Revisiting the Value of the Arts in Uganda at UCU

A student at work on a sculpture

By Gloria Kiconco

On Monday, 11th May 2015, a painting by artist Pablo Picasso was auctioned for a record amount of money, $179m. In an article about the sale on the The Guardian site it was explained that one reason for the high value of one piece of art is that it is an asset whose value only goes up over time. The only other asset that increases consistently in value like that is real estate. If the painting is to be resold, it is likely to be for an even higher price.
The outrageous price of Picasso’s painting is nothing new to the world of art because art has been selling at increasingly higher prices over the years. This development is an undisputable indicator of the value of artwork, something that is yet to be fully realized at Uganda Christian University.
On 13th May 2015, the arts department of UCU, under the Faculty of Education, hosted Dr. Anke Coumans, a professor from the Minerva Art Academy, Hanze University of Applied Sciences, Groningen, in the Netherlands.

Dr. Andrea Coumans Professor Minerva University
Dr.  Coumans Professor of Fine Art at Minerva Academy, Netherlands makes  her Presentation at UCU

Coumans, who gave a public lecture on image in context, shared about an intercultural dialogue between five schools, including Minerva Art Academy, the Fine Art Department at UCU, and three other schools in Turkey, China, and Israel.
The dialogue aims to help the different art academies learn from each other and empower each other by exchange and collaboration.
Some of this exchange and collaboration already happened in December, 2014 when BIFA lecturer, Eria Nsubuga, and student Sarah Ijangolet, travelled to Groningen in the Netherlands to participate in a cultural and academic exchange program.
They participated in an art exhibition and symposium inspired by a list of described images written by Hamu Mukasa. These images, the author, Ham Mukasa, wanted to illustrate his book, Simuda Nyuma. This was a project that was based in Mukono and led by Andrea Stultiens, who came from the Minerva Art Academy.
During her lecture, Coumans also shared about some of the research projects that students like Andrea Stultiens were carrying out at the Minerva Academy. One requirement of all the projects was that they had to have a positive impact on reality because, as Coumans explained, “it is not just how can we help them but how can we be clever.”
However, because these projects were in the Dutch context, Coumans encouraged the attendants at the lecture to form groups and brainstorm similar projects that would work in the Ugandan context. The results of the brainstorm session, which were later presented, highlighted the value of art to society.

Social art

Art Students diiscuss during the presentation at UCU
Art students discuss during the Presentation on the Value of Art. Center is Namutosi Martha who presented a research project

Martha Namutosi, BIFA 2, presented a research project addressing the social-political issue of poverty, or more specifically, of children in the slums. The idea was for the student artists to make masks from the children’s faces. They could later display these masks in the style of an exhibition which people would then pay to see. This would give the children income for themselves.
This is work that Coumans describes as “social art or social design or even community art, which is already being done in the U.S. where art schools feel the responsibility to do something for society.” She explains that since there is little help from the government, as compared to Europe, art schools find ways to help their society.
Such a project, if executed, could act as social activism. It would be a way to bring to light the lives and struggles of children who grow up in slums, children who are among the most marginalized in society.
It would also be a way to empower those children by showing them what skills they can use to begin making money, thus positively affecting their reality.
Art has long been used to comment on social and political issues and in many cases it has resulted in a change. UCU’s own Eria Nsubuga, a well-known visual artist, often creates mixed media art pieces, often with newspaper and magazine collage that are a commentary on Ugandan society and on various political issues.
In 2014, he held an exhibition in 2014 called “The King’s Women and Useless Art” which touched on women’s issues in the first theme and in the second, on the debate of ‘useless art’, attacking politicians and business people who refuse to engage art.

Value addition

Sculpting Masks for street Children
A student working on a sculpture. Sculpture is one of the many possible sources of personal expression, income and value addition

The idea to create masks with street children had another aspect, which was for student artists to work with children to beautify their homes in the slums. They could do so by repainting their walls decoratively.
Art adds value to a society. Of course it also adds value on an individual scale, by beautifying the home, office, or general environment, but on a larger scale it can bring value into a society.
Cultures with a heritage in art carry that knowledge with a lot of pride. For example, Italy has such a heritage that goes way back to ancient Rome. It gives the people of Italy pride in their home country. This pride is also reflected in the massive amounts of money they rake in through tourism.
Dr. William Kayamba, the head of the Fine Arts Department, gave a relevant example for Uganda when he spoke at the public lecture. He explained how the Martyr’s Shrine in Namugongo had various statues that were falling apart. Kayamba worked with students from BIFA 1 and 2 to recreate the sculptures. Now, anyone who visits the site knows the new sculptures are products of UCU students.

Employment, economy
Art is quickly overlooked as a source of employment and yet it holds a vast number of opportunities in any field of the arts. The best example might be the recent hype about the film Queen of Katwe, which has just ended filming in Uganda.
It has provided jobs for hundreds of people, many of them Ugandan, and that is a fact you do not need statistics for. The proof is in the credits at the end of a film, each one of those people is paid. This includes many visual artists who were hired to work on set design.
However, Kayamba encouraged the participants at the lecture not to leave their ideas on paper. “Why should your ideas stop just in the classroom? Can we try to put these things in practice? How can you make an impact on society?” asked Kayamba.

Value of art at UCU
The Department of Fine Art at UCU is mostly a department in name, not yet fully-fledged. The Dean of the Faculty of Education, Dr. Medard Rugyendo, also spoke at the public lecture, expressing the desire that the department should grow as well as create a formal partnership with the Minerva Academy, a wish that Coumans echoed.
However, as the department proactively seeks partnerships and other means of growth, it may need further assistance from the University to realize that dream. With Uganda now turning to science and technology hoping it is the future, it may be hard for art to carve out its place.
Still, the Art Department holds a fortune of opportunity for UCU. The public lecture served not only to further the collaboration between the department here and the Minerva Academy, but it revisited the value of art in Uganda.
The writer is a poet and Arts Writer on the Kampala arts scene.
Images are courtesy of the Author