Ask the Curator: Violet Nantume

Ask the Curator: Violet Nantume (Uganda) - Omenka Online

Nantume Violet is a graduate of the Margaret Trowell School of Industrial and Fine Arts, Makerere University where she majored in jewellery making and Ugandan contemporary art history. She is a co-director of Kampala Art Auction Ltd and the curator and director at UNDER GROUND, a gallery and contemporary art space in Kampala, Uganda. In 2015, she organised the first-ever major art auction in Uganda. Violet creates art that triggers controversy and curates exhibitions based on themes and concepts meant to disrupt existing paradigms, but also encourage alternative ways of perception. She has worked as a cultural producer for nine years and has enjoyed collaborations in East Africa, Ghana, South Africa, and Germany.

In this interview with Omenka, Violet gives an overview of the art scene in Uganda and the often blurred lines between primary and secondary art markets in Africa. Amidst the pandemic, she also highlights valuable conversations that need to be sustained going forward.

Please give a brief overview of the Ugandan art scene, with regards to dominant themes and media, leading artistic and curatorial figures, as well as major trends in collecting.

Nakitende has researched and experimented on how to hand-make barkcloth paper for three and a half years now. The highly stylised techniques create an intense range of sensory textures where barkcloth is deconstructed to collect fibres. The fibre is manually beaten down to pulp before it is pressed and dried. The barkcloth paper is then subjected to natural and mechanical forces. In some instances, it is left to ferment naturally and mixed with inflaming agents while in others, it is mechanically subjected to aggressive bleaching and burning. The quality achieved is often one of fragile landscapes of experiences formed by perforation, fastening, sewing its tatters together, weaving and connecting twisted sisal ropes. Sometimes, it is just bound to cover holes with patches of sisal as an attempt to repair.

Ask the Curator: Violet Nantume (Uganda) - Omenka Online

Ian Mwesiga, Salon Kafunda, 2017, oil on canvas, 140 x 208cm

I can, representatively, speak about a specific region whose works I have been able to access in the last year since I settled back in Uganda, after three years of being away physically and mentally. That is the central region of Uganda – Wakiso and Entebbe and Kampala metropolitans. However, some of the views I express are drawn from answers that I myself received from posing similar questions to other artists. These vary from political to social commentaries. They touch on a wide range of topics from collective geographical mappings that connect objects to land, to communal religious rituals, views of Africa as a place now, issues regarding feminism, critiques of the state, the idea of the invention of Uganda and boundaries of governance and the rule of law. They also touch on the dynamics of the imperial powers, representation in art/history, and several mutative natural phenomena mainly depicted in paintings of oils or acrylics on canvas. Some artists have taken recourse to drawing with graphite and charcoal, not only as a process in art-making. A handful of artists have been producing works that embody radical critiques of conventional or traditional forms of art and have experimented with novel materials as work in itself and others to make sculptural installations, time-based media, graphics, typography, as well as playing with the fiction-fantasy of creating a whole new visual language using characters and objects.

I have some perspectives of my own regarding Uganda’s art scene. I feel there is always something enlightening that is about to happen but never does; that there is something cooking, about to be served; the art scene is characterised by the expectation of something new. Indeed the fields often appear ready, but yet when art is served, there is a sense that it might have been brought to the table just a little prematurely or that it could have been served in more interesting ways. Most times, it tastes completely different from what I anticipated, which would be a good thing but the surprise is not in that sense; not in a way that affects imagination or emotion. I am often left feeling that the quality of the debate could have been better had they in the process, left things to simmer a bit longer, just a bit deeper.

I feel as though we are, on the one hand, in the 1940s and 1960s where we are still acquiring tools for a formal appreciation of art and, on the other hand, featuring advancement beyond the philosophical thought of individualist existentialism that existed in Uganda’s post-civil wars in the 1980s and 1990s. There is a disjuncture between the amount of time art has been taught and practised in Uganda and its development in mainstream academia and exhibitions worldwide. Even more, there is a need to take responsibility and position in collective historical consciousness in the informal and formal local spaces.

