David Oduki at ‘Let Us Share Beauty’: “Adapt exhibitions to global trends”
On April 10th the opening of a small exhibition of Ugandan and Tanzanian visual art took place at the Antje Drijver Pavilion in Utrecht, The Netherlands. In the middle of this wonderful park the locals have an opportunity to show their passion. Our passion is Ugandan modern art.Written by Addy Beukema and Frans Bosman, with Q&A written by Thomas Bjørnskau, startjournal.org.
“When we lived in Uganda for over three years, we became fascinated by the art. We bought the pieces we liked the most, and our house is now filled with African colors. With the exhibition “Let Us Share Beauty”, we wanted to share this beautiful work with people from our neighborhood.
David Oduki, a Ugandan artist who lives in Amsterdam, was invited to share his vision of the modern art of his country at the opening. In 2009 he organized an exhibition of Dutch art in combination with modern Ugandan art together with Daudi Karungi and Henry Mziili at the National Museum in Kampala. We share his idea of the value of cultural exchange in arts. (see also “Viral Value”, Start issue 004 Ed.)
Oduki is convinced that this exhibition in Utrecht is valuable in many ways, hence offering an opportunity for Ugandan artists to become known abroad and to expand their markets. Although the paintings and woodprints on display were not for sale, visitors were nevertheless interested to buy some of the artist’s works. At least this shows that the interest is growing.
In our opening speech we mentioned how valuable it is to be in contact with many Ugandan visual artists and writers. We all share the desire for an Uganda Museum of Modern Art, which does not exist yet. The contemporary cultural heritage thus disappears in private collections and is mostly bought by Europeans and Americans, and maybe some Japanese nowadays. This is extremely unfortunate in terms of the lack of preservation of the national cultural identity.
We talked about artists like David Kigozi and his chickens in wonderful colors, depicting implicit comments on society. We mentioned his large painting of black and white chickens, which were painted after the recent demonstrations that included fights and casualties. Images where the only color was the purple beak of the cock, which was very aggressive.
And Ismael Kateregga, with his impressionistic style, showing the real African Kampala in his paintings. Also Hassan Mukiibi with his woodprints, with subtle colors and critical themes from the society, like the co-wives, and his dedication to use his talent to create artworks together with war victims.
We also made a “passport” for all the exposed artists, providing information about them.
Many visitors were surprised by the modern art of Uganda, because they had expected something different. A substantial number of Dutch people obviously percieve African art only as wooden masks, carvings, and maybe the stone sculptures from Zimbabwe. The awareness of anything that differs from this tradition is low.
Therefore, it was especially satisfying that the beauty of the exposed modern artwork was an eye opener for most of our visitors. Fully in line with one of our goals; to convince the European audience that African artists create high quality modern art pieces. And the painting by Daudi Karungi in combination with the poem “I Am in Control” by Rosey Sembatya, invited visitors to discuss the merging of visual art and literature, and fully experience the power of the two cultural expressions combined.
We are convinced that sharing the beauty of our Ugandan and Tanzanian art pieces contributed to a great deal of pleasure to many people, and generated more knowledge about modern art in Africa for the visitors of the exhibition.” Addy and Frans
Q&A with David Oduki
Following this report from a diaspora-event, startjournal.org has taken the opportunity to ask some questions to David Oduki, who currently works for the foundation Royalafrican.org, an NGO facilitating cultural exchanges between Africa and Europe by individual, artists, galleries and cultural organisations.
David Oduki: “On 10 April 2011, I attended the opening of the exhibition “Let us share the beauty” – The Beukema/Bosman collection of East African contemporary Art in Utrecht – where I was honoured to make an opening speech. It was an emotionally fulfilling moment for me and I was proud to be there to speak about works of art by Gateja, Kaspa, Karungi, Kateregga, Sane, Damba and many other artists. The works were of high quality and did not look out of place at all in Europe.”
Start: What was the reaction from the Dutch audience to the Ugandan artworks being exhibited? The organisers have mentioned the great amount of surprise, because the audience would have expected more traditional African art like wooden masks and carvings; it would be good if you could elaborate on some of the elements of surprise.
DO: “As Addy pointed out, the Dutch audience was surprised at the style of work on display, as like with everything African, African Art will be stereotyped and pigeon holed into African masks. One of the main reasons here may also have to do with Africa’s stereotyped media coverage in the west. Even the books published on World Art history rarely give names (brand) to African artists. I think it is up to Africans to look into this.
I was never a fan of traditional African art and music when growing up in Africa. Just like other lucky Africans sent to elite boarding schools, we tended to frown upon our past tradition which the books we read at school told us was a primitive culture. However, I have changed and I now understand the interest in masks. Their beauty can not be copied by artists today.
