ART X Lagos: Daudi Karungi discusses his role in building Uganda’s art scene through his gallery spaces and the Kampala Biennale
“I’ve always described myself as someone who fills the gaps in the world that I want to see,” says Daudi Karungi, the renaissance man who has filled many such gaps in Uganda’s art world for well over a decade. Having started out as a respected artist in his own right, he progressed to establishing the Afriart Gallery, which now has two locations in Kampala and represents many of the country’s best names including Stacey Gillian Abe, Arim Andrew, Ocom Adonias, Sanaa Gateja and Collin Sekajugo. He was also co-founder of the arts criticism journal Start, and is responsible for Kampala Biennale, the third, recently concluded edition of which saw curator Simon Njami invite seven renowned artists (Bill Bidjocka, Godfried Donkor, Abdoulaye Konate, Myriam Mihindou, Radenko Milak, Aida Muluneh, and Pascale Marthine Tayou) to act as masters to a line-up of apprentice artists, from Uganda and further afield, to co-create a studio-based exhibition.
Naturally enough then as ART X Lagos – West Africa’s trailblazing art fair - welcomes galleries from east Africa for the first time this November, Afriart will be among them, representing Uganda alongside Ethiopia’s Addis Fine Art and Kenya’s Circle Art Agency. Meeting with Karungi at Afriart on 7th, his newer gallery location in Kampala’s Industrial Area, he shows Nataal around this latest gap-filling endeavour, which is helping to transform a warehouse courtyard into a creative hub. His white cube, restaurant and wine bar joins a co-working space, champagne bar and a coffee start up. As a tropical rainstorm hits outside, we settle in to talk about Karungi’s many firsts.
Please tell us a little about your journey to date.
When I finished art school in Kampala in 2001, I realised there were 100 or so of us graduates and only two galleries in the city, neither of which were where I wanted to show my work. So I created a gallery, which I soon realised was a full time business. I was an artist for many years and at every level I’ve gotten to, I’ve needed to add another layer. If the thing didn’t exist, I focussed on it - from journals to galleries to mentorships for artists and curators to a biennale to social spaces. All of these things are reactions to absences, to what ought to be. It’s about creating a comfortable art eco system, a community that is aware of the agenda and shares a common goal.
What is your vision as director of Kampala Biennale?
I began the biennale in 2014 because there was so little art exposure for Ugandan artists internationally, even though we’ve had a long tradition of art in this country. Right now you could count maybe 20 artists who are recognised beyond the region and that should be 200. Most biennales are about coming to see celebrated artists. They are a marketing exercise. Venice Biennale comes just before Art Basel. But this year for KAB18 I didn’t just want to show the stars of the day, I wanted to build Uganda’s art infrastructure and change the industry... to awaken the giant.
Why adopt the master and apprentice approach?
Across the world there’s been a tradition in craft making of passing knowledge and encouragement down through the generations. In Uganda you see this with a clan in Buganda who make bark cloth. So I wanted to adopt a similar approach. Simon acted as a librettist who wrote the script of KAB18 by inviting mentors to work with apprentices to create a libretto. Young artists got to choose the master they wanted to work with and what’s interesting is very few had the same discipline, so for example you had painters doing workshops in performance art. The idea was to experience differently and the final show exhibited the results of that process, of those interactions, which was quite amazing. And beyond that, these apprentices are still in touch with their masters.
How did the local audience respond to the show?
It was something different, honest and interesting – a breath of fresh air. We had people coming in and being curious because it wasn’t just looking at pictures. It was a narration, an idea that you could interact with. One work by Bili Bidjcoka, The Library, was a 70-meter spiral that you walked through and at intervals you experienced something, so if you stopped for everything, it would take at least half an hour. It was one of those shows that I thought we really got much closer to the people generally, which is a hard thing to do here. That was a success and justifies that this is a winning format. In 2020 will we do the same again and we believe that eventually we will have artists from all over the world who have gone through this guided process.
How do you feel about the Ugandan art scene now?
It’s growing at a fast speed. A lot is happening and a lot will happen. It’s exciting. I’ve never been so busy as an art director than I am now. There are requests for exhibitions abroad, for commissions, and for art fairs. There are more collectors here and overseas, and there are art societies seeking advise. Every day local enthusiasts contact me about art, and that’s because of the work that we are doing.
Tell us about the two artists you are bringing to ART X Lagos.
Sanaa Gateja is probably the most renowned Ugandan artist and represents the older generation having been an active artist since the 1970s. His use of paper beads and bark cloth is revolutionary and iconic. I see him in the categories of Abdoulaye Konate and El Anatsui. Collin Sekajugo represents the younger generation. He is exploring the subject of belonging and identity in his current work, which are the most current debates in the world today. Collin's use of material including found surfaces and how he layers them to create his works continuously surprises me. I am happy to present these artists from Uganda at Afriart Gallery and East Africa's debut in Lagos.