Text contributions from various writers, cool art spaces, artists and collaborators.
Nantume navigates the Ugandan art scene; the changing role of galleries, artistic and curatorial interventions, art businesses and how these complexities impact the future of the African art ecosystem
Interview by Oliver Enwonwu
Oliver Enwonwu: Please give a brief overview of the Ugandan art scene, with regards to dominant themes and media, leading artistic and curatorial figures, as well as major trends in collecting.
Developing work by Nakitende Sheila. Studio Crit session held in March 2021 at her studio in Wakaliga. Photo by Wasswa James, Courtesy of UNDER GROUND
Nakitende has researched and experimented on how to hand-make barkcloth paper for three and a half years now. The highly stylized technics have created an intense range of sensory textures where barkcloth has been deconstructed to collect fibers. The fiber is manually beaten down to pulp before it is pressed and dried. The barkcloth paper is then subjected to natural and mechanical forces. In some instances it is left to ferment naturally, mixed with inflaming agents and in others it is mechanically subjected to aggressive bleaching and burning. The quality achieved is often one of fragile landscapes of experiences formed by perforation, fastening, sewing its tatters together, weaving and connecting twisted sisal ropes and other times bounding it to cover holes with patches of sisal as an attempt of repair.
Nantume Violet: Realistically, I can, representatively, speak about a specific region whose works I have been able to access in the last year since I settled back in Uganda, after three years of being physically and mentally away. That is, the central region of Uganda – Wakiso and Entebbe and Kampala metropolitan. However, some of the views I express are drawn from answers that I myself received from posing similar questions to other artists. These vary from political to social commentaries. They touch on a wide range of topics from collective geographical mappings that connect objects to land, to communal religious rituals, to views of Africa as a place now; n issues regarding feminism, critiques of the state, the idea of the invention of Uganda and boundaries of governance and rule of law, to the dynamics of the imperial powers, representation in art/history, and several mutative natural phenomena mainly depicted in paintings of oil or acrylics on canvas. Some artists taken recourse to drawing, with graphite and charcoal, not only as a process in art making. A handful of artists I have encountered are producing works that embody radical critiques of conventional or traditional forms of art and have experimented with novel materials as work in itself and others to make sculptural installations, time-based media, graphics, typography, as well as playing with fiction-fantasy of creating a whole new visual language using characters and objects.
However I have some perspectives of my own regarding Uganda’s art scene. I feel there is always something enlightening that is about to happen but never happens; that there is something cooking, about to be served; the art scene is characterized by expectation of something new, about to happen. Indeed the fields are often appear ready, but yet when art is served, there is that sense that might have been brought to table just a little prematurely or that it could have been served in more interesting ways. Most times, it tastes completely different from what I anticipated. Which would be a good thing but the surprise is not in that sense. Not in a way that affects imagination or emotion. I am often feeling that the quality of debate could have been better had they in the process left things to simmer a bit longer, just a bit deeper.
I am often left feeling as though we are, on the one hand, in the 1940’s and 1960’s in which we are still acquiring tools for formal appreciation of art and, on the other hand, in a yet to come time featuring advancement beyond the philosophical thought of individualist existentialism that existed in Uganda’s post-civil wars in the 1980’s and 1990’s. There is a disjuncture between the amount of time art has been taught and practiced in Uganda and its development in mainstream academia and exhibitions worldwide. Even more, there is need to take responsibility and position in collective historical consciousness in the informal and formal local spaces.
On leading art figures; I really do not think it necessary to provide a list of names of either artists or curators. It is perhaps more productive to engage with projects and assess their significance. I can tell you of two exciting and equally promising projects underway though. The one I am having sleepless nights about – Prof. George W. Kyeyune will, finally, publish his doctoral dissertation as a book. The “A Century of Modern Art in Uganda” is on set and will soon be published by iwalewa Books. A piece of over 203 it offers a helpful and very rich analysis of and insights on major trends and transformations in Uganda’s modern art practice since its inception by Margaret Trowell at Makerere in the 1930s. It is not the usual colossal but historically deficient body of academic writing we have grown accustomed to in the art world. It is rather a book I have enjoyed reading and which I also recommend to art enthusiasts. It is beautifully woven and detailed piece of art history.
