Art collector Kaddu Sebunya: “I would go to Brazil for one of Fabian’s paintings”
“Artists and the Ugandan art industry should be more responsive to what Ugandans like to relate to in terms of their culture, history of the country and current affairs. They should take an example from the music industry…musicians are doing very well in capturing what people want to hear. “
A Q&A with Kaddu Sebunya (46), art collector and Chief of Party of USAID-STAR (Sustainable Tourism in the Albertine Rift).Interview by Jantien Zuurbier, startjournal.org
How did you begin collecting art and what made you call yourself a collector?
I grew up around art; my father, mother, and brothers would have one or two pieces at home. At that time it was more cultural artefacts and batiks, probably what you would call crafts. Personally, I started collecting art maybe 15 years ago – when I got my first job. I use the term ‘collector’ very loosely. When I see something I like, I get it, sometimes not really knowing if it is good or not.
I collect because I relate to the artwork, the attachment I feel to it, the African culture and the stories behind it. But, yes, when I buy a painting, I also see it as an investment, a better use of money. It is definitely not money wasted.
I am not planning to sell any of my art, but if I need to, I am sure it will pay back the money and more. I also call myself a collector because it feels like I never have enough art. I would always want more. My friends will joke about how our house looks like a museum, and they don’t see the value of it until I explain it to them. Then they’ll say it makes sense.
Do you see a link between your professional career and being an art collector?
Yes. Because I am in the tourist and conservation sector I have an interest in the relation between our African cultural heritage and the influence of Western development. The tension between these two is also present in African arts. And that really interests me. Art is also about maintaining our heritage and our social history.
Which artists do you own?
I knew you would ask me that question, so this morning I thought: “Do I know which artists I own?” I quickly went around the house to make a list. (Sebunya laughs out loud).
Well, of course there is Fabian (Mpagi). He is special to me, but I will talk about him later. Then I have Jjuuko Hoods, Joseph Ntensibe, David Kigozi, Maria Kizito Kasuule , Maria Naita, and a recent commissioned work from DestreetArt project. And there are also paintings from other African artists, such as a beautiful piece from Mozambique by the well known painter Cossa (’83).
You have lived in the US and the UK, have you ever considered buying art from there?
When I am there I like to visit museums, but I would never buy Western art. Their art is very different. To be honest, it even scares me. It is too affluent; you really have to know it. I guess it is like classical music. I recently got a book about Dali for my birthday. I looked at it, but don’t relate to his work. That is probably the same feeling most Ugandans have when they are confronted with contemporary art. They fear that they don’t understand.
That is why I think it is important that artists paint about their own society. If you look at French painters, you will see them painting scenes of Paris. People relate to that and will be more inclined to buy. Many artists paint wildlife because that is what tourists like. But why not paint local scenes such as a policeman in white uniform in the middle of Kampala traffic? Or Owino market, or a series of photographs of the election process around the country? That has historic value and Ugandans are more likely to develop an interest in those themes.
You seem to have a lot of ideas about what artists should paint. Have you ever considered painting yourself?
Haha, I have never touched a paintbrush in my life. But I do like to photograph. I often drive around Kampala and think: “I wish I had my camera with me to capture this”. Photography can be so important as a documentation of history. I am currently talking to some friends at the newspapers to get me all the photos that were taken during the election process around the country. I want to see if I can acquire the rights to use them for a kind of art project.
So in that way I like to be involved in promoting art as a means of conserving our heritage. Taga’s recent Totems of Buganda is interesting in that respect. The government is not capturing any of this (history). Unlike countries as Ghana; who’s government is now negotiating with the UK to get their art and history back to their own country.
In Uganda they just want to demolish the National Museum, which is unbelievable.
What do you look for when you buy a painting?
It has to do with me, basically. I have to be able to create my own stories around it. If I am able to get to know the artist, then that is a bonus. Like with Fabian, I regret that I never asked him what he liked so much about his series of paintings called ‘the thinker’.
