UCU markets student artwork to boost sales during pandemic

Story By Fiona Nabugwere and Majorine Kiita
Photos by Paulyn Alupo and Dalton Mujuni

By 8 a.m. on a hot Friday morning, the Technology Park area of the Mukono campus of Uganda Christian University (UCU) was a beehive of activities as 3rd year students of the Bachelor of Industrial Fine Art program make final touches on their art stalls.

It was December 8, 2020. The students had decorated the area with stunning art pieces ready for the 2020 UCU Annual Fine Art Exhibition. Their master art ranged from ceramics, pottery, and fashion to interior design assembled according to different themes and styles. The 2020 exhibition was a wonderful display of creativity, effort and talent.

Kelvin Kambere, one of the students who exhibited pieces, said he created his best piece – a family of giraffes on canvas – using fiberglass and bark cloth. He chose a giraffe to represent the African family.

Kelvin Kambere exhibiting his art
Kelvin Kambere exhibiting his art

“I molded clay and laid it on the floor before creating designs in different shapes,” he said. “Then I cast the mold. When it was complete, I introduced the bark cloth sliced into small pieces and thinned to reduce the thickness. I dipped the bark cloth into glue for about 2-3 days to ease the manipulation before putting it on the mold and leaving it to set.” 

Kambere spent sh900,000 ($244.95) to make the fiber glass giraffe sculpture and about sh200,000 ($54.06) for the bark cloth piece. 

Another student, Mark Wandera, used pencils, pens and watercolors to draw human figures in a style he calls expressionism.  One of those pieces depicted a boy eagerly catching water into his mouth. 

“I am a freelance artist, and people like the human figures in my work,” Wandera said. “My art pieces can be put anywhere in galleries and sitting rooms where there is no (outside) water to spoil them.” 

Solving a Problem in Society through Art was the 2020 exhibition theme

The late 2020 event drew fewer than normal buyers because it was two days vs. the normal seven and entry inside the Mukono campus was restricted due to Covid-19. Another barrier to sales was a shorter preparation time for students. But being able to do artwork and display it after a virus lockdown brought hope to the young artists. 

Mercy Chekwemboi, a fashion student who focused on decency in dressing while still looking elegant and stylish in an African print dress called “Ekitengi,” displayed a detachable dress that could be worn in several different ways. She said time was her biggest challenge in preparing for the exhibition. 

“I failed to get a suitable floral material to make the duvet,’’ she said. 

To ease student frustrations and offer added opportunity for sales, UCU offered to allow students’ best pieces to remain with the university for another 12 months. During that time, the university would help market and sell those pieces from a gallery in the art department area, from different churches and during university events. One of those events is planned for March 2021 at All Saints Cathedral, Kampala.

“It’s true the students did not have enough time to create as many art pieces like in the past years because of the pandemic,” said Grace Ashe, a lecturer for Painting, adding, “But still they have displayed impressive work.”

According to Rita Namwebe, the acting Head of the Department of Industrial Art and Design, students can retrieve money from sales as they occur and pick up artwork not sold after a year. 

Obinna Ikenna, a student who majored in sculpture, said he was glad that the university had granted them this offer. “I am giving them my best piece, which I made under the theme ‘unity among family’,” he said. Chekwemboi loaned a hand-knitted mat to the university to sell it for her. 

But Esther Blessing Ageno, who majors in interior design, was concerned that the University may not get the best price for their products. “I spent almost a week working on this piece so it won’t be fair to just give it at a price I am not happy with,” she said. 

Esther Ageno assembling her stall during the exhibition in January 2021
Esther Ageno assembling her stall during the exhibition in January 2021

During the preparations for this year’s exhibition students faced several other setbacks including challenges in blending colors and patterns plus breakdown of machines.

Art student Abel Nshemereirwe had a process challenge with cracking in ceramics. He illustrated through his zebra-themed ceramics pieces three methods of making ceramics: pottery wheel method, slab method and slip-casting method. He explained that using a pottery wheel produces more durable and attractive ceramics compared to the slab method. 

The department of Industrial Fine Art and Design offers a number of course units that include painting, drawing, computer graphics, ceramics, interior design, and fashion and fabrics.  In addition to an exhibition, lecturers award students with grades. 

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