Listen to the truth the land will tell you and act accordingly.
As eco art educator and curator Linda Weintraub notes, “contemporary eco art is a living phenomenon, which means it is responsive, capricious, unpredictable, and evolving. Short for ecological art, eco art can take a variety of forms, but usually includes an innovative use of materials and an element of social activism. Its intentions generally lie in merging environmental awareness and consideration, along with the aesthetic principles of design. Frequently community-based, a lot of eco art is quite public by nature. Ever-changing, this broad topic will continue to emerge as an important art movement so long as our planet continues to cry out for more tender love and care.
Kampala: home of eco art
The contemporary art scene in Kampala, Uganda, is starting to kick, with part of the push coming from eco artists like veteran upcycler Sanaa Gateja, and one of his protégés, Ruganzu Bruno. While other talented Ugandan artists such as Collin Sekajugo and SANE are making waves with their social activist and political artworks respectively, Ruganzu is creating change through the age-old adage of three magic words: reduce, reuse, recycle. He has already accomplished an incredible amount in his brief 29 years, including organizing the Kampala TEDx talks, traveling the globe with his public speaking, and creating social change through art around Uganda. In 2010, he founded a non-profit company, Eco Art Uganda, after graduating from Kyambogo University in art and design. Now a part-time lecturer at his alma mater, he continues to spread the message of eco art to his students, community, and beyond.
Recently back in Kampala after a whirlwind trip to Europe, he chatted with me about his passions and work, which are one and the same. Friendly and helpful, he brims with enthusiasm while talking about his love of connecting people, and encouraging positive action.
K: Where does your passion for eco art come from?
R: “My passion for eco art is mysterious. I never knew there was something called eco art, I just wanted to re-think waste as an artist and re-imagine what it could be. I was born in the beautiful natural Kabale where nature rules. When I moved to the city, I saw plastic waste everywhere. This made me want to use it to campaign for a greener Uganda. Garbage is also free material, so I don’t have to think about my limited financial resources in order to still make artworks.”
Ruganzu is a great example of the idea that we already have whatever we need. Even though money is an issue, as it is for most artists, Ruganzu chooses to use this as an asset rather than a setback. He combines his need for artistic materials and lack of financial resources to redefine what constitutes art materials in the first place. Why not use bottle caps, discarded water bottles, and other garbage to create works of art that are not only neat to look at, but also have a message behind them?
This is yet another instance of how art can help reveal the beauty in the everyday, mundane objects we come across during our daily lives. Ruganzu also shows us how going back to our roots can lead us to brighter futures. By remembering the natural beauty of his hometown, Ruganzu is taking practical steps to bring this beauty to his current home of Kampala. It is true that we don’t know where we’re going until we know where we’re from.
The privilege of travel
K: You also travel a ton, always jetting off to foreign places. As a Ugandan, there seems to be all sorts of challenges around obtaining visas and actually getting to other countries. What has been your experience with this? Do you think it might get better in the future?
R: “I have a dream that, by 2015, visas will not limit creatives to move around and exchange knowledge and culture. As an environmental artist, I have been lucky to use my previous artistic experiences to get visas for other countries. For Brazil, I got the visa in one day, and I was given a US visa for 2 years on the spot. Social networks and international journalists have the abilities to put pressure on embassies about visas. It doesn’t work like that for others, normally: I know many artists from developing countries who suffer a lot when it comes to visas. They lose so much money. It is unfair and needs to be addressed.”
From the many conversations I’ve had with Ugandan artists here in Kampala, I’ve learned about the struggles they face when trying to obtain visas for work and art-related experiences in other countries. Regardless of how many supporting documents they provide, or the legitimacy of their travels for creative and educational purposes, few are ever rewarded with visas.
If artists here do decide to try to get a visa for another country, they must spend the same fees regardless of whether they are granted one or not. This makes it a losing battle, not only personally and professionally, but financially as well. In order for artists to grow their practice, they need to be able to explore other places, meet new peers from different cultures, and have the learning experiences that traveling enables. This is a situation that needs further attention if we are to help art grow globally.
K: You’re still very young, but you’ve amassed a pretty impressive CV as an eco-artist and public speaker. What have been your favourite experiences around the globe so far?
R: “My best experience has been viewing my country from the other side of the world every time I travel abroad. I see so many opportunities out there compared to back home. Speaking in front of 700 plus TEDx organizers at the TEDx Summit in Doha, Qatar in 2012 was amazing. Being able to travel to four continents in 8 months this year is great for ideas but I need time to absorb it all. It’s tough to think which place was the best, because they all provided such different opportunities.”