On leading art figures; I really do not think it necessary to provide a list of names of either artists or curators. It is perhaps more productive to engage with projects and assess their significance. I can tell you of two exciting and equally promising projects underway though. The one that causes me sleepless nights—Prof George W. Kyeyune will, finally, soon publish his doctoral dissertation as a book ‘A Century of Modern Art in Ugandaby Iwalewa Books. Over 203 pages, it offers a rich analysis of insights on major trends and transformations in Uganda’s modern art practice since its inception by Margaret Trowell at Makerere in the 1930s. It is not a colossal book that is a historically deficient body of academic writing we have grown accustomed to in the art world. It is a book I have enjoyed reading and would recommend to art enthusiasts. It is a beautifully woven and detailed piece of art history.

Ask the Curator: Violet Nantume (Uganda) – Omenka Online

I am hardly an expert on collecting trends but I believe it has to do with 2D surface works, majorly featuring paintings and drawings. Since several works are rarely exhibited as they are bought straight from the studio and the aisle, it becomes hard to track what is collected unless you know the artists behind the collections personally. I learnt recently from Serugo Moses that Uganda has had quite a few local collectors for a while, albeit private. This has indeed warmed my heart. As gallerists and curators, we have to figure out how to convince these collectors to invest energy and resources into showing or providing access to their collections for exhibitions at home and abroad.

An archival project—The Mutesesa II Memorial Museum will be located within the Makerere University in Kampala. There are ongoing renovations of the residence and grounds where the then young king Kabaka Muteesa lived for two years during his time at the university in 1944. Built specifically to accommodate him, the house and its grounds will be transformed into The Muteesa II Memorial Museum—the first such art museum. The property consists of a two-bedroom house, dining area, compound and back porch, laundry, toilet, kitchen and pantry which sits on approximately 200x 100 metres together with an outdoor kitchen and staff quarters. The building and its grounds will be turned into a cultural centre where people can learn about Kabaka Muteesa’s life. The museum will also have an interactive photo archive with a multi-media audiovisual resource system. It is a fragment of the complete original plan for establishing the Makerere Museum. The project was conceived by the prime minister of Buganda, Charles Peter Mayiga and the current vice-chancellor Barnabas Nawangwe who is a passionate architect with interests in conservation and preservation of sites. The project aims to re-enact the life and person of Kabaka Muteesa also Uganda’s first president while he studied at Makerere. It is a collaboration between the Buganda government and Makerere University and is curated by a group of scholars and artists from the art school and other colleges. Scheduled for inauguration in April 2021, the museum will have a sculpture garden, souvenir and coffee shops and a historical and scholarly resource centre providing narratives of Kabaka Muteesa’s life.

To what extent has the Ugandan and East African art market evolved since the outbreak of the pandemic. What positive conversations need to be sustained?

The pandemic upended life for artists, as it did with everyone in any other sector across the world. As artists, our ability to exhibit our work was curtailed because of the scrambled travel logistics or the danger of gathering together. The mitigation measures taken by several governments across the world, which almost invariably included restrictions on mobility within countries and across borders, affected several artists. For curators who must travel to work— some of whom had their projects in different parts of the world—the effect of restrictions on travel was particularly debilitating. The situation has imposed on us the imperative to examine how we operate as artists and curators, and especially how we can devise ways of making contemporary art accessible to those in our immediate communities, such as the market or grocery shops. Physical travel should not be the exclusive way of doing and communicating work, from the context that informs it. Then when we are able to travel again, it is not an escape of reality but an expanse of it. I think that the question of context of where art is made and where it is shown might be a more urgent issue than its content.

Ask the Curator: Violet Nantume (Uganda) – Omenka Online

You occupy a unique position in Ugandan art, being an artist, curator and co-director of both Kampala Art Auction and UNDER GROUND Contemporary Art Space. What can you say about the increasingly blurry lines between the primary and secondary art markets; how would you react to criticism that auctions and galleries evolving beyond their traditionally ascribed roles is disruptive and would impact negatively on an artist’s trajectory, and the art ecosystem in the long run?

