Patronage, finesse and passion

Could the above be the ingredients that can be injected into Kampala’s visual arts scene to spice it up?

Over the past ten years, while the growth of the visual art industry has been negligible, it cannot be denied that it has grown. Tulifanya, Afri-Art and Umoja are some of the art galleries that have shot up to compete with the once-upon-a-time monopoly, Nommo gallery.

Written by Lindsey Kukunda

However, if you visit one gallery, the repetition of a select few artists ensures that eventually, you will start to feel like you’ve seen them all.

Art exhibitions held at venues like Fireworks Advertising, Emin Pasha restaurant, Serena Hotel are making visual art launches a must-attend, from books to sculptural exhibitions. If you’ve been to one exhibition, sooner or later, you will notice that once again, there is a sense of deja-vu.

Galas like ‘This is Uganda’, ‘La Ba’ and the ‘Bayimba Festival’ are showing Ugandans that the talent and potential of its artists is rife and still relatively unexposed. This is where you may catch a glimpse of unknown or upcoming artists, with a few popular ones thrown into the fray. However, after the festival, one has no idea how to get a hold of them, and others like them.

So where can the visual arts go from here? caught up with a few renowned artists to discover what they believed were the elements necessary for Kampala’s visual arts scene to be the best it can be.

Sometimes honesty makes all the difference

“Artists are not honest with themselves, and are therefore not honest to art,” said George Kyeyune.

“Art in Uganda is commercialised. As a consequence, artists will allow the style and subject matter of their work to be influenced by the tastes of the potential clients in the market.”

“If you study the art that is not destined to end up in someone’s collection, you will find that the messages are communicated unconventionally,” Kyeyune expounded. “Artists need to stretch boundaries and give the public something new and exciting.”

Unfortunately, the target market in this commercial business is the expatriate community which apparently has preconceived expectations of the content in African art, from floods and hunger, to less political matters like huts and bananas.

“If you come to Makerere’s Art Gallery, you will see what I mean,” Kyeyune concluded. “Without the desire to make a profit, you will find that the work there is almost bizarre!”

George Kyeyune

Damba Ismael voiced a similar opinion:

“Artists need to work for arts’ sake, and not for money from the Mzungu tourist who they think will pay for it,” he said. “This sort of thinking kills art in itself, because the artist will focus on what they think the client would like to purchase.”

Damba Ismail

Appreciation from our own

“If only art had the same focus and appreciation from the public that performing arts receive,” said Sheila Nakitende. “If hospitals and corporate offices had local art manifested in their interior decoration, that would encorage recognition and support from the locals.”

Sheila Nakitende

Fred Mutebi echoed her sentiments:

“Art would prosper if the leaders of the country would make an effort to promote it to the ordinary people, who are grossly ignorant about art. Art is not produced merely for arts’ sake. There is an underlying message that artists want to impart in their work.”

“It is a shame that those we expect to understand the value of art are not result-oriented. We have well educated politicians putting down a museum!” he lamented. “Also, every gallery has the same work. If they would specialise in particular disciplines, artists or styles, that would take us a long way.”

Another problem is the issue of ‘duplication of ideas’ in the arts industry.

Mutebi believes that ‘promoters of art’ like galleries, should package art differently for select groups of Ugandans. For his part, Mutebi makes prints of his art pieces that may be too expensive for the average Ugandan.

“If I’m selling an art piece at 1,000 dollars, I shall make small prints of it for between 100 to 1000 dollars,” he explained. “One expensive art piece will end up in someone’s bedroom. But five prints ensures that five people have my work at an affordable rate.”

Fred Mutebi

Stella Atal concurred.

“I cannot buy an expensive piece of artwork for a friend!” she laughed. “I think artists should sell original miniatures so that it can be distributed amongst Ugandans who don’t look for art on their own.”

Artists should know about more than their art

Andrew Umah Tete is an accountant passionate about his art, and has spent the last five years trying to break into the industry. As an upcoming artist, he has made an interesting observation about others like himself.

“Artists should embrace skills like presentation, information technology or enterprenuership. Someone may have poor art work but good marketing skills,” he has observed. “The market is saturated with well established artists, so if one is not creative, they will be edged out forever.”

“Artists are afraid to speak to the public, so how will they market their work?” Atal emphasized. “It’s not enough for galleries to just put up paintings. Artists should endeavour to mingle with the public at exhibitions for instance.”

Atal believes that the public would be interested in the work of an artist if they knew the story behind the art, and the depth of the message.

“They are also not easy to find,” she asserted. “They should build websites of their work, with a physical address for their workshop and a telephone number to use to contact them.”

Stella Atal

Perhaps collective art societies could bridge the artist-client gap

“If artists would cooperate and build a strong, organized and vibrant art society, they would have more to offer to clients,” Andrew Umah Tete offered. “And I do not mean a studio. Five or six open studios is a different matter from a society that encompasses experienced artists, fresh graduates and the uneducated with vast talent.”

Umah Tete compares these ‘societies’ to a trade union in terms of potential strength.

“Artists can source for work and contracts together,” he concluded. “It would be empowering for both artists and the public to know where opportunities are and where the market is going in the future.”

Art galleries – promoters of purely business?

“Our art galleries are self-centered and only focused on well-to-do artists, ignoring the upcoming ones,” complained Ronald Kerango. “They only exhibit art that they think will sell, and art should go beyond selling!”

Kerango believes that this harmful practise also limits art enthusiasts who eventually become tired of finding the same artists in every gallery.

“Work that sells is not necessarily the best artwork,” he insisted. “If they reached out to institutions that nurture art like Kyambogo and Makerere University, clients would get a lot more variety instead of being forced to purchase from a few particular artists consistently.”