Mujunga Mzili Henry (L) and Prof. Kyeyune George (R) at Mujunga’s studio at
Bulange Mengo in March 2021. Courtesy of UNDER GROUND
I am hardly an expert of collecting trends but I believe it has to do with 2d surface works, majorly featuring paintings and drawings. Since several works are bought straight from the studio and from aisle and are rarely exhibited, it becomes hard to track what is collected unless you know the artists behind the collections personally. I have recently learnt from Serugo Moses that Uganda has had quite a few local collectors for a while, albeit private. This has indeed warmed my heart. As art galleries and curators, we just have to figure out how to convince these collectors to invest energy and resources into showing or providing access to their collections to exhibitions home and abroad.
An archival project- The Muteesa II Memorial Museum. The Muteesa II Memorial Museum will be located within the Makerere University in Kampala. There are on-going renovations of the residence and grounds where the young Kabaka Muteesa lived for two years when he studied at the Makerere University in 1944. Built specifically to accommodate the king, the house and its grounds will be transformed into the The Muteesa II Memorial Museum- the first such art Museum. The property consists of a two-bedroom house, dining area, compound and back porch, laundry, toilet, kitchen and pantry which sits on approximately 200x 100 meters together with an outdoor kitchen and staff quarters. The building and its grounds will be turned into a cultural centre where people can learn about Kabaka Muteesa’s life. The museum will also have an interactive photo archive with multi-media audio visual resource system. It is a fragment version of the complete original plan of establishing a Makerere Museum. The project was conceived together with the current vice chancellorBarnabas Nawangwe who is passionate architect with interests in conservation and preservation of architectural sites, and the Prime Minister of Buganda Charles Peter Mayiga. The project aims to reenact the life and person of Kabaka Muteesa the king, Uganda’s first President while he studied at Makerere. The project is an effort of join collaboration between the Buganda government and Makerere University and is curated by a group of artists from the Makerere art school and scholars from other colleges. Scheduled to be inaugurated in April 2021, the museum will have a sculpture garden, souvenir and coffee shops and a historical and scholarly resource centre providing narratives of the life of Kabaka Muteesa.
Muteesa II Memorial Museum site under restoration. Front view, Courtesy of UNDER GROUND 2021
Muteesa II Memorial Museum site back view, Courtesy of UNDER GROUND 2021
OE: To what extent has the Ugandan and East African art market evolved since the outbreak of the pandemic. What positive conversations need to be sustained?
NV: The pandemic upended life for artists, as it did with everyone in any other sector, across the world. As artists our ability to exhibit our artwork was curtailed because of the scrambled travel logistics or the danger in gathering together. The mitigation measures taken by several governments across the world, which almost invariably included restrictions on mobility within countries and across borders, affected several artists. For curators who must travel to work, some of whom had their projects in different parts of the world, the effect of restrictions on travel was particularly debilitating. The situation has imposed on us the imperative to examine how we operate as artists and curators, and especially on how we can devise ways of making contemporary art accessible to those in our immediate communities, as immediate as the market or grocery shops. Physical travel then should not be the exclusive way of doing and communicating work, from the context that informs it. Then when we are able to travel again, it is not an escape of a reality but an expanse of it. I think that the question of context of where art is made, where it is shown might be a more urgent issue than its content.
OE: You occupy a unique position in Ugandan art, being an artist, curator and co-director of both Kampala Art Auction and UNDER GROUND Contemporary Art Space. What can you say about the increasingly blurry lines between the primary and secondary art markets; how would you react to criticism that auctions and galleries evolving beyond their traditionally ascribed roles is disruptive and would impact negatively on an artist’s trajectory, and the art ecosystem in the long run?
