All images are courtesy of the artists unless otherwise noted
The series of Conversational Partnerships began in 2017 in African Arts vol. 50, no. 2, with a conversation between two artists: Eria Nsubuga SANE from Uganda and Sikhumbuzo Makandula from South Africa. The format of a “conversational partnership” (Rubin and Rubin 2012: 7) emphasizes the cocreation of meaning by the interviewer and interviewee as coauthors. This enables a move away from the art history format of the interviewer (usually a writer) assuming the role of the sole author and the interviewee (often an artist) having no status as an author despite the fact that her or his practice-led creation of knowledge is foundational to the content of the interview. Stacey Gillian Abe and Immy Mali participated in a joint artists' residency as part of the RAW program at Rhodes University in South Africa from November to December 2017. During this time, they engaged with each other's practice-led work, and they created this conversational partnership at a writing breakaway in the Eastern Cape.
Stacey: Immy, in your artistic career, you have created work around the idea of pain. Can you explain the significance of pain in your work?
Immy: In the introduction of Audre Lorde's book The Cancer Journals, she speaks of strength in vulnerability, in sharing, and in speaking out. She writes, “I had to remind myself that I had lived through it all, already. I had known the pain and survived it. It only remained for me to give it voice, to share it for use, that the pain not be wasted” (2006: 9).
There is a nakedness that comes with sharing. A vulnerability, an awkwardness, and then finally a strength. The sculptural installation Daddy Can I Play?! (2013) (Fig. 1) is a playground for children that is not safe. Pointing to, on the one hand, the seduction of play that a child experiences and, on the other hand, to the obligation of safeguarding children that adults experience, I began a journey of exploring the future from the past. Childhood events started to show up in my work, but these events were mostly linked to painful memories. This made me curious to explore these memories and to try to understand why they were resurfacing. So I started looking into my life events. I recall the excitement of a new dress at Christmas, only to watch the same dress fade by the following Christmas. I remember being cured from malaria, but being left with a paralyzed foot after a medical accident. I like to think that I have been successful at masking off pain for reasons that I am not certain about. Perhaps living in the company of people who deeply care for my existence enables this. I have an admiration for human resilience in discomforting situations.
Stacey: How does pain take form from this emotion that only we feel, and how does this link to your creative process?
Immy: Objects that are typically associated with pain such as razor blades, blood, and pins often become material for my artwork. Physical pain is a sensation or an experience that is described by scientists to be that which alerts your body that something is wrong. It's a mechanism for the body to protect itself. In the work Denounced Surrogacy (2015) (Fig. 2), I represent pain as an experience that can be touched by including instruments that cause a tingling and uncomforting sensation. While this may allude to physical pain, it also encompasses emotional pain. The sculpture bares the characteristics of an inaccessible body, and this body is like a porcupine protecting itself by erecting its spines. I started looking into the social, economic, and political structures around my being at the time that I made this sculpture. Through making this work I started to realize the influence of rules, customs, and beliefs on my existence, and this gave me the urge to try to understand my existence. Through memories and the use of familiar objects in my work I began to search for my identity.
Stacey: In Daddy Can I Play?!, that was installed at the Buziga stone quarry, you use hair as a material to create a playground for kids. This is very interesting because I think hair, as a woman's adornment, could be read as a symbol of both beauty and fragility, which seems to relate to the fact that the functionality and the general aesthetics of a playground seem to have been deliberately discounted in this work. Can you elaborate on this?
Immy: Daddy Can I Play?! is a response to the childhood seduction of play and the obligation that adults have to safeguard children. The role of parenting, in my personal experience, has been the responsibility of women (mum, aunties, cousins, or women who work in one's home) who have played protective, corrective, and nurturing roles. Many times this role is fostered by rules. This is perhaps why I choose to use hair. With the mushrooming saloons in Kampala's suburbs, it is easily available. Dos and don'ts appear to be hindrances to the possibilities that a curious childhood can unveil. They can also be threats that can keep a child from the freedom of exploration and discovery. It is important to tell a child how to go around challenges, not how to avoid them.
