba wrote a review in The New Vision published on 9 July 2009. It is not exhaustive but it is relevant to the understanding of the notion of predictability in contemporary Ugandan art.
In the article Ssenkaaba wrote about what he called Yusuf “Ssali’s predictable woman image”. Without access to the archive of the exhibition it is difficult to know which of Ssali’s works he was characterising. However Yusuf Ssali often paints women. He, like Ahimbisibwe, Karungi and Mzili with whom he participated in the UMA Show, is a graduate of Makerere University Art School (also called the Margaret Trowell School of Industrial and Fine Arts). He is a prolific painter who has developed a sort of leitmotif seen in his paintings, bathed in a vibrant and luminous palette, in which women perform chores to sustain the economy.
It is my speculation that it is on this basis that Ssenkaaba wrote that his work carried a predictable woman image. It is also clear in the article that predictable artists are those work within a limited horizon and show limited energy. These are the ones whom Ssenkaaba called “a few other less-known artists” contrasting them with the experienced and versatile Ahimbisibwe who explored varied themes, textures, gestures and media in his work[viii]. As such Ssenkaaba persuaded his readers to trace and walk with him the following emotive journey as they viewed Ahimbisibwe’s work:[I]t is Ahimbisibwe’s versatility that steals the show. His bowl’s installation beckons a poignant African spirit, rekindling fond memories of a traditional African homestead. The bowls are creatively crafted with insignia of various indigenous artistic images and painted in mundane browns and green colours. He even attempts a high relief using the casting technique. I love his application of texture in this particular work which makes the subject seem to bounce off its background. Ahimbisibwe’s work truly lends life to an exhibit that seems to lack focus and offers very little in new interesting work[ix].
From the aforementioned, it follows that indeed the controversy in the Controversial Art Exhibition vol. 1, or indeed any other controversial art, does not reside in the forms. Rather, it may be an issue of interpretation. I am also of the opinion that controversy resides in the subject matter.
This opinion was bailed out by Controversial Art Exhibition vol. 002 (2011). Officially launched on 11 March 2011, this show took controversial art to a competitive and democratic level. This is explained by the fact that there was an award for the most controversial artist given to Stella Atal through a voting process. The exhibition covered controversial themes of the day: Homosexuality, female circumcision, mob-justice, human sacrifice and election malpractices among other themes. Questions over governance have shaped Uganda’s contemporary art since its nascent days (Kakande 2008).
In 2001 Nommo Gallery hosted the 2001 Presidential Elections in the Eyes of the artists (Sweet and Sour) in which artists expressed varied visual opinions on the conduct of the 2001 presidential elections. However, issues of homosexuality, female circumcision and human sacrifice took a back stage until the Controversial Art Exhibition Vol.002; they rarely informed artistic discourse.
But during the Controversial Art Exhibition Vol.002 Karungi did his Hide Your Private Parts (2011). It is a photograph of a female model painted with vibrant primary colours. Just like in his Sit Down, Shut up and Look Beautiful (Marriage) (2011) in which he critiques the patriarchal foundations of the marriage institution and how they silenced women, Karungi’s Hide your Private Parts seems to challenge deep-seated conservative constructs and conventions related to the sexuality in general and the genitalia in particular. This is controversial. However, most controversial was the way he extended the meaning and possibilities of painting. If his co-exhibitors had produced art in the conventional sense, Karungi turned the human body into a canvas. Although traditionally done among the Bagisu (during circumcision rituals) for example, this was unprecedented in contemporary Uganda art and certainly controversial.
Staying clear of private parts
However, Ahimbisibwe’s contention that to be controversial in art-making does not necessarily entail depicting private parts have produced some interesting results. As a method, and visual strategy, the need to go beyond private parts seems to have shaped the choices and instructions Ahimbisibwe gave to the participating artists; it influenced the resultant shift in depiction of the nude, and its symbolism, as seen in Nude 2012. For example Ahimbisibwe’s Self-searching was one of a series of works in which the artist experimented with materials and textures. By capturing the upper part of a woman, Ahimbisibwe stayed clear of private parts.
