Modern batik classes allow deaf artists to voice their plight

Saturday May 08 2021
Emma Kalungi.

Emma Kalungi working on his batik painting at a workshop organised by Deaf Link Uganda. PHOTO | MORGAN MBABAZI | NMG


On a Wednesday morning, young Ugandan deaf artist Pathius Tashobya applies dye to his batik painting of African drums.

Tashobya, who tells me that he has just ironed the fabric, is meticulously applying one colour at a time to complete his work.

"I have done batik before but this is the first time I am learning this modern technique, which involves a lot of toning and dyeing. I am adding colours from dark to light," he says.

"I have gained a lot of knowledge from this modern batik workshop. The technique employs a lot of waxing in order for the colours not to get mixed up," adds the young man from Bushenyi District in western Uganda.

Emma Kalungi, also deaf, is painting his batik of pots. "When you see these pots from western Uganda, they have their unique features and patterns. So, it is about promoting our cultures," he says.

"This is my first time working on batik and it is very interesting. Today, I learnt how to do the toning, painting with colours, and waxing," Kalungi said.

Monica Yoacel.

Monica Yoacel holds up one of her batik pieces done at the DLU workshop. PHOTO | MORGAN MBABAZI | NMG

Monica Yoacel's batik is of African drums. "I love drumming. It is one our cultural symbols," she says.

"This is my first time working with modern batik. It is a new technique and different from what I know," said Yoacel, who holds a Diploma in Interior Design from Kyambogo University in Kampala, adding, "I have heard people talk of this modern batik technique and I am now doing it. This is a new skill that I will add to my work."

Tashobya, Kalungi and Yoacel were part of a group of seven established young artists who recently participated in a three-day Modern Batik Workshop organised by Deaf Link Uganda (DLU) in collaboration with Goethe-Zentrum Kampala (GZK).

The modern batik designs and patterns concept is the brainchild of internationally renowned Ugandan artist David Kibuuka, who pioneered the fragmentation technique. In the technique, he uses mosaics of colour and form to create designs and patterns that can be produced on fabric.

The youth who participated in the workshop that was held in Kampala from March 30 to April 1, learnt how to design and produce original templates (16x20) — which can be framed and sold as artwork or for use in textile production; how to apply dyes on fabric; how to use wax as a medium to produce various patterns and designs — which can be applied on fabric such as canvas, silk, cotton, linen or polyester; and they understood and appreciated the multi-purpose nature of textile as a versatile product that can be used to make unlimited products on clothing and accessories.

"This workshop was meant to provide additional skills on a new form of modern batik art to established deaf artists with existing art businesses, as well as showcase their talents and exceptional potential," said Kiyaga B. Nassozi, the DLU executive director.

"It is a sustainable art format that can take place at grassroots level, using local materials and supplies. Workshops participants are taught the basic principles of applying wax and dyes to fabric to create modern and traditional patterns step by step," Kibuuka said.

"Once these skills are acquired, the possibilities are endless. The designs or patterns can be supplied to fashion or interior designers worldwide. The patterned fabric can also be used to make wide range of products including clothing, accessories, drapery, bedsheets, among others, that can be sold locally and internationally," Kibuuka adds.

Monica Yoacel.

Monica Yoacel works on one of her batik pieces. PHOTO | MORGAN MBABAZI | NMG


According to Unesco, relatively little information is available in developing countries about deafness and many deaf people consequently suffer throughout their lives, at home, in school and in the community because of the absence of information about sign language.

"There are many challenges that we as deaf people face. First of all, there no jobs for us and when you apply for one, communication is difficult because of the lack of awareness about sign language," said Tashobya adding, "You can’t see my disability and so the communication barriers only emerge when you start using sign language."

"Our biggest challenge revolves around how to communicate with those who don't know sign language. Most of my potential customers come across my work on the market and when they call my phone I can’t pick. They don’t know that I am deaf, so we can’t communicate. I end up losing customers in the process," Kalungi says.

Modern Batik Workshop.

Some of the participants of the Modern Batik Workshop at the Goethe-Zentrum in Kampala. PHOTO | MORGAN MBABAZI | NMG

Kalungi, who has been practising his craft for two years now and has made a lot of pieces, which are hanging on his walls at home as a result of the Covid-19 shocks. "I had a shop where I sold my pieces, but with the Covid-19 restrictions I have been forced to close it. It has been hard for me during this period."

Yoacel said art materials are expensive, adding, "Most people are used to tie and dye. Even then it is really hard to get customers. So you end up keeping your pieces at home. Some people who know me come home to buy my works. I also use WhatsApp and Facebook to promote them.

"I think many people have not understood what interior design is. Also most customers think that women can’t paint. They think as a woman you can’t do that work. So, I end up losing business," Yoacel added.

"The biggest challenge facing deaf artists in Uganda is the lack of sensitivity to train them in visual and practical skills that can empower them to be productive members of society," Kibuuka said.

On her part Nassozi said that attitudinal traditional prejudice and stereotypes towards deafness and deaf people are still deeply ingrained in people’s minds.

"Lack of awareness about deaf people’s intellectual abilities robs African nations of a vital and untapped human resource giving rise to incessant and relentless social, cultural and economic discrimination at all levels of society and excludes, marginalises and relegates deaf people.

"This creates barriers that stop deaf people from accessing equal opportunities. This is a deeply saddening reality that our society needs to address," Nassozi added.

When asked what got him interested in fine art Tashobya said: "When I was still a student in secondary school I studied sciences but then found out that art has multiple areas such as printing and working with different mediums. Art has different areas of learning and it is diverse.

"I think I was born an artist. Right from my childhood art has interested me. I started drawing right from a young age. I used to make balls and toy bicycles, which I sold to my fellow youngsters. And I have been developing my skills all along." 

Kalungi holds a Diploma in Art and Design from the Michael Angelo School of Creative Arts in Wakiso District in central Uganda.

"Creative art is a visual form that is highly suitable for deaf people; the absence of hearing, speech and sound enables the deaf to tap into their innate visual power and intelligence, which is sharper than that of hearing individuals. Their focus on tasks and creative details is unmatched..." Nassozi said.

Yoacel said she is in the process of registering her company under which she will open a shop to sell her works. She will also be making flower pots and landscaping.

Tashobya, who is about to graduate with a Bachelor’s Degree in Industrial Art and Design from Kyambogo University, said he plans to start his art business in screen printing and working with fabrics once he is done with his studies. 

Kalungi, who is now mainly working from his home in Kanyanya in Kampala, would want to upgrade his skills by pursuing a Bachelor’s Degree in Industrial Art and Design at Kyambogo University in future.


A global issue

According to the World Health Organisation, over five percent of the world’s population — or 430 million people — require rehabilitation to address their "disabling" hearing loss (432 million adults and 34 million children). It is estimated that by 2050 over 700 million people — or one in every 10 people — will have disabling hearing loss.

"Disabling" hearing loss refers to hearing loss greater than 35 decibels (dB) in the better hearing ear. Nearly 80 percent of people with disabling hearing loss live in low- and middle-income countries. The prevalence of hearing loss increases with age, among those older than 60 years; over 25 percent are affected by disabling hearing loss, WHO adds.

According to the Uganda National Population and Housing Census 2014 Report, overall, for the population aged two years and above the disability prevalence rate was 12.4 percent while the equivalent for five years and above was close to 14 percent. Sex differentials reveal that disability is higher among women compared with men.