Scholars and observers have, over the years, lamented about Uganda’s shrinking democratic and civic space.
This, they argue, has been manifested through a legal regime that stifles freedom of speech and expression of groups and individuals.
The events leading to and the aftermath of the recent Arua Municipality by-election and the Public Order Management Act, offer explicit examples yet the same is projected to get worse with the next cycle of political campaigns not so far away.
It is in situations like these that Makerere University don, Dr Angelo Kakande, sees an invaluable opportunity of visual artists to express themselves.
In his paper titled “Contemporary Art in Uganda- A Nexus Between Art and Politics”, Dr Kakande, who is based at the College of Engineering, Design, Art and Technology (CEDAT), argues that visual arts are making significant inroads on Uganda’s political scene.
Street art or graffiti is, finally, assuming its place in the conversation on Uganda’s governance, constitutionalism and democratisation with messages on latest political trends becoming visible the public spaces.
Dr Amanda Tumusiime, a senior lecturer at CEDAT, says art such as graffiti has historically influenced political developments across the globe.
“Graffiti has become the medium through which collective political dissent and activism have gained visual expression in a space where graffiti is considered irreverent. Probably, as Uganda grapples with more scary situations, we will see more graffiti since it is often associated with the anti-establishment movements,” she says.
Dr Tumusiime cites the famous “Kilroy was here” signature phrase and the accompanying illustrations used by American troops during World War II and would later, prominently, filter into American pop culture.
“The student protests world over and generally political strikes bedecked in revolutionary, anarchistic, and situations slogans are always expressed in painted graffiti, poster art, and stencil art in different parts of the world,” Dr Tumusiime explains.
She says that Uganda is not exceptional in regards to these revolutionary slogans which are becoming common lately.
“Recently some wall spaces in the city and also in some institutions of learning were covered with slogans like Togikwatako” she adds.
In another yet to be published paper, “Echoing Silences: Togikwatako and Graffiti in the defence of constitutionalism in Uganda” Dr Kakande looks at how the MTSIFA Fashion Parade of 2017 gave the youth in the country an opportunity to reflect and present their vision of constitutionalism in Uganda.
He argues that this was part of the visual landscape in which fashion design and graffiti became one of the activities under the Togikwatako campaign.
The debate about whether graffiti is some kind of street art or whether street art is graffiti has been going on for such a long period of time. However, for one to engage in this debate it is important to know what graffiti is and what street art is, at what point do they meet or at what point do they differ.
Dr Tumusiime notes that graffiti can be a writing or drawings scribbled scratched, or sprayed on a walk way or a wall or other surface in a public space.
“Moreover, in the classical times graffiti had different connotations than we understood it in today’s society’s concerns. Some scholars have argued that in ancient times graffiti displayed phrases of love declarations, simple words of thought, and political rhetoric compared to today’s popular messages of social and political ideals.”
Dr Tumusiime explains that historically the graffiti artists tended to seek anonymity as attributed to a combination of reasons. She explains that sometimes the graffiti makers constantly had the looming threat of facing consequences for displaying their graffiti and hence this led many to choose to protect their identities and reputation by remaining anonymous.
The desire of people to leave their mark on walls has been around for thousands of years. Archaeologists have found graffiti scratched on walls in the city of Pompeii is as old as 1908. But in terms of contemporary street art, we can trace its beginnings to tagging, scratching initials or a name on public property in the late 1960s.
Street artists such as graffiti artists were reacting and rebelling against society’s rules. Fine artists began to use similar methods, reacting to the decorum of the art world and the insular gallery scene.
Today, some cities invest in such public displays of art. In truth, the definition of street art is still in the process of being written and continues to evolve.
In Uganda graffiti artists are not well known, neither is the public aware that graffiti is a rebellion against the government or society’s rules. For example, Marc Ecko, an urban clothing designer, has been an advocate of graffiti to be an art form during this period, stating that “graffiti is without question the most powerful art movement in recent history.
At Nsambya road junction you are welcomed by a big painting/ picture on a remnant of a demolished structure. Someone might assume that the artist/ painter might have wasted precious time trying out his skills on the street.
Elsewhere, graffiti of the legendary Ethiopian emperor Haile Selassie, reggae stars Bob Marley and Lucky Dube, among others, dot the ghettos of Kampala.
It is not all foreign with artists fancying local celebrities and leaders with some opting for wordings that praise some and others passing messages.
Job Norman Katende alias Hyper Designer, the brain behind the graffiti that was painted in 2009 in Gulu denouncing child abuse, says graffiti can be used to communicate different messages.
A fan of President Museveni, Mr Katende says those who wish for change can deploy street art to pass out messages unlike printing T/shirts and banners which, he says, easily fade.
“The #FreeBobiWine Movement can easily take to art other than demonstrations, this can curb down the number of people who lose their lives in the name of riots. Brushes can easily tell stories that can last, stories that can change hearts” Katende adds
It is not all rosy. Katende notes that street artists who paint on political lines risk their lives explaining that at one point when he was painting President Museveni, he was asked by soldiers to stop and wait for security clearance. Authorities, he says, informed him about an apparent attack by the anti-establishment activists incited by his work.
“My graffiti has been distorted several times at night and the same has happened to other artists who have painted anti-government politicians,” Katende says.
Katende advises that besides political messages graffiti can be used to carry social messages like domestic violence, child abuse, sanitation, among others.
“Street art is visual art created in public locations, usually unsanctioned artwork executed outside of the context of traditional art venues for a purpose,” Katende says.