Most auctions and galleries are business enterprises intended to make money; they sell artworks to make money. This business focus can have disruptive effects on art ecology on a pretty grand scale. Let’s start with the basics: that the current trends in collecting African art have the potential to upend an artist’s livelihood, long term finances and mental health. Let’s think, for a moment, about the author of that work that is placed on the market. There is a trend where buyers go into studios for direct purchases of artwork—this might seem enchanting and we might think is it a great thing, at least several artists think so—without considering the dangers that this might pose to the art ecosystem and the distribution of resources in the art economy. The artist is often enthusiastic about meeting art lovers, and it is true that studio visitors genuinely desire to connect with artists and are interested in their work to the point that they may even want to own them. But the direct interaction of the prospective buyers and artists (who often lack professional marketing skills) can often turn sentimental, with the artist not only giving away the artworks at costs way below their value but without proper sales records and due attention to legal procedures of trade in art. I recently asked an artist who sells his work in the studio if he had agreed and penned any royalty or patent agreement in the event his drawings were resold on the secondary market. The answer was, unsurprisingly, no. I asked again if the sales agreement stipulated the time period the buyer is allowed to put the artwork into a secondary market. He also replied no. This particular artist did not even sign sales agreements.

If we review the current fragmented exhibition records to establish how prominent Ugandan and East Africa’s modernist art was sold and acquired as private collections before they were exhibited or entered into art histories, we would certainly be surprised to discover that contemporary artworks continue to be sold in the same manner and that we face the danger of losing yet again significant African art into vaults. Art restitution discourse must not stop just at the physical repatriation of African art from Europe but focus also on tracing and reconstructing its intangible yet significant narratives to be reinstituted into their time and context in the art world, academia, as well as in art education programmes in the region.

Professional dealers, gallerists and managers are often transparent in transacting business and ensure that the artist is not vulnerable to big sharks. They sometimes warn artists if and when they sense risky art deals. Yet, because approximately 90% of artists in Uganda are self-representing, with no association with professional art markets, the art industry must educate them on their rights and on the valuation of their work. The artists must be made aware of intellectual property rights and acquire training on financial literacy. 90% is a big proportion which should concern us. If the artists are not properly trained on how to deal in the art market, they will watch helplessly as unscrupulous international art entrepreneurs resell their works on secondary markets without any regard to resale rights. Thus, the artists would never benefit from the proceeds from the sale of their works. I shudder to think what effect this will have on Ugandan artists in the future. Yet, unless we take action, this is the future they will face. One other factor we need to consider is that artists too, like other human beings, age and their capacity to carry out their work wanes. This is even more pronounced in the case of creative artists whose works often involve the use of their own bodies and energies. The art economy must take into consideration the mortality of the artists, and help them prepare for life after an active art career. They must be educated so as to make prudent decisions to reinvest part of their income for their life in retirement.

Nakitende Sheila, Harvested Barkcloth

In the last decade, themes of sexuality and eroticism have been met with backlash and controversy, especially with regard to the objectification of women. With recent artistic and curatorial interventions showing an increasing bent towards redefining portraiture to celebrate Black identity and the Black body, is your work counterproductive and does it present a dichotomy of sorts?

No, it does not. I do not think the appearance of Black bodies or those of females in art alludes to similar topics of engagement. I must confess I have misused the word Black bodies in the past as it was recurring in essays I read of African history from the diaspora. But they were speaking from experiences of being Black in North America and Europe where the society is racially organised. Can you imagine that I threw this word around before I even thought of myself or those I grew up with as Black? Ugandans do not ideally perceive themselves as Black until they travel to the Arab or lands of white people. For three consecutive years between 2016 and 2018, we enacted evolving exhibitions, beginning in Kampala on the themes of desire, intimacy and the ‘body as a site of pleasure’. Then in 2017 and 2019, we staged exhibitions in Nairobi and Johannesburg, respectively, exploring the body in the realms of state of gender, sex and sexuality and its contestations. Starting in Kampala, Nairobi, and Johannesburg then culminating in Luanda, the conversations advanced and zoomed in on the female body as a socio-political site on which a history of experiences could reveal a state of being has transpired through its inscription and effect on the physical body. Now all those conversations could take on a new meaning the moment they are transported to a new place with a unique history where people are classified based on the colour of their skin.

