3 February 2012

Uganda: Why Art?


Renowned Ugandan author answers those who question the relevance of the arts

A woman, or was it a man, dressed in a white suit, slowly got up from her front-row seat at the National Theatre in Kampala, moved up the stairs and onto the dim dusty stage, and proceeded to gyrate slowly, achingly, as though creeping up-right, from one side of the stage to the other and then off it with a deep bow. What were we, the audience, to make of this? Was this another example of the "irrelevance of the arts" as espoused by our political leaders?

Anyone with an open mind would disagree. The difficulty of a subject is not proof of its lack of meaning. It's a pity that the very people who need to be persuaded about the value of the arts do not attend these artistic events such as the one described above, by a Japanese dancer, on the last day of the contemporary dance festival, Dance Transmissions, last October. She shared the stage that same evening with the Ugandan troupe Keiga Dance Company, whose director, Jonas Byaruhunga, an expressive and dynamic dancer himself, organised the three-day event.

This is not a review of it; my aim here is to answer back those who question the relevance of the arts using the example of one other performance of that evening, by the South African dance troupe Mhayise Production. I am convinced that the arts are essential to our psychic health as individual Ugandans and as a nation.

It feels somewhat ridiculous to even have to defend the arts, whose value speaks for itself, but in today's climate here, sadly, it is necessary. I'm also aware that I am preaching to the choir by writing this for an art column, but hopefully it will encourage those of us who love the arts to re-affirm why we do so and to pass on the word.

I actually came to the contemporary dance performance expecting to see enigmatic pieces like the Japanese one, which, like a poem, may take some effort to decipher but this effort is rewarded by the depth of meaning garnered from it. So I was pleasantly surprised that the South African performance was clearly accessible and this did not take away from its depth and beauty as it enacted and interrogated the pastoral traditions of the Nguni people of South Africa. The dance showed how cows as symbols of status and wealth were central to the traditions of that community, particularly those surrounding marriage, family life and gender relations. All this was shown through graceful body movements of only two dancers, a man and woman, who used simple props: cow horns, a huge brown drum, a flute, and their clothing, but to such an evocative effect.

A spiritual experience

This had nothing to do with religion, but I came out of that performance a changed person. Without moving from my seat, the dance took me through what felt like a life-time of emotions; it was a journey from which I emerged new, fresh, having learnt so much about myself through this opportunity to see myself and my community reflected back at me in all its beauty and ugliness, in a way that got to the essence of things.

What a refreshing break from what we normally see reflected back at us: newspaper and TV stories of endless corruption scandals and other crimes: murder, defilement, inefficiency, stupidity, lies, the list goes on, telling us daily, insistently, relentlessly: "This is who we are. This is who we are." And what are we to do with this information? Feel helpless and full of despair as we detach from public life, leaving it to the criminals.

Art does not avoid these tragedies, exemplified by how the couple fought fiercely as part of the dance, but it also gives us a glimpse of redemption, of a way out. This catharsis is not simply an emotional reaction, but an inner shift that helps you see your world and its challenges in a new way, leading you to the possibility of light at the end of the dark tunnel. It is no surprise that so many of us Ugandans seek redemption and catharsis in churches, which are ever-sprouting and spreading like a pestilence. Art, however, can do this work without the dogma, not to mention the suspect pastors and practices.

To see again

For me, engagement with the performance began with curiosity: how come they were they showing a video of a rustic scene: lush green fields in which cattle grazed peacefully, as background when this was a contemporary dance performance? Beneath this, two figures lay prone on the stage floor. When they got up, the woman's arms were encased in the longest hugest cow horns I had ever seen; in fact I whispered to my neighbour, "Are those elephant tusks?" To see those huge horns, detached from an actual cow, on the arms of the female dancer as she swayed and turned gracefully, was a powerful visual embodiment of the symbolic value and significance of the cow. We know all about the cultural importance of cows and drums and the related disturbing idea of women as property, but we generally don't think about it much. However, to see it elevated to the stage and enacted out gracefully could not but strike one with its deeper significance. It was especially striking for me because, even though I am a Munyankore, it had not occurred to me that I actually felt anything for the long-horned Ankole cattle, least of all pride. It took an artistic act for me to see again, as if for the first time, what I knew so well that I could no longer see it. Familiarity breeds something worse than contempt; the familiar in effect ceases to exist. Familiarity kills, while art, through the electric shock of recognition, re-creates the thing and gives it life.

...and again

Another way I saw again was to see something unusual: a woman on stage who was not gyrating her hips and waist enticingly or exposing herself, all breasts, buttocks and bare legs, as nothing but a sex object. One can avoid the likes of the Red Pepper, but its images follow you to TV, and are standard in almost every pop music and dance performance. I am all for women making money in whatever way they can, but their choices are far too narrow in our sphere of popular culture. The public image of female performers (except comedians) is overwhelming that of a sex object. Since we cannot help but be influenced by these public images, they are terribly harmful to women's efforts to be treated with respect and equality.

So it was like a blast of fresh air to see this female dancer who was not using her body to sell sex. She was strong and graceful, flexible, expressive and still feminine. This was a rare and rewarding opportunity for us, both men and women, to see a woman move this way as a woman on stage, thus adding to our knowledge and experience of the more positive ways women can be in the world. This is the power of art: to help us re-imagine the world. If there is any value in differentiating between art and popular culture, this is definitely part of it.

Doreen Baingana is the author of the award-winning book: Tropical Fish: Stories Out of Entebbe (University of Massachusetts Press).

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