Unlike many of the artists who participated in Nude 2000 and Nude 2001, Ahimbisibwe works with a model. He thus had another reason for staying away from the private parts. He was concerned that he has worked with the same model for the last four years. He is aware that Uganda’s cultural sensitivities render the use of models difficult. Consequently it is difficult to find models. To be able to find and work with one, the artist must gain her confidence. This position has shaped the artist’s strategy and production of nude art. For starters, he uses digital effects to disguise his sitter’s nakedness. In the process he has [re-]introduced a modicum of decency. His work has become decorative, ambiguous and multivariate thus assuming its position in the realm of high art without exposing his model to embarrassment.
Secondly, he combines traditional artefacts and modern techniques of art production –mainly photography. In the process he affirms the very traditions cherished by the critiques of nudity in art. The sitter captured on the poster, and in another work in which the model is in full view, can be cited as examples. She covers her face with a mask. By taking poses that are comical she diverts our interest away from her nakedness to the act of performance. As it was with the G-string cases, this would be an expressive act, an act protected under freedom of expression which cannot be sanctioned.
Also, the artist successfully shifts our attention from the private parts of the model seen in one of the works, to the traditional object with which the model seems to be playing with. This gesture shifted the meaning of the tradition and traditional object without offending them. The strategy was essential to preserve the image of the artist and his sitter before a public uncomfortable with the sight of nakedness in the public. As the artist explained, the “model may have a boyfriend; the newspapers may publish [her image] and cause embarrassment”[x] to artist and the model. This had be avoided at all costs.[cincopa AwFAjDLKS_9q]
Thirdly, like Ro Kerango, Katja Lenart, Sheila Black and Daudi Karungi, Ahimbisibwe relied on a modernist style. (Writing in The Observer of 19 April 2012, Vianney Nsimbe called it the “avant-garde art in Kampala”[xi].) This made the works on display in Nudes 2012 less accessible to the masses. No doubt many of the visitors were expatriates and a few educated elite. This then would explain why Fr. Simon Lokodo, the Minister for Ethics and Integrity (to whom I come back later on) did not disrupt it. Arguably the show was not a threat to the country’s traditions (and morals?).[cincopa AUPAWCrkSrEs]
This is not to suggest that Nudes 2012 was totally without controversy. During our interview, Ahimbisibwe narrated an incident in which a visitor was concerned that the show had a lot of women bodies. This is not to suggest that there were no male nudes. Vianney Nsimbe reported that female nudity was prominent in the show. However, he also noted that Katja Lenart “exhibited male nudity in two pieces because she was inspired by the need to be different”. Put simply, Lenart deliberately diversified the show by introducing male nudity although she exhibited only two works.
A thin line between art and pornography
That notwithstanding, Nsimbe informed his readers that Ronex Ahimbisibwe, Daudi Karungi and Henry Mzili “overtly [un]covered the female body, leaving little to the imagination. Some guests thought that the thin line between pornography” and art had been crossed. Nsimbe then gave a title to his article raising a question which has hovered over the Nude 2000, Nude 2001, Nude 2012 and all the other forms of art in which nudity has been visualized, namely: “Is Nudity Pornography?”[xii]
Posed in The Observer published on 19 April 2012, this question attracted four recorded responses in its blog section and all of them merit our attention: First, on the 19 April 2012 an online reader, by the name Nudist, wrote in the blog section of as follows: “The answer is nudity it is not pornography. Is sex pornography? No it is not. Then what is pornography? It is nothing.”
