29 Days 29 Startup CEO’s 003: Meet Robinah Nansubuga Art Work

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Why art?

To me, Art was my way out. In short it was my everything. But if I may indulge you, let me take you back a bit.

My life story is sad but it makes me happy at the same time, hopefully I will be able to inspire one or two of your readers.

I got very good grades in high school and it was definite I qualified to join Makerere University on government sponsorship.  The day I received my results is still vivid in my mind, my family was happy especially my father who was bed ridden at the time.  Every one at home was celebrating my victory, even the neighbours marveled at how lucky I was. At that point in time, I was every parents dream child but when I went to Makerere University to collect my admission letter, the devil was in the envelope. I was indeed offered a course, Bachelors of Commerce but not on government sponsorship, it  was on private, I was a private student with a capital P.

Life just didn’t know how to deal me the right cards, I was heart broken but not as much as my father. He had not been working for a while and most of the money he had saved up was catering for his treatment. There wasn’t enough money to cater for our welfare in terms of food and other basic needs so I had to step up and become the mother and father for my two siblings. Our mother was dead, we were being raised by a single father who was  sick and out of work. It was just inevitable for me to put my dream of attaining a University degree on hold and start working to feed my family. Our situation was unique so I had to think faster and come up with a plan.

My First job Ndere troupe

I got a job  as a Cultural Supervisor at Ndeere Troupe, because of my past experience  working with a traditional dance troupe known as ‘’Drum Beat’’ in Masaka. The job was demanding in terms of time and the commute from Gayaza to Muyenga but somehow it paid the bills and my fathers medical bills. A long the way, I managed to save some money to facilitate my transport to Makerere University where I attended lectures in the evening at the College of Business and Management Sciences.

Irrespective of all the sacrifices I made, my salary  couldn’t support all our needs as my siblings were growing up, schools were changing and needs were being defined by gender, I had to look for a job that paid slightly higher than what I was being paid. Sadly navigating the job market with no particular qualifications or papers that qualify you to earn above five fugures, it is too hard to find a well paying job and on that venture, I failed. But on the upside, I ended up with a job that was flexible enough for me to  go to school. That job was at Wine Garage and I started work as a sales person working different shifts that somehow interfered with my school hours so the owner saw my people skills and transferred me to his other enterprise which was a gallery.

Afriart Gallery was such a good fit for me because it was closer to home, university and I got to work as an Administrator and Curatorial Assistant. A job which enabled me to have some to read, save up on transport to the university because I could walk to work and it was much closer to Gayaza than Ndeere Troupe which was in Muyenga. With this new job, I started to break even financially.  I would walk to University and get there on time which helped me make some new friends. When at University, I didn’t have to worry about what we were going to eat that evening or whether my father would be fine or not. I felt like a young girl,talking to my friends spending time with them and most of all discussing soap operas and lectures. It was always amazing until I had to go back home and face reality. That was the sad part, in that most times I would wake up flustered in fear of what my future would be like, would I become a mere house wife, what would the future of my siblings look like.

That motivated me to work long hours, go for lectures and never cared about what time I got back home. Sometimes I would reach home  at 11:00pm or 12:00pm. Either way, the distance between home, work and school didn’t deter my desire for studying, some nights I would get home from my lectures and find my father’s condition worse than it was in morning. That used to worry me a lot  but there was only one and that thing that kept me emotionally together and that thing was art. I would always look forward to getting to work and escape my reality, escape the sadness that lingered in my father’s eyes. DSC_1185 (Custom) And that fear only went away the more I looked at art, somehow it started making sense to me and God’s help I started making solid sales at the Gallery. I continued with my education but what was biting mostly was the fact that I attended all these lectures but never sat for any exams.

Some of my lecturers out of concern asked me why they hadn’t seen my papers when they were marking and I had to tell them the truth. Most of them sympathized with me because I was a bright student but I was a bright student who couldn’t do exams. At least that’s how I felt about myself.

So one night I was heading home from my lectures, a long the way I met this group of men coming towards me, next thing I knew, someone was covering my mouth from behind I couldn’t scream. I was totally helpless and just when I was resigning to what would become of me, a vehicle approached the small path with full lights and the men ran away. I quickly picked up my bag and raced home. That night and the following months I felt worthless, hopeless and what was worse I didn’t know who to talk to about it or how to talk about it. I didn’t believe in my dream anymore or the power of it. On another occasion, again as I was heading home from my lectures, after the taxi had dropped me in Gayaza the same thing happened, but this time, I had a stone in my bag, a habit I picked up after the first incident. This time the two goons were on a Boda Boda, one was on the passenger seat and the other was a driver.