Stacey: During the Residency for Artists and Writer's (RAW) program at Rhodes University, you recorded a few videos while playing with kids on K Street in the Joza township. In your opinion, how do children's games in South Africa compare to games played by children in Uganda, and how does this affect your work?
Immy: I started working on the project Letters to My Childhood (Fig. 3) at the beginning of 2017, and began to write letters to my younger being in a bid to revive the childhood memories that I believe stimulate my creative process. One of the letters (dated November 23, 2017) that I wrote when I was in Grahamstown, South Africa, speaks of my excitement to go and play with the children that are Marcue's age. The video recordings are a realization of this (Figs. 4–5). I find the games such as hopscotch and skipping rope to be very similar to those that were played in my childhood, merely with slight differences in design. In Uganda we refer to hopscotch as kasonko, which is a word from the Luganda language that can mean “provocation” and it is played with a stone or cowrie shell. We refer to skipping rope as kgati/ugqaphu and diketo/upuca/magave, which is choro in Lugbara.
Stacey: From one of your letters in the ongoing project Letters to My Childhood, I noticed you begin a sentence with “Dear Marcue.” Who is this Marcue that you keep referring to, and why do you use her name?
Immy: Marcue is an imaginary child who is approximately 5 to 12 years of age, who lives in the years before and up to approximately 2003. She is a child whose life is eventful; one who I am having conversations with because she keeps interrupting my artistic impressions with hints of her existence. She is a child who has been nutured by a series of women over the years and this influence can be seen in the letters. With the changing infrastructure in Uganda's towns, places change. The dates, however, have a constant record and can stay the same indefinitely as well as point to a specific place in time. Marcue can be whoever you want her to be. She is my childhood and the keeper of my memories.
Stacey: Can you explain how your installation Virtually Mine (2016) (Fig. 6) relates to the Letters to My Childhood series that you began in 2017?
Immy: Virtually Mine is an installation made of WhatsApp conversations between my husband and me. The text, on about 300 pieces of glass put together, forms the figure of a man. It is the image. The installation speaks of a lover's fluency with her mate—fluency in regard to acquaintance that is permitted by the distance between them, and fluency in the yearning for a being who is on the one hand familiar but on the other hand more attractive, as portrayed by the imagery she chooses to associate memories of his likeness with. Letters to My Childhood is a portal into a childhood that I believe influences a great portion of my art practice. Both works involve personal narratives and use text as the key medium of execution. Letters to My Childhood is still in its early stages and has the potential to take on a variety of forms which I am currently working towards. Further, both projects express the presence of a virtual being in the past and in the present.
Stacey: In your performance Seared Archive (2016) (Figs. 7–10), which you say refers to stained or damaged archives, different characters sit on a white box in what appears to be a white cube space. In contrast to the sterile surroundings, blood leaks from the box beneath, inducing in the viewer a certain ghastly feeling. What roles do these different characters play, and what is the significance of blood in this work?
Immy: Seared Archive is commentary on the community indifference that has creeped into the society I live in today. The African saying that “It takes a village to raise a child” is slowly fading away with the expansion of so-called corporate spaces and middle class suburbs. The society is represented by security, religion, business, transport, and households, among other sectors. Members of the society today attend to situations that cause them the least inconvenience and that only affect their most immediate families rather than the broader neighborhood. The white box consists of layers of paper, including personal school test papers that were accumulated over a period of thirteen years. As such, the box represents a body or a being that creates an archive. This block bleeds as the different characters representing society take turns sitting on it with apathetic facial expressions. It is an absorbent sculpture that literally sucks in the blood that is spilled during the process of sitting. The archive becomes stained in the way that traumatic events such as sexual abuse can stain one's being.
Immy: Stacey, what has been your experience working as an artist in Uganda, and how would you describe the current Ugandan art scene?
