The African art scene in Africa is growing, developing and more exciting than ever.
With many African artists making a name for themselves – both at home and around the world – how does one get into the art scene when not being an artist yourself?
Robinah Nansubuga is an Independent Curator and Set Designer based in Kampala, Uganda. She implements strategies to promote artists and develop the artistic network in East Africa.
She has curated and led artistic projects across the continent and the world. Robinah was the artistic director of MTN Nyege Nyege 2018 – a festival organized with grants from the British Council.
This Motherland Mogul is also a former committee member for Laba! Street Art Festival, Arterial Network Uganda Chapter, a judge curator at the National Civil Society Fair art Competitions (CSO), co-curator of the Kampala Contemporary Art festival – and much more arts festival across the region.
How did you become an independent curator of arts festivals?
I have always been a huge fan of festivals they were my get away from everything that one place that I felt included and happened to forget the things happening home and in my life at that time.
After having worked for two galleries in Kampala (Afriart and fas fas gallery) I became an independent curator in 2012. I wanted to experience art in a space where audiences and makers get to meet.
Therefore I started curating ‘’EKYOTO UGANDA ‘’ during the Bayimba International Arts festival. Ekyoto was a bonfire project that I curated to bring together people through games like ‘’Dulu’’ – which today would come close to being a pool table.
Integrating the social aspects with Ugandan traditional ways of entertainment turned out to be a big success.
From there, I started to think and focus on how to create arts and cultural events that are inclusive and show a variety of art forms.
What skills do non-artists need to make it in the arts sector?
Organizational skills! Arts festivals usually do not have big budgets. So being efficient, conscious of costs and committed to timelines are key to make any festival a reality.
Also, it’s very important that you are good at collaborating. Festivals are all about collaborations, not only with the other people on the team – but also with the artists and don’t forget the audience.
Successful arts festivals can only be realized by listening to all involved because in that way new ideas can develop.
I would also suggest that it’s good to develop some creative skills yourself. This will help you understand who you are working with and it will help you develop your own creative vision.
And finally, practical skills – from basic electrician know-how to carpentry and designing – will always come in handy during the actual festival.
The form you have selected does not exist.
Tell us how you develop your own vision and execute that vision?
I am fortunate by now I get invited by festivals to work with them because I have built a name for myself through my vision.
Through the exhibitions, I created my main drive is always to create alternative spaces. My vision developed over the years.
Whenever I would attend arts of the cultural festival I would look for the things I felt were missing and that would have been of added value to the festival and the audiences.
However, when being approached by a festival you usually have to work in teams meaning that the vision is not yours alone.
What have been your biggest challenges in the cultural scene? And how did you overcome these challenges?
Being a woman who looks really young definitely didn’t help. I really had to push hard to make sure my ideas were not being undermined, but actually listened to.
It’s a very male-dominated sector so as a woman you have to bring yourself to think like a man, be able to do all the physical and mental jobs they can do in order to have a smooth working relationship.
Another challenge that needs political navigation is that the cultural scene can be very much of a clique scene at times.
This can mean that collaborating with on one project, might mean you are not able to be involved in another.
That is one of the main reasons why I became an independent curator as I’d like to focus on the work instead of potential conflict of interests.
I believe that sooner or later, every challenge can be overcome. You can start by educating yourself, trying to surround yourself with the right people who believe in your goals.
And, at times you have to be ready to compromise while staying passionate. plus let your work speak more for you.
I am lucky I earned my respect in the industry and for that am still very thankful to many artists and people that still believe and believed I could do more than I was doing.
You recently curated the Kigali Photo Fest. How did you decide what to include in the exhibition?
Kigali Photo Fest has a vision and mission that really resonated with me. It’s about celebrating Africa’s diversity through photography as a medium of art.
The theme of the first edition was ‘In search of relevance – locality and remediation’ – which is about sharing and navigating ideas of identity, memory, experience, intimacy, presence, and connection, in order to co-opt a narrative through a selection of subject matter and presentation.
They present a historically, socially significant moment and can frame the conversation around those moments, therefore, it wasn’t so difficult to include.
We approached artists with the vision and the theme of the festival and many responded positively.
It is a special project that hopes to include many African photographers and teach photography as a medium of art to earn its respect, to start looking for new audiences and to mostly tell stories about other places in Africa that one might not be able to visit but have an idea through images.
Therefore it is about the continent sharing with each other.
Was your family always supportive of your dream to pursue a career in the cultural and arts sector?
My dad and mum met in drama school, but my father ended being a Mechanical Engineer.
So my father understood the appeal of arts and culture to be he said you also have to be able to look after yourself financially.
We really need to educate our families to be our first fans, audiences and to be the next big support systems we can depend on.
We also have the responsibility to take the effort and be patient to teach them so that not only our families but also our societies, can better understand.
In this video, Robinah shares more about collaborations within the East Africa art sector, establishing a creative vision during the last Nyege Nyege festival in Kampala.
This video was produced in cooperation with the British Council.
This article was written by Marthe van der Wolf