Is the Ugandan art scene on the right path?

Kampala’s arts scene is on the move. There is no longer such a thing as “the only gallery in town”. These new white cubes appears in many shapes and frequencies, and provides great, new arenas for creators to meet potential buyers and patrons. But who are the new drivers behind the wheel?

Startjournal takes a look at the spin-offs, the garden parties, the corporate fueled charity events and the festivals.

By Dominic Muwanguzi

Performing artists at the MishMash gallery

An art gallery here and there coupled with regular art events in plush hotels could be interpreted as a sign that the visual art industry is growing fast today in Uganda. A decade ago or so, there were only two or three art galleries to write about, and the industry was dominated by a handful of artists who sold their work to the mzungus.

Today, you will run out of breath counting the galleries which have sprung up and those art events which are earmarked with pomp and glamour. Recently, Umoja art gallery and Design Agenda opened their doors to the growing number of art appreciators in this town.

Additionally,  the Fireworks Annual Art Exhibition (organized by Fireworks Advertising Agency), The MishMash (an open garden, once a month exhibition sponsored by Orange Uganda),  and Signature Art Exhibition (sponsored by several top-notch corporate companies) also  opened their doors to the blossoming art clientele.

Tracking the commission

One thing these temporary galleries seems to have in common is a lower commission compared to permanent art spaces. This is largely due to not having to pay annual house rent or fixed salaries for human resources. Also, art events might save money by not hiring professional curators. But neglecting curatorship may reduce the quality of the works on display.

In addition, there has been a trend among sporadic art events to fuse art exhibitions with charity. There is an agreement between the organizer and the artists to give a particular percentage of each painting sold – the commission in other cases – to charity.

The corporate sponsors get happy; they can add the event to their CSR-activities. The buyers feel good about it; rather an orphanage than a commercial art gallery. The organizer is satisfied; helping both artists and the needy. Surely a win-win situation for the society?

More space, better space?

Another difference is that art events like Signature art or FireWorks Advertising Exhibition have a sophisticated way of presenting art for sale. At least according to some of the clientele.

Guests admiring artwork from Arnold Birungi, Signature Art Final Exhibition at Kabira country club 2011

Paintings are hung on state-of-the-art panel boards instead of white washed walls, something that seem to attract the local press. And also, not to mention, the upside of a large space provided at the venue because these events are often held in hotels or outdoors.

Art should be art, and be exclusive

With such presentation and a noble cause to give to charity, one would think that there would not be any room for criticism. Maria Fischer of the AKA Gallery at Tulifanya in Kampala says she is concerned about the direction the art scene is taking, especially with the new wave of art events which seem to pop up now and again.

AKA Gallery at Tulifanya.

”Those are more party and music events where the art , as I understand it , is being sidelined and ignored, and they are often dominated by music, drinking and eating. By the way, already the terminology is confusing; art should be art and music is music, so that people know what to expect. In the end they are all called art festivals and nobody knows what will be the content or purpose.”

Maria is also worried about the growing trend of mass production. ”Especially the young artists are showing too much of the same type of works in too many places. The quality of art has gone down. It is boring that everybody‘s work is everywhere all the time. No more good surprises, no suspence,” the veteran of the Kampala arts scene says.

Maybe Maria’s concerns are sensible in a time when most artists are caught up in euphoria of excitement and concluding that the industry is finally on the right track?

Plough back the money to the arts industry

Daudi Karungi, an artist and the owner of Afriart Gallery in Kamwokya, says that the new players in the market are necessary.

Daudi Karungi, Afriart Gallery.

“These new art events are good for the industry because they increase the interest in the art. This is good for the Ugandan art business, because artists now are exposed to a larger clientele,” he says.

However, Daudi is largely concerned about the issue of fusing art with charity.

“Giving back to the needy by using art is not a bad idea. But the state of the art industry in Uganda is yet not strong enough and needs support itself. It would have been better if the priority of these organizers is to plough back this money into the industry, for example use it to organize the next art exhibition or host workshops with the artists,” he advises.