Second, on 20 April 2012 Betty Long wrote in the same column. She seems to agree that nudity is not pornography. She however quoted and challenged Nudist’s contention that pornography is nothing. She observed that pornography “is addictive, demoralizing, and big business. Its purpose is to arouse prurient interest. 90% of the activity not content of the Internet is pornography.” As such Long exposed the moral, psychological, economic and political issues associated with pornography while seemingly agreeing with Nudist that indeed nudity is not pornography. She then cited the decision of a US Court of Appeals Ninth Circuit in which pornography was legally defined as a “shameful and morbid interest in nudity, sex, or excretion”.
Long’s comment is interesting to the extent that it gives an objective legal meaning to pornography. Put simply pornography is a legal rather than strictly moral issue. As I demonstrated elsewhere this is a valid claim.
Third, a one Wodgot wrote on 20 April 2012. He argued that indeed the issue of whether nudity is, or is not, pornography is subjective. “It all depends on the intentions of the individuals in question and what they are actually doing with their nudity. If, the postures of the nudity is in public domain and is intended for sexual gratification, then it qualifies to be a porn. If, it’s a turn off or non-provocative, then it’s known as normalcy.” Wodgot then concluded by stating that unlike nudity, “[p]ornograpy are watched and performed by people who are PSYCHO.” In other words like Long Wodgot sees pornography as a disease which is distinct from nudity which like Nudist and Long he does not define.
Fourth, when Vianney Nsimbe put the above question to Ronex Ahimbisibwe, the artist adamantly argued for art. ‘“We live with nudity and taking photos of nude objects or paintings are an extension of glorifying great levels of art,”’ said Ahimbisibwe. He further explained “pornography as sex-oriented images and not necessarily a nude body”.
Arguably then like Nudist, Long, Wodgot and Ahimbisibwe insist that nudity is not pornography. He further argues that unlike nudity which is an ideal form of high art, pornography is profane, obscene, low grade and not art. As Ahimbisibwe explained, “nudity is appreciating the body with no sexual intentions”[xiii].
Adoration of Magi
To make his point Vianney Nsimbe used Mzili’s Adoration of Magi (2012) to illustrate his article. The painting then became the public face of an elitist show straddled the boundary separating art from pornography; ideal form from art as an agency for self-gratification. It forces one to raise the question which Nsimbe raised, and Tumusiime has answered, namely: “Is nudity pornography?”
Mzili’s Adoration of the Magi has a direct message. It is made using a semi-realist style which renders its text accessible to a wide, and largely visually illiterate, public which reads The Observer in which it was reproduced. The painting is stylistically different from Mzil’s other painting whose style and figuration reminds one of the late Geoffrey Mukasa’s oeuvre. It has two paintings: first its title is informed by a classical biblical theme which several Western artists (Leonardo Da Vinci, Fillipino Lippi, Rembrandt, Sebastiano Ricci, to mention but a few of my most favourite) have painted. Secondly, during our interview with the artist, and Ahimbisibwe, it was confirmed that the painting was informed by a scene from an “X-rated movie” whose title the artist could not recall[xiv]. What we have here is a combination of two opposed categories—religious symbolism and pornography—which is unprecedented in Ugandan art. The painting is not graphic. It however has a symbolic gesture which, as Tumusiime has written, fuses the line between high art and pornography. It thus merits further extended debate.
In this painting Mzili depicted a female figure reclining across the foreground and defining the point at which the beholder enters the picture plane. She lies on a soft, well-decorated bed which contrasts and defines the contours of her feminine body. Her skin colour is fair rendering her body young and supple; her hair flows to the right frame of the painting confirming her access to non-traditional forms of hair treatment available mainly in Uganda’s urban and peri-urban centres. She lies backwards forcing her breasts to inflate and erect on her chest.
This gesture and symbolism serves to map the sex, age and [pre]occupation of the woman before us while persuading us to notice her interest in bodily desires. She is identifiably a debased object of sexual desire available (and availed) for the immediate inspection of the beholder and the men in the background. The artist has thus sexualised and gendered the act of art production and viewing.
