Art fanatics, where art thou?

Most Ugandans ignore the art that surrounds them. We ignore metallic artifacts in hotels or sculptures throughout the city. Nor do we pay attention paid to the chairs we sit on and the tables upon which we place our precious delicacies.

But the art that really suffers appears in paintings. Artists spend hours, days and weeks of labour and financial investments toiling over their work. To what end? I visited two art galleries to find out.

The Umoja Art Gallery first opened its doors to the public on 26th April last year while the Afriart Gallery has been around for ten years. I visited the new and the old to see where art in Uganda lies today and what could be waiting for it in the future.

What are art galleries all about? How does the business operate and what is the benefit of running one? If you are an artist, why exhibit your work? One fact is clear and that is that if you are an artist, you should not venture into the ‘business’ of art without passion, dedication and perseverance as you wait for that first paycheck.

Lyton Hillary, co-founder and manager of the Umoja Art Gallery, likes to look at art as an investment.

“The value of paintings increase over time,” she explained. “If you make a wise investment in a purchase, and sell it off after a few years, you can make a worthy profit.”

Instead, Ugandans proudly display purchases from overseas countries while letting their local talent wait patiently for an interested buyer. More often than not, that local talent gives up.

“If you’re going to be an artist, it is necessary for you to be patient,” Hillary emphasized. “Otherwise you’ll just die of the frustration.”

Desire Atukunda, the administrator of the Afriart Gallery, echoed that sentiment. “Young people graduate after studying art, and do not really know where to start,” said Atukunda. “They paint a few pieces and take them around randomly. The more times they are rejected, the more disillusioned they get.”

Atukunda believes artists should have a job or business on the side, leave their artwork in galleries and just wait.

“One day you will get a phone call saying your piece has been sold. And that is how you start to build your name,” explained Atukunda. “Consumers will eventually start to purchase your art, not because it is pretty, but because they like your technique. They like your signature.”

Both Atukunda and Hillary believe that to find the impatient artists, one only has to go to Nkrumah or Nasser roads and look for the graphic designers. Here, their talent is commercialized and they can see some quick rewards. But that is not what being an artist is about.

“If you lack passion for your trade, then you see nothing wrong with trading it in for another,” said Atukunda. “Art is a luxury. So if you want someone to purchase yours, you must have blind faith.”

Beautiful words and they may be true. But does the fault lie with the artists alone when the local population leaves this industry to the consumption of the expatriate community?

“Ugandans do not even attempt to study paintings,” complained Atukunda. “They are very good at walking around and then coming back to say, ‘What nice pictures.’ How dare you call a painting a picture!”

To be honest Atukunda, many a Ugandan sees nothing wrong with that. But there may be hope for these lost Ugandans yet.

“The private industry is doing a good job of selling art to the local population,” said Hillary of Umoja Art Gallery. “The annual exhibition for instance that ‘Firewords Advertising’ puts on every year brings in more and more buyers who are not all expatriates.”

In addition to that, festivals like the La Ba! Festival and the Bayimba Festival also ensure that artists have a platform to exhibit their work.

But galleries are not sitting still waiting for Ugandans to be inspired to purchase art. Now most galleries will sell artifacts that are affordable and attractive to the locals.

Afriart Gallery has partnered with entrepreneur Harry Sagara to sell his t-shirts with ‘I LOVE UG’ emblazoned on the front. They also sell jewellery, recycled glass vases and clay ashtrays, among other things.

“If one cannot purchase a painting for $500 perhaps they can purchase a flower vase for Shs 50,000,” Hillary summed it up.

That positive outlook on things has not stopped Umoja Gallery from offering Ugandans the option of purchasing a painting and paying for it in installments. Just in case somebody bites.

Now down to the question most aspiring artists want to know: What criteria does an art gallery use to select whose work they will choose to put up on their walls?

“We look at the stretching of the work, and its finishing and painting quality,” explained Hillary. “We usually focus on upcoming artists because many galleries carry the popular ones. We want to be unique from what other galleries have.”

Afriart Gallery however, is not going to compromise its quality for all the upcoming artists in the world.

“Being one of the top galleries today, we have a keen screening process. We have to exhibit the best of the best,” confessed Atukunda. “The art must be contemporary African and the artist must be born and bred in Uganda. Our clients have a keen eye for art, and if our art is substandard or copied, they can easily lose faith in you as a gallery.”

If you’re an upcoming artist, this is no reason to groan in dismay. If you currently study at Makerere Art School, you may be lucky enough to be scouted by the founder of the gallery, Daudi Karungi, who goes there to look for fresh talent. Kayigwa Gonza Jacob, whose specialty is painting with watercolours, was one such lucky student.

“It’s important that we constantly bring in new work, in order to have more variety,” Atukunda said. “The more techniques we exhibit, the wider the market we can cover in terms of tastes and preferences.”

Afriart also holds workshops with experienced artists once a month to mentor young hopefuls. Details of workshops can be found on their website, www.afriartgallery.org

In comparison when it comes to mentorship, Umoja Art Gallery lives up to its goal of supporting upcoming artists. Their doors are open every day of the week to any artists seeking mentorship, free of charge. I was pleased to find one such youth just finishing a painting when I was there.

Hillary the manager asked him to show me what he had done. As soon as he did, my first remark was that I had seen it somewhere before. Seeing a painting on the wall opposite me, I specified that it resembled the work of Paulo Akiiki.

“That is what I am talking about,” Hillary told the flustered young man. “Just because you are inspired by a particular artist does not mean you should copy him. No art gallery will display the work of a copycat. You need to find your own signature.”

But financial concerns aren’t limited just to aspiring artists. Is starting up an art gallery an investment that will eventually reap benefits?

“It’s a seasonal business,” Hillary emphasized. “We go by on summer holidays, Christmas seasons, people on business trips and the like. One day you may sell four paintings and go for two weeks without selling a single one”.

Which may explain why most galleries are started and operated by artists. Passion and patience are necessary attributes to get one through the quiet seasons.

“For me, it’s not about making money,” Hillary concluded. “It’s about giving a chance to young artists and opening doors for them.”

“Our sales are just fine,” was Atukunda’s take on this for Afriart Gallery. “Once you understand that art is like sugar, then you do not make financial estimations. One day everything is quiet then someone walks in and buys a $500 painting”.

The road to success for gallery owners according to Atukunda is to establish one’s clientele and the artwork exhibited for them.

“It is also important to bring in new work as often as possible,” she elaborated. “If a piece has been displayed for a month, it is time to take it down and put up something new. Your clients should not come back and see the same work on the wall.”

So if you’ve never been to an art gallery, don’t blush with shame yet. You still have time to tour, study the paintings you like, ascertain why you like them and then follow the artists religiously.

And if you’re an aspiring artist, make this your mantra: “Patience, passion and perseverance for the luxury of art.”

By Lindsey Kukunda