8 Ugandan Artists to Invest in
by Matt Kayem
Contemporary art, or high art[i] for this matter, doesn’t allow for a broad conversation in Uganda. Nevertheless there are a few artists worth noting down.
Why isn’t there enough to talk about high art in the Ugandan context?
The most important ingredient for a thriving art scene seems to be missing: commerce. The Ugandan art scene has a strong influence from the Makerere school of art, which means the academic part of the equation is well set. But for an art scene to thrive, the economics (the money side of it) is one of the most important of aspects. And it has been lacking.
Right now, Uganda’s economy is not in the right shape to start with, but there is certainly a growing middle and upper class. So with economic prospects improving, structures and institutions such as museums, private collections and the ‘big bad boys’ in form of auction houses should fall in place. Art should be bought, games should be played, collectors and patrons should fund the brush-obsessed fellows. All of this contributes to a healthy art scene.
While some stakeholders in the art world try to shy away from the commercial side of this cultural sector and think that it destroys the art, I personally believe it is an area that needs to be heavily discussed and encouraged within the Ugandan art scene. Whereas art sectors in the ‘developed’ world suffer from the over-commercialisation, it is the opposite here in Kampala.
There is a growing interest in contemporary African art on the global market, which has taken some time to mature. A 2016 CNN article declared African art “hotter than gold.”[ii]
This has created art stars like El Anatsui (Ghana), William Kentridge (South Africa), Eddy Kamuanga (DRC), Julie Mehretu (Ethiopia/US) and collectors like Sindika Dokolo (DRC/Angola), Jochen Zeitz of the Zeitz MOCCA, Olufemi Bassam Akinsanya (Nigeria), Jean-Paul Blachere (France), Bassam Chaitou (Senegal), veteran Prince Yemisi Adedoyin Shyllon (Nigeria) and many others. Major cities on the continent have vibrant art scenes such as Lagos, Nairobi, Luanda, Johannesburg and Cape Town.
Neighbouring Nairobi is seeing the middle class Kenyans owning art, partly due to the presence of an auction – Art Auction East Africa, which has helped in valuing the treasures. This creates the much needed type of collector; the investor who acquires art and is hoping to make more money when the work is resold. An auction house which would have done the same in Kampala ran for only two years (2015 and 2016). The Kampala Art Auction was the brainchild of Violet Nantume, a budding young curator who is now in Germany pursuing further studies in the curatorial field.
The absence of a major auction house and a museum hasn’t deterred the scene from moving forward. Afriart Gallery has put a lot of effort to uphold the standards and professional ethics that come with presenting and trading of art on the international level. The gallery shows and represents the top Ugandan artists at its two spaces in Kamwokya and the Industrial Area. It also takes these artists to international art fairs like AKAA in Paris, FNB Joburg Art Fair and Art X Lagos.
With this at hand, let’s go through some of the contemporary Ugandan artists working here whose artwork could make you a millionaire in the future if acquired today. I am excluding those that passed on and others working outside Uganda; let’s look at the most bankable living Ugandan artists.
To qualify for this list, an artist must have been valued, i.e. have their work sold in a reputable auction house. The list is in descending order with the most valuable artist on the top. The figures of the artist’s recent sales from auction and acquisition of artist’s work in a reputable collection are the primary factors and then others like duration of their career come second. Occurrences like ‘bought ins’, a term referring to artworks that are not sold during the auction, are also responsible for pushing the artist down on the list.
Of course you are free to buy any kind of art. You might as well pass by Buganda road and get yourself a giraffe but if you are looking for the finest stuff, this is the crème de la crème.
NB: If you are wondering why there are only artist 7 listed here (despite the title), this is because I have excluded one artist worth appearing here who didn’t want to be mentioned in this list for private reasons. If you do a little research you may find out whom I am talking about.
1. Paul Ndema
Being a very skilled painter, Ndema tops this list. Firstly because, Last Supper, one of his most iconic, paintings is in the Sindika Dokolo Foundation. This is one of the most important private collections in Africa owned by Sindika Dokolo, a Congolese businessman married to Isabel Dos Santos, Africa’s richest woman and daughter of the former Angolan president. Sindika acquired Ndema’s work at 12,000 USD in 2015. Ndema’s work has appeared twice at the Circle Modern and Contemporary Art Auction (2014, 2015) in Nairobi. At Piasa Auction last year, his Fertility Gods went for 13,000 Euros and Stutter Shook and Upright went for 18,200 Euros. Ndema’s work has also sold at art fairs internationally at the Cape Town Art Fair (2016, 2015), AKAA Contemporary Art and Design Fair, Paris (2016) and at the prominent 1:54 Contemporary African Art Fair (2016) in London. He was the first Ugandan artist at 1:54, the biggest art fair devoted to African contemporary art. Locally, Ndema’s work is largely collected by a Ugandan businessman who wishes not to be mentioned here.
