Mural paintings confront issues of social-cultural identity and critical exchanges between artists and public
Kampala, Uganda | DOMINIC MUWANGUZI | Murals as a form of public art are popular in passing over a specific message to the public. They are probably the most effective visual mode of communication to any community as they interrogate social- cultural and political issues through familiar imagery. In different communities a cross the continent, murals have been used to spark conversations on key issues affecting the citizens. South African and Ghanaian community artists are notably recognized for embracing mural painting in specific locales around the respective cities as a means of drawing public attention to issues that affect them. In Ghana hundreds of murals decorate the narrow streets of both Accra’s slumy neighbourhoods and the peri-urban centres where the urban poor inhabit. Here, the colourful artworks are sometimes evocative of the social lifestyle of the locals where both young and adults struggle to survive in a fast transforming city or advocate for community awareness on health, education and ethnicity.
This response to social- cultural issues through mural painting is witnessed in a recent public art initiative at Ngedeya Community of the Arts in Masaka, Uganda. The imitative that runs under the ambitious Make Masaka Public art project is responsible for the production of a series of murals in different locations across the expansive Arts Village located some 130Km from Uganda’s capital, Kampala. It is here that a group of about five community artists, mostly youthful in age, have been involved in painting images of children at play time, women dressed in Gomesi (traditional attire for women, especially in central Uganda), herdsmen and their cattle, and traders in petty trades. These images, familiar to the local community, immediately spark conversations on the social-cultural lifestyle of the locals. “It was interesting to hear people make different comments about the murals because they could easily relate to the images we came up with in the paintings,” says Aloka Trevor, a contemporary artist who was part of this project.
The imagery in the painting that includes both human figures and earthy colours naturally resonated with the multi cultural and ruralenvironment within which it was set. According to Aloka, he observes that Ndegeya is a heterogeneous community with people from different social and cultural backgrounds that makes it interesting. “All these people from different backgrounds express themselves differently and have different things that appeal to them,” he says as he explains the imagery of the herdsmen and beautiful colour scheme used for the murals on the children’s community library and gallery.“The herdsmen and their cattle represent the multi ethnic nature of the community. There’re the Banyankore pastoralist community and other groups in this village,” notes the budding artist who discloses that as a community artist, he first takes a study of the environment he’s going to work in, in order to have an accurate and honest representation of the people who inhabit it.
Aloka’s observations are validated by Florence Nanteza, another artist who participated on the project. Nanteza’s discloses that she has family rootsin this village and therefore she visits the place occasionally. “ Ngegeya is an interesting village because it is a home to people from different backgrounds. There are the peasants, semi- literate and the elite who live in the same space. To communicate to them, one must appreciate the disparity in their social wellbeing,” she noted.
The difference in identity of the locals and how they’refiguratively represented in the paintings is one of the strengths of the Make Masaka Public art project. While mural painting is largely common in many social settings across the country, this particular initiative encompasses a diversity of interests: from celebration of day to day life of the ordinary individual in a rural village in Masaka and highlighting the diversity in lifestyle of the common people without any pretensions, to the advocacy of social-cultural cohesion that is crucial in driving any society forward. The latter is metaphorically evident in the colourful drawings of the herdsmen and Gomesi woman that say more about how people from different backgrounds can co-exist, rather than merely an expression of individual identity.
While the project is a representation of Masaka and how its social landscapecan be an inspiration for other communities across the country, it is also as much about how artists can use their art to effectively communicate to the public. By participating in this project, artists open up mutual relationships between themselves and public. This type of relationship is important in fostering critical exchanges between the two parties where the artists are exposed to the challenges and needs of the public and on the other hand, the public appreciates the relevance of art and artist in their community. Such is vital in demystifying the role of the artist in the community but equally important is the benefit of opening up boundless opportunities for their artistic practice.
The project runs under the WeaverBird Artists Residency program. The participating artists included Buka Carson, Florence Nanteza, Christine Nyatho, Aloka Trevor and Martin Jjunju