Viral Value: A chat with the curator of the Dutch Masters Today exhibition

Henry Mzili Mujunga chats with the curator of the Dutch Masters Today exhibition at the Uganda Museum and ponders how to start an “art epidemic”.

The Dutch masters are here. Who’s excited? Is it Rembrandt or Van Gogh? Are Corneille Van Beverloo, Karel Appel and Peter Deim really present in Uganda? If you are not a student of art or an art enthusiast, you haven’t a clue about what I am talking.

Written by Henry Mzili Mujunga

If you are rather counting the days until your next paycheck, or perhaps hustling a few extra shillings from a secondhand car sale, then surely you have no time for this mumbo jumbo. I know a lot of refined people who feel they have a need for art who yet possess not even a basic knowledge of who’s who in the art world. For starters, do you know your local painters?

Night Watch, Acrylic on canvas, WyneYou know of course of Jose Chameleon (who doesn’t?) but what about Paulo Akiiki and Daudi Karungi? Surely you must have heard of Henry Mzili Mujunga! The Ugandan art world is riddled with a lot of blank spots and gray areas created by a blatant omission by our media, who seemingly forget that their role is to inform and educate society and set new trends in awareness. Their argument has always been that very few people have the time or inclination to read about art exhibitions. So they restrict this important facet of society to a few incoherent lines in the newspapers or a few pat sound bytes on TV.

Do the names Damien Hirst and Tracey Emin ring any bells? (both members of the so-called Young British Artists group, the former was famed or turning preserved animal carcasses into invaluable collector’s works; the latter incorporated used condoms and bloodstained underwear into one of her most famous pieces.) Those who write about art in Uganda are not necessarily the most informed on the subject. No wonder their lack of enthusiasm has apparently paralyzed their editors as well.

Anyhow, back to my original subject. Some Dutch masters are showing their art in Uganda for the first time, thanks to Royal African Foundation, an outfit based in the Netherlands that provides a platform for cultural exchange between Africa and Europe. The exhibition comprises over 50 works from the Royal African collection, mainly paintings and lithographs, by contemporary Dutch artists. This is a good thing. After all, such shows often draw significant media attention and help local artists blossom. For instance, Ugandan painters Daudi Karungi, Paulo Akiiki and Henry Mzili Mujunga get to exhibit their work right alongside such famous art world names as Karel Appel, Guillaume Corneille and Peter Diem! Wow! Did you know that until his death in 2006, Karel Appel was considered the most important Dutch master alive? His work commands prices in millions of dollars.

Now have I got your attention? Indeed, there is a lot of money in art, but how does Uganda exploit this niche?

Night Watch, Oil on canvas, RembrandtMost African countries do not invest in the arts and culture, and yet many of their economies thrive on tourism. Many Westerners visit Africa to sample its diverse cultural and artistic expressions (music, dance and visual art). Uganda, however, has developed an elaborate cultural policy (2005). Article 7.5 of this document clearly identifies the need to enhance the quantity and quality of artwork and crafts made here in order to grow the industry. The Social Development Sector’s strategic Investment Plan (SDIP) vows furthermore to seek domestic and international markets for art and crafts.

But the main challenge to such good intentions is that, while it is widely acknowledged that the arts tend not to be in a prominent place on the political agenda in Africa, (Inge Ruigrok), and that there is inadequate appreciation of culture and its development role within society, the government has made the blunder of shrouding the subject in social concerns such as “gender” and “poverty”.

Bundling art with poverty alleviation schemes and other social issues undermines its importance as an issue in its own right and makes arguments in favor of it sectarian. After all, art is universal and should appeal to all levels of society. Everyone ought to know that it’s the rich that sustain the art industry! Like it or not, there is a need for the moneyed class’s direct involvement in its promotion.

I had a lengthy discussion about building the value of Ugandan art with David Oduki, co-founder of the Royal African foundation and the curator of the Dutch Masters Today exhibition at the Uganda Museum, which I have been alluding to previously. Oduki, who resides in Holland, was full of words of wisdom. He expressed great concern for the art and artists of Uganda (having trained as an artist himself).

His view is that in order to have an impact on society, such shows have to be coordinated into a frenzy of simultaneous activities that address the unvoiced needs of the people. With the government’s involvement, such a mass awareness campaign could create the desired impact on a wider cross section of the Ugandan society. He also noted that artists need to carefully study their customers and their buying patterns by keeping proper, detailed records of sales.

