Whenever you walk through the streets of Kampala, be it the main roads or the away slum alleys, you would see internet cafe kiosks with people lining up to surf. This has contributed to the fact that Uganda together with Kenya are the leading East African countries when it comes to internet access. (Cyber Elites 2003)
Compiled and written by Grace Atuhaire and Thomas Bjørnskau
Startjournal.org conducted recently a two months survey named “The value of internet in the promotion of Arts and Culture”. The goal was to find out if and how Ugandan visual artists (visual artist: whoever creates a work of art which is primarily visual in nature; such as ceramics, drawing, painting, sculpture, printmaking, design, crafts, and often modern visual arts like photography, video and film making, and architecture) has taken advantage of the internet and social media to profile themselves and their products.
Eight out of ten are online
In our survey 35 visual artists participated, either through an online form or by filling out a questionnaire at the Afriart Gallery and LaBa! Street Festival in Kampala. We would like to stress that this survey cannot really claim to be statistical representative, there might be an overrepresentation of young or internet-savvy artists among the respondents. Nevertheless, the survey indicates some key findings in the current online usage.
According to the survey, 82 % of the participants do maintain information about themselves as artists online. When being asked about what kind of internet presence they currently keep alive, 73% have profile pages on Facebook, 38 % have information about themselves and/or their work maintained by an art gallery website, 32 % maintain a personal homepage/website, 30 % are presented at an artist group website, while 19 % are represented by an other art promoter.
It might be tempting to conclude that the social media site of Facebook has gained a certain importance in Uganda, and most visual artists have taken advantage of that. There is also a good proportion of artists that have more than one online presence; in average every artist is represented with two kinds of online presence.
Yet, the survey shows some offline mentality
But as much as they have websites or any other forum they appear, to what extent are they updating these platforms?
Out of the 35 respondents, not very many actually went online to answer the survey. Most of the answers were given on paper forms. Already this may indicate how the people in the Arts industry are using the internet platform to access, participate in online dialogues and forums that concern their profession or hobby respectively.
Still, there was a significant amount of artists that answered that their primary location to access internet was “I have my own computer/laptop with internet access at home”, 54 % chose that statement.
The full-time artists are more active
Roughly half of the respondents were ‘full-time artists’. This group seems to have had an online presence a little bit longer than the ‘part-time artists’ and ‘hobby artists’. The full-time artists are a bit more likely to utilize a personal website/blog, and/or art gallery website, and/or art promoter website than the other types of artists.
They also present more often information like artist biography, images of artworks – both recent and older artworks, and list of exhibitions.
76 % of the full-time artists claim they have sold artworks as a consequence of online presence, compared to 36 % of the part-time/hobby artists.
Experienced artists more active
We also broke the results down by ‘years being an artist’, roughly 2/3 had more than five years experience and 1/3 less than five years experience as an artist. It is interesting to see how the less experienced artists choose Facebook-presence primarily and very seldom other kind of online presence, while the more experienced artists would also be present by having their personal website, and/or the other kinds of art websites.
As a consequence – maybe – 81 % of the experienced artists claim to have sold as a result of being online, while 1/3 of the less experienced claim the same.
Images of recent artworks help sales
There might be some proof in the survey that visual artists should care about presenting images of recent artworks online. Out of the nine respondents that answered “yes, many times” to the question “have you ever sold an artwork as a direct consequence of your online presence”, 89 % do publish images of latest 2-3 months artworks. 54 % of the respondents saying “no” to that same question publish recent artworks.
The “yes, many times”-group are also more eager to use Facebook than the “no”-group, 100 % vs 75 %. In fact, 44 % of the “no”-group answer “I have tried it a couple of times, but don’t use it regularly” to the question “which best describes your action on social media?”
Viewpoints from the users
Harriet Uwineza, an art lover from Rwanda says: “I have never found an Ugandan visual artist online, and few that I have interacted with are aware of the benefits of using internet. Now, with the world adopting e-technology, it is about time artists profiled themselves, either as a group or individual. The use of internet is one way of marketing as well as designing one’s image and products.”