They stopped about  100 metres ahead of me, at first I thought the Boda driver was dropping off someone because it stopped in someone’s compound but I was wrong. These two idiots jumped off the Boda when I got closer and one of them started teasing me. He smirked and mumbled,” why are you on your own?”,  “Did your husband send you away from home?”. It was at this point my instinctive alarm went off. Granted I was a few metres away from our house so I hit one with a stone and ran as fast as I could. On entering the house, I fell on my fathers laps and for the first time I broke down in front of him, I needed help, I needed protection, I needed to be understood but also needed a lot of sympathy to make the fear go away. But it  didn’t!

After that night I realized I was supposed to be an adult—at least life had decided that for me, so I decided to do the most adult thing I knew at the time, I quit school.

I didn’t tell my father that I had quit, so I would always tell him that I went to school but I wasn’t and I couldn’t tell him that I was almost raped. So I decided to forget about school and focused on my job at the gallery. But as time went on I started getting bored. My routine was the same, I always sat in the gallery and waited for clients to come in sometimes I would have three or four people come in and I had sat there the whole day up to 6:00pm, it was crippling. So I became hungry, hungry for something I didn’t even understand at the time. I would analyze paintings from morning up to evening, try to mind map who the potential clients of these paintings would be. Which artists or painters had complimenting work we could use in art exhibitions. I studied the materials the artists used in their work and reached a point where I could tell from just looking which art piece was more durable and which one wasn’t, I could easily tell a fake from an original. Slowly by slowly my research on art became wide, I read books about how to organise an art gallery, how to advice the buyers on how and where to place certain art pieces in their houses. Which art work is best suited with what paint colour or background and what not.20160527_161455 One day a lady came into the gallery and we got to chat about the art piece she wanted and out of no where she asks me, have you ever considered curating? And I said what’s that? Then she said to me, well that’s what your doing. So I told her I will find out what that means, at the time Google wasn’t so big here so I went to Makerere University Art School and asked some students what a curator does. I expected the students to know but every single one of them had this puzzled look, written allover their faces. After my failed quest for answers, I started being very curious, why would someone call me a curator? What do curators do? Where do they work? So I started watching these documentaries about art and they were talking about what a gallery should look like, what a gallerist should do and I realized I wasn’t doing that. So after failed attempts of making my ideas pass by my boss, I decided to look for greener pastures (like most people say these days). I never wanted to be a shop attendant anymore I wanted to be a Curator/Gallerist. I wanted to know every concept, every budget, every exhibition plan and I wanted to know who our clients were. All this information was always withdrawn from me. So I left and joined a construction and interior design company called LBC, the manager of that company had initially met me at Afriart Gallery a couple of times when he came in to buy art for their clients and I used to advice him on which wall paint colour would work well with certain art pieces, which positions they would look good in, how high the ceilings should be for certain art pieces to look good so he had always told me to join them but at the time I didn’t consider it until I became so hungry to become a Curator. When I started working at the Construction Company, I was doing everything I had always wanted to do, I was a Curator. Working with these Architects  was perfect for me. Mathematics has always been my thing and when I start talking about my love for numbers we may not end this interview but my new job gave me lots of numbers I was so honored. You know we would stand in a room and start making calculating on where to hang which piece and where not to, choosing paint colours, it was awesome.20160527_155905 Everyday I felt like I was in an exhibition of sorts because we had to know how many bricks went in the wall, where do we possibly expect to find the perfect spot to put the nails that would hold the art piece, it was so fascinating. They would always ask me to connect them with the artists, they were consulting me about everything and asking me how we could all work together to bring the artists vision to life through interior designing. I was so grateful and was glad I got the position I wanted and most of all the directors were ready to teach me the things that I didn’t know and I was also teaching them the things about art that I knew. I really learned a lot and somehow, I started collaborating my old network of artists and linking them to these architects in away I was finding an open market that wasn’t utilized by the artists before. At this job I started discovering my abilities so as we were working on a project I call my last job with this company, that was the Gaddafi Mosque, I started identifying my strengths and realized I wasn’t going to be an Art Curator only for the money. I wanted to be out there again, organizing exhibitions, talking to Artists and finding untapped markets for their work.

