Group studios in Uganda: The Challenges of a Collective
In 2007, when Start Magazine covered the story of Mona Studio, there was an air of great expectations for the cause of young artists working together. It was a case of two charismatic artists slowly but surely etching their way into an indifferent community in Kamwokya, a suburb of Kampala city.
Edison Mugalu and Anwar Nakibinge were forging an art collective to make an impact on the local community. And they almost pulled it off, but for the ignorance of one major factor at play in any alliance; the divergence of vested interests.
Whereas Anwar wanted to cultivate Mona Studio as a hub for a big group of artists, Edison was mainly focused on attracting more clientele and maximizing sales.By Henry Mzili Mujunga
This scenario has been a persistent feature of the Kampala art scene since the 60’s, when what professor Pilkington Ssengendo terms as ‘individualism’ reigned. Nonetheless, every young artist in Kampala would confess to the dire need for artists to pool resources in order to survive.
“Galleries are no longer supporting up-and-coming artists, and so they have to form their own groups,” says Paul Kintu, an artist working at the new Ivuka (Kinyarwanda for Rebirth) studio in Bukoto – another community in the outskirts of Uganda’s capital.
Collin Ssekajugo, a renowned Ugandan artist of Rwandese parentage, seems to concur when he says there is a need to fight individualism, and calls for artists to meet regularly in order to discuss constructive ideas. However, he acknowledges the challenges of working as a group.
He alludes to a deep rooted rivalry among artists, thus; “there is a culture or system of envy that leads to jealousy and enmity among artists. Ugandan art is about what is selling on the market. Instead of people getting challenged by one’s accomplishments, they get very jealous and peddle malicious gossip.”
From Mona via Gecko to Ivuka
When Startjournal.org visited Ivuka studio, we were able to chat with Anwar Nakibinge, who shared the challenges and merits of working as a collective. Interestingly, the story of Ivuka is a tale of two origins united by two people with similar interests.
Anwar formed Gecko Art studio upon splitting with Edison in 2007. He was able to attract other young artists such as Damba Ismail, Yusuf Ngula, Mark Kassi, Ronnie Tindi, Paul Kintu and Jjuuko Hoods, among others, to join him in Bukoto. They rented the upper level of a two-storey building and formed an association, Society of Uganda Contemporary Artists (SOUCA) to manage the space. According to Anwar the society’s membership grew to over 60 members at its peak.
However, this was short lived. After only seven months, two prominent members of the group decided to break away. The group lost Damba Ismail who was its publicist and Mark Kassi its General Secretary.
According to Jjuuko Hoods, the two left to form other interest groups and he summed it up this way; “in a family, members share responsibility, but when some members decide to establish independence, they cannot continue pulling their weight in family matters.”
A Rwandese success story
But unlike what happened to Gecko studio, Collin Ssekajugo’s Ivuka Rwanda has been a success story. He used this unique collective to help young people in Rwanda, who had survived genocide better their lives through art and music. It has been a relatively easier road for the Nairobi trained artist to win the trust of his Rwandese counterparts, many of whom neither have any an art school nor university training.
Furthermore, working with children from disadvantaged communities meant that he was able to attract financial and personnel support from the donor community. He was greatly supported by the American Embassy in Kigali, from which he received funding to operate as a charity for two years until he was able to charge 20 percent from all art sales to support the project. In fact it was Collin who came to Bukoto to partner up with Gecko Studio to create the current Ivuka Uganda.
From the above account one can deduce that the major challenge to collectives among artists in Kampala is a general lack of commitment to the cause. But there is need to examine why this is so.
It is apparent that the lack of uniting interests is a key issue in the matter. Mona collapsed due to the divergent views of its founders. Gecko under the SOUCA umbrella folded up due to the departure of some of its key players.
The leadership issue
The second issue as to why artist groups hardly survive their birth water, is that most artists are afraid of taking on the mantles of leadership. And those who dare do so are not trusted by their followers.
Artists like Anwar Nakibinge and Collin Ssekajugo definitely have a desire to work in the general interest of other fellow artists, but they have either not been assertive enough or have been misunderstood by their protégés. It is good enough they both realized that sometimes there is a need to have a go at it alone in order to set an example for others to follow. It was through Anwar’s persistent belief in the need for a collective that Gecko Studio was transformed into the current Ivuka Studio.
The point of strong leadership has been into play in most successful art collectives in Europe, such as Dejo’s Toyists in the Netherlands. While the group has a desire to be seen as a collective other than individuals, there is always an extraordinary member providing the undercurrent that propels the group forward.
Had it not been for Anwar’s resilience and Collin’s organizational skills, Ivuka Uganda would not be in existence today. Collin was able to unite the local artists by organizing for them shows in Rwanda and by helping them to set up a branding campaign which included painting a mural and a signpost installation leading to their building. He also helped with the setting up of a web site and other marketing tools. And he introduced the idea of using Ivuka Rwanda to build a profile for its Ugandan counterpart.
Need for legal structures
The third problem that is often latently posed is lack of properly defined operational structures. Most of these art groups exist as verbal arrangements among the artists and not as legal entities. There is a need for a clear manifesto to which all members subscribe; some kind of partnership deed and proper registration with the relevant authorities as a business entity. That way, every member takes the ongoings seriously.
Ivuka Uganda was able to stabilize due to the above point. It is a registered partnership owned by Jjuuko Hoods, Anwar Nakibinge and Collin Ssekajugo. While they have encouraged other artists to join them, they remain the key stakeholders.
Ivuka Uganda has also set some clear ground rules to be observed by its members. All members are encouraged to have a unique style. Copying is discouraged. Secondly, the art materials are not communally owned. Each artist is assigned storage space for their materials. However, the members are encouraged to set up their own terms for sharing or borrowing materials.
A number of benefits
Amidst all these challenges, there are a lot of benefits to be ripped by artists working as a collective. Anwar was able to outline a number of benefits he had personally gained from Ivuka Uganda.
The group has provided its members with opportunities to exhibit in galleries and most especially to do shows in the homes of enthusiastic patrons. The artists have also had the opportunity of sharing clients who visit the studio.
“Sometimes a client commissions one of us to do work in an area we are less familiar with. For example, I am a painter but I might get clients interested in sculpture and I pass them on to my colleague who is a sculptor,” says Anwar.
Most importantly the artists are able to advise each other on technical issues as well as develop new subject matter for their work. Ivuka Uganda has also conducted weekly workshops with schools especially in Wakiso district in the central region of the country. This has enabled its members to share experience with young kids in the local communities.
Lastly, due to the fact that artists work together and share a common space, they have built trust and a sense of camaraderie, some of which extends beyond professional boundaries. Artists are able to look out for each other financially and socially.
Henry Mzili Mujunga is an artist and a regular writer in the Start-team.