Ndema’s artwork plays around with the satirical interpretations of Christianity. With fine brushwork, he creates human figures on top of geometric colourful backgrounds similar to African fabric prints and sometimes alike stained glass art from churches. The attention to detail in Ndema’s work is astonishing as every layer of paint seems to have been applied with great care. The often simple compositions addressing complex contradiction become a sort of syncretisme, a way of coping with accelerating change in our daily lives as modernity cracks through the past and splinters into colour. Ndema is a graduate from the prestigious Margaret Trowell School of Industrial Art.
Xenson’s work first appeared at the Art Auction East Africa in 2018 where his Pro Afro Woman was sold for 9069 USD. This year in March, Matoke Farmer went to a collector for 13,952 USD. Untitled went for 3250 Euros at the Piasa Auction in 2018. The work came directly from the artist.
Born Samson Ssenkaaba, Xenson has been working professionally since 1999 when he graduated with a first-class degree in Industrial Art and Design from the prestigious Margaret Trowell School of Art. Xenson has participated in Kampala Art Biennale 2016, FNB Johannesburg Art Fair 2016, Kabbo Ka Muwala itinerary exhibition (Zimbabwe, Uganda, Germany 2016), KLA ART 012, World Cultural Forum (Rio de Janeiro, Brazil 2016). His works are widely collected in Uganda, Kenya, South Africa Germany, USA, Netherlands, and France. His artistic process includes working with a synergy of installations, videos, performance, poetry, fashion, photography, and painting. He interrogates contemporary themes of consumerism, multiculturalism, immigration, and corruption. The concept of identity pervades his work, where he adopts the mask for his subjects on canvas or in his performances. The mask in its traditional form is used to conceal one’s identity and Xenson integrates it in his work as a tool to interrogate the idea of obscured identity. According to the artist, each one of us wears a mask on a day to day basis. More so, the mask highlights our complex identity in these contemporary times. As is the tradition in his work, inspired by his artistic name, Xenson, the artist is always trying to find the X-factor in work. Therefore, his work is an intricate exploration of the self while interrupting our every day to show the “others” every day. In his array of work, the artist creates persuasive, relevant and cross-cultural artworks. Xenson is represented by Afriart Gallery in Kampala.
3. Sanaa Gateja
Gateja is a postwar & contemporary artist who was born in 1950. Sanaa Gateja’s work has been offered at auction multiple times, with realized prices ranging from 3,835 USD to 13,680 USD depending on the size and medium of the artwork. Since 2016 the record price for this artist at auction is 13,680 USD for Ancient Language sold at Piasa in 2018.
Nicknamed ‘The Bead King’, Sanaa could be put in the same category as El Anatsui and Abdoulaye Konate for they have all mastered using recycled material in their work. He invented beads made from the recycled paper which makes his work totally unique. His practice falls in line with the global consciousness to preserve the environment. Gateja is indeed one of Uganda’s art bigwigs as he holds a wealth of experience, studied at the London College of Art and Design and at the Universita Internazonale dell Arte in Florence. Through Afriart Gallery, that represents him, his work has been to both the Cape Town and Paris art fair in 2017. He is very active and has exhibited extensively since 1980 in Uganda, Kenya, Rwanda, U.K, U.S, Germany, among others.
4. Francis Nnaggenda
Nnaggenda’s work Mother and Child sold for 9,304 USD at the Circle art auction in 2014. It came from the Max Rohrer collection. Now Nnaggenda’s collectible work is hard to come by because he practiced in the difficult times in Uganda and most of his career was also devoted to lecturing. So if you get your hands on it, you have really won gold!
Francis Nnaggenda was raised in Buganda, central Uganda. During the era of Idi Amin, he went into exile and studied art in Germany and France. He is a former head of the Department of Sculpture at Makerere University and attended Freibourg University in Switzerland and Bayerische Akademie der Schonen Kunste in Germany. In 1968, he moved to Kenya where he taught art at the University of Nairobi. During this time he met Joseph Murumbi, Kenya’s second vice president who was an admirer of his artwork and one of his first collectors. Nnaggenda’s sculpture ‘Mother and Child’ is a landmark outside the Nairobi National Museum.
Nnaggenda is recognised as one of the most important artists of his generation in East Africa, his expressionistic work, especially sculptures, have drawn considerable acclaim. He is still practicing at 74 and is one of the selected artists of KLA ART 014, Kampala Contemporary Art Festival 2014.
