Barbara Barungi

Barbara Barungi: For the Love of Art

Barbara is a passionate lover of art who, for decades, has been immersed in its appreciation and collection. She is one of a nine member founding initiative of art collectors called the Contemporary Art Society of Uganda. It is commonly known as CASU. She is a managing partner at Imara Africa Consulting and a board member of Access Bank Kenya.

I (DK) had a conversation with her (BB) about her passion as an art collector and what that means. 

DK: For how long have you been an art collector?

BB: I started a long time ago, in the 90s.

DK: What’s the difference between art collectors and art enthusiasts?

BB: It depends. Art enthusiasts buy something today and take some time before they can buy more art. They do not look at art as an investment as we do. Art collection is a lifestyle. We don’t just buy art. We visit art galleries. Attend art fairs. Participate in discussions on art. We exchange experiences on art with artists. Personally, I sit on the board of 32 degrees East, a trust that engages emerging artists. 

DK: In an article published on Imara Africa website titled African Art on Show; a spotlight on Art X Lagos,  Daudi Karungi is quoted; “This is the only fair in the world that has ninety per cent black people at the opening. And if you don’t fully understand that statement I just made – you better think about it.Art X Lagos is one of those places where you are sure to find so many black people at an art gathering, tell me about this statement, why is this so?

BB: Art X Lagos is a clear ownership of Africans by  Africans as they own their art. It is one place where different Africans from the continent and those in the diaspora come together to talk about art. Art X Lagos has become a global event for anyone interested in art.

Karungi, for example, is a gallerist and a participant at the Art X Lagos. He does something unique, he always carries an artist whenever he is exhibiting their work like recently it was Mona Taha’s work. This is a great gesture as it introduces the artist and their work so that people can understand them. 

Daudi has been at the forefront of putting Ugandan art work to the world, the rest of us at CASU come in to support and look at the other artists as well. We share each other’s work and those artists we consider to be of potential we introduce to Karungi who is more familiar with the art ecosystem. CASU is an initiative that we believe will broaden the art ecosystem in Uganda. Uganda has a lot talent.

DK: Banks like Afrexim Bank and Access Bank are at the forefront of promoting art. What role do they play? 

BB: Institutions like Access Bank is one of the Art X Lagos sponsors. Art fairs are very expensive. As an entity, Access Bank collects a lot of art. We have institutional collectors as well. 

When these institutions invest in art, it creates a further deepening of the art ecosystem. They are also able to stock up these pieces in their offices. 

Afrexim Bank has set up an initiative of encouraging and investing in African art. It is also a sponsor of Art X Lagos. Two members of our CASU team namely Stephen Tio Kauma and Samallie Kiyingi are at the core of this team. Those two are serious art collectors and have been able to carry the enthusiasm forward by ensuring that the bank gives support to African artists. Access Bank also runs a prize among artists. This year, the prize was opened up to artists other than Nigerians. That also helps to provide some encouragement to artists to know this is one platform you can use to promote your work and network with other artists and learn from each other. 

One of the things the team at CASU and I are constantly thinking about is how do you get the corporate companies like MTN, Pepsi, Cocacola and others to support Ugandan artists.

DK: Have you registered any success in that line?

BB: You have individuals in those institutions who buy art but at an individual level. What we are looking at is having them buy art at a corporate level to improve the support of the art eco system in Uganda. 

There is support that comes in from the French Embassy and Alliance Francaise but we need to see a large effort on the side of the corporates and particularly the local corporates. 

DK: There is an art piece by Xenson that you have been pushing for on twitter, is this the first time you are interacting with his work?

BB: No. I have bought quite a number of his art pieces and interacted with the artist as well. He’s one of the most talented artists we have in Uganda. He recently had a solo exhibition KaddugalamuKatale at Afriart Gallery which was a very successful exhibition. The overarching theme of his exhibition was environmental sustainability. A lot of the work was done using recyclable material like bottle tops which he used to make very interesting pieces. He had a canoe installation with a rainbow tapestry. He also has an art space where he showcases most of his work. I like it when I see artists open up such spaces where they can have talks and host other artists. He is one of those leading in having an art eco system  in Uganda.

DK: Are the artists  interested in the conversation on having this ecosystem?

BB: We are responding to what is evolving in Uganda. The art ecosystem in Uganda is extremely vibrant.  Compared to 10 years ago, it has a lot of many young artists coming up. There are also emerging artists who are still learning, some of whom are still being mentored by people like Xenson. You do find relative collaboration but you  also find it’s very fragmented as well. I think much more can be done in creating an environment where we have a developed art industry. We are at the beginning but definitely we can do better. It is much more positive than it was a while back. 

DK: Am I right to say  there is little appreciation of art in Uganda today?

BB: I think that is a sweeping statement. Most of the artwork by the artists is not in the galleries or craft villages, it is in people’s homes. Most of the artists have studios where they work from. Their work gets to be known and sold by word of mouth. There are various genres of art, people appreciate different types of art. Art takes different forms. Perhaps it’s because we have just started talking about it. One of our objectives at CASU  is to sensitise the public on how to appreciate art. It is an acquired taste. What I find very interesting is that when you go to most of these places you mainly find young people. The more we have that exposure, the easier it will be to have a much wider group of art collectors. We also need to sensitise people about prices. Some people think that art is very expensive. Not necessarily. 

For the artists we are coming across, we encourage them to start small and keep on growing. 

DK: What would  you wish to see in the art space a decade from now?

BB: Three things. 

  1. I would like to see the young generation become collectors. In Nigeria, there are many young collectors. I would like to see that here too.
  2. I would like to see the corporate sector firmly invested in the art eco system of Uganda
  3. I would like to see more Ugandan artists on the global scene. 

DK: Thank you very much Barbara for taking off time for this conversation.

BB: Thank you for having me.


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