An American professor has called upon artists to be unique if they are to succeed at home or break into the international market.
Professor Sharif Bey, a dual associate professor in art education and teaching leadership in the US college of Visual and Performing Arts at Syracuse University’s school of Education, was in Uganda last week for the Art in Embassies Program (AIEP).
The public-private partnership promotes cultural diplomacy through exhibitions, permanent collections, site-specific commissions, and two-way artist exchanges in more than 200 US embassies and consulates around the world.
Bey spoke to students at Margaret Trowell School of Fine Art at Makerere University and visited local potters.
During a visit to Kajjansi, Bey talked to the potters about ways they can diversify the target markets and product development beyond traditional ones, like thinking about making Ugandan options for ceramic tiles currently imported from China.
“We have to be unique in what we offer. I went to a market in Kampala and almost all the 30 tents had similar items,” he said. “It was overwhelmingly the same. If the price is the same, it is arbitrary where I buy from.”
The professor believes from experience that uniqueness is key in market transformation. That markets would work better if they found ways of not competing directly by offering diversity of goods.
He said potters can diversify without deviating from the traditions and identity of the country. Speaking about art education in the USA, Bey believes art education is under assault.
“I truly believe that art education has the potential to serve a greater role in shaping democracy than it does. It is almost a conspiracy when I see people who think that art is just about painting or drawing pretty pictures or [making] ceramics.”
He says art education is supposed to be about asking questions and thinking about issues that cannot be quantified.