#Talkonit, A Censored Art Experiment About Freedom Of Expression

The #Talkonit team on a mission in Katwe

What happens when 5 artists are given a platform to work on a social topic that aims to create and diversify debate in society? As a member of this first Artistic Expression Lab, visual artist Matt Kayem reflects on the topic of Freedom of Expression and the social art experiment they initiated. 

by Matt Kayem

In a country where the political opposition’s voice is always suppressed, those opposing President Museveni’s regime frequently arrested, tortured and imprisoned, you would automatically think that there is no freedom of speech or expression in Uganda.

I mean, this has been very evident when Bobi Wine, a musician-cum-politician was charged with treason last August, arrested and tortured and kept away from the public for a few days. And with the Special Forces Command invasion of the parliament a few months before in April when the legislators were discussing the constitutional amendment bill 2017.
These are just a few recent examples that have questioned the state of affairs in the country as regards the freedom to speak. Nevertheless, when you engage this conversation with people from neighbouring countries like D.R.C or Rwanda, they will tell you that Uganda is a free country comparing it with the affairs in their own places. And this is why some of them are keen to migrate to Uganda.
So one may ask themselves, how much freedom should be accorded to a citizen and how much are they entitled to?

Bobi Wine has been at the forefront of fighting for human rights in Uganda. Image source:dw.com

According to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, freedom of expression is the right of every individual to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers. Article 19 of the UDHR states that “everyone shall have the right to hold opinions without interference” and “everyone shall have the right to freedom of expression; this right shall include freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds, regardless of frontiers, either orally, in writing or in print, in the form of art, or through any other media of his choice”.

The version of Article 19 in the ICCPR later amends this by stating that the exercise of these rights carries “special duties and responsibilities” and may “therefore be subject to certain restrictions” when necessary “[f]or respect of the rights or reputation of others” or “[f]or the protection of national security or of public order (order public), or of public health or morals”.

Freedom of speech and expression, therefore, may not be recognized as being absolute, and common limitations or boundaries to freedom of speech relate to libel, slander, obscenity, pornography, sedition, incitement, fighting words, classified information, copyright violation, trade secrets, food labeling, non-disclosure agreements, the right to privacy, the right to be forgotten, public security, and perjury. Justifications for such include the harm principle, proposed by John Stuart Mill in On Liberty, which suggests that: “the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others”. (i)

Dr.Stella Nyanzi was arrested in November 2018 after critically attacking President Museveni with a poem she posted on Facebook. Nyanzi’s poetry and prose uses sexual metaphors and “obscenity” to critique on social issues in Uganda like gender inequality, homophobia and others. Image source: alleastafrica.com

The Ugandan constitution provides in Article 29(1)(a) that; “Every person shall have the right to freedom of speech and expression which include freedom of the press and other media”. Article 41 (1) states that; “Every citizen has a right of access to information in the possession of the State or any other organ or agency of the State except where the release of the information is likely to prejudice the security or sovereignty of the State or interfere with the right to privacy of any other person”. Article 20(1) of the same constitution acknowledges that; “Fundamental rights and freedoms of the individual are inherent and not granted by the State”. In addition, Article 20(2) enjoins all organs and agencies of Government and all persons to respect, uphold and promote the rights and freedoms of the individuals and groups enshrined in the constitution. (ii)

With all this information, it becomes apparent that freedom of expression has been violated in Uganda on very many fronts.

Through Design Hub Kampala, with a grant from HIVOS / Resources Of Open Mind a project was established that gives an opportunity to creative professionals to work on a social topic that would stimulate and diversify debate in society. Five creatives were selected through an open call to investigate and explore the theme, ‘Freedom of Expression’. The creatives were myself, Matt Kayem, contemporary artist and writer, Rehema Nanfuka, an actor and film director, Suzan Kerunen, a singer songwriter, Daphine Arinda, a poet and former lawyer and David Ogutu, a radio host.
The project being three months, we set off in March. We met every Wednesday and for the first three weeks discussed in depth about the theme. Some of the interferences of freedom of expression we agreed on where the state, cultural institutions and religious organisations.

