Finding Solace in the West
By: Dominic Muwanguzi
Ismael Kateregga’s London auction sale in May 2014 has created a buzz about Ugandan art on the international scene. The artist sold his painting, Boats, at Bonhams for a sum of £8,750 (US $ 14,866, 38.7 million UGX) showing that low sales at home might be irrelevant.
Almost a year ago, Kateregga, had an art exhibition at Afriart Gallery, Kampala, where his art was described as “a monotonous duplication of his style.” Some of his contemporaries speculated his career was at a dead-end. The success story of his single painting in London has since silenced his critics and now opens up the debate around how/why is it possible for artists to excel in a foreign territory, yet at home their work remains less appreciated and consumed.
Art education in tertiary institutions, specifically, Margaret Trowell School of Industrial and Fine Art is an accomplice to this trend. The school was opened by British national Trowell in 1937 and initially drew up an art curriculum that emphasised the expressionistic qualities of African art with a high valued placed upon fine craftsmanship. The approach helped to create students who were independent of naturalistic imagery of British art. Later, the system was overhauled by Trowell’s replacement, Todd Cecil, who stressed the Western mode of teaching art with aspects of European Modern Art. In essence, the legacy shows that European art education speaks to European audiences.
Theories of European art history permeate the work of Kateregga who graduated from Margaret Trowell School of Industrial and Fine Art in 2004. His impressionistic style involves the study of perspective and light on landscape and evokes the work of great masters like Vincent Van Gogh and Henri Matisse. Thus, it is easy to understand why his art does not have a soft landing among the Ugandan public that shares little knowledge of these luminaries.
Pricing of local art in US Dollars isolates Ugandans from appreciating and purchasing it. The immediate reaction from the average Ugandan who walks into these galleries is that this art is not for him or her, but belongs to the foreign expatriate or tourist who can afford it. This tendency towards selling art in foreign currency altogether inspires the artists to create work for a specific audience with intentions to make as much money as possible. It is also for this reason that several artists are eager to hold exhibitions in Europe and North America. For them, it is an opportunity to be economically empowered in their career as seen through Kateregga’s runaway sale in London.
Eria “Sane” Nsubuga, an artist and lecturer at Nkumba University’s Faculty of Fine Arts, denounces this shift to the West. Sane, a first-class graduate of Margaret Trowell School of Industrial and Fine Arts, advocates for local relevance in the contemporary Ugandan art scene and urges his contemporaries “to go native” in their work to be locally relevant.
The cry by Sane to localise the visual arts resonates with Circle Art Agency Art Auction held in Nairobi during November 2013. The auction, named the first Modern and Contemporary East African Art Auction, opened the door for local art appreciation. The event interpreted as a success both internally and externally, saw deceased Ugandan artist Geoffrey Mukasa’s painting Celebrations fetch a sum of 1,761,000 KSH (US $19,241, 50 million UGX) and Sane’s Christ at Golgotha earning 563,520 KSH (US $6,150, 16 million UGX). The price tags attached to these paintings was a milestone in the East African market for visual arts.
While history was made with the sales at the Circle Art Auction, the majority of artworks selected for the public sale were prejudiced to Western art markets because of the inspiration, technique and medium employed by their creators. Godfrey Mukasa’s Celebration and Lady in Green illustrated his Euro-inspired style of cubism.
As persistent pleas are made to artists to create art with local significance the artists are caught up in a web of conflicted interest. On the one hand, they want to break away from the mould of Western art history bestowed onto them by university art education. This way they can root their art into local culture and communicate effectively to the average Ugandan. On the other hand, they see economic mobility hinged on the outsider who rewards their art with a better paycheque.
The irony of earning so much money from art is reducing it to a commodity status and compromising on the rhetoric, “art for art’s sake.” This consequently affects the quality of art on the market because some artists will produce what they deem sellable without being original and creative. A relief from this paradox is possible if artists choose to construct a balance between the two situations. In absence of this stability Ugandan art will continue to be channeled to foreign markets with only a few being consumed by a handful of Ugandans who have the appreciation and income to spend on it.
Elsbeth Joyce Court, Margaret Trowell and the Development of Art Education in East Africa, 1985, National Art Education Association
Eria Sane Nsubuga, Artists should put their creative minds into Ugandan Culture, issue 010, June, 2011, Startjournal.org
• This article was produced through the 32º East and Start Journal Writer in Residence Program.