Is it optimal to give the fisherman a net?

Amidst such criticism, the supporters of these art events feel they are doing a noble cause.

While discussing the interests Tullow Oil has in the Ugandan art market – Tullow Oil has been a principal benefactor of the Signature art exhibition – the Corporate Affairs Manager told me that the interest of Tullow is to help creating an enterprise for the Ugandan artists. “It is better to give a fisherman a net, than to give him fish,” he told me.

Ugandan visual artists Ronex and Damba Ismail, Signature Art Final Exhibition at Kabira country club 2011.

Which of course is an interesting metaphor. But are the local net manufacturers able to develop their industry, if the corporate sector buys nets from abroad and give them to the fishermen for free? Then again, does such a net making industry exist at all locally?

Could one say that the excellent networkers of  event organizers like Signature undermines the establishment of a netmakers guild?

A networking ability

Moving away from this picture, Mr. Caleb Owino, the Managing Director of the Fireworks Advertising agency, explains why they organize their annual art exhibition: ”It is our corporate social responsibility to bring artists closer to business people. We have a great potential to do this, because we are an advertising company with a large network of clients.”

However, it would be anybody’s concern to find out what type of enterprise they are creating for the artists. Furthermore, if these organizers are not looking at this “corporate social responsibility” as a way of making profits for themselves.

To curate or not to curate?

To describe how these art events are organized, many of them solicit for already established artists and rarely do they give any platform for the young artists.

Also some of these art events – with the exception of the most recent Fireworks Annual art exhibition where Daudi Karungi was curator – do not have any kind of curatorship. This does indirectly affect the quality of work on display because there is no professional eye to look at it before it is put up for viewing.

Any artist would love a new opportunity

But these aspects never seem to be of any concern to the artists.  Once they hear that there is an art open art exhibition going to take place, they flock to the organizers and ask if they can be included on the list of the participants.

Why are artists interested in these art events, anyway?

According to one artist, who preferred to remain anonymous for fear of being blacklisted by the art galleries, he said that the MishMash and several other art events will teach conventional galleries to be more respectful to artists and creative in business.

“They never used to care at all because they knew they had a monopoly in this industry. They would treat many artists – especially the young ones – like nothing,” he said.

Anwar Sadat Nakibinge, who claims to have cashed in a lot at the Signature Art Exhibtion at Serena Hotel, says: “It is a kind of exhibition that the serious and hard-working creative artist should not miss because of the professionalism involved in it. And it even brings in new clients and art lovers.”

Visual artist Anwar Sadat Nakibinge, 2011.

Some artists feels these shows contribute too little to the industry

But not every artist is enthralled by these art events. Wasswa Donald of ArtPunch studio in Kasanga says that the real motive of these events is to put some already selling artists together and make some money of them.

“It is my belief that these shows haven’t contributed much to the general public in terms of educating it about art. It is usually a certain class that turns up and at times they get bored by seeing the same thing,” he laments.

Visual artist Waswa Donald at his studio ArtPunch, 2011.

To put Wasswa’s concerns in better perspective, almost all these art events are tagged by a sponsor’s name. Cases in point are ’The Annual Fireworks Exhibition’ and ’The Sadolin Mabarti Exhibition’. But at the end of the day a commercial company will only put let’s say 10 million shillings into an event if it adds something to the bottom line. They probably need the co-branding to add sales worth more than 10 million.

The art industry is getting “commodified”

Dr. George Kyeyune. (Photo by Harry Johnstone).

To strengthen Wasswa’s opinion, Dr. George Kyeyune of Makerere University says that these companies are commercial entities and they need to survive.

“They have a certain market and their intention is to make profits. In a bid to achieve this, they have to listen to the interests and desires of their partners who incidentally may prefer particular art styles to suit their taste,” he says.

The veteran artist also believes that artists are an accomplice to the current landscape of the art industry which he terms as “commodified”.

“Artists are too eager to make money and they compromise on the aesthetic meaning of their work,” he says.