5. Joseph Ntensibe
Joseph Ntensibe’s work has been offered at auction multiple times, with realized prices ranging from 5,107 USD to 7,362 USD, depending on the size and medium of the artwork. Since 2016 the record price for this artist at auction is 7,362 USD for Untitled, sold at Piasa in 2016.
Ntensibe is a postwar contemporary artist who was born in 1953. Coming from an older generation which is very evident in his work too as he leans heavily towards the aesthetics side in his paintings. He used to paint landscapes and wildlife, though of lately his works have become more abstract.
Teachers, recognizing his talent, secured him an art scholarship at the renowned Makerere University School of Fine Art that produced so many now famous African artists. Brought to the attention of nature conservationist and gallerist Iris Hunt in 1977, she exposed him to different media. Iris’ promotion and special exhibits at Mount Kenya Art Gallery made it possible for Joseph to become a full time artist and concentrate on developing his own style. Many overseas exhibitions followed and gained Joseph Ntensibe a place amongst Africa’s famous painters. Many of Ntensibe’s works have quite a magical quality, eerie creatures of the night, peering at us from the canvas, or his concern with the endangered wildlife of his native Africa: gorillas depicted as the warm and loving “People of the forest,” and the bongo moving silently through the forest’s rays of light.
One thing for sure is that Ntensibe’s style of painting is highly technical and unique. He is very articulate, working on layer after layer, adding in bright colours that don’t exist in nature naturally.
6. Ismael Kateregga
Ismael Kateregga’s painting titled Buikwe Fishing Boats composed of fishing boats docked at one of the landing sites on Lake Victoria, recently went under the hammer for 12,500 £ (approximately Shs61 million) at the Bonham’s Auction house in 2018. Earlier on in 2014, the artist sold another painting `Boats’ for 8,750 £ (Approx. Shs38.7 million) at the same auction house in London. Kateregga’s work has been offered at auction multiple times, with realized prices ranging from 2,447 USD to 16,269 USD since 2010.
Ismael Kateregga is a Uganda artist with great international acclaim. His works are to be found in private collections in The Netherlands, The UK, USA, Germany, Sweden, Switzerland, Norway, Austria, Italy and Sri Lanka. He has participated in many group exhibitions in Kampala and the East Africa Art Biennale 2007 and 2009 Dar es Salaam Tanzania. Among public collections, his work hangs in Mulago Hospital Kampala, Makerere University, The Royal Netherlands Embassy Kampala, The Royal commonwealth Society London UK. Born in Kampala, Uganda in 1980, Ismael completed a Bachelor’s Degree in Industrial and Fine Arts (BIFA-Hons) from Makerere University Kampala in 2005.
7. Henry “Mzili” Mujunga
Mzili’s Kati kati (here and now) sold at the Art Auction East Africa in Nairobi at 4069 USD two years back in 2017. In November 2018, Mzili’s Untitled was sold for 5000 Euros at the Piasa auction in Paris. Mujunga appeared again at the auction last March when Hair Salon went for 4535 USD.
Renowned as a painter and printmaker, Henry Mzili intermingles traditional visual forms, African art histories and modern techniques and approaches to art making. Over the course of his career spanning more than two decades he has been an advocate of what he refers to as ‘indigenous expressionism’. In 2003, Mzili was a winner of the Royal Overseas League (ROSL) Art Scholarship. He has exhibited extensively in galleries in Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania, Nigeria, Togo, Benin, Burkina Faso, Mali, Ghana, the UK, Germany, France and The Netherlands. Mzili is a co-founder of Kampala Arts Trust. He has recently been represented by Afriart Gallery at the FNB Joburg Art Fair and Cape Town Art Fair and Circle Art Agency showed his work at the prestigious 1-54 Contemporary Art Fair in New York this month. The later may actually mean that he has moved up in this list!
His recent work is about issues of gender; the shifting paradigm towards “a new normal” in defining our identities. It is a conversation about the recent history of gender, the fluidity of gender and the posturing of gender in the attempt to create a new structure for social control in this age of attention seeking. Thus the frequent reference to the selfie in my work. In a generation that claims not to put labels on people and things, the need to define the self still obtains.
[i] High art is often defined as art that is appreciated by those with the most cultivated taste. Low art is for the masses, accessible and easily comprehended. – Matt Plescher, High and Low Art, is it useful to think of art in terms of high and low? accessed April 2019, <https://www.therapidian.org/high-and-low-art>
[ii] Jacopo Prisco, cnn.com, Looking for an investment? African art is hotter than gold, accessed April 2019, <https://edition.cnn.com/style/article/africa-contemporary-art-investment/index.html>