NV: Most auctions and galleries are business enterprises intended to make money. They sell your artwork to make money. This business focus can have disruptive effects on art ecology on pretty grand scale. Let’s start with the really basic: that the current trends in collecting of African art has potential to really upend an artist’s livelihood, long term finances and their mental health. Let’s think, for a moment, about the author of that object that is placed on the market. There is a trend where art buyers go into studios for direct purchases of artwork. This might seem enchanting and we might think is it great thing. At least several artists think so. Without going into the dangers that this might pose to the art ecosystem and the distribution of resources in the whole arts economy. The artist is often enthusiastic about meeting art lovers, and it is true that studio visitors genuinely desire to connect with artists and are interested in their artwork and may even want to acquire ownership of the artworks. But the direct interaction of the prospective buyers and artists can often turn sentimental, with the artist giving away the artworks without proper sales records and due attention to legal procedures of trade in art. I recently asked an artist who sells his work in the studio if he had agreed and penned any royalty or patent agreement incase their drawings were resold on secondary market. The answer was, unsurprisingly, no. I asked if the sales agreement stipulated the time period the buyer is allowed to put the artwork into a secondary market. He said no. This particular artist did not even sign sales agreements.
If we review the current fragmented exhibition records to establish how prominent Ugandan and East Africa’s modernist art was sold and acquired as private collections before they were exhibited or entered into art histories, we would certainly be surprised to discover that contemporary works of art continue to be sold in the same manner, and that we face the danger of losing, yet again significant African art into vaults. Art restitution discourse must then not stop at the physical repatriation of African art from Europe but also focus on tracing and reconstructing its intangible yet significant narratives to be reinstituted into their time and context in the art world, academia as well as in art education programs in the region.
In studio with Ntensibe Joseph 2020. Courtesy of UNDER GROUND 2020
Tropical gardens series 2019 200cm x 150cm. Oil painting by Ntensibe Joseph
Courtesy of artist. Photo by UNDER GROUND 2021
Professional dealers, gallerists and managers are often transparent in transacting business and ensure that the artist in not vulnerable to big sharks. They sometimes will warn artists if and when they sensed risky art deals. Yet, because approximately 90% of artists in Uganda are self-representing, with no association with professional art markets must educate themselves on their rights on the valuations of their artwork. The artists must be made aware of intellectual property rules, and acquire training on financial literacy. 90% is a big proportion which should concern us. If the artists are not properly trained on how to deal in the art market, they will be watching helplessly as unscrupulous international art entrepreneurs resale their works on secondary markets without any regard for its creator. Thus, the artists would never benefit from the proceeds from sale of their works. I shudder to think what effect this will have on the Ugandan artists in the future. Yet, unless we take action, this is Ugandan artists are facing, and many more artists are bound to face. One other factor that we need to consider is that artist too, like other human beings, age. At some point in their lives, artists’ capacity to carry out their work wanes as they age. This is even more pronounced in the case of creative artists whose works often involve the use of their own bodies and energies. We must take into consideration the mortality of the artists, and help them prepare for life after active art career. They must be educated so as to make prudent decisions to reinvest parts of their income for their life in retirement.
OE: In the last decade, themes of sexuality and eroticism have been met with backlash and controversy, especially with regards to the objectification of women. With recent artistic and curatorial interventions showing an increasing bent towards redefining portraiture to celebrate Black identity and the Black body, is your work counterproductive and does it present a dichotomy of sorts?
NV: No, it does not.
(I do not think the appearance of black bodies or those of females in art allude to similar topics of engagement. I must confess I have misused the word black bodies in the past as it was recurring in essays I read of African history from the diaspora. But they were speaking from experiences of being black in North America and Europe where the society is racially organised. Can you imagine I threw this word around before I even thought of myself or those I grew up with as black? Ugandans do not ideally perceive themselves as black until they travel to the Arab or lands of white people. For three consecutive years between 2016 and 2018, we enacted evolving exhibitions, beginning in Kampala on the themes of desire, intimacy and the ‘body as site of pleasure’. The in 2017 and 2019 we staged exhibitions in Nairobi and Johannesburg, respectively, exploring the body in the realms of state of gender, sex and sexuality and its contestations. Starting in Kampala, Nairobi, and Johannesburg and culminating in Luanda, the conversations advanced and zoomed in on the female body as a socio-political site on which history of experiences that could reveal a state of being of its society, transpired through its inscription and effect on the physical body. Now all those conversations could take on a new meaning the moment they are transported to a new place with a unique history where people are socialized based on the color of their skin).
Right: Rose’s Crown, Spiked Crown by Ange Swana – Eroticism and Intimacy: Faces, Places & Paths 2016 group exhibition. Courtesy of UNDER GROUND
Left: Debie 2017, Photography screen print on cotton by Zohra Opoku Print on clothe.
