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ARTS: A dismal step so far taken

Who’s buying art in Uganda?

Kampala, Uganda | DOMINIC MUWANGUZI | In 2011 former Germany Ambassador to Uganda, Klaus Houderbaum, showcased his private collection at the now defunct MishMash art gallery in Kololo, a Kampala suburb . His collection included diverse art paintings, wood-cut prints and sculptures from some of the best known artists from Uganda’s modern and contemporary art scene. That show provided an opportunity to open up conversation on the topic if there’s any one who is buying art in Uganda and what type of art they are buying. Klaus who has been living in Uganda for now more than three decades is arguably Uganda’s most celebrated art buyer with a collection dating many decades back.

Uganda art buyers are private individuals like their contemporaries elsewhere in the world.  They are never in the news bragging about what they have bought or hardly ever invite photographers into their living rooms to photograph their latest acquisition. They mostly buy through private arrangements with respective art galleries or studios and the price of art is more often than not a secret shared between buyer and seller, and probably art dealer. Nonetheless, this arrangement shifts when it comes to art auctions like the Circle Art Auction where prices are published in catalogues  and buyers interviewed in the international and local press.

In Uganda, art buying remains exclusively at the gallery and studios, and clients are inspired to buy for either investment or cultural, and sometimes archiving purposes. In the latter instance, a buyer may be interested in the concept of a specific artist’s work like Fred Mutebi’s art on barkcloth and will buy his artworks to document it for research purposes. In light of such diverse interests, Kaddu Sebunya, President of African Wildlife Foundation, buys art on the premises of cultural preservation. Sebunya has an impressive collection of some of Uganda’s prestigious artists like Fabian Kamulu Mpagi, David Kigozi, and Joseph Ntensibe whose art integrates indigenous art practices and motifs of Uganda’s diverse cultures.

Similarly, many white expatriate collectors will be drawn to an artwork of such cultural significance, authenticity, and uniqueness.   In this light, art buyers are traditionally want something original and appeals to their specific taste. It is impossible that all art buyers are buying the same type of art and gallerists know this.

Nonetheless, art buying remains a small activity on the Kampala contemporary art scene because of two factors: Firstly, the fragile economy with a small middle class that can afford buying art. Local firms like Mukumbya Musoke Advocates penetrate the art market through organizing annual prizes for emerging artists in order to create competition and motivation among young talent but also critically to expose the industry to other corporate organisations thereby growing a local clientele for them ( artists).

Secondly, there’s dismal critical art writing; an aspect that consequently affects art buying on the local art scene.  With no critics of art, it is difficult to grow a critical audience that can appreciate and subsequently begin to purchase art.

An art industry like Johannesburg (S.A) has a number of art critiquing platforms like ArtAfrica, Artthrob and Thirdtext Africa with numerous writers that regularly publish reviews on exhibitions which inspire diverse conversations on art and, therefore, grow an art clientele base. The Ugandan situation has hitherto hardly any such writers, probably with only one platform, Startjournal.org.

But there is hope for the growth of the local art market, a departure from what was witnessed ten years ago where the market was dominated by western art patronage. With the above mentioned interventions and if seriously sustained, including a couple of individuals who travel around the world and are exposed to the benefits of art buying, the Uganda art scene will soon register its own art patrons who buy and consequently support establishment of other art infrastructures like art museums, art consultants, Art Fairs and critical art writing journals.

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 Image of Kaddu Sebunya’s private collection courtesy of Startjournal.org

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