To the world, from Katwe: Using art for change

Artistic work in Kampala. PHOTO/HANDOUT

What you need to know:

  • In colour. For different people, art is an acquired taste, yet for others, like the children in Katwe, art feeds them. 

In October, youngsters from Katwe got to dream in a mall with their paintbrushes in hand. It was not only their chance to be artists; they also had an opportunity to exhibit to raise awareness about kARTwe, a street art project aimed at building a crusade against poverty as well as the physical, mental, and health effects of living in squalor.

But there is more to art in what kARTwe is doing in Katwe. Being one of the areas hit with malnutrition issues, the project is one way of tackling the crisis. For each child that comes to paint, they are given food. Thus, many come for the food but end up learning.

Through the provision of food, kARTwe successfully attracts children to participate in their street art project in Katwe. Although the promise of a meal initially attracted them, these children also have the chance to learn and grow as artists. The kARTwe project offers a multifaceted solution to the crisis this underprivileged community is facing by addressing malnutrition and providing a pathway for education. We talk to Mark Montgomery, the director of the project, about the exhibition.

Mark Montgomery. PHOTO/COURTESY 

The exhibition was an opportunity for the children to express themselves as well as get their works seen. Many of the children who are first-time painters were heavily inspired by things that take place in the community and films, especially those with super heroes. These are excerpts from the interview.

What is the goal of the kARTwe Project?
The objective is for the residents of Katwe, especially the children, to look beyond their immediate surroundings, which are not always very pleasant; there is a lot of filth, violence, depression, and unemployment. But these children, every Saturday morning, learn to draw and paint. They get to have an experience beyond their reality as they create a context in their minds that has much more beauty than what they see immediately. When that happens, they feel better about themselves and build self-confidence and self-awareness. They realise that just because I am poor does not mean I am stupid. I may be poor, but I have talent, skill, and ambition. The kARTwe programme allows them to develop and express that.

What inspired the project, and how has it evolved since its inception in May 2022?
Ugandans have been painting on walls for as long as I can remember; they’ve been using public art to express their thoughts and to record their history. What we are doing is just a simple progression—the evolution of the public art that started in the caves and mountains of Kumi (Nyero Rock Paintings). People have always wanted to express themselves. During the Covid-19 lockdown, we were not able to see art in museums or galleries because every place was closed, and that rebirthed in all of us a new appreciation for art that is not locked up. I think it is very symbolic that street art is not locked up and that it is there for everyone to see. We are given a platform to express ourselves publicly, and this is how this project came about.

How have the art classes and workshops impacted the lives of children, youth, and adults in Katwe?
Because they see people in and outside of Katwe appreciating and accepting their own creations, the kids have gained new confidence and self-belief. As far as the Katwe community is concerned, in the little area where we are working around Katwe Central Primary School, we have done five murals, and that small area brings some beauty to the community. It helps keep that part clean because people want to protect that art.

Some of the children painting during the exhibition at Oasis Mall in Kampala. PHOTO/HANDOUT

When we protect the arts and keep that area clean, we cut off diseases borne of filth. That happens because waste food is not just thrown out; broken bottles are not left around, so we have fewer mice or rats carrying disease and fewer kids cutting their feet with broken glass.

This means more time in school, fewer infections, and fewer medical expenses for their families. This is the knock-on effect of what is happening. For next year, we hope to do 18 more murals in Katwe to extend the influence of creating beauty in a slum community.

 Could you elaborate on the significance of the art pieces created by the children of Katwe that were exhibited during the recent event?
The first important thing is the effect on us ourselves (the Katwe team). This art came out of Katwe to one of the most prestigious shopping malls in Kampala; the general public is watching them, and our kids had the confidence to keep painting, not to be intimidated; they believed in themselves. Second, the calibre of the work they produced was sensational; people visited our kids and spoke with them, and some of them did purchase the artwork the kids had created.

The kids saw a different dimension; they were not only painting the pictures for fun, but they also learned that it can become an income-generating activity. In addition to that, we had so many people who came through, watched the exhibition, and left their names and addresses for us to be in touch with them. So, we succeeded on both fronts. We have far greater awareness in the public eye now because of that.

What are the challenges you’ve encountered while implementing the project?
The main problem is funding (being able to support the program). One of the ways we’ve overcome this is that we are in discussion with potential supporters; we hope they sponsor a number of elements that the programme needs.

The other project we are running is a fundraising project for 1Kid, 1Kilo (One K, One K). We are trying to get donors, corporate social responsibility, and people to buy one kilo of NRG Xtra, a corn-soy blend product that is flavorful but very low on the glycemic index. It’s the NRG that served to the children. The aim of the social responsibility is to buy 10 ml for a child. This is a major programme for us to raise funds for because we desperately need the funds to expand.

How has the local community responded to the street art project?
We’ve spent 18 months on this project to get to where we are, and we are beginning to see people respond to us. You know as well as I do that when vulnerable communities see people come in, they try to do good work and then disappear. So, it takes time to build confidence and relationships. We are now 18 months down that road with great relationships with Katwe Central Primary School, the Local Council, the kids, and the community, which is beginning to acknowledge that we are there long-term and that we are not just a flash in the pan. More and more, we will be incorporating the community into what we do.

Can you share some success stories or personal experiences from individuals who have benefited from the project?
We have 55 young people who come every Saturday morning to learn to paint, so the success story is that these 55 kids didn’t paint before kARTwe; they do now. Realising that painting is an option is a success story. Also, it is a success that Plascon Paints is seeing the visibility and viability of the project; at least in the first stage, they sponsored all the paint for the exhibition, we are connecting with local businesses, and the management of the centre gave us exhibition space as they recognise us as serious contributors to the community. That, I believe, is great. Two of our boys sold their paintings on Saturday.

The art exhibition included a raffle draw and donations from notable artists and companies. How do these partnerships and contributions support FAMMI’s mission?
The two artists, Gam Massa and Dennis Sewanyana, donated four paintings, which we put up for raffle and attracted funds for. More importantly, the raffle gave us a chance to note down people’s contact details.

There were 71 people in total, and I have been in touch with all 71 people, and they are all willing to continue supporting us. With this little spark that Gam Massa and Sewanyana gave us, we were able to attract more attention

Feed a Million Mouths International (FAMMI) – a social enterprise based in Uganda – has launched the “Kartwe Street Art Project” in the Katwe area of Kampala to impart art skills to underprivileged children and youth and transform the community through public art.

People painting in Kampala. PHOTO/HANDOUT 

Katwe – once a thriving informal settlement for mostly artisans, craftsmen, technicians and entrepreneurs – has since become an incubation chamber for crime, disease, and poverty, and is home to a large number of street children.

According to the Police Annual Crime Report for 2020, Katwe is one of Uganda’s leading divisions in crime, registering a total of 2,797 cases during that year.

Public art has been used elsewhere in the world to impact individual lives, transform public spaces and ignite change, for example, “Boy With Kite” – a 150 square meter mural in one of Rio de Janeiro’s favelas – which was painted alongside local youth who were offered an alternative life away from crime and drug gangs. Through the Kartwe Street Art Project, FAMMI also aims to inspire the community to maintain cleanliness towards alleviating diseases like tetanus and typhoid.