Right: Enya-Sa 2016 photography and How would you like your viganas? 2017, Installation work by Stacey Gillian Abe. Being her(e) 2017-2018 Group Exhibition in Luanda Angola. Courtesy of !Kauru Contemporary Art.
There are important works from Uganda contributing to the conversation of redefining portraiture. For instance, Mwesiga Ian’s current body of works springs from an encounter with pictures from an ethnographic archive at the Uganda’s Ethnographic Museum. In his quest to work with 1960 archival images, he has rummaged through colonial archives with images of post-independent Uganda. The works are typical of photographs taken of people from central Africa that were never intended for the gaze of those who appeared in them. This is not a phenomenon that occurred only after colonization; historically images taken of natives by explorers and missionaries were fundamental evidences used to argue for the need to occupy, conquer and impose a western civilization. In a powerful gesture, Mwesiga’s paintings take back control of the gaze to determine in what light he wants black people to be seen. The works also critique popularization imaging through which the colonial powers envisaged racial differences through a comparative method; by placing colonial subjects next to colonial masters in which cultural difference was also reduced to physical distinction in skin color.
His works contribute to representation by portraying his subjects in dignified everyday local and familiar setting–; dressed up, taking a beer, playing cards, girls relaxing by the pool, street bars and salons, couple courting seated in a clean environment, at dance parties or females visiting the gallery; light moments and dignified narratives that are part of the African story. The paintings are a re-assembling of iconic photos of people, things and places to reflect on contemporary life through evoking the element of time and place.
Salon Kafunda 2017, Oil on canvas. 140x208cm by Mwesiga Ian. Courtesy of artist.
OE: In previous discussions, you expressed that your home country, Uganda did not have enough spaces to display art. This situation is indicative of poor funding opportunities and appreciation for the visual arts amongst collectors and the general public works. What strategies can be adopted to encourage private/public sector support?
NV: Enwonwu, I have been scratching my head over the same thing. As I have previously pointed out, Uganda has not created sufficient spaces and opportunities for Ugandan artists to showcase their works. We urgently need lobbyists at policy-designing levels to advocate for the allocation of public funds towards the visual arts, and to rally the support of wealthy Ugandans to invest in the art industry. We see rich Asian, American and European entrepreneurs charter flights to collect our artworks. Why can’t our wealthy Ugandans show similar interests in the works of local artists? I believe the participation of Ugandans can go a long way in uplifting standards of arts in our country.
It is common knowledge though that the moment we turn to “gavumenti etuyambe” it is time to do the work ourselves. Kampala has artists with decent incomes who can make significant contributions towards supporting art programs and with charity/ philanthropic model. We must find ways of tapping into these local resources. Governments are often willing to join causes that are already off the ground. So the artists must initiate ventures to support local industry before enlisting the support of the government. Moreover, corporations and groups of wealthy people like to invest in ventures that have calculable financial value. Art is a profitable enterprise. The point is to package art in marketable fashion. The questions to ask ourselves are: How do we make art attractive to the rich in Uganda? Since the rich like owning things that are fancy, how do we make art to appear fancy in their sight? How do we interest people that have money to buy an art piece instead of a Rolex watch!? Could branding help? Collectors are usually private individuals, their hobbies are not things they flaunt about especially if they do not want to draw attention to how obscene they might cost. May be if they got a whiff that some individual are keeping their money in art, they might also want purchase art just to belong socially.
The benefit of having Ugandan art bought by Ugandans is that the art, which is really our heritage, stays here, and can be preserved even for future generations of Ugandans.
Oliver Enwonwu is the founder and Editor-in-Chief of Omenka Magazine and Omenkaonline.
Asele Institute in contemporary times.
Asele is a cultural institute in Nimo, Anambra, Nigeria, founded by late artist and scholar Prof. Christopher Uchefuna Okeke in 1959. Starting out as a documentation center the institute holds a modern and contemporary collection constituting traditional pottery, thorn curving, Uche Okeke’s, Nigerian contemporary artists’ works as well as objects from his travels around the world. Over the years it researched traditional art practices, Igbo mythology, was a center for experimenting with Uli designs, facilitated exchange between traditional and contemporary artists. When Uche Okeke passed on in 2016, his wife and four children took on the institute’s mandate. I Nantume met up with the new C.E.O Ijeoma Loren Uche-Okeke.
