Where are the Ugandan female artists?

Artwork by Lilian Nabulime.
Artwork by Lilian Nabulime.

If you visited any of Uganda’s largest art galleries last year, you would see that the exhibitions were almost exclusively by male artists. Why is that the case?

Startjournal has interviewed Lilian Nabulime, Venny Nakazibwe, Sarah Nakisanze and Jana Twinomugisha in search of reasons.

Written by Rebecca Birungi and Anne Kari Garberg, Mama FM


Since she graduated from Makerere School of Fine Arts, Lillian Nabulime has continuously practiced her art. She has travelled around the world, held numerous exhibitions both abroad and home. She has been able to make a living from her arts. But Lillian Nabulime is an exception.

In the last five years, statistics from Makerere University shows that an equal number of girls and boys have graduated with degrees in fine arts. But then the girls tend to disappear. Few young women go into professional practice. Out of more than 40 exhibitions hosted by Uganda’s largest art galleries last year, only one was by a female artist.

A need to fight for exposure

Today Lillian Nabulime is one of Uganda’s leading artists, but she did not reach this point without a struggle. When she graduated she was not only a young and talented artist. She was also a young mother, lacking tools and finances to practice her arts.

Lilian Nabulime in her apartment.

Surrounded by her elegant women sculptures in her colourful apartment in Makerere, she explains how it was not only her talent but also determination and aggressiveness that enabled her to brush shoulders with fellow male artists, and to make a career in arts:

“I decided that I would make sure to hold at least one exhibition every year. And I would always run to the newspapers and TV-stations to get coverage and exposure. People would say ‘oh, this woman is everywhere’. And I was! I wanted exposure; I needed exposure to make a name.”

Lillian went abroad, publicised her work on the internet, enhanced her position in academia and eventually made a career as a sculptor. But few female artists make it as far as Lillian.

A competetive industry

“The arts industry has become a competitive industry and you have to be aggressive to be able to stand out.  Although we have some women who have made it through, our male counterparts are still far ahead of us when it comes to building a name,” Venny Nakazibwe says. She is Deputy Dean at the Faculty of Fine Arts and observes the graduates as they venture into the field.

“Some of them find the market to tough. Since the bachelors’ degree in Fine Arts also offers skills in business and administration, some students end up working in other areas like banking or in NGOs,” she says.

These jobs are better paid and they offer more security. This takes the graduates away from professional practice. According to Nakazibwe, that is a tendency more so for the girls than the boys.

A good number of the students are also in some way practicing their art but through their own small enterprises, the Dean explains:

“Some of the girls are practicing their art in small enterprises often in the field of fashion. They are engaged in business and their products are therefore exposed within the business sector, not necessarily within the fine arts galleries.”

An Entrepreneur or a Fine Artist?

Sarah Nakisanze in her studio.
Sarah Nakisanze in her studio.

One woman who is practicing her arts within a business setting is Sarah Nakisanze. She designs everything from dresses to cushions covers made from barkcloth and has set up a successful business in Uganda. One of the reasons why we do not find many exhibitions by female artists in the galleries or magazines has to do with the way fine arts is defined, she says:

“I see myself as an artist, but because what I do has an element of functionality many people will say I am an entrepreneur and that what I do run more into the crafts. And the fine artists are pretty good at keeping a distance from the crafts.”

If she wanted to get into the galleries she would have to produce her art in a specific way, in one offs the way a plastic artist does.

However, Nakisanze is more concerned with her work being financially viable than she is with getting exhibitions in the galleries: “When I work with barkcloth design I am doing what I love the most. At the same time I am earning money to put food on the table for my two kids and my husband,” she says.

Inherent attitudes

Another reason for the absence of women in fine arts is cultural attitudes. At the Nommo Art Gallery in Nakasero, gallery officer Jane Twinomugisha says they have hosted few exhibitions by women throughout the last years. But that is not because they don’t want women to exhibit:

“Women have multiple responsibilities. They raise children; they do household chores and don’t have time to devote the necessary attention to complete an art piece. That is why you don’t see that many of them”.

Sarah Nakisanze agrees:

“Although the men are starting to take their share of the responsibility, we still expect the woman to take care of the children and the home.”

Nakisanze believes these responsibilities hinder many young female artists from pursuing a career in fine arts:

“By the time the girls leave university, they are in that age where they are likely to get married and have children. They have to take that into consideration when they choose what to do. And since it is hard to make a living from fine arts, they choose to go into other professions,” she says.

Fashion is easier

According to Nakisanze, the industrial arts and especially fashion design is in many ways an easier profession for women, since it gives them freedom:

“As a designer, I can design and make production working drawing and then someone else can produce the work. So I don’t have to be there throughout the whole process, and can use my time elsewhere.”

Having done painting earlier in her career she knows that working with fine artist can sometime involve a very specific lifestyle and that creativity and inspiration sometimes comes at a cost and inconvenient hours:

“As a mother with young children, can you go into your studio and work when they have just had bad dreams? Or can you expose your children to the paint? That kind of lifestyle isn’t easy for anyone, but it is still easier for men,” she says.

Lilian Nabulime.

Back in the colourful apartment at Makerere, Lillian supports Nakisanzes view:

“No doubt the art profession is a tough one, it is hard work, it requires a lot of investment and we are poor” she says laughing. Still she would encourage young women with a passion for art to pursue their dreams:

“Art has given me so many opportunities, it has taken me to places and introduced me to people that money could not. It is a tough, but rewarding profession!” she says smiling.


Rebecca Birungi: Rebecca is a journalist working for Uganda Media Women’s Association and their women’s radio station Mama FM.

Anne Kari Garberg: Anne Kari is a journalist from Norway. She is currently working with Uganda Media Women’s Association and Mama FM. She has been working for the Norwegian Broadcasting Corporation.


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