Oduki believes that Africa has lots of talent but that it is taken for granted by Africans themselves. Art has traditionally been considered an ordinary trade—rather than a higher calling—and individual effort has not been valued. “When it comes to arts like music, we in Africa tend to think that anyone can do it!” he said. “This mentality has to change in order to allow specialization to take effect. It is through the competitiveness of specialization that improvement in quality and quantity will be achieved.”

He cited the Iraqw tribe in Tanzania, which sends its girls away to weave a leather and bead skirt as a rite of passage into adulthood. These skirts have today become sought after collectors’ items, but the people who create them continue to wallow in poverty. What a relief that famous Ghanaian coffin designers have at least learned to sign their work!

“In today’s marketplace, when one builds a name for a product, its price grows,” added Oduki. So there is a serious need for branding. But who will do it for us? At one point in my career I thought of employing the services of a marketing firm to sell my art, as if it were a commodity like any other. In art, as in music, of course, we need promoters to sell. But one needs money to fund such activities.

If one is to make it in the art business, there is at the very least a need to understand why people buy art. Most do so, like it or not, to decorate their spaces. Still, there is a small minority that buys art as an investment. I submit that these are the most important buyers, as they are willing to pay a lot of money for the work in anticipation of an even bigger resale value down the line. They are always on the lookout for the artist whose work commands—or with someday command—high prices.

Oduki contends that to become big and important as an artist, one need throw one’s name about and join some significant local or international art organizations or movements. The advantage of being involved with such groups is that when one member makes it big, the rest of the artists are heaved up as well—or at least that’s the idea.

Promoting an “art epidemic” in Africa

There is a lot of talk about “viral” marketing since the turn of the millennium. Think about the Ebola virus. How does it spread? An epidemic is spread when someone has contact with another who is infected, and so on, as off it goes, spreading exponentially. You don’t have to want the disease to catch it! This is the main principle behind Oduki’s Royal African Foundation. Create a constant reminder about art and what a great moneymaker it is and you’ll get even the street vendors and boda-boda cyclists interested!

Red Cow, Oil on canvas, Peter DiemTo create a good return on an artwork investment, viable auction houses must be present. India has invested heavily in art auctioning in recent years, to the point that it now has the attention of big players like Sotheby’s and Christie’s, which are showing interest in its young talent: Atul Dodiya, Anju Dodiya, Subodh Gupta, Jitish Kallat and Hema Upadhyay, among others. But Oduki argues that auctions (and auction houses) came into the art world only after serious collecting had been entrenched.

How do we then encourage people to spend their hard earned shillings on art in poverty-stricken Africa?

This is Oduki’s main preoccupation. He argues there is need to use the media to create what he calls “a collecting mystique”. He points to 16th Century Europe as an example:

In 1585, as the main Dutch port city Antwerp was taken over by Spaniards. Its Jewish population fled—with all its wealth—to Amsterdam. At the time, the Roman Catholic Church was the biggest patron of the arts. But Jews quickly became major investors and patrons because they needed small, tangible objects of value in which to hide their wealth, items that could be easily and quickly moved during war, points out Oduki.

He and the Ugandan president seem to agree on one thing, which is the need for moneyed foreigners! This point of view is echoes Professor Ali Mazrui’s perspective that foreigners are good agents of development because they often “look for a high common ground to do business rather than engaging in petty discourse.”

So one of the keys to spreading an “art epidemic” in Africa is foreign investment. This would help create a vibrant middle class with disposable income. In Uganda, foreign corporations that have set up shop here, such as MTN (over U.S. $180 million invested) and Shell Uganda, to mention but a few, have created hundreds of jobs paying hefty remuneration packages. Hence the appearance of young executives looking for “good art pieces” to hang on their walls!

People need not take the hunt for good art very far from their workplaces, though. Establishing reputable galleries in easily accessible places can go along way in spreading the art epidemic. Museums are also key for this purpose because they are all inclusive. People may visit them for other reasons but end up interacting with the art works on display.

The media also plays a big role in creating a “collecting mystique”. But rather than elitist and patronizing, as the “arts” pages of the mainstream press often are, the press should be able to translate art into a language that is understood by average people. Writers tend to use dry, academic language when describing art, and this leaves their audience confused, not to mention sleepy!

