Being an arts writer means one has their eye fairly on the events transpiring in the arts. 2017 was a good year given to the works of art that came out but also the overarching artistic endeavours carried out.
Some of the works I mention fall in bigger endeavours but needed a personal mention.
Art is important in any society and perhaps it is ironic that in Uganda art is appreciated more by those not in the middle class than those in it given that it takes quite some more resource. It is perhaps strange for me but also symptomatic that for example theatre/drama thrives well in the not-so-middle class than it does in the middle class.
However, moving on from the economics, these are the events and productions that I feel marked 2017 successful in Uganda especially on the urban/middle class plain.
- Strings: Angella Emurwon’s hilarious but sagacious play was a beauty coming out of Uganda this year and it paid tribute to hard work working in tandem with creativity. I would have loved a bigger audience to see it, the newspaper editors, the radio presenters etc because it presented a very serious issue that could be given some thought. It was in my opinion, the best creative work out of the country this year, and that it was drama, gives me hope that perhaps urban drama is not going to be for a select few in this country whose numbers keep billowing.
- Kingdom of Gravity: “Prophets are unwelcome in their hometowns” That’s the saying or something like it. However, Nick Makoha is one of Uganda’s most creative and word savvy poets, not only that, he like Angella Emurwon are award winning if not at home. His new collection was launched here at home albeit to a small crowd asking questions about how written poetry is received now in the country. It’s not as if Okot’s work became famous because of being spoken word but it’s literary/written value was rich and so is Nick’s. It is a book every poetry lover ought to have and read.
- Flame and Song: Nostalgia in a difficult time sometimes either helps one cope or makes one distraught. However, Namutebi Kabali-Kaggwa’s well received book, republished of course and introduced to a Ugandan readership, was one that reached out not just to the youthful but the older. She managed to connect different worlds in her telling of Uganda’s history, something which many people could identify with. Reading it of course made me weep at some points and made me wonder, shall we ever be better?
- The Salooni: Perhaps not a 2017 production but something that has persisted for two years and won acclaim at home and abroad. Looking at the pictures/photographs by Darlyne Komukama of the stories that hair tells, or the identities that hair communicates, you have to applaud the creativity. A season of natural hair among the urbanites, Salooni helped show how artful and hip hair could be and how it could be owned. The project that also included styling by Gloria Wavamuno was a testament that art can be and is a very personal thing and that personal thing is political and cultural and economic and more.
- Ekifananyi kya Kabaka/Simuda Nyuma: History in Progress has been doing its little photobooks re-examining and presenting anew old histories to a Ugandan audience. Andrea Stultiens and Rumanzi Canon’s work do open our eyes to the forgotten or the unknown about our history and dare us grapple with it. My favourite works were the books -4 and 8, the former based on Ham Mukasa’s recollections and the latter based on an image of Kabaka Muteesa that isn’t widely known. For book 8, it is more than the book, because over 23 Ugandan artists came to reinterpret for themselves what this piece of history meant, and this happened in different art forms – words, paint, drawings, digital drawings, etc. It was the exhibition in April that for me was crucial. Accessible to not just the urban but the school goer, the curious, it questioned things to do with identities.
- Ghost Story: Growing up, “Betrayal in the City” was a favourite mostly because of the humour – because at the time the story seemed a bit far-fetched to a Ugandan context. Watching Lloyd Lutara’s version of it in Ghost Story was a little more chilling. The urban/middle class avoids the question of politics- of where we are – we are we going but Lutara did not shy away from this conflict. His work was an inner struggle of how to deal with the discontentment.
- The Honking: Mulumba Ivan Matthias dares to take on a new kind of storytelling, one outside the popular African themes and comes down closer to human themes. A story that starts with a murder, it takes one on a journey to very present Ugandan places and circumstances. It is a fresh way of storytelling in Uganda.
- Deserted: Bob Kisiki’s passion for storytelling and teaching is unmissable. His new book, published by his own publishing house in a new way takes on social themes we like to avoid because of what it means in public. However it is also, perhaps because of his nature as a teacher or a counsellor, a tale that teaches. Seeing more and more such books come out of Uganda is a triumph for the storyteller.
- Tokuba Totta: Whereas this was very personal, I think it deserves a mention because first of all, it took on a tragedy in a middle class location and made it the responsibility of not just those uptown but downtown – of the authorities, of the ordinary citizen. Performed at Bayimba where the family of Rev Kalibwani on whose death the performance was based were present, it pointed a very accusing finger at our selfishness. Not just selfishness but the incompetence of those we hope to protect and serve us, and the economic bigwigs that quickly push dirt under the carpet to maintain profit. It was daring poetry from Kitara Nation Poets.