During this time my father  passed away and I lost balance a bit. What kept me going and what i thank God for was one of my siblings grown up so much and had completed her A’level. That made me so happy and  in a simple way I had accomplished some of my dreams. While I was going through that emotional limbo, I was approached by Efendys Turkish Restaurant to do their PR. At first I was skeptical since I had not ventured in the business of restaurants and bars but later took it on because I worked in the night and during the day I was sleeping or talking more about art and how to become a successful Art Curator.

So one day my artist friend Ronex approached me, saying we are starting a gallery and we want to start it with you. I then asked him with who? He told me, you, Ndema and some friend of his who was a chef. They said you are the perfect Curator for it,  you love art and have worked and marketed us before. We want to create a space specifically for artists, Ronex said. He continued telling me he trusted that I could do the job. This statement was like a challenge of sorts for me,  I always like to go through challenging situations, they build me. But deep down I was thinking would I really be the right person, but at the same time reminding myself there is never a right anything for anyone, whatever comes your way just do it. It was impressive really, I was very flattered that they would choose me to start a gallery with them. It was almost five year’s of me being out of an Art gallery. They said you are the perfect Curator that we know and we want to work with you, it was really thoughtful so I stepped up to fill the position. fas-fas

The Fas Fas experience

We started Fas Fas Art Gallery in Bugolobi, that is when my Curatorial Monster came out, we created an art space, a place for artists to come and hang out but also had a restaurant that lured non art lovers to come by and get introduced to what art was, what a gallery looked like and why they should appreciate art in general. We came up with different exhibitions, shows and concerts and we became the ‘thing in town’. I’m proud to stand here and say that was on my hands. Overtime it was great but then everything changed when the land eviction wrangles began, we had to move. It was such a painful process for me and disturbing to absorb because I saw the lack of respect for art spaces in my country with my own eyes. It was depressing! But with all the drama, there were a lot of things to learn. I must say it was my biggest learning experience and Fas Fas safely moved to Ntinda where it enjoyed some notoriety in the entertainment industry but sadly it didn’t last long enough before being closed up for good. I was depressed and angry because it was our baby, my baby, I didn’t know how to pick myself up but I knew I had been through worse situations and still wanted to live strongly and by this time I was determined to learn more about the arts in Uganda especially Kampala but from the eyes of an outsider because I was then an insider. Robinah. Finally getting an Education

Later that year, I was offered a job at 32°East which is a Ugandan Art Trust, (its like a vocational school for artists) where I learned the academic aspect, what to expect from international buyers, how to handle artists not only as management but emotionally and administratively. It opened my eyes to things I never imagined artists were supposed to do or know like writing proposals which I always thought is only for the corporate offices, treating art exhibitions like places that spark conversation rather than commercial places where you sell art. 32°East just covered part of my art education, an education that I was lacking and wanted, it enhanced me to confidently stand up and say I’m a Curator, it exposed me to curatorial studies in and outside the country I was close to exactly knowing who I was and why I was doing what I did.

After my time with 32° East that’s when I started thinking about what to do with my acquired skills and where I wanted my work to be.  I never wanted to work in an Art Gallery any more, I resented the idea itself, I resented the Uganda Museum too because the visual artists didn’t and still don’t have a history space there. That is why I decided to become an Independent Art Curator and with that I never wanted to be like any art gallery out here which is working on the commercial aspect, or academic aspect only. I wanted to do exhibitions, discover new and young artists, I wanted to see Ugandan art be internationally recognized, I wanted our art history to be documented, I wanted to be the link between the artists that are not given a chance to exhibit in the gallery and finding out who their audience was. In my case I refer to them as ‘’the looker and the looked on’’ artists. This was because if you don’t know the owner of the gallery, your work is non commercial or your name is not big enough to sell an exhibition, you will never see your work hanged on the walls of a gallery in town. Questioning again the point of all the graduates from the different universities in the country where and when are they ever going to go through the above procedure? Intervention is a good thing and that’s my role right now.

So I started talking to different Artists and I realized most artists are making Art for commercial purposes and not making art that says what they want to say or  talk about causes they advocate for. I wanted to change that and I went out to work with artists who made art because they had something to say.

