If there is one person we can credit with reviving the contemporary art scene in Uganda, it’s Daudi Karungi. His effort to bring visibility to African artists is unmatched. Karungi is a trained artist and also founder and director of Afriart Gallery in Kampala. In addition to the gallery, he is the Director for Kampala Art Biennale, which just completed its fourth edition. In all his projects, Karungi works with two goals in mind: to make art from Africa accessible to both local and global audiences and to create growth opportunities for emerging artists working in Africa. Because of his work ethic, over the last twenty years, Afriart gallery has built a formidable reputation on the global stage. Karungi has assembled a diverse group of artists that represent different perspectives from the continent. They often engage themes that touch on identity, memory, everyday life and socio-political life. These artists have exhibited their work at renowned fairs such as Abu Dhabi Art, 1:54 Contemporary African Art Fair in London & New York, Investec Fair in Cape town, Art X Lagos and AKAA Art and Design in Paris.
In this interview, Karungi discusses his journey from artist to gallery owner. He talks about the art scene in Kampala and the void he felt compelled to fix. Karungi gives us insight into the limitations of the physical infrastructure within the country such as lack of galleries, few studios, and nonexistent archival spaces, to support emerging artists. Furthermore, Karungi outlines his efforts to make Afriart Gallery a space to advance visibility and knowledge exchange between artists.
Lastly, I asked Karungi to talk about the term “contemporary African Art,” how does he engage that phrase, and in what ways are African artists breaking barriers in contemporary spaces? His answer goes back to this idea of collaboration—all his initiatives are underpinned by a desire to foster professional development through mentorship, workshops, training, and community dialogue. No doubt, Karungi has helped expand the space for artists from Africa, and that is why we’re delighted to chat with him at Omusana Review.
We’re living in a surreal time, particularly the disruption caused by the coronavirus pandemic; what has this year been like for you– personally and professionally?
I ended 2019 on a very busy note so I had planned to find time to reorganize myself and schedule so that I could have more control of my time. When COVID19 hit in March 2020, I felt for some reason that this was nature’s way of giving me the quiet that I needed to think, reflect, focus and strategise. So on a personal note, I attained growth and insight, which I have invested in my professional life.
How did you get started in art, and how did that journey lead you to become Director of Afriart Gallery?
I went to Makerere University school of art, and in the 3rd year 2001, I thought about the future of myself and my classmates as artists; I asked myself, what are we going to do when we get out of here? I started researching places in Kampala where artists could show their works, and at that time, there were two spaces that I thought would not be enough to cater to all the artists that were about to graduate. I started Afriart Gallery to try to fill that void.
At this year’s 1:54 Contemporary African Art Fair in London, Afriart Gallery’s exhibition —which featured Sungi Mlengeya, Eria Nsubuga, Stacey Abe, and Richard Atugonza— was an audience favorite. How did you prepare for that show? What made these particular artists such standouts?
At Afriart, our mission is to present powerful contemporary artistic ideas and discussions to our audiences. We believe that there is great talent on the African continent, and we are out to prove just that. So, when we work with an artist, it means we believe in their artistic prowess. Therefore, when we present artists at art fairs, they shine because they are fresh, skilled, and relevant.
I want to talk about the “Contemporary African Art Experience,” how do you engage that term? In what ways do you see African artists breaking barriers in the contemporary art world?
For a long time, I battled with that term… I now call it “contemporary art from Africa,” and this is a reference to the continent. Artists working on the African continent have their unique experiences, and that’s why there is a current surge in the demand for their works. This is just the beginning. With more exposure, the world will see more and I wonder where else the art wave will go.
Afriart Gallery represents many incredible artists: Henry Mujunga, Khaled Abdel Rahman, and Fred Mutebi, to name a few. Can you speak to the different perspectives these artists bring?
Like I said, African artists have so many stories to tell, so we avoid working with two artists telling the same story. We are representing artists who are going to become global icons because of their unique voices. These artists bless us with their unique personal stories.
How has the art scene in Uganda evolved since the opening of Afriart Gallery in 2002?
The art scene in Kampala was very important from the ’30s when Margaret Trowel school of fine art was started. The school was responsible for some of the great East and central African masters. From the ’70s to the ’90s, due to the political turmoil, the scene died as artists went to exile and all programs came to some kind of standstill. When Afriart Started in 2002, it ushered in a new generation of young artists that revived the scene to what it is today. There are a lot of artists practicing and catering to the local market, and Afriart has grown to cater to the international market and become a leader on the global scene.
Lastly, what advice would you give to a young person aspiring to be an artist?
Being an artist is a calling; when one has heard the calling, they should put the work in and focus on being better than they are even if they are being celebrated.
Interviewed by Lydia Kakwera Levy