To explain this statement better the sculptor artist says that at the recently concluded Sadolin Mabarti Art Challenge where he featured as one of the judges, he observed that many participating artists in the competition were eager to blend the motifs of Sadolin in their compositions perhaps as a way of influencing the final verdict of the organizers of the competition.

(Wasswa himself might have to feel guilty. His piece ’Waswad vs Sadolin’ incorporated the company name more than any of the other Mabarti-contributions.)

(c) Donald Wasswa, 2011. Photo by Roshan Karmali.

George says this was wrong because not only did it compromise on the quality of their art in the competition but also the ideal of the competition was overlooked by the participants.

Nevertheless, he advises that what should be done is to have all partners in the art industry to sit on around table and chart the way forward.

“We all have to sit together and decide how we can develop the art scene in Uganda without really compromising on the quality of work being put out there,” he says.

Charting the way forward

But that may seem to be a problem because clearly the intentions of both these permanent and temporary art spaces are divergent. Art galleries are here to make profits and network respective artists to potential clients and yet art event organizers feel essentially they are performing their corporate social responsibility with no profit gains.

Despite such a contrast of interests, it is important that the right path for the art industry in Uganda is clearly marked fast.

Upon such an urgent need, it remains to be seen if we will have a reversed trend of more professionalism at art exhibitions; artists thinking less of the money but the quality of their output, and also more importantly the issue of having art promoter who are sincere to the development of art with out any form of  pretence.

Dominic Muwanguzi is a freelance art Journalist with a strong dedication to uplifting the visual arts in Uganda.

All photos by Thomas Bjørnskau, except when stated otherwise.

6 thoughts on “Is the Ugandan art scene on the right path?

  1. Thanks readers for your comments. I am glad somebody out there is interested in what write at StartJournal.
    The suggestion of getting government involved sounds perfect,but before we move up there, we need to involve the local people.
    I have indulged many artists on what should be done about promoting visuals and all of them seem to agree we need to create a local market for it.
    This i know is very easy. Ugandans in recent times have become more affluent and exposed in their tastes and we need them to part with that hefty salary they receive at the end of the month.
    I have always advocated for a “Collectors Art Exhibition”. I already know a handful of Ugandan businessmen who are into the culture of collecting art. We can start by involving them; exhibit their collection to their friends. With in a period of two or so years, everybody will be interested. Art is a class commodity everybody who wants to be defined as classy and sophisticated would want to be associated with.
    Secondly, Ugandans can spend huge sums of money in buying houses and decorating them. Its a culture that is fast catching on among the corporate class. Why not have the artists do some murals on these houses- “bungalows”?
    The trick is to get the people down here interested and if government sees that everybody is buying and collecting art, it will jump onto the bandwagon.
    Let us all love local art because it will give us identity. That is the way to go.

  2. Joe,

    that is a perfect suggestion. A structure such as that could really encourage artists to know that there is ready market for their art-works. What is the value of importing art work for the new president’s office, when we have a huge pool of not only talented but important artists at the moment, who have something to contribute to the history of Art in this country; who have something to say that can transcend today’s politics and stand the test of time.

    Because we are in the business of thinking that art is unimportant, but the contribution it makes to our society is entirely noticeable, and with that we must reconsider our priorities, especially when it comes to government spending.

  3. There needs to be a bill passed in Parliament whereby 1% of an overall spend of all new buildings throughout Uganda be designated to the purchasing of art.

    Companies need incentives to support the Arts – this could come in the form of Tax Breaks for supporting various projects. Therefore they win on the promotional side and on the tax side too.

    There needs to be a Benevolent Fund for all artists – this would include, artist, writers, poets and all those that have been exhibited abroad or been published. There needs to be more of a culture of eccentric philanthropy – Monthly fund raising events where the rich can show off their cars and wives..

    Wasswa has the energy to light a small city so I’m sure all things are in progress already! Best of luck guys and to the extraordinary ladies such as Sheila Black and Wasswa’s Mum and all the wonderful women in Uganda.

  4. It’s good to have lots of art of different artists around, but the issue is getting the population in understanding and appreciating the cause

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