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Making trouble with art

It is difficult to silence artists providing critical perceptive

Kampala, Uganda | DOMINIC MUWANGUZI | Political art says more than the problems facing the community. If it is issues of social injustice or political tyranny, the artist will deliberately set up imagery in his work to provoke anger, despair and disgust among his audience. In this regard, he’s inviting the audience to some sort of action. Michael Soi’s art is political because it stimulates a myriad of emotions in his audience. A painting of skimpily dressed women wearing hair afros, groping men wearing tightly fitting jeans stimulates disgust and anger to a certain audience: the moralists.

In fact Soi and his contemporaries that include Patrick Mukabi and Bertiers Mbatia, had their   exhibition at the National Museum of Kenya cancelled in 2017, only days to its opening. The management of the Museum explained that the work by these three artists was “inappropriate” because it had the potential to offend the little children who visit the gallery every week. This action was inspired by government‘s regulation on what should be shown and not shown in the public.

In such instances of curtailing the artist’s artistic freedom, it becomes obvious that the artist’s role to engage the public is under-cut by the State. This begs the question: what should artists do and the public when they feel that their rights to express themselves and rights to information are abused? What followed such dramatic action from the government institution was immense publication of the story in the local dailies and Weekly publications like Business Daily and The East African. The screaming headline, `Museum bans works by three of Kenya’s finest artists’ in Business Daily evoked anger among many people in the arts fraternity in Kenya and across the region. It possibly was interpreted as a deliberate action to stifle criticism from the artists;especially considering the context within which they create their work. Each of these artists’ work offers a satirical and critical narrative on the social- political status quo of Kenya that obviously leaves a bitter taste in the mouth of those who wield political power. In withdrawing their (artists) work from the Museum, they were sending out clear signals of future censuring of their work in the public.

Even with such intrusion by the State, it is still difficult to silence the voice of artists in providing a critical perceptive to the political excesses of any regime. In Uganda, during the crusade to amend the constitution by Members of the 10th Parliament belonging to the ruling National Resistance Movement (NRM) , there grew strong dissent voices from the populace resisting the change of the age limit clause in order to favour the incumbent President to stand again in the forthcoming general elections. On   street corners and walls of public buildings in Kampala, graffiti paintings of the anti-legislation crusade Togikwatako (Do not touch it), were awash in bold colours as a form of resistance to the despotic ambitions of the ruling political party.   This form of radical reaction was replicated in the Free Bobi Wine campaigns that swept throughout the country with placard and wall scribbling, installed in several public spaces. Bobi Wine aka Robert Kyangulanyi is Member of Parliament for Kyadondo East, but also former A-list artiste, who recently announced his ambitions to stand against the incumbent, President Yoweri Kaguta Museveni in the 2021 General elections.


The article is an excerpt from a full-lengthy essay by the author. Images courtesy of the Web

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