The many faces of ART

There are many new ways for Ugandans to be exposed to the arts. Startjournal wanted to find out if all the art that is permeating the air had actually seeped through the skins of the people. We posed the following question to working class Ugandans: Please tell us — what is ART to you?

Written by Lindsey Kukunda

The past three to four years have seen Ugandans exposed to art in all its various forms.

The Bayimba International Festival gets bigger and better each year, providing an umbrella for musicians, dancers, painters, photographers, jewelers, tattoo experts — the list is endless — to avail their services and skills to the public.

The National Theatre stages productions that the public actively looks out for — from the infamous Lantern Meet of Poets to the Kampala Amateur Dramatics Society performances, to plays that have found themselves banned by the Uganda Media Council due to political sensitivity — the less said about that, the better!

Establishments have been set up that revolve around art; FasFas in Bugologi is decorated with metallic sculptures, wooden wheelbarrows for seating, and a garage turned mini-art gallery.

Artwork by Ronex. Exhibited at Fasfas Art Cafe, Kampala, January 2013. Image modified by Thomas Bjørnskau, The publisher altered the artwork — did it stop being art?

Art is now slowly trickling down to our wardrobes. African print clothing, African jewellery, even shoes are becoming the in-thing, with fashion designers broadening their horizons to include this trend.

And to keep you, the reader, abreast of all these developments, there is arts journalism. A breed of journalism that has seen art magazines and online forums sprouting from the ground like budding flowers. InKampala and are examples of forums that keep you abreast of what’s going down in the world of the artsy.

Don’t worry. I hadn’t forgotten yours truly,

Sometimes, before we can progress forward, we need to go back to the beginning. To get a sense of what the present is all about.

So, Startjournal wanted to find out if all the art that is permeating the air had actually seeped through the skins of the people it was trying to attract towards it: Those previously unconcerned with the field.

We posed the following question to working class Ugandans: Please tell us — what is ART to you?

The program officer

Kampire Bahana

Kampire Bahana, Program Officer FOWODE: “When I think about Art, I think about this quote by Banksy:

Good art disturbs the comfortable and comforts the disturbed.”

START: We assume this means challenges the placid, and soothes the…well, you get the point.


The stylist

Sylvia Kawalya

Sylvia Kawalya, Entertainment Industry: “Art is your own representation of life. A true and pure sense put to something. It can be represented through music, painting, makeup or any form of artistry.

We artists, we use the gifts we have to speak out. This is how we represent our true feelings.”

The filmmaker

Igor Markov, amateur film-maker: “Art is one of the most sublime ways of interacting with the world around us; one of the most lavish displays for sexual enticement and; one of the most joyful ways to spend one’s time — whether you’re creating or admiring it.”

START: Interesting. So more distinctly — what kind of art do you enjoy?

“My favorite arts are, in order: Cinema, music, theater/recitals, paintings, sculpture and architecture…”

The student

Rowan Emslie

Rowan Emslie, Student, Manchester University: “Art is creative expression — nothing more, nothing less.

People like to get into the whole ‘but is it art?’ debate when something new comes along — modern art, found art, chance based musical composition etc. It misses the point.

Something being ‘art’ is no badge of honour; it doesn’t denote worth. It just consigns it to being an expression of creative (rather than critical or analytical) thinking. The worth of the artwork is a whole different discussion that often gets conflated incoherently.

Like the reactions to Duchamp or Cage or to opera when it was first invented: Essentially people decided it was bad or “easy” or “low” and then decided that these people were not creating art. It’s a fallacy.”

START:  Really? Whereas now we have decided it is art and all form of opera is adored because of how it was tagged so after a while? Even if it may be merely replicated and unoriginal for instance?

“Opera was derided as common and base, when it first appeared — it developed from a musical form known as the basso lamento which led to popular dances. Music was dominated by the church and court, but opera had come from more humble backgrounds. For a long time it was seen coarse, far from the high culture tag it has now.  Over time people associated it with peasants grinding on one another less and less and great composers began to use it.

Also, populist art become more acceptable during the Renaissance (Shakespeare is a good example). But it was deemed to be “beneath” truly artistic music. It’s a very good way of criticizing something you don’t understand. For instance, to be seen dating an actor was worse than dating a thief! But essentially the ‘I don’t like this therefore it isn’t art’ argument needs to be mocked mercilessly.”

The businessman

Richard Obonyo

Richard Obonyo, Businessman: “Art is any quality, object or talent that appeases human senses. Objects are easy. Paintings, sculptures, ornaments, clothing nature etc. Talent is songs, poems, literature, and other outcomes from talent.