At one point, I posed the question;, “If our traditional culture stands in the way of freedom of expression, is it important for us to ditch our cultural beliefs and practices and embrace freedom of expression?”. I would maybe say es to that question, since we have already adopted a foreign system so we better take it on fully.

Team members making their statement about what Freedom of Expression means to them (image DHK)

And most essential, we asked ourselves if freedom of expression is important for a given society. We never really put a concrete answer to this but what we discovered is that freedom of expression is limited around our society. We discovered that as compared to other societies, ours is more conservative, people are scared to speak out or act on certain issues for fear of persecution and judgment. A person cannot kiss their partner on the streets of Kampala just as someone won’t protest in front of parliament today without having to take in tear gas.

So we were tasked to produce artwork/s at the end of the project. We tasked ourselves to solve what we thought was the problem – limited freedom of expression. Interestingly, and as expected, each of us had different opinions to bring to the table owing to our diverse career backgrounds. Arinda was interested in Dadaism (a form of artistic anarchy born out of disgust for the social, political and cultural values of the time ) and unconventionality and wanted to work on a production which would take the form of a short drama or musical. Rehema first proposed the idea of a “social experiment” and we ended up looking at some YouTube videos that showed people expressing themselves about difficult topics (e.g What’s the most painful thing you’ve been told? (Strangers Answer), and I thought of Marina Abromovich’s work. She also proposed the ‘Truth Booth’ where different people would walk in and speak truth to power. Suzan was interested in depression and for victims coming out and talking about it. Ogutu was interested in participatory art, something that would involve the community. I was open to doing anything as long as it was impactful. I even told the team that it would be a successful project if we got arrested!
At the beginning of the second month, we zeroed in on the truth booth idea. We thought of an enclosure where participants would enter and talk about their most confidential issues or where they could be asked a bunch of uncomfortable questions that one doesn’t come across on a daily. Questions like, “If you were to tell President Museveni one thing, what would be it?” or “Would you walk the streets of Kampala naked to protest injustice?”.

At this point, our goal was to design something that would offer a platform for those around us to express themselves freely. At the end, something that would let us in on the most pressing issues in our society.

After a lot of exchanges, the truth booth matured into something much better, a social experiment we called Talk On It. The name of the project was directly translated from the Luganda phrase, “kyogere ko” to English which loosely means to talk about an issue. The social experiment required us to install boards and writing tools in public toilets around the city where people would express themselves by writing on the boards whatever they like or feel. We thought and related this idea to the notorious culture of toilet writing in Uganda schools mostly at primary level. Each of the participants had fond memories of that naughty toilet graffiti during their school days. We also felt that the toilet is one of the most private areas where one would express themselves without being seen or interrupted. We also thought about adhering to the theme of the project meaning that we were not supposed to offer a direction or guidance to those who will participate in the experiment. We just designed posters and stickers written on, ‘Write on me freely’ to be hang in the toilets.

Boards in the toilets at Design Hub Kampala (image DHK)

Our locations would include Design Hub Kampala, Factory on 7th street, National Theatre,, Katwe Market and a community centre there. We had wanted to install the experiment in a church and at the parliament but failed to get permission at these places. Mid April saw us installing the boards in our first two locations at Design Hub and the National Theatre. The experiment kicked off and toilet users were writing on the boards, expressing themselves about all kinds of topics from obscenity to politics.. We also discovered that the plywood we were using wasn’t very easy to manage, so we substituted it with mounting board which was lighter and could stick well on the walls and doors of toilets. We installed the experiment at Factory bar in Industrial Area where we had views mostly on sexuality and LGBTQ issues, probably owing to the fact that the bar is frequented by white foreigners who are more open about this.

