In a society where art appreciation is understood to be a preserve for the rich and white expatriate community, producing at with familiar themes enables the locals to consume it
Kampala, Uganda | DOMINIC MUWANGUZI | In a small studio in Najjera, on the outskirts of Kampala, Bernard Omony is quickly scribbling something with poster colours on small sized primed canvas. He is fully engrossed in the activity that lasts a few minutes before he picks another canvas and begins to compose a fresh composition. Besides him, heaps of already finished artworks with startling images that immediately attract the eye of the visitor in this one room studio lay on the floor .The drawings are stick figures of caricature human figures that are familiar to day to day life of his immediate surroundings. Sometimes, it is two men with bare chests and protruding stomachs, run along with fishing- rods laden on their shoulders or women with large backsides and children strapped on their back, walking to or from the market. In spite their modesty, the compositions suggest a strong resonance to the traditional African aspect of story-telling. Hence, stick art, like the artist defines it, has its roots in cave art both in terms of form, shape and story-telling elements.
Omony has been a stick artist for over ten years and relishes the fact that the genre is a perfect way to connect with the local community. In this, it relates easily with the social life of the community because of the themes it tackles and the dominant comic quality it exudes. Both aspects make the genre palatable to diverse audiences in the local community. Such identity of art has benefited the artist to venture into social enterprise: skilling the local communities with hands on skills to create sustainable livelihoods.
“ It is no longer enough to create art and make money without impacting the social welfare of those surrounding you,” says the lanky artist freelancing as a facilitator with a burgeoning social enterprise in Kyebando.
The social aspect as a recurrent theme in the artist’s artistic practice has influenced him to incorporate the subject of recycling in his artworks. Previously, Omony would create patterns familiar to African stylised geometrical designs in the comic stick drawings to suggest the idea of “Africaness” in his compositions, but now with the apparent need to contemporarize his art in order to be relevant to environment sustainability through art, the artist is now venturing into working with fabric as collage on his canvases. The material includes Kitengi off-cuts collected from the tailors around the community. He is also considering the idea of a commercial enterprise fused with art where he produces functional artworks in form of fashion accessories like bags and clothing to reach out to new audiences.
The approach seem to be an ideal gesture to remove the disconnect between art production and consumption that has dogged the modem and contemporary art scene in Uganda for several decades. In a society where art appreciation is understood to be a preserve for the rich and white expatriate community, producing art with familiar themes enables the local people to consume it. As such, withstanding the fact the biggest clientele of Omony art are tourists and expatriate community, there’s an emerging group of Ugandans who are interested in buying the art. Already, a few people in his community are adorning his products and these pass on the message to their contemporaries.
Like Batik art its cousin, Stick art explores day today day life of both urban and rural settings. It is also affordable to an average Ugandan who would love to acquire art but is intimidated by the price in dollars. An alternative to expensive art” does not only influence increased appreciation of art among the locals, but perpetuate skills development among the youth in neighbourhoods that teeming with the youth.
Images courtesy of Ubuntu Arts