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ARTS: True value of Ugandan art abstract

A painting by Austrian artist Gustav Klimt recently became the third most expensive artwork ever sold at auction in Europe. `Bauerngarten’, Gustav Klimt’s exuberant 1907 oil painting of a garden filled with poppies, daisies, and other flowers, sold for £48 million (Approx Shs212 billion) at Sotheby’s auction of Impressionist, Modern and Surrealist works in London. It was a record auction price for a landscape by the artist.

The only works that have sold for more money in Europe are Alberto Giacometti’s “Walking Man,” which sold for £65 million in 2010, and Peter Paul Rubens’ “The Massacre of the Innocents,” which sold for £49.5 million in 2002.

The auctioneers described the `Bauerngarten’ sale as “a new benchmark for London sales and a statement on the momentum of the global art market in 2017.”

The claim that the global art market has momentum is woefully not felt in the Uganda art market. Instead, it appears, the demand for Ugandan art is so low that both dealers and artists are under financial threat.

Ugandan artists like Taga Nuwagaba, Joseph Ntensibe and a few others have made careers out of art and indeed inspired many. In fact, Taga struggles to maintain a personal collection and has to sometimes work so hard for weeks to exhaust his customers’ orders.

But he is one in a thousand lucky enough (or is good enough?) to tell this story. Majority languishes and barely draws attention to their works. Art galleries are not doing any better.

Lyton Hillary, the proprietor of Umoja Gallery in Kamwokya, Kampala says bluntly that she would count it a blessing if she sold two art works out of 30 pieces in a month-long exhibition.

Prices of works are awfully low, ranging between $100 and $1,000; a small amount in comparison with regional rates, and yet the beautiful works by some of Uganda’s finest will hang on the walls or pedestals of her gallery without sale.

Edward Waddimba, a Ugandan artist and chairman Uganda Visual Artists and Designers Association., says this could be one of the most economically stressful seasons in art with the lowest sales. He partly attributes this problem to a general public indifference punctuated by the financial crunch facing the economy – and Ugandan artists overrating their works. “An emerging artist participating in a group exhibition may simply sample the prices of his colleagues and end up slapping a $500 price tag on his without due consideration of many issues,” he says.

The result is endless frustration. This situation has driven Ugandan artists to become economic nomads seeking market in neighbouring Kenya, where Ugandan art has become a staple on their gallery menus.

There has been a noticeable interest in African art on the world market for the last 10 years and 2017 looks set to be another year of marked interest, according a recent report in the UK’s Financial Times newspaper.

However, even at this intensity of interest, prices for African art remain conservative. Among the highest priced purchases is an aluminuim, copper and wire piece by El Anatsuin titled `Path to the Okro Farm’ which sold for U.S$1.4 million at Sotheby’s in 2014. A few other works have also sold for over US$1 million.

Part of the reason for this is the manner in which African art has been perceived from the time it was discovered by the West close a century and a half ago to date. Unable to decode and place African art in its rightful context, Western critics opted to use their normative evaluation, specifically placing identity/authenticity expectancy on African art works.



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