Quality — now that is rare.

You know when you look at someone do something that blows your mind, like a brilliant goal or a chef preparing the perfect meal? Even the perfect meal can be equated to art.“

The architect

Johnson, Architect: “Anything that is meant to be art and brings up any emotion meant to be art.”

START: Well, that’s kind of vague. Can you elaborate?

“I mean where the artist meant it to be art. If some guy puts peanut butter on a floor 2×3 meters apart and calls it art, it’s art. I look at it and start wondering about something but in the end I can also get angry with this guy for wasting my time with his ‘art’. Most modern art annoys me though.

Sometimes when I manage to design a beautiful space or when a room becomes more than just its function…that’s art to me.”

START: So if you’re an interior decorator, or a landscaper, congratulations. You’re an artist.

The computer technician

Herbert Byamukama, Computer technician: “Art is anything that makes one feel. To each his own. I do not appreciate certain things like heaps of junk as art but if it moves someone else, then I concede it is art to them. “

START: You say art is what makes one feel? Is “pain” art to you then?

“I know people who treat pain as art. Some love to give it and others to receive it. So it may be repulsive to you and I but to them it’s still art. Art is not universal, it’s very subjective.”

START: Now this is a visionary artist!

The radio presenter

Nina Kironde, Radio Presenter: (After a long, long pause): “I don’t know. I’ve never had to say…I think anything that communicates a message, whether it’s through language or pictures or” (pause) “I guess music.

When I think of art, I think of music, I think of dance, pictures…I think of fashion I guess. Anything heartfelt.”

START: Seeing as you work in a radio station, that makes sense!

From the Sculpture Exhibition at Fasfas Art Cafe, Kampala, January 2013. This is art, right?

The writer

Ernest Bazanye, writer: “There is no definition of Art. Defining Art is like describing God. You will always get it wrong. Your quest is in vain. Turn back. Save yourself.”

START: Erm…for real?

“No, I’m kidding! On a serious note, I think art is like a natural by-product of life, a way of life in a society. Because art is social.

Even though it is created in solitude, its value is determined by an audience — a way of life in a society expresses its identity.

So though it is through pop songs, stories, classical music, paintings, dance, esoteric and obscure poems that only a few people “click”, or a ragga that masses of a generation instantly connect with, if it says something fundamental about a people, it is their art.

Art says what IS, not what should be, or what someone imagines it is supposed to be. So morally prescriptive plays and songs and books don’t count as art to me. Things which idealize and fantasize are not art unless they do so to express the society’s true fantasies.

Think of it this way, during the Clinton years when the USA was financially well off and there was no credit crunch, the rap songs began to be about bling bling. Movies were optimistic and books were about upper class problems. Rock was about suburban angst. Basically, you could see from all of this that this is a wealthy, secure country.

You know how they say ‘from the something of the heart the mouth speaks’, (‘out of the overflow of the mouth, the heart speaks’ we think he meant) or how your actions reveal who you really are?

Well, art is the actions of a society. When you are a society that is all about getting money and not caring about each other, then this will be seen in what your artists create. Gangsta rap and Jay-Z bragging about how he also got rich by selling cocaine.“

START: Well, thank you very much…

“Hold on…I was going to give other examples. Like how during the credit crunch they made ‘Dark Knight Rises’. And how during the Museveni boom, we began having musicians sing about “kuchakala” all the time. And then how in the last few years we have heard the trend change and now they sing about “tuli bakoowu” etc.

Individual works of art contribute to a general utterance which becomes the statement about that society. And I think this is beyond the understanding of the artist. Artists tend to just create because they cannot help themselves. It is an impulse they get. Unlike craftsmen who work on design, artists work on inspiration — which even they don’t understand.”

From the Sculpture Exhibition at Fasfas Art Cafe, Kampala, January 2013. This is art, right?


After all these varied responses, I came to my own conclusion of what Art is. I believe Art is relative to everybody. It cannot be boxed in or even described. Art is a journey that takes different individuals down different paths.

So, what is Art to you?

Lindsey Kukunda is a freelance arts journalist.

All portrait photos by courtesy of the subjects being interviewed.

2 thoughts on “The many faces of ART

  1. Hi there i am kavin, its my first time to commenting anyplace,
    when i read this piece of writing i thought i could also make comment due
    to this sensible post.

  2. Man, is one of the creatures who knows that he exists. He has the ability to think and the capacity to utilize the 5 senses(eyes, mouth, tongue, skin, ears) to create from nature. Therefore if Man is the creator then Art is the creation.hmm……….Art is the creation of Man.

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