Now I look at them and have to make my own story and put it in perspective of the time and mindset it was painted – the late ‘80’s. It was an uncertain period. We were young; we had Museveni and his new minsters. We had simple lives but then it suddenly went too fast, we were worried about the future. That’s what I see in his paintings now. But he is not here anymore to explain.
What do you look for in an artist? Who is your favourite artist and why?
Understanding what the artist wants to express in a painting adds value to it. I was lucky to meet Fabian 13 years ago at Tulifanya gallery and he became a friend. He would ask me for money and I would support him, then he would give me some of his painting as return payment. Now I realise what a great artist he was. What he does with light is just amazing.
If I would hear there is a Fabian for sale in Jinja, or even Brazil… I would drive there, even without having seen the painting; I just know it must be good. I learned that most of Fabian’s work are abstracts, so it is funny that all but one painting I have (eight in total) are about the human figure.
I am still exploring new artists. There is a young guy I met at the Njovu artist group. He was taught by Fabian. I can tell you he is going to be a great painter. He is a philosopher, he doesn’t care what people think of him. But I know he has got it.
What is the most you have ever paid for a work of art?
The answer to that question must be this painting (points at Fabian’s painting of a man squatting, with a cigarette in his hand, leaning on a stick). I paid about 2 million shilling for it at that time in the eighties. It would have probably bought me 4 acres of land – which would now go at a rate of 80,000 dollar/acre. People will laugh at me when they hear that, but i have not regretted it at all, it is my favourite art work.
The Cossa from Mozambique is probably the most valuable piece, but it was a wedding gift from my brother, who is also an art collector.
You talked about making art more accessible to laypeople; can you elaborate more on that? Why is art important to society?
I have been telling artists to focus on themes that Ugandans relate to. You will see posters of the Buganda King on people’s car windows. Why not paint that? The Ministry of Culture or the Kingdom itself should commission artists to work on those themes. Musicians seem to be able to do that, so why not in the fine arts?
Our government has other priorities. They do not want to invest in sports or art and culture. Unless they can use it in their campaigns or when someone wins a medal. Our people responsible for art that seems to take rather than give anything back to the art industry. It would be interesting to find out what kind of gifts our leaders give to visitors. It might as well be a picture of a Kenyan Massai warrior, or a Chinese reproduction…
Why not support local artist and their work?
It also seems that there is not much respect for artists. There is this image of artists not dressing well, in t-shirts, uncombed hair, having paint all over their shoes. Most folks mistake this to be a group of needy and powerless people who are easy to cheat or ignore.
But it works both ways. I have been inviting artists to meet with people from the hotel association branch, but they failed to show up. The hotels were willing to sign a memorandum of understanding with them to display Uganda art in their hotels, but artists felt it would not work. Obviously they must have had disappointing experiences before. There are a lot of complicated societal issues involved that still hamper growth of the industry.
Nevertheless, do you see any changes? Do you see fine art thriving more than in the past?
Yes, there are definitely changes. More galleries are coming up. More artist sticking to art as their main profession, rather than going into teaching or other jobs as used to be the case in the past. The internet has also helped artists to go out in the world and exhibit their work abroad. I have seen artists selling their works in Japan, without even going there.
They are also smarter. In the past, many artists would be ripped off. You see less of that happening today.
I am also more aware of the importance of art and want to contribute personally. I have been talking to artists to arrange an exhibition of Fabian Mpagi’s work. I am also talking to my friends in the law firms so that they support art and help artist to claim their rights. I heard some artists have not been paid for their works that were used for the CHOGM conference. That should be addressed.
What do you think is the value of your entire art collection?
It is priceless. For example, I cannot put a value to Fabian’s work. He is not here anymore, so he can’t paint another art work in case I would lose it. Also, the more I am involved and learn about art, the more value it has to me.
Jantien Zuurbier is Startjournal.org’s very own webdesigner. She is mastering the art of establishing websites from A to Z. This is her first article for Start.