You are from Nigeria, Studied in South Africa and the USA, and now living in South Africa.
Yes, I am from Nimo, a fast-growing town in Anambra State. My father transferred his love for Nimo to me and my siblings. I spent many happy moments there as a young child and an adult. I moved to South Africa in 2005 to do a PGD and MA at the University of the Witwatersrand and subsequently relocated and settled in Johannesburg. I ended up doing a postgraduate diploma in environmental policy in 2008 at Bard Center for Environmental Studies, USA. My years in South Africa have been instrumental to my professional development as an administrator and manager in the visual arts sector.
- You have had a long career in the Arts in different roles.
My time in the creative sector spans 20 years. In South Africa, I have worked professionally for over 10 years. Starting at Gallery MOMO, the Visual Arts Network of South Africa (VANSA), !Kauru Contemporary Art Project and currently as CEO of Asele Institute. I am currently doing consultation work asides co-curating a major Uche Okeke exhibition at Iwalewahaus as part of their 40th anniversary. The second is a publication “Uche Okeke: Letters from Kpaaza”, a collaboration between Asele Institute, The Professor Uche Okeke Legacy Limited and iwalewabooks that will be launched in October this year.
- How different are the two organizations founded on the creative and intellectual legacy of Uche Okeke?
Asele Institute founded by Uche Okeke in 1959, played a central role in Uche Okeke’s professional career. The Professor Uche Okeke Legacy Limited (PUOLL) was legally registered in 2019 by the Uche-Okeke family. The two entities have been structured to work hand-in-hand. Asele is a non-profit, while PUOLL is a for-profit company. Asele is focused on programs and projects that promote communal practice and cultural advocacy. Asele has an important archive of materials spanning from the Biafran War to research on traditional Igbo art cultures such as Uli design, as well as Igbo history, archaeology and traditions. The archives holds materials on modern and contemporary Nigerian art including Western modern and contemporary art cultures. Presently Asele is digitizing all its archives. This is a long term project; we are also in the process of working on our campus to create research and studio residencies.
- April is Uche Okeke month. When did it start?
After our father passed on in 2016, in collaboration with the Anambra State chapter of the Society of Nigerian Artists (SNA) a nationwide association for visual artists, we started “Uli Day” as a way to honour our father’s legacy. This tradition has carried on for 3 years now, unfortunately due to the pandemic, and the continued effects, we were not able to hold the event in 2020 and 2021. Uli Day has been centered on a community of artists participating in creating Uli designs on the white-washed walls of the Asele Institute campus, in particular on the walls surrounding the grave site of Prof. Uche Okeke. This activity is supported by the traditional ceremony of sharing a meal consisting of roasted yams, with hot peppers and onions.
- Asele has a collection dating back to 1958. What is the collection made of?
The Asele Collection actually dates back to 1954, that was when Uche Okeke began to intentionally build a collection with the idea of developing a cultural center in his parent’s home in Kafanchan, a small town north of Nigeria. According to the manuscript Uche Okeke left on Asele Institute’s early years, the first items were lithographs collected from his travels within Nigeria and abroad. One of the most cherished items in the Asele Art Collection is a papier mache figure of a colonial soldier that Uche Okeke’s father, Isaac Okeke bought from a Bazaar in Kafanchan in 1939.
- The name Asele belongs to a highly acclaimed mythical character in Igbo Mythology. I have come to understand she was most revered of all the creative spirits.
Uche Okeke’s ideology of natural synthesis was embedded in Igbo traditional arts, practices, and folklore with emphasis on Uli design, a highly practiced form of body and mural painting. He conducted in depth research on Igbo history, mythology, cultures and traditions. Asele is a mythical artist who was revered and renowned for her incredible artistic talents not only in the land of the living but also in the land of the dead. The fact that her talents transcend into the land of the dead speaks volumes about her creative dexterity. Naming the Institute after this great mythical female artist imbues the Institute with the qualities and spirit of Asele. It also alludes to the synthesis of the old with the present and the future.