As I noted in my discussion on Nude 2001, eroticism has been used before as a critical devise. I submit that eroticism served a similar purpose in Mzili’s painting. As such, like Musangogwantamu’s painting on Rose, Mzili’s pervert closes her eyes and gasps for air in an act of narcissistic self-indulgence. However unlike Musangogwantamu’s Sleep v, Love letter to Rose, Emptiness of lust (among others) in which women occupy their own (if private) world to which the artist allows his audience to have [un]privileged access, Mzili’s woman has company. Another woman, captured in chocolate brown, is nearby. Her posture is ambiguously expressed. She lies in an uncomfortable position on her belly while holding on to some synthetic object as if to find support. It is not immediately clear why she is squeezed between the pervert in the foreground and three men lined up in tableaux at the back. They animate an otherwise dull background while turning the composition into a crowd—a sexual orgy. They fix their gaze on the women’s bodies. Uninterrupted by the beholder, they seem to be entertained. This gesture confirms that the men in the background are interested in, and are seeking access to the women’s bodies.
If valid, these readings give Mzili’s painting a multiplicity of meanings, and multivocality, thus making the painting hard to fix on any singular reading. However there is a latent moral critique offered by the artist using this work which must be admitted and critiqued.
The three men wear moustaches. In November 2011 Mark Kawalya published an article entitled: “Grooming: Tips on improving your image”[xv] in which he offered advice to any man who has to “play a make-or-break role in business meetings”, the corporate personality. He advised such a man as follows: “[s]have regularly to look your best. If you sport a beard or a moustache, then make sure it is trimmed neatly and has no stray hairs sticking out in multiple directions.”
The men in Mzili’s work seem to have followed Kawalya’s advice. It is obvious that the first one to the left shaves regularly; his face is clean and smooth. Next to him is a man with thick dark hair which the artist calls “Afro” a reference to hair style which was popular with the elite of the sixties and seventies. The third man has shaved off all his hair. Called clean-shave, shaolin, etc, this hair is associated with the elite who often shave their heads while growing a significant moustache. Leutenant General Jeje Odongo, the Minister of State for Defence, has had such a style for a long time now.
Arguably, the men in the picture space are well-groomed to look their best; their moustaches are trimmed and neat. This confirms that they belong to another, in fact more sophisticated, class than the perverts before him. In our telephone conversation on 4 September 2012, Mzili confirmed that his painting has multiple meaning. He however conceded that it was a critique on the preoccupations of the elite and middleclass who, for him, shy away from reality and have been least productive. Hence, in the painting we see that instead of being in the boardroom, they are in a bedroom. Instead of wearing suits, they are dressed casually. (One is identifiably wearing a grey t-shirt.)
In this sense Mzili seems to use his work to question the preoccupations of the elite (corporate) male. The painting is also a critique on the consumerist culture. In Kakande (2008, 214-215) the question of how culture has revolutionalised artistic strategies and tastes was discussed. Now, it is clear from Mzili’s work and claims for it that the beneficiaries of such a culture are beginning to question it. This is a kind of self-reflection which we need to acknowledge and document.
Corporate vs non-corporate prostitution
Seen in this light, Mzili’s painting fuses into a wider concern expressed in Bukedde (a Luganda[xvi] Daily) published on 29th August 2012 by Martin Ndijjo. Ndijjo can be criticized for delving into some problematic ethnic stereotypes in which prostitutes from neighbouring countries, especially Rwanda, are considered more immoral, and lethal, than their Ugandan counterparts and are therefore a worse danger to Uganda’s corporate male and the health of the nation state[xvii]. In a moment we will see that ‘local’ prostitutes (like Bad Black) are not less lethal to the economy than their Rwandan counterparts. However, his article, titled “Abawala b’e Kigali bawambye siteegi za bamalaaya mu Kampala”[xviii], is instructive to my discussion to the extent that it gives insight into a phenomenon its author calls “corporate prostitution” which sketches the socioeconomic backdrop against which Mzili’s Adoration of the Magi is cast.
