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Kuonyesha resilience through COVID-19

Kuonyesha Art Fund was still in a celebratory spirit having just announced the awardees for its pilot phase - a total of 67 artists from Gulu, Karamoja, Kampala. These artists were ready to embark on their remarkable journeys of various art projects in and around their communities.

Then came the near-sudden announcement from H.E President Museveni declaring 14 days of national lock down starting 1st April 2020. Instantly many things had to change. At CivSource Africa, we had been closely following the aggressive global spread of the new corona virus disease (COVID-19) and to some extent anticipated the pronouncement of travel and operational restrictions by the government authorities. IT tools and facilities required to support telecommuting (working from home) had been put in place, just in time to enable the continuity of work tasks in all programs. Laptops, smartphones and the internet became the only possible way to conduct meetings, carry out due diligence “visits” and handle all budget discussions in relation to the art projects to be executed by the awardees.

At the lapse of the 14-day lockdown, an extension to 5th May was announced, and this in a strong sense signaled the emergence of the ‘new normal’. Alas! Lock down Lite had been replaced with lock down Pro!! On the whole, the precautionary measures are understandable, and I believe they will enable the frontline health sector workers to wage a victorious fight and contain the situation. We therefore need to readjust our mindsets and plan for possibly even longer periods of uncertainty ahead. Most of what we knew as normal will likely never be the same again. Flexibility and adaptability are now, more than ever, essential attitudes for us to thrive in a fast-changing environment.

A typical day during lockdown begins with me calling Rehema my colleague to confirm that she is online. I then loop in a scheduled artist and the three of us proceed to discuss the various aspects of the artist’s project to be supported by the Kuonyesha Art Fund. We averagely conduct about twenty telephone “meetings” on a given day. In spite of the mobility constraints, the artists’ creative spirit continues to make forward strides while churning out amazing ideas. Just as the artists have continued to work and create, so will we continue to Kuonyesha them! That is our firm commitment.

Pamela Enyonu says her work has a large component of collage and requires her to frequently go to Nasser road, a street popular for hosting most printing businesses, to collect paper offcuts to use in her artworks. With the lock down in force, she can no longer do that and has had to improvise. She has resorted to creating some of her collage materials right in her studio. Her upcoming art project, whose initial idea focused on creating conceptual photo exhibitions in busy public spaces, has had to change significantly in light of the new social distancing regulations. The arts must continue as this is now our new normal. Enyonu has to crack her brain as to how she can touch and engage her audience and yet stay safely away from them at the same time. She has to push the boundaries and do the unconventional, that is what artists do and succeed she will.

Jimmy Spire Sentongo, another artist, has had a firsthand experience of the lockdown and quarantine having just returned from the UK at the time the government moved to institute the strict preventive measures against the spread of the corona virus. He was challenged and tested to the bone by the experience, but he did not back down. Eventually, it was his artistry cartoon drawing skills that drew national attention to the plight of everyone who was in the first location of institutional quarantine that was so expensive yet offering inadequate service. Spire did not keep silent in the face of injustice because artists do not keep quiet, artists speak up boldly about everything. Having twice tested negative for the corona virus yet still retained in mandatory institutional quarantine, he felt like he was under imprisonment, after 23 days at that point! Spire spoke up, created a storm of a series of cartoons that went virial online until he was released. How mighty the pencil and paper are! That’s what artists do, use the least, yet most power tools at their disposal to influence the much-needed change.

Artwork credit: Jimmy Spire Sentongo

A telephone conversation with Air J - a visually impaired yet incredibly talented musician from Moroto, reveals how adaptable the artists are to all situations. Air J says while the rest of the population is on tension due to the lockdown, it has been an opportunity to get his music recorded and played on the local radio stations while everyone is at home and inevitably tuned in to their radios. While he may not be able to physically reach people, the use of the radio stations has opened up several listenership avenues to his music like never before. Finding opportunities amidst all challenges is what real artists do.

Relatedly, on a fashion designers’ WhatsApp chat group, Emmanuel Baguana promptly shared a pattern for making simple cloth face masks with his fellow designers. Brenda Maraka also shared how she made several face masks for her family and friends because the N95 mask option was very expensive and yet not reusable. Ras Kasozi another fashion designer, in partnership with Hon. Patricia Magara, has made practical use of the Ugandan made cotton to produce several handmade reusable face masks that he is donating to residents in Luwero. Absolutely selfless and still collaborating and giving of themselves and their talents at all times, that is what artists do and have always done.

Photo credit Ras Kasozi

There is a growing risk of unemployment as several organizations and businesses struggle to meet the March and April paychecks for their staff. This uncertainty is not unusual to the largely informal, unstructured, youth dominated arts sector. Artists have always had to create and earn a living using their artistry and no single month is ever the same as the other. One will never know where the next paycheck will come from and this has largely affected any financial planning or comfort and saving mechanisms that the corporates are accustomed to. Now that the curtain seems to have fallen on the entire nation, artists are adopting to their usual ways of survival, albeit with restricted mobility. Artists have for long been known to work for long hours undisturbed indoors, secluded in their home studios, and that is the new normal for everyone else now.

So, for the artists, its business unusual, as usual, and thrive they will, adopt they will and make the most of these uncharted days. Though alone due to physical distancing, the intellectual and creative accord is thriving still while they figure out how to monetize from the now flourishing online digital platforms.

Elizabeth Mbabazi

Program Associate- Kuonyesha Art Fund

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