Pamela Kertland Wright: Collector, writer and owner of Emin Pasha hotel

A Q&A with Pamela Kertland Wright, collector, writer and owner of Emin Pasha hotel as well as several other safari lodges in Uganda.

“I think there is incredible talent here in Uganda. But sometimes it needs to be taken out of Uganda to be fully appreciated. When people visit our house in the UK and see the art we have there, they are amazed. We have been buying pieces for people overseas, who seem to appreciate the work more than many people here.”

Interviewed by Daudi Karungi

How did you begin collecting art? What do you love about it? Did you have a lot of money?

The first piece of art I ever bought was in a little gallery in London, over 20 years ago. It was a tiny fetching of a water garden and I was so proud of myself at the time. I had no money – it was totally impulsive. I was in my early twenties, working in London and feeling lonely and homesick for Canada. This little piece made me feel peaceful, and that was that. I probably would not buy it today—it’s kind of dull—but I still have it and love it because it was my first piece. In Uganda, it was my husband who bought me my first piece. He’s very good at that. He’s been buying art for me since we were first married.

How does a busy professional become a leading Ugandan art collector?

Am I a leading art collector? Much of our business is about aesthetics—so art is an integral part of what we do. I feel very lucky that I can sit down with artists, talk to them, learn about their process and this is all part of a day’s work.

Which artists do you own?

Personally, I own pieces by David Kigozi, Taga, Kizito, Jude Kateete, Paolo Akiiki, Maria Naita, Edison Mugalu, Geoffrey Lukasa, Ronex, Consodyne Buzabo, Paul Ssendagire, George Kyeyune…and I’ve just bought my first Daudi Karungi.

What are your plans for your collection? Do you intend to loan it out to museums, keep it in your house, sell it (if so, when and where?)

It has never occurred to me to loan to a museum. It also hasn’t really occurred to me to sell any of our pieces. I’ll have to think about that. I feel very attached to each and every piece.

Pamala's Living area with paintings by Taga, Mugalu.

Are you an artist yourself? If not, when and where did you acquire an interest and expertise in art?

No, I’m not an artist. I have no technical ability whatsoever… which is so frustrating because I am very visual and can conceive something in my mind that I’d like to see, but cannot produce it. I’m a writer, and I have a deep respect for artists who can bring something from conception to a finished product. I’ve worked with Paul Ssendagire on some woodblocks, and did some prototypes myself out of wax. They were terrible, but they were enough for him to work from, for him to understand my vision. I think I’m a bit jealous of artists and their ability and talent. I grew up with a family who appreciates art, and I married a man who is deeply interested in art (and very talented himself), so my interest was inevitable.

What do you look for when you buy a painting (or other work)?

For me it’s simple. It’s a gut reaction. I just bought another Mugalu – I had to have it as soon as I saw it. My father is an avid art collector, he has built a significant collection over the years, but doesn’t necessarily love all the pieces he buys, nor does he hesitate to sell his pieces. I haven’t reached that stage yet because I adore each and every piece we have.

What do you look for in an artist? Who is your favourite artist and why?

I am in a Mugalu phase at the moment, I love the way he handles light. I love the way that George Kyeyune handles the female form – I didn’t realize when we first bought his work that he was a sculptor. Now it makes sense! For me, part of the appeal is the artist themselves – I really like the person as well as the creation.

What is the most you’ve ever paid for a work of art?

Hmm. I think it would be fair to say maybe as high as two thousand dollars. But not more than that.

Lay people often say that they find art obscure and not particularly relevant to their lives. Do you think people should experience art? Why? Is art important to society?

For me, for us, art is so much a part of life. It is so much more than an adornment. There is a message in many pieces, and even if you aren’t necessarily interested in the message, the fact that the artist interpreted his feelings in that specific way is so relevant. It can be a means of communication, of expression, a recording of our times. Art can be such a dichotomy—sometimes the most prosaic things are the most striking. People must experience art because it opens them up to a way of feeling.

Kitchen area with paintings by David Kigozi, Pamela's home.
Kitchen area with paintings by David Kigozi, Pamela's home.

I seem to be in a flurry of collecting these past couple of years. I think maybe I’ve become greedy! I don’t currently have any of the young artists in my collection, but I am quietly watching RO, curious to see what he does next.

What kind of art moves you and why?

That is a difficult question to answer. We have the most sublime sculpture by Mary Naita; it is both strong and serene, I could look at it for hours. The fluid lines, the way she is able to make metal look soft and pliable, or wood look like polished bronze. Nobody can walk by it without reaching out to stroke it, and I love that tactile aspect of sculpture. I’m fascinated with the process that Ronex is developing in his metal casting. With paintings, especially oils, I am very attracted to how an artist works with light. I love the human form, and paintings that represent a slice of life. Real life, but beautifully rendered.

Assess the state of the arts in Uganda today. Is fine art thriving here? What should be done to bolster a “culture of art” in Africa?

I think there is incredible talent here in Uganda. But sometimes it needs to be taken out of Uganda to be fully appreciated. When people visit our house in the UK and see the art we have there, they are amazed. We have been buying pieces for people overseas, who seem to appreciate the work more than many people here. Everything is vibrant and alive and original. And fresh. It has been very interesting for me to see how Ugandan artists have honed their talent over the years, tweaking their styles, committing themselves to new directions. I’m amazed with their ability to adapt the materials they use if they’re lacking traditional “art supplies”. We need to develop a stronger appreciation of artists and their art, or as you say, a “culture of art”. It needs to be respected more, introduced earlier, and valued.

What do you think is the value of your entire art collection?

Oh my God, I have no idea. Emotionally, it’s priceless. If our house caught fire, we would let it burn while we dashed in and out to rescue the Naita, the Tagas, the Kigozis…