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The year was 2018, art told the political story

The People Power movement popularised the red berets. Below: Some of the paintings at the Kampala Art Biennale.
PHOTO. by michael kakumirizi/courtesy

2018 in the arts: This year had so much going on, and one of the things that must have stood out was the way politics played a role in the entertainment and arts industry. We look at such instances.

If there is one thing that we cannot forget about 2018, it will be art and the different ways it kept Ugandans engaged. It had started off well with drama that had Bebe Cool against all the other artistes, thanks to a list he made, then came Mowzey Radio’s death to Daniel Kaluuya’s Ugandan-ness at the release of the famed Black Panther.
Yet the most outstanding thing art did in Uganda this year was the way it spoke to power, social ills and took a stand.
Through songs, theatre productions, paintings, fashion and visual installations, artistes were against and supported different systems in equal measure.
In 2017, Robert Kyagulanyi alias Bobi Wine won the Kyadondo East elections and since then, he has used his music as a tool against the constitution amendment to remove the presidential age cap.

Music and people power
In 2018, the tension that followed Bobi Wine’s arrest after the Arua by-election chaos saw music become a major form of protest. It had started with the public when people suddenly started playing Bobi Wine’s music with a resolve but then the campaign for his release took a new twist when other artistes started recording music demanding for his release.
A sombre version of Bobi Wine’s Situka had been released online while obscure artistes were at it releasing songs such as Empologoma ye Magere, Gano Amaziga, Tukusabira and a bunch of others that were all titled Free Bobi Wine.
These artistes were joined by renowned ones such as Pallaso, Nubian Li and Eddy Kenzo. Even after Bobi Wine’s release, music with political voices was still released. For instance, Bebe Cool chose to address a situation of him being chased off a stage with his Nsirikamu.
Ronald Mayinja has since stepped in the same shoes he had on while recording Africa, to churn out Bizemu, a song that seems to remind the regime that everything they fought against is happening again.
Other artistes such as King Michael and Catherine Kusasira did not necessarily do songs in support of anyone but remained vocal and always defended the regime when they got a chance.

Arresting the poem
Poetry has barely been in good books with governments or systems for years. In Uganda, poets including Susan Kiguli have been at it with poems of protest in her 1998 book The African Saga. This year even when poetry is not mainstream, they found ways of getting the message across, with poetry shows and books such as Pregnant Poems by Eron Kizza to Stella Nyanzi’s harsh online poem You Should Have Died at Birth, creatives used prose and rhymes to say what was on their mind.
But it must have been the unforgiving Yellow Pupu poems by Peter Kaggayi that left nothing to imagination; it is a follow up to his 2016 successful anthology The Headline That Morning that questioned culture, politics and history.
With Yellow Pupu poems, he definitely had his guns facing the regime, talking about different issues and people. Nabisunsa girls took more political stands with their critical publication, With Pens that Shout and Mouths that Shut and later Raymond Lule with Ogenda Wa?
The Uganda National Cultural Centre (National Theatre) though hosted Kitara Poets with their stage production Arrest the Poem, a production that featured a collection of poems that talked about Uganda’s politics and the economy, among other things.
Set in a market place, the podium features poets who passed by and enlighten the public through poetry, forcing the law enforcers to start hunting them down with the aim of arresting the ideas they spread.

A fashion statement
Nothing in the arts has been loud on the political agenda like clothing. It all started at the end of 2017 as a section of legislators in the parliament opposed the constitution amendment; they adopted red ribbons and clothing to protest.
This year, things stepped up from ribbons to clothes and prints, Bobi Wine had adopted a workman’s overall in red, similar to those worn by South Africa’s Julius Malema, complete with a beret, made famous by the likes of Che Guevara and Thomas Sankara.
The arrest of Bobi Wine meant that the clothing was here as Ugandans adopted the look to show solidarity with the artiste. Today, other people showing solidarity, for example, King Michael, Bryan White, Bebe Cool and Tamale Mirundi, among others have countered the red army with yellow berets.

Art on the walls
You may have seen some of these art works on roads, streets and exhibitions. Like many art forms, visual art was as vocal. For instance, this year’s edition of the Kampala Art Biennale themed The Studio was focused on inviting the public to an artist’s studio to experience the process of work.
But besides the process, the exhibition looked at how art masters in the past trained younger painters to become masters of their own. It was a showcase that had its topics around transition of authority, something that has not been common in Africa.
Yet besides the politicised works that graced the biennale, Kampala was at that time enjoying graffiti works mostly done in the wake of Bobi Wine’s arrest, some of these were paintings while others were just words like Free Bobi Wine or Freedom, among others.

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