Stacey: The Ugandan art scene is small, yet fast growing. In many ways, it is a rather closed community that has, for a number of decades, weathered political conditions that are unfavorable to the creative sector. As Dominic Muwanguzi (2011) writes, “A decade ago or so, there were only two or three art galleries to write about, and the industry was dominated by a handful of artists who sold their work to the mzungus.” However, the art scene still thrives and in recent years has gained significant international recognition.
I feel as if I am still a toddler in the Ugandan art scene and thus have a lot to learn. I actively joined the art scene in 2012, before graduating from Kyambogo University Kampala with a BA Honours in Art and Industrial Design in 2014. Structurally, we are seeing visual and performing arts organizations starting up and/or expanding to contain and facilitate the growing creative sector. Examples include the Bayimba Cultural Foundation, which facilitates a number of programs and opportunities in performing and theater arts, such as the Kampala International Theatre Festival, Bayimba International Festival, and the Hip-Hop Boot Camp for young creatives within Uganda and on the African continent. The Afriart gallery unveiled its new and larger gallery space within the city center, Afriart on 7th.1 Permanent self-sufficient spaces like EcoArt Uganda, run by Ruganzu Bruno, is in the process of completing the Ubuntu Artist Residency Space in Bulindo, a suburb located in Kira subcounty, and 32°East|Ugandan Arts Trust is also in the process of constructing a permanent and spacious art center for both local and international artists in Bunga.2
Despite this growth, we see monumental spaces and national heritage centers such as the Uganda Museum, the National Theatre, or the Uganda National Cultural Centre (UNCC) suffering from poor management, which has in turn diminished their standards not only as tourist attraction structures but also as national and cultural monuments. This has had a drastic effect on the arts in general, because we have very few spaces to work with on special art occasions. In 2017, there was a public outcry about the move to demolish the Uganda National Theatre in order to provide space for a new shopping mall—this led to a silent organized protest that eventually halted the process.
Technological advancement has also played a huge role in providing international exposure for many Ugandan artists through online and cross-border opportunities such as funding, travel grants, and artist-in-residency programs. It has also enabled artists to conduct research, to network, and to understand what is going on beyond the Ugandan borders.
With all these variables in consideration, my experience as an artist has been a roller-coaster ride, and the journey an uncertain one. While Uganda is home to extraordinary female artists and pioneers such as Dr. Lillian Nabulime and Dr. Rose Kirumira, who have opened ground for next-generation artists, the number of women still pales in comparison to our male counterparts. Maintaining and staying an active practicing artist in this uncertain path is the challenge. I often find myself working twice as hard to maintain, fit, and assert my position in the scene. To survive as an artist in Uganda one must be tough, open minded, very independent, and self-sufficient. It takes a lot but eventually the effort pays off. It has been exciting and frustrating at the same time; it's a bull that I constantly drag by the horns.
Immy: In your work Sylvia's Letters to My Future Self (2017) (Figs. 11–14) you expressed interest in a young slave girl, Sylvia, whom we know little about due to the lack of substantial archival information. Can you explain how your interaction with this character has influenced your artwork?
Stacey: Many of the concepts in my work highlight the strength and fragility of the mind as autobiographical documentations of earlier and continuous experiences. Through my work I attempt to critique stereotypical depictions of me as a Black woman, while creating unsettling narratives on the subject of gender, identity, spirituality, and cultural mysticism. I am interested in defining and redefining my position in society in the present from a psychoemotional point of view, while cross examining my mental state and psyche.
Sylvia's Letters to My Future Self is an ongoing project that focuses on the Black history of Salem, NY, between 1800–1820 and makes reference to Lloyd Stewart's book The Mysterious Black Migration Between 1800–1820: The Van Vrakens-Washington County (2013) and archival materials from the Salem Community Library. My interest in the person who is believed to be Salem's first Black slave, Sylvia Boston, gave birth to my project. Sylvia Boston (d. 1842) was disinterred from the Revolutionary War Cemetery in 1861 and buried in Evergreen Cemetery, according to the notes of Dr. Asa Fitch, Jr., collected and complied by William A. Cormier (2014), who is a retired history teacher and public school administrator, served as Salem town and village historian since 1984, chronicling Salem history in print and in lecture.
