In Transit: A sculptural response to Gaba landing site
by Sandra Suubi
As a sculptor and eco-artist, I am interested in materials found in a particular space and how I can use them in the construction of sculptures. This essay describes a location along the shores of Lake Victoria in Gaba that I like very much. It is busy with fishing activities, market transactions, and sounds.
I undertook a site-specific study of Gaba landing site for my Master’s degree in Fine Arts at the Margaret Trowell School of Industrial and Fine Arts, Makerere University. It was titled Sculptural Forms Inspired by Activities and Social Dynamics at Gaba Landing Site. I observed three particular groups of activities: a) fishing and fish processing, b) boat construction and water transport, and c) trade at the Gaba market. Another critical element at the landing site was the sound-scape. It was loud as would characterise such a vibrant place with people going about the daily running of businesses and living, but the sounds vary depending on the time of day. I used features from these activities to inform the construction of sculptures to comment on the physicality of the landing site.
In their restlessness and evolution, places like Gaba landing site offer opportunities for sculptors to propose artworks. The prevalence of water, the harvesting of fish, processing and marketing, and the effect these activities have on the space, provide a rich mine of resources for the attentive sculptor. Sculptures that address the concerns, hopes and fears of a landing site such as Gaba are a rarity. There are few scholarly studies done by visual artists on semi-urban spaces, let alone sculptures inspired by, built or installed within these areas. Regarding the socio-economic and physical environment, Gaba could extend a sculptor’s experience as they seek to capture its spirit and ethos. I recount here the process of constructing my sculpture, In Transit, at Gaba landing site.
In mid-2015, Gaba landing site was the leading supplier of fish in Kampala with over twelve tons of fish harvested and sold every single day, according to the Kampala City Council Authority councillor at the landing site. Over one thousand people work in fishing and fish processing, while more than thirty people are employed in the boat making business. Fish processing includes smoking, filleting, salting and sun drying the fresh fish. Interestingly though, on arrival to Gaba, the goods market is the first thing one sees. Some of the commodities sold there include dry fish, plastic containers, dry foodstuffs, clothes, bags, vegetables, and fishing equipment. This market grew, and continues to grow because the occupants of the landing site see an opportunity to sell other products alongside fish. At the moment, it appears that the trade in other merchandise has surpassed the fish market.
The various activities at the landing site have led to high levels of pollution in the water and on land with used plastic bottles, polythene bags, fish scales, human and animal waste littered everywhere. The growing population has led to overcrowding resulting in deplorable living conditions. High demand for fish and the use of bad fishing methods has depleted fish stocks leading to the harvest of immature fish.
My regular process starts with experiencing a location. If I find it interesting, I revisit it many times as I gradually work on sketches to develop my ideas. The idea of growth captured my imagination as I experienced Gaba because as I spoke with older fishermen, I learnt that the site had been evolving and would continue to do so. The frenetic activities symbolised development for me.
Materials and Process
At Gaba, people re-use whatever they can find. In the same manner, I decided to use both bio-degradable found materials such as old wooden boats, fish skins and scales, as well as non-biodegradable ones like old tyres, plastic bags and bottles. I thoroughly washed the bottles, a process that took a long time because of their dirty state. I then manipulated the plastic bottles, one by one, into a variety of shapes by cutting, crushing, painting and re-assembling. I was therefore in contact with each one of the plastic bottles. This metaphorical contact was very powerful because it meant that to some extent I made a connection with each person who had used these bottles.
I used the boat as a significant component of the artwork, and as a metaphor for change denoting movement and growth. A boat is a carrier from the past to the present. It represents hope and possibility for transitioning into an un-ventured territory. Gaba is on a journey, outgrowing its past and present, heading towards greater heights. The Gaba market Chairman spoke of organising the market through the construction of cleaner, better-suited structures and architectural plans have already been drawn.
I constructed the tree growing out of the boat with recycled plastic. This particular boat had water hyacinth growing in it and was docked at the end of the landing site. I purchased it, took it to my studio and cleaned it up. The inspiration for depicting growth came from the water hyacinth growing in this and other old boats.
In my first attempt of In Transit, I assembled it in the sculpture studio at the Margaret Trowell School of Industrial and Fine Art. I soon realised that taking the materials out of their original context removed some of their relevance. The finished sculpture did not speak to the student audience at Makerere who did not have any experience of Gaba landing site. The people in Gaba in whose environment I had sourced the materials could not access it either. In Transit became a menace in the studio. It occupied a large space that was otherwise needed by other students.
