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THE ARTS RISING THROUGH ADVERSITY OF COVID-19


By Moses Serugo


2021 may have been declared the International Year of Creative Economy for Sustainable Development. But for Ugandan artistes be they performing, literary, cinematic or visual, that UN General Assembly edict is small comfort as they adjust to the new normal that is a COVID-19-induced hard lockdown on the CCI (Culture and Creative Industries) sector now in its second year.


Since March 2020 when the first national hard lockdown was announced to stem the tide the was the COVID-19 pandemic, Uganda artistes have had their livelihoods disrupted what with closed arts spaces and tough protocols on mass gatherings. That has meant that there have been no theatre performances or festivals in the past 15 months. That is quite an economic pummelling for a sector that has been christened the gig economy, meaning that its practitioners are the very definition of a hand-to-mouth existence.


The July 2021 Kuonyesha Artists’ Online Conversation aimed to touch base with artists most of who are resiliently and resolutely pushing on with living unfulfilling lives. Themed around “The Arts Rising Through Adversity of COVID-19, the ZOOM discourse CCI practitioners narrated triumph where they have risen above the new normal that is food relief tokenism and a phantom relief fund for the arts sector.


There was a shared opinion that the creative sector was the first casualty of the sledgehammer approach by the Ugandan government to manage the pandemic which, short of mass testing and vaccination, is quite illogical and destroying more livelihoods


“Most of the recent measures by government that say the announcement of a 42-day national lockdown ending July 31st 2021 defy logic especially the ones that restrict movement,” says veteran visual artist Nuwa Wamala Nnyanzi. “It is in times of national or global distress that the creative sector’s importance is realised by way of acting as a salve to people’s distress,” he adds.


His wise counsel is that it is time for Ugandan artists to “make what makes you happy make you money.” That though may be quite easy for visual and literary artistes whose practice has proved to be the most pandemic resilient but for performing and cinematic artistes it has mostly been a tough call. Nnyanzi still has one anecdote for the sector; “your income is locked up in someone else’s misfortune. Look at the high medical bills hospitals and medical facilities including ambulance services are levying as desperate relatives and friends try to save the lives of their loved one that have been hit by the pandemic.” It may be a macabre example but in these equally loathsome times, any analogy will do.


Michael Kirkpatrick, a culture vulture living the US sees a silver lining on the pandemic dark cloud that is a time when an African artist is recognised by Sotheby’s and Christie’s – two world renowned auction houses. That may not be far off what with the disruption in the art sale market that has been brought on by the advent of NFTs – digital art payment forms in the mould of crypto-currencies that also allow the artist to have more rights over their work. “Visual artists are on the the cusp of reaping from the disruptive forces that have come with the so-called new normal,” he adds even as he affirms his love for Uganda especially its hospitable people.


From the Diaspora is another school of thought from Lydia Mpanga Sebunya a Ugandan living in Canada. She boasts being a medical practitioner with an artsy background and she cannot emphasise the importance of creating hybrid situations enough in these unusual times. “Frontline medical workers who interact with arts practitioners have been known to display good bedside manners,” she affirms. Ugandan fashion designer Brenda Maraka has used the pandemic misfortunes to rethink her workspace. “Move out of the city if need be and relocate to the countryside if anything to get a new perspective”, she asserts having done the same herself.


Tshaka Mayanja whose reputation as an organiser of stadium concerts precedes him has quite an alternative take. “What may be new to some people that have had their cushioned livelihoods disrupted by the pandemic is the norm for those that whose pre-pandemic lives were defined by homelessness, hunger and angst,” he says. Mayanja adds that this ought to be a wake-up call for us to commiserate with “the other side of the coin”. Needless to say, he adds that COVID-19 has lifted the veil on the fact the artistes are for the better part of their downtime life, induced or otherwise, battling depression that is often brought on by the validation they seek from a society that mostly sees what they do for a living as mostly a hobby. “The biggest lesson in all this is that music hasn’t left,” Mayanja asserts even as he implores his musical peers to stop dying of pride and reach out if they need help be it food or a roof over your head.


And growing his own food, the most basic of necessities is what reputable visual artist Taga Nuwagaba has been doing adding that the pandemic was a chance for him to exercise his green fingers. “I planted some matooke, beans and maize even as I reconnected with my family especially my late dad who I was nursing at the time. We never knew his as someone who laughs but every time he heard Rachel Magoola’s hit ‘Obangaina’, he always burst into joy especially when it was time for him to take his meds,” Muwagaba reminisces.


Even as artistes bemoan government not coming through for them for the whole duration of the pandemic, Florence Aheebwa of the Private Sector Foundation Uganda compels the youth to beat back unemployment by leveraging the various initiatives from her entity that encourage selling online. “We have facilitated initiatives like where artworks are displayed and sold in hotels like Fairway and Protea,” she says of government’s input never mind the cynicism that comes with telling people that now have to pay higher taxes for the Internet about online trading.


Stella Atal, a Ugandan fashion designer based in France, however, feels that the entire value chain of the fashion industry should have been co-opted into fighting the pandemic from the get go. “Here in the West, top design labels went into the manufacture of PPE for use by frontline medical workers while perfume manufacturers went into the production of sanitizers. In Uganda, fashion designers should have been winning the tenders to supply masks,” she adds.



But beyond the ZOOM talks is the need to highlight the importance of the Creative Economy beyond the sustained and inclusive economic growth, foster innovation and provide opportunities, benefits and empowerment for all and respect for all human rights platitudes. For a sector that contributes to 3% of global GDP which is $1bn (about UGX4tn) in the Ugandan sense and employs mostly youth, who comprise 80% of Uganda’s population, and women, then it is imperative to also include its practitioners in national pandemic relief initiatives like the recent UGX100000 because artistes are also vulnerable currently.


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