Is it good art that sells the most? What about madness? Is it an ingredient of great art? How about art donors? These ideas all made up the WAZO Talking Arts edition of July, led by a paper on the subject of Immoral Courage by Henry Mzili Mujunga.
The end result of the Wazo Talking Arts meetings, in which a chosen speaker reads a paper on the arts, followed by a response from an authority on the subject, will be a book publication that captures the spirit of Ugandan art in the new millennium.
Wazo is a word from Swahili that means an idea, and is associated with the sharing of ideas. As in the Wazo that took place in the first week of July, art practitioners and curators of culture are invited to attend.
The original wazo or idea, as conceived by David Kaiza was “Moral Courage of Art”. However, when Henry Mzili Mjunga, the chosen speaker, heard this, he instead fashioned it as “Immoral Courage: The Courage of going a bit crazy in the Arts”. His tweak emphasised his stance on subjects such as education, history and mysticism even. Doreen Baingana, author of Tropical Fish, was the discussant.
As you can already tell, this was simply a sharing of ideas. It was not a reading of the scholarly paper on which direction Ugandan art should take, as the speaker failed at even verifying anecdotal evidence with background information. When one discussant reproached Mzili for this, he defended his paper, saying instead that he was not interested in academic writing.
Credit is due, however, in especially how the speaker weaved a narrative of escaping the norm of academic art. He instead thrived on the individual making his own path, and choosing “to go mad” if that is what made him more active as an artist.
In this same way, the conversation was reflected at art donors, and how perhaps they have shaped the very insubstantial market of art, which places limits on certain kinds of art, and therefore produces copycats of artists.
The speaker made an allusion to the recent success of Edison Mugalu, who was not in attendance, saying simply that he is not the best painter in town just for the number of paintings sold, challenging the commercial model of art curators that tend to want more of the same thing or style.
Tukei, a well-travelled artist, mentioned that, “If you’re selling paintings, then there’s something wrong.” It seemed in perfect symmetry with Mzili’s view. The painters were questioning success, as seen through those who buy the art, and especially those who have monopolised the fine arts market.
The same can be said for the promoters that run shows in Nakivubo Stadium where they charge Shs 5,000 entrance fee. A study by Edgar Batte recently mentioned that the budget for such a concert is over Shs 250 million.
Then what was this Wazo about exactly? The Wazo, like the TED talks which boast ideas worth spreading, is a way of catching ideas for keepsake, and the July edition felt more like a flux of ideas thrown into the air, than a feasible, agreeable discussion on a particular subject.
Why was it important then?
Exactly because its motive is simple and effective, by the end of the night, several artists, some whom have been fancied rivals, were laughing over a beer. A network of ideas was being formed.
It was a room full of people in a heated discussion about the determination to be an artist in the midst of war and illness, led by Xenson, who deflected my argument when I spoke about the effect of HIV/AIDS on fine arts. I was saved by David, who mentioned that the reason we were having this discussion was because we cared about the uplifting of both the arts and artists.
Xenson, real name Samson Ssenkaaba, had been described as “mad” by the speaker, and as the perfect example of what artists should strive for, followed by an anecdote that described his first exhibition at Goethe Zentrum Institut in the early 2000s where he made an entire audience, including press and the German ambassador wait for hours staring at blank walls, before he emerged in a taxi yelling out the window “Kikumi Kikumi!” Then he slashed his canvases on the floor before the guests as he lost himself in a storm of spoken word poetry.
Needless to say, the room was struck by what was being said, including Xenson himself, who seemed spurred into reflection. Is this glorifying of madness not ludicrous? Was madness as mental illness understood enough to relay any sort of intention as it was applied especially to the creation of art, and the well-being of artists?
To be continued…
So what came out of it? This is still to be found out. A financial circle or an artists’ fund was suggested at the last Wazo that I attended. For such a practical idea, it has produced scarily impractical dream-like results, in which artists have favored flights of madness and even big bank accounts funded by artists themselves.
Perhaps, the larger undercurrent will be that a manuscript of such serious and passionate debate can draw attention to the art scene in Uganda by those who are interested in funding it.
In reading the book expected to come out at the end of the three of four Wazo’s, there will be a collection of not only ideas, but more importantly, proof that there were any such ideas in the first place. In any case, we all understand that only a few of these ideas will eventually yield feasible results in our day, but it is left to those in the future to start off from where we left off.
You can read an extended version of this review online at STARTJOURNAL.ORG.