This is an exciting and new approach in my work because in this situation I am exploring, restaging, reimagining, and redefining scenes and situations in someone else's life. I imagine, for example, her personality or what I call her second identity that goes beyond her identity as a slave. As I embody Sylvia and become her being, I am pushed to a place of influence as an extension of myself and to consider how this new identity affects my own being as an individual, a separate entity from Sylvia Boston living in the present.
Sylvia was believed to be more intelligent and eloquent than an average slave of her time (Perry 1999: 485), but little information related to her life as a slave is archived except for general records on slaves and their burial grounds. The outcomes of the work Sylvia's Letters to My Future Self are deconstructed to the extent that meaning is shifted and possible interpretation becomes multilayered
Immy: In the process of creating the work titled Indigogo (2017–2018) (Figs. 13–17), the use of the color indigo appears to be important to your ideas. Of what importance is indigo to you in this project?
Stacey: Indigo refers both to the blue pigment used as a dye and to indigo plants of the genus Indigofera. Indigo dye has been used for thousands of years by civilizations all over the world to dye fabric blue. It has been the most famous and most widely used natural dye throughout history (Wild Colours 2017). “Indigo was more powerful than the gun. It was used literally as a currency. They were trading one length of cloth, in exchange for one human body” (McKinley 2011).
The concept explores metamorphosis through Indigogo as a biological process by which I physically and or virtually develop during hibernation through to hatching. This process involves a conspicuous and relatively abrupt shift in my anatomy and mental state through cell growth, restructuring, and differentiation. With interest to the indigo dye as a tangible substance and its significance in the African slave history while using the body as an organic form of identity, the process is a metaphor to dissociation and transition. The blue color smeared on my body explores the tangible and physical properties of character and individuality, an acquired identity or the state of being shifted and moved from a position of comfort to discomfort.
Gillian Stacey Abe http://staceygillab.wixsite.com/stacey-gillian-abe
Anderu Immaculate Mali https://immymali.wordpress.com/author/immymali/
Abe, Gillian Stacey 2015. “Glass Mirrors: Stacey Gillian's Triumphs and Despair.” Start: Journal of Arts and Culture.http://startjournal.org/2015/10/glass-mirrors-stacey-gillians-triumphs-and-despair/
Batambuze, Jonah. 2017. “Ugandan Artists Prepare to Soar with Newly Designed Arts Centre.” C&, April 18. http://www.contemporaryand.com/magazines/ugandan-artists-prepare-to-soar-with-newly-designed-arts-centre/
Bayimba Cultural Foundation. http://bayimba.org/
EcoArt Uganda. http://www.creativ.com/author/ruganzu-bruno/
Kampala International Theatre Festival. http://bayimba.org/bayimba-festivals/
Kyambogo University. http://www.kyu.ac.ug/
32° East | Ugandan Arts Trust. http://ugandanartstrust.org/
Uganda National Cultural Centre. http://www.gou.go.ug/content/uganda-national-cultural-centre-uncc
Immy: When you were a RAW3 Fellow at Rhodes University in 2017, you filmed your work Indigogo at the Old Gaol house. Could you expand on your choice of this building in relation to your ideas about being an African woman at the present time?
Stacey: Part of the work evolved out of an interest in linking the physical and tangible space with a mental sense of belonging. I wanted to explore how these two aspects intersect with each other in order to create amalgamated feelings of claustrophobia. I remember feeling so detached from the outside world each time I moved within these jail walls, not simply because of the height of the walls, or the darkness and loneliness of the rooms, but because the space felt quiet, despite being in the middle of town. I could relate to this in many levels. We all have our insecurities, fears, and expectations while in a state of transition. At a time when our areas of comfort are affected or disturbed, even partially, we begin to dislike what we have, what we know, what we own, or what we are. Entrapped in a claustrophobic space, as if to highlight a societal situation experienced first-hand that confines my being into an enclosure, I am torn between the need to withstand and evolve into what society prefers me to be or metamorphose prematurely while slowly growing into a hybrid version of myself.