I was apprentice to the Dutch artist Peter Diem for two years; he holds one of the largest private collections of African art in Holland – none of which is a painting! Being around these primitive art pieces may have contributed to changing my perception and beginning to appreciate their beauty. In a business sense, these works are old, very old, they are made by anonymous artisans, their quality can not be copied today; all of which makes them rare (in business supply vs. demand). The most expensive art work ever from Africa by far is thus a mask.
Artists like Diem play a major maven role in western society, mainly because he is an excellent business man who sets trends with his works, which the rest of the society buys into and aspires to be. Therefore, if such Mavens state that modern African art is the traditional masks, the rest of the society will follow them without giving the matter much thought.
Start: Following up on that topic; what do you think should be done to get western audiences more aware of the fact that African contemporary artists really are working in many exciting directions?
To change the western perception of African art, the “Diems” of the society have to accept that African art can be a painting. These people are very hard to convince. They have big egos, they are extraordinary achievers, and society looks up to them – however, not necessarily consciously. Diem lived in Mali for two years gaining the trust of locals, which is why he is able to own some African traditional art pieces worth millions of dollars that would not normally be sold to any westerner, even the one’s with money.
The biggest collector of modern African Art in the world is Jean Pigozzi (he has never set a foot on African soil).The Pigozzi collection is vast and exceptionally beautiful, it has taken over 20 years to put together, and yes, it does contain paintings, photographs etc., mainly of artists from DRC. Even Jean Pigozzi – with all the resources at his disposal – has challenges getting the European elite to accept his vision. (Last I heard, he is now collecting Japanese art!)
The thing is that Pigozzi is a very wealthy man who is not personally a maven in African art, i.e. he has not lived with the artists who made the works he collects, hence he can not speak for them with passion, thus he can not sell them. If, on the other hand, there was a Diem in Pigozzi shoes, African contemporary art in Europe may well be at a whole different level.
To conclude; on top of having western media get on the side of African modern art, getting art market mavens on our side would go a long way in changing the stereotypes of African Art.
Locals, tourists or innovation?
Start: What role could the local galleries in Uganda and other East African countries play to get Ugandan artists to the international markets? What kind of activities could they engage themselves in?
Local African galleries may have more options than they think. The first option, which I spoke about two years ago and which I will repeat here, is to look within the local community and create a market for art based on local African patronage. The local market potential for art in Uganda today is larger than what is exported by far.
A second option is to give the western buyer what he wants, though this may lead to the usual mass produced batiks and carvings targetted tourists, which may not be what some ambitious, young names would want.
A third and more challenging option is to be extremely innovative and produce revolutionary art works. Art does not have to be a painting or a sculpture; it can be something which does not yet exist. The best art must have a good reason to exist – so make it exist!
Ghanaian born artist El Anatsui comes to my mind here; his works now fetch millions of dollars and even the maven-in-chief Bill Gates bought one of his pieces (he recycles used bottle tops to create fabric like massive pieces). Locally I am very impressed with Collin Sekajugo, he is one to watch! I like that he also recycles plastic. These two artists have their antenna tuned to the western audience who are now going crazy with recycling and green energy.
So local gallery owners in Africa should be aware of global trends and adapt exhibitions to those trends. These trends change at a moments notice like the stock market. A difficult challenge, but very fulfilling if achieved.
Local galleries need to promote the likes of the Sekajugos and explain their recycling message to the local public using related activities. Sekajugo’s message is a global one, and I see any local activity based on his work getting well received by western audiences.
Start: You are talking about the Government’s role to support the local art scene in our Issue 004 of Start Magazine. If you were to choose ONE thing that the Government should do now in 2011 which you think would really have an impact on the art scene, what should that be and how should they do it?
There is no one thing a government can do to improve arts and culture. If the government took only a one step approach, culture will always lag behind. I am a fan of an orchestrated multi-pronged approach with tens or even hundreds of local initiatives working towards a goal. It is a steep challenge given the lack of resources and technical manpower, but I am confident that with time it will happen.
Start: Finally, Startjournal.org think it would be very interesting to hear about our own role in the local arts scene; what kind of advice would you give us as an online journal about arts and culture? Any types of content you miss or anything you feel we should do differently?
I love the Start Journal, but I must admit that I loved the hard copy more, because I like to have more easy access to previous articles. Still, I am impressed with the new set-up. I like the articles where you interview local collectors – that is in line with what I have written earlier. I would like you to uncover more local maven collectors, they are usually shy and buy expensive art anonymously, but tell them it is OK to share their collector passion with friends and the local public, and then the art collecting epidemic will begin locally.
David Oduki is co-founder of the Royal African Foundation. Reach him at www.royalafrican.org.