Many Kampalans might view the city’s ubiquitous motorbike taxis as vehicles manned by thugs who drive recklessly, but artist Kino Musoke thinks they are simply gold.
For this month’s Kampala Contemporary Art Festival KLA ART 014, for which 20 Ugandan artists were tasked with transforming bodabodas into works of art, he spray painted a Bajaj Boxer motorbike, normally used to transport passengers around the chaotic city, that colour.
“It’s simple but it’s used to deliver the message that they’re worth more than we think they are,” said the self-taught artist, 24, of his exhibit, which has a gold body, extra gold rear-view mirrors, and a gold helmet.
“The bodaboda riders have so many responsibilities. They might take one person’s kids to school; for another they might be the ambulance who takes another person to hospital in an emergency. They take other people to work,” he says. “They’re an economic pillar in the country.”
Musoke’s elaborately designed bike has been on display at Kampala’s Railway Building since the festival’s October 4 opening, along with the other vehicles. But every day they are also driven to iconic locations across the capital, from the National Theatre to the Independence monument to Owino Market, where they’ve formed temporary exhibition spaces.
Musoke, who said he uses bodas “all the time, even to get to this interview,” has an appropriate driver who has ferried his precious cargo around the city.
Naume Awero, 25, is the ‘first lady’ of Kampala’s roads – the original and to date only female motorbike rider among thousands and thousands of men.
“For some people bodabodas are good people, they help you with transport,” said Awero, who is supported by Tugende, a for-profit which provides loans, in the form of new bikes, to recommended drivers through a hire-purchase arrangement.
“Others know us as thieves…as idle.”
As part of the festival, Awero will move to 28 places across Kampala.
“As people come we try and explain to them what the gold means,” she said. “Gold is very expensive. They should respect us because we’re not useless.”
Building on the success of the inaugural festival in 2012, when 12 Ugandan artists transformed shipping containers into artworks, KLA ART 014 has offered established and emerging artists a platform to showcase their ideas under this year’s theme “Unmapped.”
“KLA ART is a two-year process of thought, production and experimentation resulting in a unique festival, which directly links artists, artworks and audiences,” said project director Rocca Gutteridge. She is also the co-director of 32º East | Ugandan Arts Trust, a centre for the creation and exploration of contemporary Ugandan art.
While Musoke highlighted the value of the bodas, his peer the Ugandan artist known as Petro showcased its grim side: a trade that can earn one a livelihood, but also take it away, all too quickly.
His bike was made from car pieces and has “Go slow! Save a future president!” written on one side.
“Uganda is one of the countries affected most by road accidents. We have lost so many people in road accidents and you never know they might have become big people in the future,” said Petro. “But because it is a sudden death, they die with their ambitions, so in that sense they become unknown.”
Similarly, Leilah Babirye, 28, a visual artist and sculptor, turned a motorbike into a “boda patrol”, with these words written on the back of a wooden frame.
“How can we help one another to come up with a better way of protecting these men who drive at night?” she said.
Babirye suggested that the government could even buy her artwork and use it on the streets of Kampala after the festival.
Other artists have taken advantage of the festival to show how the omnipresent motorbikes can be used to provide entertainment.
Kizito Mbuga, 26, transformed his boda into a travelling “kibanda” (cinema). The travelling movie theatre is constructed from wood, paper and rubber and has speakers for the audio, in a local language, Luganda. Mbuga, a graduate of Makerere University who has worked in fashion and as a graphic designer, drew pictures of Ugandan figures to go with this.
“I’m trying to appreciate the local movie cinema halls,” he said. “They do a lot for the community, they provide them with entertainment which they can’t afford at the big cinema halls.”
For Jimmy John Ogwang, 30, a sound producer, KLA ART 014 forced him to “think outside the box”. So he turned a boda into a box and built an interactive recording studio, where the public can record their own voices and listen to their own performances, on top of the bike.
Ogwang’s artwork is made from wood, cloth, paint and foam and features a highly sensitive microphone, the artist’s own computer and even a fan to cool down those making recordings.
“I did this because I want to see this around Kampala,” said Ogwang. “I came to know that (most) people don’t have an experience of being in a studio.”
Later, he plans to give the material back to each person who has made a recording and to make a documentary using some of the sounds.
A graduate of Uganda’s Kyambogo University, Ogwang, who grew up on a farm, said he had been an artist since seven, working mainly in music and recording.
“When I reached school they told me you could also try art but art is not seen as something people can survive on,” he said. “That’s when one person puts on leg in the art, then one leg outside in business.”
Today Ogwang still farms and admits this makes him more much money than his art, but said through participating in KLA ART 014 he had been exposed to so many new people.
“Most people (in Uganda) are now going commercial — this art where you do mass production, graphics designs,” he said. “That’s where people are really getting money.”
KLA ART 014 also involved curators and writers from Ethiopia, Tanzania, Kenya, Rwanda and DRC.
Gutteridge, the project director, said Kampala had a rich history of cultural festivals.
“But at certain moments it’s maybe difficult to get your voice heard because of certain political situations or social economic situations,” she said. “I think 2014 has been a particularly interesting year for Kampala with the Kampala Art Biennale, KLA ART, LaBa! (street festival) and Bayimba.”
Amy Fallon is a freelance journalist based in Kampala, Uganda. She is Australian-born and has also lived and worked in the UK for various newspapers, magazines and websites. Follow her on twitter @amyfallon
Main image: Kizito Mbuga transformed his boda into a travelling “kibanda” (cinema). Amy Fallon.Read older posts from this section