Music to the ears

Written by Henry Mzili Mujunga

Bwe baba babulilira owa boobwe, ng’owomunaku amatu okunkumula – Luganda proverb

Henry Mzili Mujunga at the Kampala Art Biennale 2014
Henry Mzili Mujunga at the Kampala Art Biennale 2014

Recently I was listening to this ballad by Fela Anikulapo Kuti [1] where he asserted that it is in the Western cultural tradition to carry sh*t. That Africans were taught by European man to carry sh*t. Dem go cause confusion and corruption’. How? Dem get one style dem use, dem go pick up one African man with low mentality and give him 1 million Naira bread to become one useless chief.

First, came the bible and there was no African resistance. Then politics supported by the gun, again no resistance. Now Museveni [2] is a born again Christian and still NO resistance! I will not blame anyone or anything but my own gullibility as an African, I am always hoodwinked by my own helplessness and need for salvation. Salvation from the fear of poverty, disease, hunger, joblessness and self.  While the ‘whiteman’ combats his environmental challenges the best way he knows – by subjugating others in selfish material interest – I am busy mutating in mimicry to adapt and survive. Where is my original thought? Do I even think? If I do so, I bet my black behind, it is not for myself but for my employer, my pastor, my government and ultimately my mind’s colonizer.  As an artist, do I have a vision of achievable goals and a work plan to achieve them? Do I have the foresight to think for my fellow artists to conjure images of a better creative environment? One that would benefit my children and their children’s children? Or am I duped by the benevolence of foreign patronage to teach me what is contemporary in a field I am engaged in twenty four seven, three hundred and sixty five days a year?

What makes me think that he (foreign patron) is working for my benefit?

I think the great Nigerian musical prophet Fela Kuti got it wrong. It is in my African cultural tradition to carry sh*t, other people’s sh*t. Too much African socialism if you ask me. Perhaps a man working selfishly to live his personal dream is a better one than a clueless stooge disguised as a chief; working for the purported good of his people. After all, his ideas and achievements would become public property upon his demise. Case in point is all those great thinkers of Western civilization who often worked in isolation and social contempt: Socrates, Plato, Da Vinci, Newton, Einstein…the list is endless. Even Christ preferred the company of twelve rundown vagabonds, yet as a god he would have beguiled the most powerful Romans of his time.

When a cultural NGO like 32º East[3] sets out to promote Ugandan contemporary art to international audiences by providing an environment for foreign artists to work with young Ugandan artists such as Julius Katende (Kinetic sculptor), who looks into the benefits accruing from this? When only 150 US dollars is offered to him to create a concept and execute the art work while almost 4000 US dollars is spent on Rebecca Davies, the collaborating British artist’s transport and amenities, who do we hold accountable? When the same institution misrepresents an idea by Ronald Ronex Ahimbisibwe (renowned Ugandan sculptor and painter) to create a public art project, The Boda-boda project, within KLA ART 014[4] that ultimately benefits Tugende, a foreign owned Motorcycle Transport NGO, who intervenes? By the way, what is a foreign investor doing in the small man’s transport sector? Before this fact came to light, we in the visual arts fraternity were curious as to why the 20 motorcycle owners were paid over US $ 450 each and yet the twenty participating Ugandan artists, who owned the concepts in the first place, got a paltry US $ 152 each.

There are many ‘an African man with low mentality’ used to derail and confuse other innocent ones in this cultural neo-colonialism. All these sponsored African curators who benefit from this neo-colonial outpost are very critical of the other Africans who are trying to achieve their emancipation dreams. They are the ones you will find engaging in conversations criticizing viable art projects like the Kampala Art Biennale[5] simply because it is run directly by Ugandan artists. Then you will also come across seemingly visionary establishments like the Uganda Visual Artists and Designers’ Association (UVADA), Weaver Bird Arts foundation and Bayimba Foundation forming blind alliances with people whose main purpose is to “enjoy doing projects” to quote Rocca Gutteridge, 32º East cofounding director. One wonders how much would have been gained if Ugandan artists Taga Nuwagaba (wildlife painter) and Fred Mutebi (printmaker) had rejected their Fulbright Scholarships and used that time to strengthen their own ideas; Fred, his Masaka based LET ART TALK and Taga, his Totems of Uganda anthology. What if installation artist Bruno Ruganzu decided to stop gallivanting about with TED and concentrated on his ECOART dream.

For years, Africa’s best brains were siphoned off to distant cold lands in promise of a more appreciative and supportive environment only to end up eating burgers and having intercourse with exotic whores. Now that the credit crunch has  been munching holes into neo-colonial cultural institutions like British council, Goethe and Alliance Francaise, as well as created employment crises in most European capitals, it has become viable to explore the relatively convenient waters of NGOism. At first, it was the poor rural dwellers who benefited from the great white help, usually in the guise of a young woman working with women groups to weave better baskets, roll up some high quality paper beads (without acknowledging the genius of Sanaa Gateja, its pioneer) suitable for the Western market or a bunch of young African choristers branded and marketed globally in the name of Christ. Now it is less subtle. People from the developed world are running bars, craft boutiques and city travel companies!  There are many Cultural Centers run by a British, German or Dutch woman in an effort to organize and promote the poor African devils. I wonder who will intervene in the modern cradle robbery business of orphanages and babies’ homes. It is a modern-day slave-trade, this adoption business, if you cared to ask me. Governments in Africa are preaching the Western gospel of birth control and yet many people in the west are in search of African babies to adopt as their own. If an African family were to have one kid on average then I fear some families would have to give up their only child and do with none. Would there be a Western family willing to give up their only child for adoption then?