I decided to try making the sculpture again and move the whole process to the landing site, from execution to installation. I collected materials and played around with the arrangement of plastics for roots. The element of the tree and roots seemed to be a form of repetition that I wanted to simplify to just the roots. After multiple experiments in arranging the materials, I decided that the boat with an elaborate root structure would accomplish my desired effect. However, I later realised that without any upward movement, growth was not well represented.
I moved from two-dimensional sketches to a 3D modelling computer application. I re-introduced an upward structure into the boat. Similar to a climbing plant, I introduced a form wrapped around a straight piece of wood in the middle of the boat. The way in which climbing plants wrap themselves around other trees to access the sun was my inspiration. I see the market as reciprocally attached to the fishing activities.
I used old tyres to represent motion. Split into two, I continuously attached them to create a climbing spiral around the wooden pole. One by one, I connected the bottom parts of plastic bottles to the spiral using a hammer and nails to create a rough texture. Each bottle bottom was representative of the different people at the landing site showing a collective effort in the development of the landing site. I painted the tyre growth a fluorescent yellow-green to represent the bright future awaiting Gaba, growing every day but not forgetting that fishing will always support this. I joined the middle parts of the plastic bottles to form roots that spread out.
I made the boat by live-casting an old boat using fibreglass, old fishing nets, old clothes, resin and hardener. The nets were perfect as they were already part of the fishing process. I enlisted some men to carry the boat and be my assistants. We used a good amount of hardener about which the men asked many questions. They wondered how a fragile-looking cloth-like material could harden to make the form of a boat. We cast half of the boat because I planned to install it emanating from a wall. This was not the final result though. We made a complete boat and painted it blue which is the colour often used by the fishermen. I painted the wooden pole blue too.
Placing the sculpture
It is important to mention that the first proposed place of installation at the landing site was located right outside Gaba beach. This space was at the entrance of the landing site, empty and well protected with a white wall backdrop. The owners of that stretch of beach asked me to get permission from Kampala City Council Authority (a very lengthy process) and promised to host the sculpture for a few months. However, about three weeks to the installation, they changed their minds without explanation. I was disappointed but then spoke to the Local Council 1 chairman who allowed me to install it on his piece of land where his goats were grazing.
With the help of many people among the landing site community, we assembled and installed the sculpture in the upper left corner of the landing site that overlooks the whole landing site. This is a perfect spot as the sculpture tells part of the story of Gaba landing site. About fifteen men helped carry the wooden pole with the attached climbing form so it could stand. One gentleman dug the hole in which we poured concrete to hold the pole in place. The installation went on from around 2:00 pm till late in the night. It was amazing to see the support that people gave to the sculpture installation process.
Some of the people at the landing site loved the piece because of its bright colours and the fact that they had seen it being created right before their eyes. One could say they appreciated the process and this allowed them to enjoy the finished sculpture. Many responded to the materials used, and they made comments on the way in which discarded plastic could be re-used to add beauty to a place. Many of the people walked around the sculpture the morning after its installation and asked what it represented. Visually, some of the people said it looked like a snake wrapped around a tree. A few asked if I was only trying out the sculpture to see if it worked well so that I would then install it in its real home. They thought that such a beautiful artwork did not belong to a place like Gaba landing site. A few people believed that the sculpture was a project funded by a foreign agency and they were shocked to learn that I had no such funds, in fact, I funded it myself.
Sculptures exhibited in public spaces are seen as public art and have existed for a long time promoting a closer relationship between artists and society by making art accessible to all. In Uganda, public art is confined to city centres, schools, hospitals and churches expressing religious or political messages and employing the use of conventional materials like concrete. In Transit allowed me to portray an optimistic image of Gaba while paying tribute to a space that holds some of our country’s most significant unrecorded archives. Through the making of a sculpture using material collected within this unusual space, I was challenged and stretched as a sculptor, and I had to learn new methods and techniques of collaborative working. I believe I succeeded in starting conversations about ways in which Gaba residents and visitors could better deal with their environment. As a sculpture, In Transit provides a path in for other artists to engage and collaborate with the people at Gaba landing site. I documented a moment in time, more aspects can be captured. I believe that art can introduce ideas and provoke other viewpoints. It all has to start somewhere.
Sandra Suubi is a sculptor and singer. She is currently artist-in-residence at 32° East / Ugandan Artists Trust in Kansanga. She can be reached at email@example.com