A Ghanaian coffin design based on a coca podIn attempting to create enthusiasm for art in Africa, one should be wary of the lack of follow-up that has foiled the success of many an African art show. Apart from the Dakar Art Biennale and the East African Art Biennale, very few African art shows occur regularly. This is one of the problems that concerns Oduki most. While attempting to make the Royal African collection the largest European art collection in Africa, he is hounded by questions of sustainability. Unlike some art collectors, Oduki does not have millions. It is his love for art and Africa that rather have provided him with daily sustenance. His dream is have a museum to permanently house the Royal African collection.

How Oduki came about the collection is a story in itself. He made attempts to buy from artists directly, but that proved expensive. So he decided to take a novel approach. He sent emails to all his correspondents seeking the artists’ emails, then he wrote to them asking them to donate work for an exhibition in Africa. Oduki was amazed by the overwhelming cooperation from the European artists, most who had never been invited to show artwork on the African continent.

Oduki has some creative ideas on how to keep his scheme going. Royal African (the organization that manages his collection) intends to rent the artworks out through an exclusive club to which people can subscribe for a fee. Money raised this way would enable the collection to tour Africa in pursuit of Oduki’s dream of an art epidemic. It could also be used to purchase more work.

Government and cooperate involvement

All the armies of the world bow before Rome. Individual effort alone cannot create the desired impact if the governments of the day here in Africa remain reluctant to invest in the arts. Holland’s foreign ministry collects art that can then be accessed by its embassies abroad to hang in their premises. The Ugandan government should borrow a leaf.

Furthermore, the Uganda Museum should initiate a national collection. African governments need to understand the latent value that is stored in works of art. And then there are the banks! Yes, the custodians of value must get involved in the art epidemic.

Take Standard Bank, South Africa, for instance. For decades it has been collecting and showing art at the bank’s own gallery in Johannesburg. In 2006, Standard paid to bring a Pablo Picasso exhibition in Africa. The amount of excitement and education this single act brought to this continent was immeasurable.

For the first time there was consensus about the startling influence of African masks on Mr. Picasso’s cubistic exploits. The Demoiselles d’Avignon, though it did not make it into the show because it is apparently too valuable to travel, is probably the best example of this influence. This particular show attracted comments from French President Jaques Chirac and Thabo Mbeki, the former South African president, which underlined the dialogue on this subject that is now taking place between Africa and the West.

The value of art

It seems that Africa still has a lot to learn from the West when it comes to valuing art. In Europe and America, governments have long collected priceless works. “The Night Watch”, Rembrandt’s 1642 masterpiece that now belongs to the people of Holland and “Washington Crossing the Delaware” (Emanuel Leutze, 1851) in America are good examples of art that is so valuable that if it was stolen, nations could go to war! But how does a work gain such profound value? Of course, the artist’s skill and reputation counts for something.

But in my view, the people who collect the art create the most important impression of its value; firstly, by how much money they spend to possess it; and secondly, by how much media and public interest they generate for it.

Iraqw SkirtThe situation in Africa is obviously somewhat different. We seem to be obsessed with the exotic here in Uganda. When the late musician Philly Lutaya (1951-1989) was doing his thing with Ruwenzori Band in the 1970’s and early 80’s, no one noticed. But when Lutaya went to Sweden and released “Born in Africa”, the whole country was suddenly on fire for his music.

Perhaps Ugandan art has to first appear in a European gallery or museum to be truly valued here at home! Perhaps we assume that our friends in the West have the expert’s opinion. But I also know that if a Ugandan artist were to sell his work for tens of thousands (let alone millions) of dollars, it would arouse public interest. It is all about the “Benjamins” after all!

By bringing the Dutch masters to Kampala, Oduki has raised some important, if controversial, issues about quality. In his opinion, most Ugandan art is simply not acceptable by Western standards (although luckily enough there are some local artists’ paintings in the show, so the last word is yours). His advice to Ugandan artists is that they keep two sets of work: one for quick sale to earn bread and upkeep, and another to satisfy the needs of themselves and the serious collectors.

In his view, people in Africa have generally been consuming substandard products because they simply don’t know what good ones are. He argues that people who collect art (or any other collectors’ item, for that matter) are looking for a return on their investment. “A good art work should have a one hundred year guarantee!” he said. He offered an ad slogan for Patek Philippe watches that says: “You never actually own a Patek Philippe; you merely take care of it for the next generation!”

Perhaps then, as we contemplate building value for contemporary African art, we ought to seriously consider the possibility that we are only building a firm foundation for those who follow after we are long gone.

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