Immy: You highlight specific societal situations and servility in your works from a female perspective such as Strange Fruit Konyagi (2015) (Figs. 20–21), in which a tree appears to be ripe with fruits ready for the picking. How does this notion relate to your work Enya Sa (2017) (Figs. 22–23) and Seat of Honour (2017) (Figs. 24 and cover)?
Stacey: Seat of Honour and Strange Fruit Konyagi highlight certain complex societal situations as autobiographical documentations of earlier and continuous experiences from an individual point of view. My work process involves a progressive deep self-evaluation, finding meaning to my own being, understanding what I want and what I have gone through to get to this very spot, keeping in mind my indigenous background and upbringing, and laying out what I like to think of as personal constraints. The search cuts through the physical feeling of incompleteness, to the mental instability and my strong spiritual will.
In collaboration with the MUDA dance group, Strange Fruit-Konyagi relates the past to the present in a performance that references traditional African sacred norms, spiritual and ritualistic customs practiced on women, like prebirth rituals. As I assumed myself in form of a tree bearing unusual clusters of countless glass fruits, the bottles used were believed to conjure spiritual entities as anchors to our middle realm and answers to what lies beyond. Enya Sa highlights a conscience of feelings derived from sexual satisfaction and satisfaction from food as it questions the lengths to which one must go through to acquire satisfaction as a relative term. In Seat of Honour, I am pushed to a place of influence as I am made to believe and assume a position of power and authority as I justify my significance.
Immy: On your website, wix.com, you say “we are spiritual beings assuming humanity.” Could you say more about this?
Stacey: I like to think of myself as an animist because traditionally the Lugbara people of North Western Uganda or West Nile (my ancestral village and birth place) are animists and they believe that all material phenomena have agency, that there exists no hard and fast distinction between the spiritual and material world and a life oriented towards an inner being. This background in spirituality and informal education has influenced, inspired, and materialized in my artwork in general.
Immy: A number of your performance stills and videos such as Enya Sa and Seat of Honour portray more than one projection of yourself. How does this influence your idea towards highlighting the suppleness of your mind as a woman from your practice? And finally, what is your perception of identity?
Stacey: For example, in the project Seat of Honour I am pushed to a place of influence with a societal situation in constant play around me as I justify my significance. During the performance, I use myself and the human body subjectively in constant physical motion to express a particular mental complexity. In Seat of Honour, my sitting posture is a waiting, procrastinating gesture in fear of a decision I have to make. The projections of myself are extensions of my being or what could be a replica or mirage of what I could become such as in Enya Sa. I am interested in how these other presences in both Seat of Honour and Enya Sa express the idea of possibility without limitation and to speak difference to certain life circumstances and/or situational dominations. Emphasis in both works is beyond the repeated narratives of being in resistance but of greatness and being. In this case the “other” does not always require a human form but reflects a steady style.
Identity as a subject, that is very wide. Personal identity in my opinion is making the effort to understand who one is. It is the ability to question typical values and standards, and is part of the process of conjuring our own beings.
The first Afriart gallery on Kira Road was opened in November 2002 and the difference between the two is that Afriart on 7th has wider exhibition and working space for artists working with three-dimensional art, and large-scale installations are able to fit into the exhibition space because of the high-rise ceiling. The building, which is on 7th Street in the industrial area of Kampala, was once a warehouse.
Bunga and Bulindo are both in the outskirts of Kampala city, Bulindo in Wakiso district, 18 km northeast of Kampala and Bunga in Makindye division, 11 km from Kampala city center
The Residencies for Artists and Writers (RAW) program is run by the Arts of African and Global Souths team at Rhodes University in South Africa.