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“Emerging Artists”, who are they?

The ambiguous or slippery nature of the term “emerging artists” calls for its revision to clearly define which artists it suits.

| DOMINIC MUWANGUZI | The term “emerging artists” is frequently used in many art circles globally. Art galleries, dealers, collectors and art writers use the phrase from time to time to refer to a certain category of artists. But who exactly are they referring to? Art critics and researchers like Mary Corrigal based in Cape Town,  South Africa, observe the term has been used for several decades now globally in relative contexts; depending on the nature of the art landscape within which artists work. For example, in the global south where the art industry is highly developed, the term was previously used on artists who were “self- taught” – these because of lack of formal art training were perceived to lack the legitimacy to practice- , and today  those who are not represented by a major art gallery. Yet in societies like South Africa with a fast booming art market owed to a buoyant economy and developed art infrastructures, “emerging artists”, suggests artists who are fresh from the warmth of the university clutches. Because these are fresh on the art scene, they are definitely emerging and therefore suit the definition.

South Africa art industry is perceived on the continent as incredibly successful. Therefore, it offers inspiration on how the Contemporary art scene should be structured and designed elsewhere on the continent. In Uganda, the phrase “emerging artists” largely denotes artists fresh from university. These are only emerging as artists. This however, is different from South Africa where an artist over 35 years may qualify for the definition. But there are fresh graduate artists, under 35 years who are represented by a famed art gallery and therefore have both continental and international reputation. This scenario is very much evident on the Kampala contemporary art scene. Andrew Arim, Richard Atugonza and Ian Mwesiga fall in this group. Ian Mwesiga, raptured on international art scene in 2018, only four years after graduating from art school. His art has since featured in art auctions in London and Paris fetching a record sale of more than USD $ 50,000 per painting.  Such a whooping figure for the artist, has captured for him global attention and recognition. It probably would  be an insult to his career if he’s referred to as an emerging artist simply because he’s  still relatively new on the scene, yet he’s selling more than some older artists have ever- imagined.

On the other hand, is Mathias Tusiime whose background as a self-taught artist has continuously  impeded his recognition at Margret Trowell School of Industrial and Fine Art as an a artist worthy of mention.  Ironically, Tusiime has severally visited the United States of America as a “visiting lecturer”, particularly at the University of Florida. His work has also featured in the London- based auction house Bonhams. So is Tusiime an emerging artist after such “acclaimed” success or not? What about other senior artists on the local art scene who have not yet had the privilege of global recognition courtesy of record sales, but are at a different level of success in their career path: working in the community and impacting communities there or producing experimental art which probably may never make appearances in the Bonhams, Johannesburg Art Fair and PIASA Auctions?

The ambiguous or slippery nature of the term “emerging artists” calls for its revision to clearly define which artists it suits. This is because of the complex nature of the art scene on the African continent where many artists do not have formal art training, work independently and are commercial artists (touristic artists). Though it is generally understood the phrase “emerging artists” is used in the global art world to refer to artists who have a “potential future”, it is also evident that because of the highly commercialized art market globally, such a phrase can gain credibility. Interestingly, the success of an artist today is perceived through the pay check their art attracts at auctions and not necessarily the creative clout of their work. Sadly, there are many artists out there who get away with “bogus” art with an excuse of following global art trends to capture the market.

In response to the multifaceted art industry on the continent, Corrigal observes that “mid- career artists” could be a more appropriate term to use.   This is because after graduation, artists take several years- a period which can be described as mid -career- working quietly to develop their craft outside the dictates of the university environs.  If this period is used productively, such artists have the likelihood to reach the pinnacle of their ‘artistic trajectory’.  A reality of the local art industry is many artists are mid- career and nothing of the so-called emerging artists.  With hardly two or three artists getting an opportunity to be represented by a major art gallery every year, many art- graduates in Uganda end- up working commercially relying on sales from buyers who visit their studios or depend on foreign residencies and programs for their survival.  It therefore would be inappropriate to burden them with a phrase like “emerging artists” which does not conform to the intricate world within which they work.

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