These are the artists whose work doesn’t get space in the commercial galleries because a commercial gallery wants nothing to do with work that doesn’t make them instant money. There are so many types of artists and when you sieve out all their different styles, you’ll have  less than a quarter of them showcasing in art galleries. Imagine if you are a Performing Artist someone will say go to the theater but that is not the only place that kind of artists can perform in.

Advice to visual artists

As a Ugandan Curator I  am starting to Understand that Ugandan’s are interested in art that is about themselves. For instance if you find a Ugandan Art lover they will always ask the Artists, can you paint me? Ugandan’s a willing to pay for that kind of art or functional art. Some Artists feel offended but I am always encouraging them not to feel offended but rather understand their market at home and if you can’t paint the human face let the Ugandan buyer understand why you are painting the way that you are painting. Let them understand why you use the colours that you use it is a way of buying something you understand and will use. To me being a Curator is like being a bridge, a link or an observer, always looking out for Artists, their audiences and the places they live and work in. My cry out to artists is to identify their  audiences, but most artists identify more with the tourist market or the expatriate Market forgetting that, that is a market that comes and goes. You’ll be ignoring your home audience which is in the Country every single day of the year.

They say there art is meant for Mzungu’s but who says Art is supposed to interest only Mzungu’. When you a Ugandan Artists gets inspired enough to make art, there are other Ugandans who will be inspired enough to also buy it. If you think that art is only for Mzungu’s, that only shows how limited you are and you are limiting your audience in the long run. That’s why we have so many starving Artists who are talented but limited in their expression.

If you are making Art as a Ugandan Artists, we are about 35 million Ugandans out of this 35 million at least there is 1 million Ugandans who can afford to buy Art work. I know for a fact that most Artists in Uganda depend on art for a living that is how they are taking care of their families and getting their school fees that means there is a market, it means there are people who can buy art.

Selling Art Vs Talking for the Art

In the Art world, the Artists work is not spoken for because we all have different interpretations and definitions of what art is, in most cases the work speaks for itself but it only speaks when it is put in the right context, it only speaks when it is presented to the right people and it only speaks when it is given a chance to blossom from where it is shown. 20160527_161504 So if you make an exhibition in a gallery where a Boda Boda man cannot even think about coming to and you call it a Ugandan exhibition that is wrong. A Ugandan exhibition will always be a success if it targets the Ugandan audience for instance if you put an art exhibition at the taxi park, that’s enough for it to be a success in Ugandan terms.

An exhibition’s success is not based on how many sells you’ve made, its based on so many aspects like the number of people that have viewed the work, how many people are talking about it. That a lone is a public education in art appreciation. That can’t be bought, its priceless!

Being an International Independent Curator For a long time I had not been paid for my work as an Art Curator not until I applied for a Curatorial Training in South Africa in 2013 called the Independent curators international workshop in Johannesburg and when I went to this workshop, I loved it and I learned how to charge for my work, I made connections with people who have been in the field for years, that helped me collaborate with a couple of them on international exhibitions. I’ve learned to accept criticism about my exhibitions in a way it helps me learn and grow.

If somebody asked me, are you where you want to be today? I would say not yet because as an Independent Curator I have things I long to see, I want to see Ugandan Art in a public space and I want to redefine the role of the artists in nation building.

Are you still learning? Yes Do you still want to learn? Yes Although looking back now if someone asked me would you go back to school today I would say, yes but I would also question for how long and  for what reasons do I have to be in school.

Robinah has curated exhibitions inside and outside Uganda;

  • ‘Women without Borders’ in DRC an exhibition of women artists in East and Central Africa
  • ‘Order in chaos’ a solo exhibition in Tanzania at Nafasi art space amongst others
  • She was a co-curator for KLA ART 014 Contemporary Art Festival
  •  ‘Peace and Conflict’ with Malian curator Hama Goro
  •  ‘Know go zone’
  • Organized the ‘WHOIS WE?’ art exhibition, a questioning identity of the arts and the position of the artists in this identity.
  • Order in Chaos exhibition in Tanzania
  • Nudes
  • Potholes in Uganda
  • Simudda Nyuma in Armestadam
  • Jewels in the Jungle in Uganda
  •  She has been an invited guest curator judge at the National civil Society Organisation competitions ‘Our country, our dignity, my duty’ 2013.
  • She has facilitated a workshop at the Bayimba Arts Journalism training on visual art.

She was invited as a conference speaker on heritage at the Yango biennale and she manages and Curates 41 Artists in East Africa

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