- Uche Okeke was introduced to Uli design by his mother and though versatile he is mostly known for his drawings and paintings.
Uche Okeke’s mother Mrs. Monica “Mgboye” Okeke, introduced him to Uli design being an Uli artist herself. He was versatile, his practice was multi-faceted, and his interests wide-ranging. He was renowned for his line drawings as these were the direct result of the many years, he spent experimenting with Uli symbols. The result was a highly developed contemporary artistic language and form that became recognized as a global art movement that came out of the Nsukka School located in the Department of Fine and Applied Arts at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka. Our father’s professional career was multi-dimensional, as an educator, scholar, collector, researcher, a lover of the arts, a writer, drama director, cultural activist and an advocate for arts and cultural development and education in Nigeria and Africa.
- Working with modern African artists today, one finds themselves in a dilemma of locally inaccessible or dispersed collections.
It is interesting that you refer to the dilemma of dispersed collections and the lack of accessibility to the works of numerous African modern and contemporary artists that are in various private collections. I believe this was a consideration for Uche Okeke that motivated him to seek different channels through which he built and preserved his artistic and intellectual legacy. Asele Institute was key to this strategy. He understood that as an individual artist he would be limited in terms of building and perpetuating his legacy. The blueprint he mapped out is very detailed and progressive, and still very relevant to the present and the future of Asele Institute and the continued progress of the Uche Okeke Legacy and his endowment to humanity through his artistic and intellectual property.
- Uche Okeke recently showed in an exhibition at Art House in Lagos.
I was not directly involved in the exhibition organized by Art House in 2019. That was a project initiated by Mrs. Kavita Chellaram, founder of Art House and curated by Prof. Jerry Buhari a professor of Fine Art, a protégé of Uche Okeke and alumni of Ahmadu Bello University Zaria (previously the National College of Art, Science and Technology – NCAST where Uche Okeke and his colleagues’ studied in the 50s and 60s). The exhibition featured a few of the artists who were the main actors in the creation of the Zaria Art Society. The exhibition titled “Zaria Art Society, A Celebration of Legacies”, sought to highlight the importance of the Zaria Art Society and the contribution of its core members to the development and advancement of modern and contemporary Nigerian art. The exhibition in my view serves as an important attempt to contextualize and situate the Zaria Art Society within the discourse of Nigerian contemporary art and the African creative sectors more broadly.
Support Critical Art Practice Across Uganda
Studio Crit is becoming a tool for improving theoretical and intellectual practices Uganda’s art scene
Ebyakayisaali 2020 Alminium Installation by Odur Ronald. Courtesy of UNDER GROUND 2020.
How can we design physical, practical structures for making and consuming art while advancing artists’ intellectual-theoretical capacities? Rethinking the functions of art and exhibition spaces has become crucial, for it is through these channels that artistic practice manifests the intellectual and physical infrastructure of a scene. The process of rethinking must focus on the sources of art spaces and galleries, as well as the work being done at the root of these artistic manifestations.
In Uganda, a new initiative called Studio Crit is attempting to devise tools for a gallery practice that will encourage theoretical and intellectual work in the country’s art scene. Started in October 2020 by UNDER GROUND Contemporary Art, Studio Crit is reaching out to modern and contemporary artists across the country and will organize at least three conversations with each artist in their studio per year. Although this format was born of necessity for research purposes, it has proven highly informative and will be sustained as a program of the gallery UNDER GROUND, which plans to contact artists country-wide as part of its curatorial practice.
The events gather intimate but diverse groups of thinkers from other walks of life together with artists and curators in an artist’s studio. The hosting artist makes a presentation to a curated group, and together they work through the artist’s ideas while an artwork is still in development. The choice of studio visitors is meant to intensify exchange between art and other fields of research, mediate knowledge between experts and locally based curators and artists. Moreover, it is hoped that the events will allow potential new audiences to access art in spaces other than the gallery.
Often held in home studios, the sessions see the artists present physical objects or a Powerpoint presentation. They talk about how they conceptualize their work, as well as what research or historical underpinnings inform their choices of materials and subject matter; who is their targeted audience, how they present their work to balance between information and experience, and even the logistics of handling artwork and transporting it without compromising its integrity. Visiting curators can be guided by these conversations, which thus inform future exhibitions. The idea is that the process is intentionally critical and includes that which surrounds the creators socially and politically.