- Not Another Woman: The brain child of Deborah Asiimwe Kawe, this was similar to Tokuba Totta as it again pointed fingers at society and its silence on a serious issue- the serial murder of women in Entebbe. Poetic, dramatic, with song too, it brought several women together to speak up on an injustice not only being performed by the state but the nation too because of the silence.
- Wondering and Wandering of Hearts: Anthologies are not as diverse as this one. FEMRITE made a call to Ugandan writers and they responded. It is wonderful seeing a collection of many minds come into one production to at least give a fair representation of the poetic and storytelling minds of a country.
- Dear Philomena: This “strange” book by Mugabi Byenkya broke ground. It made use of very modern symbols and aspects and told a story about a very real and problematic issue in the whole world and Uganda – mental distress. Mugabi employs things like tweets, emojis, Youtube playlists and speaks a very personal story. The book and the poet are enjoying a world tour but one cannot miss the personal struggle the author goes through to make his story and art public.
- 40 Days Over 40 Smiles Publications: Esther Kalenzi is the kind of dreamer Martin Luther King Junior saw. From having social outreach programs, to literacy and more, it made sense there be stories for Ugandan kids by Ugandan authors and this year, 4 publications came out authored by different Ugandan writers. The purpose very similar to Salooni that our identities can be authored by us.
- Soo Many Stories’ Tot Tales: Another endeavour that reaches out to the literacy of Ugandan children by also Ugandanising the content. This project did not start this year but has grown more this year with authors, poets and performers getting more involved as well as parents that believe reading is a worthwhile fun activity for kids on a Saturday morning. Hope for the future?
- The Little Ebook Wave: Not bragging here but my teaser poetry collection “Pumpkin Soup” was one of three books I noticed that came out on digitally – Mwase Maria’s “Something Good Can Work”, and Ernest Dennis Ssesanga’s “Ivory Footprints: Poem Collection Volume I” and his has a paperback edition as well. This brings into discussion of whether Ugandan middle class will buy these books as they buy and spend data on other kinds of art like Snapchat, Instagram, Youtube. These books cost between UGX 6000 and UGX 15000. Maybe it’s an issue of payment but we know the Turn the Page Africa’s and Magungas of this world are available.
- The Festivals and Fellowships: Without these, Ugandan art will die in the middle class and we shall be a generation of Sanyu Television watchers, quite aware of current American art but unaware of our own. So, 32 Degrees East, Writivism, Uganda Press Photo Awards Exhibition, Kampala International Theatre Festival, Bayimba Festival can all be commended for keeping arts alive at least in the middle class. For bringing to our attention our photographers, our writers, our performers, giving them a platform and nurturing them.
- SuccessSpark Brand: Teaching proper communication or writing perhaps is something thought little of here as writing is relegated to being a good gift. Jackee Batanda thinks writing well is important and that it has value. Her writing programs not only cater to professional writing but creative writing as well and this year one of her students went on to publish a hit among the corporate world – “Corporates at a Crossroads” by Joan Mugenzi. The company carried out trainings not just in Uganda, but in Tanzania and Kenya passing on lessons to the next generation of serious writer.
- Uganda Reproduction Rights Organisation: Copyrights in the arts determine the value we give our work. Charles Batambuze of URRO understands this. Sadly in Uganda, artists’ works except of course the painters, those who use their hands, the Eria Sane Nsubuga’s, the Ian Mwesiga’s etc, work can be copied and sold with a press of a copy button. URRO’s work is in trying to make sure this does not happen and that the writer gets what they have worked for. Mulumba Ivan Matthias’s book is one of those already with the golden seal of URRO and if you have one that doesn’t have it – you have in a way robbed the author.
- DigiArtFest: Coming at the end of the year, this was a brave move by the digital artists. Speaking to Laurean Pyler one of the organisers, it was a move of faith and their faith was paid back by the numbers that attended especially the screening of “A Kalabanda Ate My Homework” by Creatures Studio which featured the voices of Martha “Kay” Kagimba, Patrick “Salvado” Idringi, Omara Daniel, and Faith Kisa.
- AkaDope: Some say passion alone isn’t enough, and perhaps they are right however passion is a great start. AkaDope, a project of Kemiyondo Coutinho started small but now has a regular fanbase which comes out to support acts that are starting out. Part of their strength is the social media influence they have but also when you look at the stars growing bigger with it – like Afrie, or the events its band is performing at now like Blankets and Wine, you gotta say, it’s something!
There’s definitely a lot more I did not mention here but hoping 2018 comes with more appreciation and support of the arts from the middle class and oh, yes, we need to go catch some Bakayimbira and Ebonies as well as well reading some literature in our own languages…I hear good things coming from people like Lule Raymond.