Corporate prostitution is different from the low class, non-corporate prostitution, engaged into by ordinary Ugandans. It is characterized by corporate personalities, politicians and government technocrats going to expensive bars, massage parlours and dance halls where they meet and buy sophisticated prostitutes at the expense of productive enterprise. It is disguised and therefore hard to detect and sanction by the agents of the State (especially the police).
In an article published by Bukedde on 4 September 2012, Henry Ssenyondo reported on a police operation in which many ordinary prostitutes were arrested and inhumanely bundled up into waiting lorries in a degrading way. Several pictures accompanied the article intended to expose, degrade, embarrass and ridicule the women and their trade. In the blog section a one Kewaza questioned the whole exercise and the impartiality of the police. He wrote that: “Obwa malaaya obuli mu ma office nga bwo tebukoonebwaako?? Nsuubira nti abakazi n’abasajja beetunda era nebasasulwa ebifo mu Government ne zi office, oba okukuzibwa ku mirimo.”[xix] (Translated: corporate prostitution is common in the offices. Women and men gain promotion in the public service and private sector in return for sex. But why are they not arrested?)
Although the extent of corporate prostitution is undocumented there is evidence to confirm that it is real and has complex economic ramifications. The only problem is that these ramifications are lost in a moral campaign which seeks to fight corporate prostitution as vice without unseating it. For example on 6th July 2012 Justice Catherine Bamugemeriere read her judgement in the case of Uganda v Shanita Namuyimba & Anor[xx] alluding to the moral issues surrounding corporate prostitution, notably: “corporate corruption” and related offences.
In that case a well-known corporate prostitute, Shanita Namuyimba (alias Bad Black) started a “romantic relationship” with a British businessman David Greenhalgh. The two met at an expensive bar called Rock Garden Bar located at the upscale Speke Hotel, Kampala. The relationship blossomed into a business venture called Daveshan Developments Uganda Limited. However the court record indicates that the accused Bad Black had an insatiable appetite for material things. As such, together with an accomplice, Court found that she “in an unprecedented manner wiped away an eleven billion [Shillings] fortune within a record period of nine months” leading to the collapse of Daveshan Developments Uganda Limited. In her ruling Justice Bamugemerire acknowledged Court’s duty not inquire into what happens in people’s bedrooms. However, in obiter dicta, she launched a stinging moral campaign against corporate prostitution. “Whilst it is not this Court’s duty to regulate how private individuals spend their resources” she argued, “[t]his Court will not take lightly the growing decline in public morals and social values” she concluded before handing down a four year prison sentence to the disgraced prostitute.
Let me add here that in the period 2011-2012 the Bad Black case became sensational. A lot of moral arguments were made against the accused at the expense of the serious human rights concerns it brought to the fore. In her sworn testimony Bad Black averred that;
…she dropped out of school at the start of Senior Two, which renders Senior One her highest level of education. [She] further stated that two or three years after dropping out of school, whilst still a minor and teenager she became a sex worker. It is on account of her sex trade that she met [Greenhalgh] at Rock Bar Restaurant, located in Kampala City’s proverbial red district[xxi].
Against that backdrop, the Defence Counsel prayed that Court compares and contrasts Greenhalgh’s circumstances of life with those pertaining to Bad Black. Greenhalgh was a 54-year old British national, an International Businessman, a British trained Engineer with a Bachelors Degree in Engineering and a Master’s Degree in Business Administration who owned a host of multi-national companies and enjoyed business relations with a host of well-placed partners.[xxii]
Bad Black’s defence team further invited Court to consider the eschewed power matrix in which the accused was trapped in a relationship with a mature, wealthy, educated corporate personality. He further argued that the accused was entitled to the money since she was being paid for the “assorted services” she rendered to Greenhalgh. Of course Counsel making a wrong argument. He was suggesting that there was a contract of service between Bad Black and Greenhalgh involving prostitution (which is what he called assorted services). Prostitution in illegal in Uganda and it is trite law that Court cannot sanction an illegality.
