“What about? Last week, comedy outfit Bizonto were arrested for a political satire skit that was deemed to promote sectarianism. Yet political satire, caricature and the like have been common in the art industry, so where does this leave art and its role of mirroring the society? Andrew Kaggwa writes.
“Political satire, caricature and the like have been common in the art industry”
Elections in different countries that practice democracy always provide a lot of content for the media.
This most of the times includes radio, TV and print, to art such as music, theatre, film and comedy. For instance, in Uganda, the past political seasons have always pushed an art form, usually one that has a product with a message for or against.
In 2001, for example, after aborting his campaign, Charles James Ssenkubuge alias Siasa, wrote, produced and later directed a play Kagutema Bamwongere Ecupa but before that, playwright Alex Mukulu had done his part, scripting, directing and being the lead in his revered 30 Years of Banana.
The play is a political comic that looks at the past 30 years of Uganda’s governance before the Museveni regime and towards the end, they question the next 30 years of the country.
The 1970s that a major part of the past 30 years Mukulu’s play reflects, have been characterised by turmoil, something that art and literature have documented.
It has been written that playwrights, singers and other practicing artistes were killed by people believed to have been part of the regimes, while others had to flee the country for their lives.
Much as art has continued to get political and often getting artists in trouble, comedians seem to have had a way with things – for instance, even when newspaper publications are usually shut for their stories, it is almost unheard of for one to get a police notice over the satirical cartoons.
In the same vein, even when shows such as John Segawa’s State of the Nation Ku Girikiti in 2012 were banned for their content and tone or Stella Nyanzi’s arrest after penning one of her explosive poems about the President, comedians continued going political and at times, to the glee of those in power.
For example, Herbert Mendo Ssegujja, known for imitating President Yoweri Museveni, has continuously talked about the first time he performed, with the President as a member of the audience.
In fact, he notes that he had noticed three audience types whenever he performed before the President; those that confused him for the real president, those that spontaneously laughed and those that did not know how to react given the position of the personality being imitated.
Other comedians have continuously also seen themselves face leaders, incorporating satire while talking about current affairs and it was all just fine.
Then last week happened! Presenters at Radio Simba; Julius Sserwanja, Mbabaali Maliseeri, Peter Ssaabakaaki and Gold Ki Matono also members of comedy outfit Bizonto, were picked by authorities from their workstation in Bukoto.
This was after the group uploaded a skit on social media that went viral. In the skit, the comedians whose style is always church-themed, complete with communion songs, set out to pray for the people leading Uganda.
One by one, they mentioned their botanical names. The problem with it though, is the fact that all the political figures they mentioned were from the western region of the country.
According to Charles Twiine, the spokesperson of the CID, the four were being held on offences of promoting sectarianism in the viral video.
Is comedy comfortable?
For many comedians, there is nothing wrong with what Bizonto did, considering that everything said in the video was a fact.
Comedy as referred to by author George Meredith in his Idea of Comedy, is a branch of drama that deals with everyday life and humorous events. He is of the view that comedy appeals to people’s intelligence and thus, according to him, the art’s main function is to focus on what ails the world.
Hannington Bugingo, the president of Uganda Comedians Association, says comedy has the liberty to talk about anything happening in the society.
“Generally art in each society will talk about that particular society, some of these things will be uncomfortable but that is the nature of some arts like comedy,” he says.
Bugingo says comedy’s role is to help people reflect on what is happening in their society, laugh about it but pick lessons and later change.
The arrest of the four came at a time when the creative industry was grappling with a set of regulations that many believe are here to cripple art and silence their freedom to express themselves.
Bugingo says what is happening is not only targeting comedians or singers, but art as a trade.
“They want us to write scripts and give them to censor before we think about staging them. Which country works like that?” he wonders.
Bugingo notes that the biggest problem is people that do not understand art or how it works, trying not to only regulate it but think for it. He gives an example of a stage production; most of them may have a script yet during the show, actors will improvise things that were not originally in the script, which according to UCC’s new regulations would be punishable.
Is political satire important?
Bugingo says artistes do not operate in a vacuum, they are inspired by the society and thus, cannot stop talking about some topics as long as they are experiencing these things within the society.
Poet and teacher Peter Kagayi Ngobi is known in art circles for his hard-hitting poetry. His 2016 book, The Headline That Morning, went hard on issues, comparing a Uganda of 2016, to that of the 1970s to that of 2065.
The unapologetic compilation of poetry is rich with imagery, though the pictures it bears may of course not be as impressive. For instance, his 2065 paints the Uganda of that time with a grim colour, which he suggests was the making of the present.
According to Kagayi, political satire has been part of society political circles since time immemorial.
“Kingdoms used to have a court poet or musician whose role was to creatively tell the king what the masses were talking about.”
The poet says political satire plays the same role as that of the media and the Inspector General of Government. He says its political art measures accountability, only that it satirises it.
“The reason many of such regulations are coming up today is because the powers that be hate the picture the artist is painting as a message from the public,” Kagayi says.
Since Robert Kyagulanyi alias Bobi Wine joined politics, musician Tshaka Mayanja was vocal about that decision and how it was in the long run going to bury the creative industry.
Reacting to the current situation, he noted that artists cannot win a war against the government.
“History shows, in wars between arts and the state, artists painfully lose. Focus on educating and uplifting hearts and minds of the masses. Watch the State do what it does best; self-destruct while music plays on.”
Sarah Nsigaye, the founding director of Native Travel Festival, says the future of art and political expression may be uncertain but much of the results will depend on the position they take.
“In the past, all we have done in such times is complain and later move on. This time, we are taking them on to the end, we are taking them to court,” she says.
Nsigaye, for instance, says the Bizonto saga involved them being arrested and later released without even being formally charged.
“Artistes usually let government get away with such things but I think Bizonto should be suing for wrongful arrest,” she says.
Kagayi on the other hand says regimes don’t learn and history maybe rewriting itself.
“The regulations as they appear don’t appear very different from the 1945 expired colonial laws,” he says.
And indeed, the law in its current form picks a lot from the colonial law that is believed to have been passed to stiffen artistes that had started using their art to demand for things such as independence.
Then, National Theatre as the only auditoria made it so hard for any local playwright to stage a production, especially if he did not meet certain standards, of course set by the colonisers.
These rules and more were used by many Ugandan governments that came in after independence, which in turn forced artistes to leave Uganda majorly for Nairobi, Kenya.
“This may happen again because artistes today are more connected and their good works are on demand beyond the Ugandan borders,” he says.
Nsigaye believes the actions of the authority will not clamp down art but instead make it more relevant, as well as open minds of more creatives to realize the power the sector holds.
In the same breath, Kagayi believes that the political satire may evolve and create a new art form, for instance, it is believed censorship in the 1960s forced many Ugandans to leave but those that stayed introduced improvisation.
“There is a time this happened and people dealt with it by improvising on stage. For example, Mayirikiti is such a revered play, but there is no official script,” he says.
While for many that may stay and continue creating, the possibility is that they may take an easier route, casting their political figures in only good light like Segujja plays with the President’s character.
“I’ve never cast him in bad light. I love him as the President. He might have weaknesses but I do not display them on stage.”
In the next edition, we look at the new regulations, the dangers and how they may change the creative economy for good.
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