The visits encourage research-based practices by treating historical and cultural sites, physical libraries, and human libraries as potential bodies of knowledge offering several perspectives. The format is an open space for provocations which allow artists and visiting individuals to bring their specific backgrounds into view in determining their interaction with each other and the artwork. In focusing on the role of reading and research in the artistic process, the studio sessions approach both thematic and individual research to expand on what artists and art educators think and talk about.
Studio Crit is becoming a tool for thinking about a mobile art space in changing times and alongside the changing needs of artists. It aims to hone critical thinking in art as it extends the art scene’s geographical boundaries from cities through continual excursions to studios funded by UNDER GROUND. The process of rethinking and building institutions becomes a platform for negotiating art and art history. Centering local histories and narrative canons as repositories for inspiring and creating contemporary art creates an open space for individuals to do what makes sense to them contextually.
Nakitende Sheila (second right) during a Studio Crit session held at her studio in Wakaliga. Photo by Wasswa James, Courtesy of UNDER GROUND 2021.
Through the studio visits, we are learning about ambivalences about the art market that have pushed artists into dissociating themselves from gallery management as a form of protest. This is a trend in Kampala as well as in Nairobi, where artists have walked out of local galleries to try self-representation instead. While artists can choose to remove themselves from failed gallery relationships, it is important to understand the reasons that lead to these fall-outs. As artists mature in their careers, they no longer need a space that just fronts their work but one that challenges its very essence through stimulation, provision of resources, interested audiences, and conversations.
To some, galleries have failed to give full creative freedom and patience to artists during their creation processes. Galleries are known to pressure the artists they represent to make art within specified timeframes and in accordance with certain trends in the international art markets. These conversations rarely go beyond reinvestment of part of gallery commissions toward bettering the artist’s work. The relationships are marred by power imbalances, and artists often find themselves with institutions that give little or no support, but act only as selling points for their art. Artists frequently find themselves feeling overpowered or overwhelmed.
It is because of such factors that some established Ugandan artists no longer exhibit their work in Uganda – they do not want to associate with brands whose contribution to building local discourse is non-existent. This means that fellow artists and the Ugandan audience only access such artworks through artists’ social media, or when they appear in auctions and fairs beyond the continent. The fact that Uganda’s contemporary art thus ends up not being seen in the places which inspired it or where it was made is very detrimental to the scene. Artists, especially those who meet with some success, must understand that if these trends continue, upcoming generations of artists will lose out by not having the opportunity to see their work in “traditional” exhibition settings. Exhibitions can help establish a canon, and if there are none it impoverishes the art scene not only in terms of the art being made but also in its critique and the writing of its history.
Studio visit with Ocom Ekuwe Adonias and Sekubulwa John Baptist in Kireka Kampala Photo by Wasswa James Courtesy of UNDER GROUND 2020
Just as artists must grasp the importance of exhibiting their work, galleries too need to review their terms and what artists get out of business contracts. They must devise programs that support systems for actually making work. The better you know the artist, the better you understand what they do, the better the support you can offer them. There should be a shift in the conversation to reflect the fact that an artist’s success and development cannot only be measured by their sales. Those invested in an artist’s development need to do the groundwork and the research, then tailor fresh programs and find new solutions. Unless they reflect on what they offer and how it can benefit artists, it is only natural that artists whose practices outgrow them disconnect. When artists are woke as they are today, it is paramount we start to question the quality of their opportunities. To survive, galleries must evolve to remain relevant and grow together with the artists. Galleries have to redefine their functions and diversify their programs to encompass support of both artists and audiences.
To determine our own artistic trajectory, we have to radically shift our attention away from global market sales as benchmarks for artistic production and towards practices reflecting on the diversity of the multi-everything that Africa offers us Africans. To be self-determined we have to create our own conditions for production, which in the end shapes our own artistic landscape. Focusing on studio practices could be a way to begin to assert new historical canons and narratives – from the education artists receive to the making of art and its consumption and acquisition.
Text by Nantume Violet