25 January 2013

Uganda: Benet Art

Endangered indigenous group seeks self-preservation

An art exhibition featuring an International Art Installation about the Benet culture and identity opened last week at the Makerere Art gallery. To the ordinary guest, the installation may appear mystical and rather boring with baskets made out of bamboo material mounted on tree branches with names written on them; plant seedlings suspended in the air and in the background children's drawings on plywood boards. But with the guidance of one of the curators of the exhibition and a write up about the installation, you appreciate that the installation is about the Benet cultural heritage.

The installation has three elements; the first element consists of the ancestral heritage of these Benet- an indigenous group of people who once lived in the forests atop Mt Elgon in eastern Uganda. Elements depicting heritage are crafted out of branches which represent the forest. The branches are each "rooted" in a small compartment to symbolise the attachment the Benet have to the forest.

The tree branches are grouped four-by-four and each branch bears the name of one of the sixteen people who were killed during the forceful eviction by the government of the Benet from the forest. The number four according to Moses Kiptai- one of the Benet people- is a holy numerical figure that symbolises the blessings among the Benet.

"Before circumcision, the boy needs to run around his hut four times before the ritual can take place," Kiptai says.

Furthermore, the branches are mounted with baskets made by the Benet women and each basket is marked with red, green, white and black; another use of four colours this time.

The color red represents the conflict that took place when their land was being taken away from them, green represents their belief in herbal medicine and attachment to the forest, white symbolises their belief in spiritualism and black represents justice which helped to keep the Benet peaceful and happy.

The second element of the installation is the tree- seedlings. These represent the young generation of the Benet whose future is uncertain since they are not yet rooted in any ground. The seedlings also represent the notion of investing in the future and conserving the forest.

The seedlings are horizontally lined up in a straight line to symbolise the demarcation of land by the government.

"After they were evicted from the forest, the land was demarcated and no one was supposed to go back inside the forest," says Kiptai.

The third element of the installation is the past, present and future. This is presented by the drawings of children who are the future of the Benet. The drawings are on square plywood boards about the size of an exercise book and rectangular ones that are a long as a foot-rule but half than in width.

The drawings are particularly interesting as they represent what the children think of the current situation of their community like the growing number of their population represented by the congestion in their compositions and also the dominant use of green showing their adoption of agriculture from their sedentary lifestyle in the forest.

Their compositions also feature their dreams of going to school; what they would like to be in the future; what they would buy if they had Shs 10,000.

These compositions can be interpreted as a symbol of the existing "civilized" community of the Benet; a community that perhaps will embrace education, modern medicine and also eke a livelihood outside the forest environ.

The paradox of losing their unique cultural heritage as they embrace modernity is captured in the attempts to conserve it with such an art installation. This exhibition aims to conserve and document an indigenous group which would otherwise be easily ignored because it is small. The exhibition will run until the end of January at the Makerere Art Gallery, Kampala.

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