However, there is something which Court overlooked. On 2nd June 2012 The New Vision published an article, titled “I was sexually abused” in which Edward Anyoli catalogued the level of sexual abuse which characterised the assorted services Bad Black offered in the alleged return to the billions of shillings she took out of the company. Bad Black is quoted to have asked Court “to take interest in this matter of [Greenhalgh] sexually abusing…” her. This was important for her defence because Greehhalgh had “abused her sexually on several occasions.”[xxiii]
Unfortunately, Bad Black’s plea did not yield much. As Justice Bamugemereire observed, “[t]he salacious details of the nature of [the Greenhalgh] and [Bad Black] affair” were only of the interest Court as “a matter of record.” This is because “the Defence Counsel appears to have abandoned that line of argument and adopted the position that the funds in question did not belong to Greenhalgh in the first place.” Put another was the rights of the accused were sacrificed as the Defence team resorted to pure economic arguments and matters of Company Law which Court rejected as it agreed with the prosecution’s case.
It is therefore my opinion that in matters pertaining to sex workers, economic and moral arguments tend to be over-emphasised at the expense of the rights and liberty of an individual.
Against this backdrop it becomes convenient for the state to abrogate its duty to protect prostitutes. Consequently in November 2010 the Minister for Ethics and Integrity, Nsaba Buturo, disrupted a regional meeting in which prostitutes were to deliberate on matters of common concern. It was organised by an NGO called Akina Maama Wa Afrika. As published by The New Vision of 20 November 2010, the minister’s action was based on his duty to prevent an illegality[xxiv]. However the eviction breached the prostitutes’ freedom of conscience, expression,assembly and association which is guaranteed under Article 29 of the Constitution of Uganda.
Following the Court decision in George Owori v AG & Hon. William Oketcho[xxv] Minister Nsaba Buturo was forced to lose his parliamentary seat; the Prime Minister forced him to vacate his ministerial post[xxvi]. During the elections of February 2011 a Catholic Priest Fr. Simon Lokodo was elected representative for Dodoth County in Kaabong District, Northern Uganda. He was appointed to replace Nsaba Buturo. Unlike his predecessor, Lokodo found prostitution to be a lesser evil than homosexuality[xxvii]. Rather than disrupting prostitutes he has disrupted[xxviii] workshops hosted by the LGBTI[xxix]. His actions, just like the proposed Anti-homosexuality Bill 2012 which seeks to criminalise homosexuality, have been criticized locally and internationally[xxx]. The actions Fr. Lokodo, among others, confirm that the defence of collective morals (being that which for Mpanga is right, fitting and appropriate at all times” in Uganda has bred some degree of intolerance which has caused immense fear in the LGBTI community[xxxi]. It has been challenged.
For example In the case of Victor Mukasa & Anor vs AG[xxxii] High Court Judge, Justice Stella Arach-Amoko heard a matter in which, in the defence of collective morals, a police officer and a local government official arrested and humiliated two women after attacking their home and confiscating their property. Her Worship concluded that the acts of the State infringed on the petitioners’ right to property, dignity and privacy; they amounted to torture, cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment. On 16 August 2012 activists attacked the website of the office of the Prime Minister of Uganda[xxxiii] and posted on it pro-LGBTI messages. Fr. Lokodo’s own actions have been challenged on several fronts. For instance there is a Case against him before the High Court in which the petitioners allege that his actions are “arbitrary and unjustified”; they amount to an infringement on the “right to equal treatment.”[xxxiv]
Ronex Ahimbisibwe has challenged Lokodo’s actions while making a strong case for the culture of tolerance. During our interview he argued that “we need to learn to live with some things…I think they [meaning Fr. Lokodo and the police have] nothing much to do. The Ministry of Ethics must be closed. It is a wastage of money.”[xxxv]
In summing up, the issues and debates surrounding Nudes 2012 had several legal, political, social, class, and moral tangents. They carry details which are more complex than the works exhibited. However that the exhibition had a common contour with—and the organizer was aware of—them is worth acknowledgement. By identifying and acknowledging the existence of such a contour we begin to look past Ronex Ahimbisibwe’s claim that Nudes 2012 was intended to demystify the naked body and open a discussion on the faces and private parts of a human being. It is my opinion, and argument, that in attending to this debate, with its complex multidimensional details, we begin to confirm that Nudes 2012 was part of, rather than being a source of, a discussion on the governance of the nation-state and the human rights record of the ruling party—the National Resistance.