There are important works from Uganda contributing to the conversation on redefining portraiture. For instance, Mwesiga Ian’s current body of works springs from an encounter with pictures from an ethnographic archive at Uganda’s Ethnographic Museum. In his quest to work with 1960 archival images, he has rummaged through colonial archives with images of post-independent Uganda. The works are typical of photographs taken of people from central Africa that were never intended for the gaze of those who appeared in them. This is not a phenomenon that occurred only after colonisation; historically images taken of natives by explorers and missionaries were fundamental pieces of evidence used to argue for the need to occupy, conquer and impose a Western civilisation. In a powerful gesture, Mwesiga’s paintings take back control of the gaze to determine in what light he wants Black people to be seen. The works also critique popularisation imaging where the colonial powers envisaged racial differences using a comparative method; by placing colonial subjects next to colonial masters in which cultural difference was also reduced to physical distinction in skin colour.

His works contribute to representation by portraying his subjects in dignified everyday local and familiar settings; dressed up, taking a beer, playing cards, girls relaxing by the pool, street bars and salons, a couple courting seated in a clean environment, at dance parties or females visiting the gallery; light moments and dignified narratives that are part of the African story. The paintings are a re-assembling of iconic photos of people, things and places to reflect on contemporary life through evoking the element of time and place.

In previous discussions, you expressed that your home country, Uganda did not have enough spaces to display art. This situation is indicative of poor funding opportunities and appreciation for the visual arts amongst collectors and the general public. What strategies can be adopted to encourage private/public sector support?

I have been scratching my head over the same thing. As I have previously pointed out, Uganda has not created sufficient spaces and opportunities for Ugandan artists to showcase their works. We urgently need lobbyists at policy-designing levels to advocate for the allocation of public funds towards the visual arts, and to rally the support of wealthy Ugandans to invest in the art industry. We see rich Asian, American and European entrepreneurs charter flights into our country to collect our artworks. Why can’t our wealthy Ugandans show similar interests in the works of local artists? I believe the contribution of Ugandans can go a long way in uplifting the standards of the visual arts in our country.

It is common knowledge though that the moment we turn to “gavumenti etuyambe” (a phrase which literally translates into “we appeal to the government to help us”), it is time to do the work ourselves. Kampala has artists with decent incomes who can make significant contributions towards supporting art programmes, and with charity/ a philanthropic mode. We must find ways of tapping into these local resources. governments are often willing to join causes that are already off the ground. So the artists must initiate ventures to support the local industry before enlisting the support of the government. Moreover, corporations and groups of wealthy people like to invest in ventures that have calculable financial value. Art is a profitable enterprise. The point is to package art in a marketable fashion. The questions to ask ourselves are: How do we make art attractive to the rich in Uganda? Since the rich like owning fancy things, how do we make art appear fancy in their sight? How do we interest people that have money to buy an art piece instead of a Rolex watch!? Could branding help? Collectors are usually private individuals, their hobbies are not things they flaunt about especially if they do not wish to draw attention to how obscene they might cost. Maybe if they got a whiff that some individual is keeping his money in art, they might also want to purchase art just to belong socially.

The benefit of having our art bought by Ugandans is that the art, which is really our heritage, stays here, and can be preserved for future generations of Ugandans.

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Oliver Enwonwu is founder and Editor-in-Chief of Omenka magazine, Director, Omenka Gallery and Chief Executive, Revilo. He holds a first degree in Biochemistry, advanced diploma in Exploration Geophysics (distinction), Post Graduate Diplomas in Applied Geophysics and Visual Art (distinction) and a Masters in Art History, all from the University of Lagos. He is the founder, Executive Director, and trustee of The Ben Enwonwu Foundation. He also sits on the board of several organizations including the National Gallery of Art, Nigeria and the Reproduction Rights Society of Nigeria. Enwonwu is also president of both the Society of Nigerian Artists and the Alliance of Nigerian Art Galleries.

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