The street as a canvas

For a city like Kampala, famed for its seven hills, each bearing a distinct architectural landmark, it would help if the authorities were less paranoid about artistes breaking out of the mould and onto the city landscape.

But that’s quite a tall order, what with every gathering in a non-gazetted arts space being looked at with suspicion. Police letters and municipality permits are the order of the day for artistes wishing to use spaces outside auditorium walls and art galleries. If only artistes were not seen as an extension of the opposition that the national (thought) police is anxious to muzzle on a whimvia impromptu cordons of city spaces.

There are exceptions though. Take the annual LaBa Arts Festival whose way around this apparent status quo is to have the city council on board as a partner. That way, it’s easy to get around permit hurdles while on a quest to take the arts out of the confines of indoor settings and to the outdoors. LaBa started off as a protest (and parody) movement to bring attention to those road aberrations known to Kampalans as potholes. Back then, artistes filled these shallow pits with soil and painted over them creating a gallery you could walk on literally.   

With the City Council embarking on a sprucing up exercise to rid Kampala of its signature dust and dirt a la laying roads with a new coat of tarmac, the festival has morphed into a street gallery of sorts. Exhibiting artistes now hang their artwork on the sidewalk while models strut on the tarmac as a runway while showing off street couture and pret-a-porter designs. Musicians compete for earlobes on two stages placed on either end of Bukoto Street; one for upper palate folksy music folks and the other for hip-hop-loving youngsters.

“It is a great exposure of one’s art compared to a gallery where only invited people or those with a palate for art may come”, explains Hoods Jjuuko, a visual artiste of note whose works at the festival comprise paintings of the chaotic side to Kampala; the incoherent building construction, pick-pockets, drivers flouting the one-way road rule and all.   

Philip Buyi prefers to look at the sunnier side of Kampala city life as he showcases his recycled couture Kkoolo label. It is named after a crow and right now, the dancer-cum-designer is the go-to person for anyone looking for imaginative designs with everything from Medieval Europe infusions on contemporary Afro-prints.

Cathy Nakaweesa, on the other hand prefers to look at this lone day unconventional use of a Kampala city space rather philosophically. “Events like LaBa are a great way to challenge things. And that is what art is all about; change and making things better or worse so that you can discover what’s better,” she says. On a mission to take art out of confinement, Nakaweesa and a group of agile dancers enchant the street audience with imaginative choreography all done to a pulsating medley of Afro-house hits.

“In the theatre, the artiste is on stage and the audience somewhat distant in their seats creating a bigger challenge in connecting with the fan. Here on the street, we are right in their faces,” Nakaweesa explains. The grander wish though is access to “no-go” venues like Kololo Airstrip, an expansive city space that is now firmly in the clutches of an establishment jittery about subversive activity from the opposition. But you still find the odd artsy Kampala Fashion Week taking place there after a little buttering up of the powers that be.