Secondly, Nudes 2012 was different from Nude 2000, Nude 2001 and the controversial art exhibitions which were funded by the Italian and Dutch Embassies respectively. It was mobilised with local resources and initiatives. This created the burden of the need to sell and recover costs. In my opinion, it is this economic incentive which affected the positions the artists took while. They treaded carefully avoiding the risk of offending anyone. Following the limited discussion at The Observer.com they seem to have succeeded.
He suggested that Brett Murray had crossed the thin line between satire and gratuitous obscenity explicit erotic images thus blurring the line between pornography and high art. controversy + foreign embassy under the clout of immunity, no…when you want to say something use high art…no permanent immunity it is a carrot and stick in Tripp
Angelo Kakande has researched extensively on contemporary Ugandan art and the connection to politics. He is currently the Head of the Department of Design at MTSIFA.
[i] Ronex Ahimbisibwe, personal interview, Institute of Heritage Conservation and Restoration, Makerere University, 24 June 2012.
[ii] See David F. K. Mpanga, “Murray’s expression of feeling about Zuma is a given but was it appropriate?” in Daily Monitor, 2 June 2012. Available online at: http://www.monitor.co.ug/OpEd/Commentary/Murray+s+expression+of+feeling+about+Zuma/-/689364/1418562/-/cjyy1cz/-/index.html (accessed 2-6-2012)
[iii] See “Government Seizes Pro-Besigye Book” in Daily Monitor of 10 October 2010. Available online at: http://www.monitor.co.ug/News/National/-/688334/1029370/-/cmxivcz/-/index.html (accessed 3-9-2012).
[iv] See Andrew Bagala, “Magazine editors held over Museveni cartoon” in Daily Monitor, 12 January 2011. Available online at: http://mobile.monitor.co.ug/News/-/691252/1088164/-/format/xhtml/-/15l9jxwz/-/index.html (accessed 3-9-2012).
[vi][vi] Ronex Ahimbisibwe, personal interview,
[vii] Ahimbisibwe Ronex, Personal interview with the author, 24 June 2012.
[viii] I need to add here that Yusuf Ssali’s recent work has all these things.
[x] Ahimbisibwe, personal interview with the author, 24 June 2012 at MTSIFA Gallery.
[xi] Nsimbe Vianney, “Is Nudity Pornography?” in The Observer of 19 April 2012. Available online at: http://observer.ug/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=18303:is-nudity-pornography&catid=42:sizzling-entertainment&Itemid=74 (accessed 4-9-2012).
[xii] Nsimbe Vianney, Supra.
[xiii] Ahimbisibwe, interview with the author, 24 June 2012.
[xiv] Mzili Mujunga, telephone interview with the author, 4 September 2012.
[xv] Kawalya, Mark “Grooming: Tips on improving your image” in Daily Monitor of 13 November 2011. Available online at: http://www.monitor.co.ug/artsculture/Relationships/-/691230/1272036/-/cvvdtk/-/index.html (accessed 2-9-2012)
[xvi] Luganda is a language spoken mainly in Central Uganda.