The team in Katwe (Image DHK)

We took the boards to a community centre in Katwe during the first week of May. With the help of a community worker at the centre, we got permission from the Katwe market vice-chairman to install boards in their toilets. This was a Saturday. Two days after the installation, on a Tuesday, we got notified in our WhatsApp group that the police had raided the toilets at Katwe market and taken our boards. With them, they had also arrested the community worker. The project coordinator from Design Hub, Jantien, went with our team member Rehema to Kibuyepolice post and tried to negotiate for the release of the community worker who they had labelled as an accomplice in the “crime”. Jantien later had to call upon Design Hub’s lawyer Isaac Ssali Mugerwa, after she was also put under arrest. After a whole day with the police, both were released, but the boards were taken by the authorities and we had to make a promise to halt any further Talk On It activities.

Among the police’s concerns was that we were inciting political violence because the boards had strong political messages, one was even insulting the president! They proposed that we would have used a suggestion box where participants don’t have to see each other’s views. But that would remove a certain level of openness and freedom because some people are inspired to express after seeing other’s views. So our experiment had to be done in the privacy of the toilet, for it to be more exciting and impactful. Besides, we wanted to exhibit the boards at the end of the project. After the police intimidation, we put a standstill on the project and met afterwards to discuss it’s future. We were joined by the Design Hub company lawyer and Arinda brought a human rights lawyer to guide us on a way forward. They mostly filled us in on the judicial part of this and the risks we were incurring carrying out the project. Design Hub’s lawyer though as expected was behind his company and told them not to risk continuing with the project. He probably doesn’t understand the benefits to come if such a project was more impactful and how it’s power to change the state of our nation. He was probably worried about the company getting closed down and him losing his source of income. The human rights lawyer however understood the importance of such a project and advised us to continue with it and partner up with an N.G.O licensed to carry out this kind of work. The onus is on us as the artists and if we are willing to sleep on that cold floor.

Panel discussion during the Creative Talks at Design Hub Kampala (image KQ)

We agreed to end the project with a small presentation and exhibition at Creative Talk Africa, a discussion platform for creatives organized by KQ HUB’s Ian Wabwire . So on 14th June, Creative Talk Africa hosted us as panelists and we discussed about our project as it’s initiators. Arinda presented two poems during the event, one erotic one titled ‘Loose’ and another one, ‘Beautifully Chaotic’. Suzan performed a song at the event. David mediated the talk. I created an installation I called Don’t Talk on it. It was inspired by the events that occurred during the project and the toilet bowls acted as mouths that were full of things to say but one of them was taped signifying the gagging that was subjected to us during the project by those in power. The same gagging that higher authorities in our country subject to the masses.

Installation, Don’t Talk On It by Matt Kayem (2019). Image courtesy of Ombongi James.

From this project, we learnt that certain laws have been tailored or changed to suit the benefits of those in power. For example, the Police Act that they used to stop our experiment. The Police Act seemed to be a set of laws that was designed and works outside the constitution. The Police Act is clearly designed to keep the masses from speaking up about oppression from the state.

Were we in the wrong for designing a space where Ugandans can freely air out their different views? We learnt that Ugandans are not free to express themselves as per the stipulations of their constitution and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It’s a pity to know that we are dying with our grievances with no spaces and liberty to air them out. This creates a depressed society in a long run, and a less productive one. (iii)

(i) https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Freedom_of_speech
(ii) http://uhrc.ug/speech-chairperson-uganda-human-rights-commission-launch-201718-global-report-%E2%80%98world-trends-freedom
(iii) https://www.indexoncensorship.org/2016/04/free-speech-important/

Matt Kayem
Contemporary Artist, writer

Matt Kayem is a contemporary artist, writer and art critic working and living in Kampala, Uganda. He was apprentice in KAB18 as well as a participant in the Critical Art Writing workshop that was part of the KAB18 educational programme supported by the East Africa Arts Programme of the British Council.