If I were ruled by fear, I would not dare mention these things. I would be like a sodomized child in school who feared to report the resident bully to the teacher in fear of becoming ostracized by his peers. The business of peerage has always been difficult for me to comprehend. Why are we so afraid of talking about stuff that directly offends us simply because our friends will take offence?

The colonialists are still playing their brainwashing tunes to the African. Fela, through his music, insisted that Africa has to unit through Africanism. We must, in the worlds of legendary music prophet Bob Marley, emancipate ourselves from mental slavery. Otherwise, we will continue to carry sh*t.

The author is an eclectic artist whose love for art revolves around being a conceptual artist, poet and performer. He is part of the Indigenous Expressionism Art Movement that advocates for the return of Art to its roots, Africa.

Disclaimer: The views presented in this article are not of  Startjournal or its publisher, Kampala Arts Trust. They are views of the author.


[1] Nigerian composer and musician, founder of Afro-beat music.

[2] H.E Yoweri Kaguta Museveni, President of the Republic of Uganda.

[3] 32East| Ugandan Arts Trust, Centre for Contemporary Art in Uganda located in Kampala.

[4] KLA ART 014, code name for Kampala Contemporary Art Festival whose second edition took place in October 2014. The Festival evolved around the theme, Unmapped.

[5] Kampala Art Biennale, An exhibition of Contemporary African Art launched in Kampala, Uganda in 2014. The Biennale is a brainchild of Kampala Arts Trust. It drew over 40 practicing visual artists from the African continent.

3 thoughts on “Music to the ears

  1. viola am touched by your response not because we seem to see eye to eye on most of these issues but because you have blazed a trail for further debate. i want to state categorically clearly that this discourse is pro- industry and is about emamcipation from subjugation and exploitation of any sort.
    what i have picked from your discourse is that we should not underestimate the unspoken power dynamics that the oppressor (for lack of a suitable capitalist word) is employing.
    secondly, you urge us to be bright, enthusiastic and doers in order to build something in line with what we feel.

  2. Start Journal does it usually take six days before you have response to stuff here? I am smiling hard.

    Mzili, like the downpour I hear outside my house right now after the long dry spell, so is your article. That aside, I think we are responsible for so much of the neo-colonialism because we give space and hospitality to many things our very blood boils at.

    Our shortsightedness breeds today’s—survival instincts and our aspirations are no larger than affording tomorrow’s beer. We put on needy fronts and later welcome pretenders of divine help with open arms.

    Help my foot!

    Many Caucasians are on the streets and need help too!

    We dwell on mundane misunderstandings and cannot build meaningful working relationship amongst ourselves. We think that building art centers will turn us into instant millionaires, just like these NGOs who get enviable dollars from Caucasian funders abroad.

    We have failed to organize ourselves professionally and yet still want to be taken seriously as competent artists. Tell me, how many galleries in Uganda are interested in the artists and their careers beyond offering to sell their art works? Oba how many many artists think that that is important! With such a small art scene like ours in Uganda, when shall we ever look ahead to how we can grow it and profit from it, just like many NGOs I know of. They are meant to be non-profits but their founders owe a lot to this NGO money for their fat, worm—infested tummies, oversized cars and grotesque mansions.

    Who taught us(and how dare we learn) to wait for our neighbors from far-away lands to come and heal our chronic sickness of poverty? They leave their own sicknesses behind only to come looking for healing in our land! And we readily employ them as doctors to heal our all disease! I feel sick just thinking of this.

    Sam Hopkins presented an installation at Dak’Art 2014 “Logos of Non Profit Organisations working in Kenya (some of which are imaginary)” Hopkins raised legitimate questions about the role of NGOs and the works they purportedly claim to do in Kenya. He scrutinized the motivations behind so-called charity organizations and the unspoken power dynamics that characterize their work.

    Reading his writings on the subject, I felt that the questions he raised were more valid for us Ugandans. Honestly for more than 40 years of NGOism, we would be seeing less of the Ugandan problems they say they are working to solve, and by extension, less of the charities themselves. But one has to ask again, if they work to achieve their goals in the smallest time possible, will they have jobs the next year? If there were no Ugandan artists in Uganda, what networks would have formed the justification for 32o East today? Why do we always give room to foreigners to impose their perceived “superiority” on us when we very well know the immensity of our own contributions to their very existence and yet at the end of the day, they benefit off us more than we do off them.

    We have dreams as Ugandans but we have sat back on our laurels and not turned them into reality. We need to pull our very best together, position ourselves for all possible resources (to build something in response to what we feel does not match up to the longevity of art projects in our countries). We are bright, enthusiastic and we are doers. We do not need thousands of pounds or Euros to start because we do have some shillings that can get us started.

    Actually I wonder how much development there would be if NGOs put ALL the money they receive in foreign currencies to equitable use. Brotherhood benefited our ancestors, before some ideologies of divide and rule were visited upon us. We knew what heals, how to amicably solve our conflicts and constructively critic our selves. How about we return to our roots and borrow a leaf or two from back then.

    Some artists have land, some have building materials, some building skills, some financial, intellectual, physical, relational or spiritual capital. We are not poor as we are consciously and subconsciously made to think. As long as we always spread our hands to the West for help, we should be ready to take their shit and wipe their asses too! As for me I know that there is more than enough to go around. All we need is around us.

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