[xvii] This is the point which Ndijjo makes when he writes that: “Bamalaaya ba kuno obudde bwe bamala ku nguudo nga basiiya abasajja abayitawo n’okubawemula, bano abava e Rwanda obasanga mu bifo eby’ebbeeyi ebisanyukirwamu ne ‘bamusibattaayi’ bayite abakozi b’omu ofiisi n’abakungu ba gavumenti ababagula n’okubacakaza”. See http://www.bukedde.co.ug/news/66546-abawala-b-e-kigali-bawambye-siteegi-za-bamalaaya-mu-kampala.html (accessed 29-08-2012)
[xviii] Translated prostitutes from Kigali (the capital city of Rwanda) have besieged Kampala’s red districts. The complete article is available online at http://www.bukedde.co.ug/news/66546-abawala-b-e-kigali-bawambye-siteegi-za-bamalaaya-mu-kampala.html (accessed 29-08-2012)
[xix] Double question marks in the original; my emphasis. See Henry Ssenyondo, “Bamalaaya e Katwe bakunamidde abapoliisi ababadde babakwata” in Bukedde, 4-9-2012. Available online at: http://www.bukedde.co.ug/news/66699-bamalaaya-e-katwe-bakunamidde-abapoliisi-ababadde-babakwata.html (accessed 5-9-2012).
[xx]  UGHC 48. Available online at http://www.ulii.org/ug/judgment/high-court/2012/48 (accessed 2-9-2012).
[xxi] See Uganda v Shanita Namuyimbwa & Anor, supra, at p.21-22
[xxii] See Uganda v Namuyimbwa & Anor, supra, at p.
[xxiii] See Edward Anyoli “I was paid billions for sex – Bad Black” in The New Vision , 1 Jun 2012. Also available online at http://www.newvision.co.ug/news/631577-i-was-paid-billions-for-sex-bad-black.html (accessed 2-9-2012).
[xxv] Const. Pet. No. 038/2010 Also available at http://www.ulii.org/ug/judgment/constitutional-court/2011/1 (accessed 2-9-2012).
[xxvi] See Vision Reporter, “Buturo Quits” in The New Vision , 15 March 2011. Available online at: http://www.newvision.co.ug/D/8/12/749139 (accessed 2-9-2012). Also see Mary Karugaba, “Buturo Hands over Ministerial Office” in The New Vision , 15 March 2011. Available on line at: http://www.newvision.co.ug/D/8/13/749178 (accessed 2-9-2012).
[xxvii] He made this point during a talk show hosted by Mwangushya on 93.3 KFM.
[xxviii] See Ssebuyira, “Ethics Minister shuts down gay rights conference” in Daily Monitor of 14 February 2012. Available online at: http://www.monitor.co.ug/News/National/-/688334/1327440/-/b0qolnz/-/index.html (accessed 14-9-2012)
[xxix] This is an acronym which stands for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Intersex.
[xxx] For example the US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, was worried that if passed into law the bill would erode individual rights and liberties. It would encourage discrimination, harassment and intimidation of individuals. She thus remarked that “it is critical for all Ugandans – the government and citizens alike – to speak out against discrimination, harassment, and intimidation of anyone. That’s true no matter where they come from, what they believe, or whom they love. See Andrew Quinn “Clinton hails gay rights activists in wary Uganda”, Reuters, 3 August 2012. Available online at: http://www.reuters.com/article/2012/08/03/us-uganda-clinton-idUSBRE8721FH20120803 (accessed 2-9-2012).
[xxxi] The BBC reported on 16 February 2012 that the gay community in Uganda is fleeing the country fearing for their lives. See “Gay Ugandans flee fearing for their lives” available at: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-africa-17058692 (accessed 2-9-2012).
[xxxii] HCMC No. 24/06 (unreported).
[xxxiv] See Anthony Wekesa, “Gay activists case against Ethics minister, AG for today” in Sunday Monitor, 25 June 2012. Available at: http://www.monitor.co.ug/News/National/Gay+activists+case+against+Ethics+minister++AG+for+today/-/688334/1434894/-/gt5jja/-/index.html (accessed 2-9-2012).
[xxxv] Ronex Ahimbisibwe, Interview with the author, MTSIFA Gallery, 24 June 2012. My emphasis.
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