Kerango believes that if galleries do not want to exhibit amateurs, then they should dedicate a few exhibitions a year to them. This will ensure that both their business and promotional bases are covered.

“If this cannot be done, then let them stop calling themselves ‘promoters’ and specify exactly where their focus lies,” he concluded. “At least then, clients will know that if they want alternative artists, they need to search a little deeper.”

Ronald 'Ro' Kerango

Joseph Ntensibe also believes that this is the biggest problem with the visual arts in Kampala that needs to be rectified for the public to enjoy the greatest benefits.

“There are a lot of good artists out of there who are not well known,” he said. “Galleries need to invest in unearthing and promoting the unknown talent that is out there.”

Ntensibe states that the focus of galleries on ‘art that will sell’ has led to an increase in quacks, so to speak.

“These artists call what they do ‘escapism’,” he laughed. “They splash colour on canvas, manoeuvre items here and there, and if a client does not understand it, they say: ‘This is modern art. If you do not understand it, it’s your problem’.”

So while potential clients may consider this art genius, Ntensibe says that the artist is simply ‘escaping’ from a lack of creativity.

Joseph Ntensibe

There has to be drama from the artist

To conclude, in the words of Joseph Ntensibe:

“Art is not supposed to be about mass production, or selling something trendy and marketable. There has to be due duty and drama from the artist. Without drama, it lacks entertainment.”

It now remains for art promoters and the public to not only seek out and enjoy this ‘entertainment’, but to take the steps necessary to support and promote it.

Lindsey Kukunda is a freelance arts journalist and a culture and lifestyle editor for the Kampala Dispatch news magazine.

Photos by Thomas Bjørnskau,

What do you feel the Ugandan visual arts industry need? Please join the debate below!


9 thoughts on “Patronage, finesse and passion

  1. Passion. A real word. We need to realise that passion should and must be the starting point. It is not worth anything if we tag a price to a passionless item. Imagine being married to a passionles person who married you just because the person is suposed to! Yes we need to live, but out of passion comes beauty. Out of beauty comes appreciation and attraction. Let the money come to you. Money blinds the creative eye! Let the art sell itself!

  2. My experience with the visual artists so far- i have been writing and interacting with artists for the last four years at least- is that art is a personal experience. Every artist picks up a brush to tell a story from his experience either within or without.

    From that background, i appreciate artists who share their emotions in their work because art without emotions does not count.
    All the best artists i have met have something to do with emotion but also experimentation.
    Now Ugandan artists are trapped. They produce for the Mzungu who can pay a thousand dollars for their work- it’s not by accident that the price tag on most art works is in dollars!
    I come from a school of thought that believes that Ugandan art should stop being produced for that Mzungu. We should concentrate on the local market.
    Ugandans interestingly are getting more affluent and exposed. Let us tap that market and stop think of the Mzungu.
    This will help us to be more experimental and functional. I pay special tribute to artists like Bruno Ruganzu and Ronnex who have tried to demistify the visual artists in this country.
    Thank you……

  3. i often hear galleries telling artists to “change” style or subject matter but thats not cool.why dont they look for something totally new to exhibit.if an artist chooses to paint dogs all his life time who gives you the right to tell him to paint cats simply because you want your clients to experience something new. Why dont you look for the cat painter and exhibit his so doing you will always keep people coming back for a different experience.

  4. I think,the problem lies at the Genesis………how we are introduced to Art and at what level,by this i mean from school. We all know the poor amount of emphasis,appreciation and recognition ART as a subject is given on the school timetables compared to other subjects!!Now if such a picture is painted of ART to the students,then what are we to expect of the future of ART??? Maybe,if this could change,then most probably our next Generation of Ugandans will be more Art appreciative and thus its development!

  5. This debate is an inquiry into the position of art in a global (read capitalist) economy. Is Uganda’s art a product with commodity value?

    I think Uganda’s art can be a commodity with a price tag. Does a price tag then make art art-less? I think it does not. Monalisa remains a powerful work of art even when placed under the hammer at an auction house. It seems to me then, that selling an artwork does not undermine its artistic value and meaning (or its art-ness). Instead it allows artists to benefit from the globalising market space.

    Uganda’s artists cannot remain on the fringes of the economy. How will they survive? Uganda has no support for the arts. The more artists are able to sell their work the better for them. Let us not forget that art (and art-making) is as much a profession as it is a service. Seen in this light art gains a market value that can be ascertained. I think this is the way things are.

    I rest my case.

  6. If art is not made for money, what should it be made for? Where is the reward in the activity then?
    If there is no ‘King’ to commission the new ideas, how should the artist reconcile the need to live, the need to excel, the need to compete, the need to be true : with all these sentiments that have come to surround art?
    Should he subsist for the pleasure of the masses?
    What is art?
    And if at all we manage to define art, then should the artist be able to put conscious meaning to his creation?

  7. this is a healthy discussion. As a private gallerist who has overheads that have to be covered for the institution to exist, i think artists should always strive to come out with something different and exciting so that galleries pick it up. We struggle daily to offer a variety to our clients. That said, the are art industry of uganda is only growing.

  8. I’m interested in how dialogue and conversation can help form an arts community. I believe in peer-to-peer networks, learning and critique. In my short time in Kampala I’ve seen some great signs that this is happening and will continue to.

  9. Right now,artists are preaching to the converted.There is need to reach more ordinary people.Artists need to be allowed and supported to repackage Uganda through art.This means that artists also need to prove that that they are relevant authentic,and think outside of the box.Let art be taken to radios and on TV in the most meaningful and understandable manner.LET ART TALK

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