Our survey, however, shows that Ugandan artists do have a presence – 82 % – and they do recommend the use of social media to any other artist – 94 %. So maybe it is a matter of the everlasting quest to find the needle in the haystack?
“There is no wonder why Stella Atal has had a successful career, because whenever my friends and I want to get in contact with her latest designs, we find the postings both on her website, her facebook-pages, and via links on her twitter-account,” her fan Doreen Kamugisha acknowledges.
What are the benefits of exposing your art online?
75 % of the respondents “agree” or “partly agree” to the statement “using social media like Facebook is a great way to promote my artwork”. 46 % is positive to the similar statement “using social media like Facebook is a great way to sell my artwork”, and 57 % agrees when it is a matter of “getting feedback on art in progress”.
The last statement in the survey, “maintaining a personal homepage is a must for any visual artist”, got 42 % “I agree”-answers and 25 % “I partly agree”. There seems to be a certain consensus about the idea that online media has multiple purposes.
So what kind of benefits are attached to being online?
There are at least five main reasons for why a visual artist needs to be online:
- “Search and you shall find”
Internet is largely about searching, Google being the current number One. Who wouldn’t be on the top of the list when users search for Ugandan arts, or even African arts. Facebook-content is to a large extent limited to Facebook-users, but main pages will still appear in a Google search result. An open, personal homepage, with the adequate use of page titles, headings and meta tags will make it easier for everyone, included those afraid of being trapped in the social network. Google ranks the results partly according to how many that links to your site, so in the virtual world it is nice to be popular.
- “Connect with the fans and potential audience”
Facebook has been the last years’ craze. And our survey showed that no fad has been more important for the Ugandan artists than FB. Artists today regard this as a first way, alternatively fast way, to get feedback from their fans and exhibit their work. This also means that your fans do not have to go through a hustle to get to know what new thing you are working on, they just have to “like” you or your page to receive updates about your work on their own personal “wall”. And in return, you get comments and thumbs-up.
- “The online art gallery”
A third benefit of being online is actually that it provides a cheap alternative to the service from an art gallery. In theory, you can conduct an online exhibition and invite people through different social media networks. Our survey shows that 6 out of 10 artists feel their online presence at some or many times has led to actual sales of artworks, so there are potentials. Today’s publishing systems – like the one we use at startjournal.org – helps any communicator to establish a professional website with limited resources. There are plenty Ugandan artists currently on display in more or less well-functioning interactive galleries. But many will also agree that online art browsing never will beat the real thing.
- “The professional network”
Using internet can also help one to find a job or an Arts fellowship, exhibiting spaces or event grants to help them commence their dream project. Sites like www.ulule.com may help the artist fund their work.
- “The brand named YOU”
Finally, in today’s global environment, being online is a must to maintain your name, your identity and your very own brand. Most visual artists are at the end of the day individuals, they are creating original intellectual property in many visual forms, and there is an absolute need for any serious artist to control that brand identity within the online media. Even though there are reasons for being presented in controlled environments like social websites (Facebook, Flickr, Twitter) and collaborate websites like art galleries, artist groups or other art promoters, please use some time and the money from your first sold artwork to establish the website called http://yournamehere.whatever.
Though online access will avail you to different spammers and junks, according to the survey: 94.3% understand the importance and influence of social media and online presence and they recommend its usage, whereas 5.7% are still not convinced about it.
This might mean that as you join the online community, be aware that it is not perfect. There are for instance copyright issues which could be a challenge to victimised artists. However, things like that can be prevented by putting a disclaimer message on every piece you avail online.
Grace Atuhaire is a writer in Uganda. She is currently working for the Bayimba Cultural Foundation (read about Bayimba in this article). Thomas Bjørnskau is the editor of startjournal.org.
Cyber Elites: A Survey of Internet Café Users in Uganda, by Peter G. Mwesigye. (Published on 29/4/2003)