Few Ugandans are interested in contemporary fine art, leaving galleries largely to the expatriate community. Jean Feni talked to leading artists about their frustration trying to earn a living from a largely sidelined branch of the arts.
In the one-story apartment block, the artist’s craft is strewn everywhere; paints and paint brushes on table tops; splotches of paints on the floor and cream-coloured walls; unfinished pieces recline on easels or are propped against walls.
Three young men listen to a program on Radio City. The woofer, backed against the wall, wraps the room in a relaxed afternoon atmosphere in this quiet neighbourhood of Kireka, where Adonias Ochom Ekuwe is tidying up the room.
Ekuwe started painting in 2014 and has held solo exhibitions at Afri-art gallery and Uganda museum. John-Baptist “JB” Ssekubulwa is a colleague. JB loves his work so much that he sometimes works until 3am.
This afternoon they all were busy at their beautiful craft until I interrupted them. The third artist, Andrew Arim, is a rather quiet fellow with dreadlocks and offers little via chatting, as we engage in small talk before the interview begins.
Arim never trained as a fine artist at university, but always had a passion for it and was eventually influenced to do art professionally by his two colleagues in the room.
The three contemporary artists exhibited their work at the Kampala Art Biennale last year in August and September; the biennale is Uganda’s biggest art exhibition held every two years. They are some of the relatively young crop of modern artists who continue to join Uganda’s frustratingly slow-growing fine art scene. Slow-growing not for lack of great talent, but for lack of local buyers.
Kampala has numerous art galleries, houses, companies and organizations, yet it still mainly attracts the same “elitist” crowd, as Xenson Senkaaba, one of Uganda’s best known artists, puts it.
Xenson has been producing art professionally for at least 12 years now and is also working on a rap album currently. But apart from a lot of the time attracting expatriates, Xenson is yet to win over a sizeable Ugandan fanbase too.
“Most Ugandans view consuming modern art as something Western…and most people don’t connect or relate to modern art,” he says. This is due to visual art’s intellectual manner and its abstract way of showing an idea rather than representing things or people in a direct way.
“The average Ugandan doesn’t want to exercise their mind and intellect to decipher things; people just want to be fed on what is easy.”
He adds that when Ugandans are presented with complex work, many view it as the artist “showing off” or doing “European things”. It does not help that modern art is not exactly cheap. But luckily for Ochom, Arim, JB and Xenson, there is a shift upwards in interest in art from Ugandans; so, all is not lost.
“There are more people who follow me (on social media) and more want to buy my work,” Ochom said.
A lot of art exhibitions today are done within Kampala and a couple of Uganda’s major towns; in fact, next to nothing is exhibited in other parts of the country.
JB says this is down to the system – economic factors majorly. And according to Ochom, “your exposure to art depends on where you are in the country”.
Arim, the quiet one, feels artists need help of writers, critics and art galleries to take art to a wider audience. Xenson expresses frustration at the fact that government and the corporate world are not very supportive, and banks don’t lend money to artists.
“We should take things into our hands, culturally. We should infuse our art, music and poetry with our local cultures and express it wherever we are because art and artists can be anywhere.”
He says, “Journalists don’t know the language of art, they can’t critique works of art…the way they relay information about art is simplistic. That’s why Ugandans will instead buy a painting of a snow-peaked mountain from China.”
Interviewing the young men about art as a source of livelihood makes it clear that the question of money is dwarfed by their passion and commitment.
“Art just doesn’t give me money,” says JB, “it inspires my whole life.”
Ochom says anyone appreciating his work is rewarding enough. He, however, says they have learnt to save and reinvest money from their works. Xenson agrees that art is a matter of the heart, not money.
“Since time immemorial, culture and art have been representatives of their society’s history. They are a mirror of their society. We have to be proud of what we do.”