Swings and Roundabouts in Masaka

By: Dominic Muwanguzi

The collaboration of Ugandan artist Julius Katende and British artist Rebecca Davies on public art in Masaka, showed how important it is to engage the city council, artists and public in art.

The duo had a call from 32? East to “work in dialogue”. This involved the artists pushing boundaries of their art in the community and experimenting with a diversity of media and techniques.

Public art is a new phenomenon to the south –eastern town of Masaka. Known for being historically endowed with a rich agricultural heritage, the locals expressed their interest in the project through active participation. This involvement, however, created challenges for the artists who independently wanted to cater for the needs of the community.

Katende had an idea to make kinetic sound sculptures to boost the productivity of the local community through the aspect of music sound. “The installations use the so-fa music notes concept to inspire increased output among the public,” he says.

From a theoretical perspective, the idea is interesting. It does however isolate art from the public’s primary needs of basic utilities.  In this regard, the artist misses the opportunity of engaging with the community and solving their problems through his art.

Contrary to Katende’s approach, Davies took the initiative to ask the community what they wanted to see in the public space. Her interaction with the community evoked a variety of interesting answers. The boda-boda motorists said they craved a sculpture that informed them about AIDS. An old man quipped that it would be a good idea to have a three dimensional map of Masaka at one of the roundabouts.

Conversely, the Mayor, Kayemba Afaayo and his Town clerk each had conflicting opinions on what should be put in public space. The Mayor suggested that the town should be decorated with beautiful gardens and parks. In opposition, the Town Clerk advocated for a military tank monument to be built at one of the roundabouts to remind the people of the liberation war.

Power Struggles in Local Politics

The disconnect between the Mayor and Town Clerk symbolizes a tension in local politics. Incidentally, this is not a new occurrence in public art.

In Durban, South Africa, Andries Botha’s elephant sculptures in the central business district were dismantled by the local city council for political reasons. Ironically, they had been commissioned by the city council who later thought that they resembled the logo of one opposition political party.

Back in Masaka, the Town Clerk ordered that the funded project of kinetic sound sculptures by the Mayor be stopped and the foundations razed. He did not wish anybody to compromise his contract of constructing an 3 billion UGX (1.5 million USD) roads in the municipality.

“He confronted me and asked why I wanted to take over his job.  He though that once we construct these sculptures, he would lose his road contract and job,” reveals Katende.

The question is why are those in power intimidated by public art?

The answer to this question is, public art can be used as a tool to question the political status quo; unlike other mediums including mass media that are sometimes saturated with political patronage.  The artist’s involvement with the community gives them legitimacy to create art that probes such issues like corruption and nepotism which impede service delivery. Here, government will respond by suppressing the artist through dismantling the artwork.

If public art can rouse such intense reactions from government, then it should be activated to triumph over social or political limitations.

In Masaka, the public outrightly opposed the Town Clerk’s idea to create a military tank monument. The artists confronted the Town Clerk and demanded an explanation to his actions. His excuse was that they had not followed the right procedure while working on their project.

Public Art as an Investment and Not a Funding Project

How would the duo have followed the right procedures without a comprehensive legislative policy in place?  The absence of a public art policy has often been interpreted by some art critics as a deliberate attempt by government through its city planning institutions to avoid funding of any public art project.

Even in South Africa — with highly developed social and economic systems —  art funding is still regarded as a problem. The Durban City Council thought so because it didn’t offer any profits in return. Do they not see that funding art can be part of other important aspects of society like education, employment and healthcare?

This is not to say that public art funding is a waste. Art is important for purpose of providing the community with a sense of belonging, promoting civic identity, enhancing social change and unity. “Art gives us an opportunity to express ideas, emotions and beliefs that we have no other way of articulating or understanding,” intimates South African artist, Beezy Bailey.

To achieve such objectives and with minimal funds,  the city council can work with the local community and artists by allocating them space within the city, for example, an old building  or street — there are so many of these in Masaka town. These spaces can be refurbished through creating  functional installations or murals.  Further to this, inspired works could go so far as to solve problems of poor sanitation, congestion, air pollution from factories and recreation centers.

This is the direction the artists and city municipality should have taken and not wasted time in bickering and developing complex ideas like the kinetic sound sculptures and military tank monument which are hard to implement.  These obviously stand out as funding projects and not simple interactive concepts like Davies’ idea of the Gomesi. The traditional garment, with printed illustrations of images the artist drew in Masaka did not only bring the community together, but stirred up excitement and collaboration.

This was apparently the biggest success that the collaboration registered. not only as a tangible output, but as a descriptive medium that unified everyone.  Short of such accomplishment, the breakdown within this project highlighted how a lack public policy coupled with the common placed obsession of creating funding projects by many local artists can hinder absolute achievement for public art.

Artist in Residence: Rebecca Davies from 32º East | Ugandan Arts Trust on Vimeo.


Read more on Rebecca Davies blog: http://rolexandplantain.tumblr.com/

This article was produced through the 32º East and Start Journal Writer in Residence Program.