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?
Startjournal.org 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!”
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.”
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.”
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.”
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.”
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.”
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.
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, startjournal.org.
What do you feel the Ugandan visual arts industry need? Please join the debate below!