TEDx has been integral to Ruganzu’s career and in broadening his outreach as a Ugandan artist. An influential public speaker, Ruganzu has the natural ability to reach others through his innovative artistic ideas and community-based values. Part social activist and part artist, public speaking gives Ruganzu the necessary platform to create the change he sees possible.
At the moment, Ruganzu is currently “helping new TEDx Organisers with my local expertise and my experiences from the TED events I attend abroad. There’s always something I’m doing with the TEDx community that I helped to start here in Uganda. I’m proud to be part of the family. There are now over 10 independent TED events in this country. It’s a great opportunity for locals to celebrate with our own people, while also welcoming the outside world to our ideas.”
This is a great idea to execute in our own hometowns. Many cities around the world now have independently organized TEDx events happening during different parts of the year. Do you have an idea that others might benefit from hearing? A vision yet to be realized? The time to take action is now. TEDx events are fabulous opportunities for us to become more integrated with our communities, make our voices heard, and inspire others through our own personal experiences and future visions. What are you waiting for?
Lending a hand
A great example of Ruganzu’s eco art is his sculpture created from recycled waste called, ‘The Hand That Speaks. Commissioned at the residence of “Mr. Bwengye Edward, an environmentalist at UNICEF,” Ruganzu made this during his time as a student with the help of his colleagues who were studying with him at the time. Though Mr. Bwengye financed the material, Ruganzu and his fellow classmates weren’t paid for their time spent creating this functional sculpture. Intended as a reminder that while our hands can be used to litter, they can also be used to clean up the environment; the choice is ours. The piece was motivated by the people Ruganzu saw in Kampala, throwing water bottles out the windows of their fancy cars.
Ruganzu’s hand sculpture reminds that we don’t need large financial resources or big corporations backing our ideas in order for us to make them happen. All that we need is to remember that where there’s a will, there’s always a way. We can ask our friends to help out, or find ways to use materials already available to us.
Do you have a project you’ve been wanting to start, but have been waiting until the time is perfect? Look inside your heart and ask yourself if it’s something that you really want to see come to fruition. If it is, then I encourage you to heed the advice of The Doors‘ Jim Morrison: the time to hesitate is through.
Water safety awareness and action
Ruganzu is also doing his part to help bring safe water to Ugandan communities. To do this, he and his team collect and distribute large, empty water containers to local families. From his rallying calls on Facebook, he brings together students, children, and parents alike to join him in his efforts. During their visits, they also teach the families about water safety, including how to prepare the water so that it’s safe to drink. Ruganzu notes that “you can’t go visit these families and tell them to boil water in order to make it safe, if they can’t afford to purchase a container to hold the boiled water in the first place.”
Rather than feel discouraged at the amount of work that needs to be done in educating people about water safety, Ruganzu simply moves forward with whatever action is needed, and starts raising awareness on a grassroots level. He confirms this attitude with the project’s mission statement: “to increase hygiene and prevent water related diseases in local communities living in Kampala.” So far, Ruganzu and his team have already supplied approximately 70 families with empty water containers and accompanying information on water safety.
Advice for future change-makers
K: Do you have any advice for up-and-coming eco artists, public speakers, and change-makers?
R: “My advice is to stop talking and start acting. Change-makers are not about talk, build it and they will come. They need to stay focused, patient, and keep their eyes on the prize. Be passionate in all you do. The world will come to you only when you have something to offer.”
We all know that talking the talk is one thing; walking it is quite another. When we take action on our ideas, we risk failure, judgment, and personal exposure. But if we don’t, we risk so much more: not following through on our personal vision and realizing our full potential. By being open to falling flat on our faces and making mistakes, we can embrace brave new ways of living. A life of courage requires failure and emotional vulnerability. This is not only true for artists, but for everyone.
Let’s commit to taking action to realize our heart’s visions! No matter how our ideas end up manifesting in real life, they will serve to move us forward, leading us in the direction of our true calling.
Small actions = big rewards
With more walk and less talk, everyone benefits. And this doesn’t necessarily mean that we need to stand up in front of a huge audience to share our dreams; putting our actions where our hearts are can be simple and easy. In fact, in order to end big, we all need to start small. Even the Dalai Lama agrees with this one:
Pico Iyer relates a revealing story about the Dalai Lama, one that could be applied to environmental concerns. Feeling that even someone in his position could never do enough about human suffering, the Dalai Lama told Iyer “that it was ‘up to us poor humans to make the effort,’ one step at a time,” as the Buddha did. Iyer continues, “Then as we were walking out of the room, he went back and turned off the light. It’s such a small thing, he said, it hardly makes a difference at all. And yet nothing is lost in the doing of it, and maybe a little good can come of it, if more and more people remember this small gesture in more and more rooms.”