Learning A New Language: Lillian Nabulime

George Kyeyune reflects on how the medium affects the message in contemporary Ugandan art.

Nabulime makes casts of male and female genitals in transparent soap into which she embeds dark seeds to look like infections. We all know that soap is a cleaning agent. The metaphor presented here is that spiritual and physical cleanliness is crucial to the prevention of HIV infection.”

Written by George Kyeyune. George Kyeyune is the dean of the Margaret Trowel School of Industrial and Fine Art at Makerere University.
Dr. Lillian Nabulime.
Dr. Lillian Nabulime.

Two months ago, Dr. Lillian Nabulime exhibited some very distinct recent sculptures. The show, which took place at the Makerere Art Gallery, upset all our expectations of figurative sculptures on pedestals and framed pictures hanging on walls. The installations were largely made from throw away materials that Dr. Nabulime had re-assessed and thereby given a new identity. In both approach and character, her pieces were very unlike the carved figures for which she is well known.

I have chosen to name her exhibition New Languages in Art, a phrase I am borrowing from Professor Roger Palmer, a British modernist artist who for six weeks in 1999 taught at the School of Industrial and Fine Arts (MTSIFA) under the auspices of The British Council.

Like our colleague, Dr. Palmer’s ideas of recuperating throw away materials proved exciting. For some reason, though, they were not taken further after his departure. Instead, the school continued on safer, familiar territory. It was only three years ago that I again saw something close to what Professor Palmer had instigated when Dr. Maria Kizito carried bits of charred wood and stinking garbage to the Makerere Gallery in a scathing castigation of the mayor of Kampala for not doing enough to clean up the city.

In the currently ongoing Independence Exhibition at Makerere Gallery, Muwonge Kyazze draws again on this tradition of recyclables with his piece Independence. It features the decapitated body of a pregnant mother in a coffin; next to her is a will, a bouquet of flowers, a piggy bank and floral decorations laid around the coffin. This provocative piece challenges our thinking about the whole essence of independence.

What is clear about all of these works was that they were not created out of a desire to make money. Rather the creations of these two MTSIFA dons were motivated by the urge to communicate boldly regarding social concerns; a more conventional approach to painting or sculpting figures would lack the needed potency to shock or to elicit thought about these issues.

It is this absence of pressure to sell and a propensity for visceral disclosure that I believe gave Dr. Nabulime the necessary composure to create her version of New Languages in Art when she was enrolled at New Castle University in the United Kingdom for her PhD in 2001. One should not assume that she was exposed to these concepts in art for the first time when she embarked on her PhD programme. Nabulime is, after all, a well-traveled artist who had visited galleries in Europe and participated in Triangle Art Workshops in several African countries.

(These workshops are specially designed flexible working spaces that aim to foster networking and the exchange of ideas by bringing together formally and informally trained artists from around the world to work in an environment of mutual respect.)

Soap Sculpture. By Dr. Lillian Nabulime.
Soap Sculpture. By Dr. Lillian Nabulime.

What Nabulime’s PhD research did do, I believe, was give her the opportunity and composure to engage in a language that she was already familiar with. She knew that confining herself to carving wood would not give her work the broad access to the general public or the intellectual panache she was looking for. I argue that art made with recycled or throwaway materials has the scope to touch us and speak to us clearly because we instantly relate to the materials that are commonly used; they come from our environment, much as they are given a new identity.

In one of her installations, for example, Nabulime makes casts of male and female genitals in transparent soap into which she embeds dark seeds to look like infections. We all know that soap is a cleaning agent. The metaphor presented here is that spiritual and physical cleanliness is crucial to the prevention of HIV infection.

In another installation, she assembles three mirrors. The first one is massively shattered and as such distorts one’s image. This shattering is reduced in the second glass, while the third one is intact. The first glass relates to denial as a serious problem in the management of HIV/AIDS. The second glass represents post- counseling sessions in which people accept their affliction and learn to live positively with it, which improves their lives. In the third glass, patients live a normal life and carry on their day to day activities.

These and other sculptures in the show had earlier been used to stimulate discussions about the AIDS epidemic. Given that the great majority of infections in Uganda are via sex, and yet sex in the African context remains a largely taboo subject, Nabulime believed that she could, if obliquely, talk about this intricate subject via sculpture to her respondents, who were mostly women. (Women are more prone to HIV infection than men, biologically and because they have such low bargaining power when it comes to sex.)

Nabulime has said that indeed, her respondents recognized themselves in the work and she was able to engage them in useful discussions on the subject of HIV/AIDS.

Nabulime says she faced an uphill task creating works that would appeal to her market because the tradition of the so- called plastic arts in Uganda is very weak. Even when Margaret Trowel, the founder of the Makerere University Art School, added sculpture to her curriculum, the discipline did not develop at the same pace here as, for instance, painting. In my view, the reason for this is not so much the weak legacy of the plastic arts in East Africa but rather that sculpture itself is a slow-growing discipline.

For artists who are looking for a quick income, sculpture is simply not convenient. This is an important factor behind the paucity of sculpture in Uganda today. It also goes far in explaining why Nabulime had to be extremely creative to capture the imagination of her Ugandan audience.

Clockwise from top left: Receptacles, Mixed media. Receptacles, Detail. The Kiss, Mixed media. By Dr. Lillian Nabulime.
Clockwise from top left: Receptacles, Mixed media. Receptacles, Detail. The Kiss, Mixed media. By Dr. Lillian Nabulime.

Still, most of this work was created to satisfy an academic programme and is not easily collectible in the Ugandan gallery setting. So can we expect Dr. Nabulime to maintain her iconoclastic working ethos? To survive creating work in this new direction, Dr. Nabulime will probably have to either seek funding from an outside source or revert to her former style in at least some of her work. It is noteworthy that Nabulime’s newest pieces in the show return us to her pre-PhD days. The realities of practicing art in Uganda could be catching up with her, at least for now.

It should be noted that the “new languages in art” that Dr. Nabulime has exposed to us with such effervescence are far more commonplace— and marketable—elsewhere in the world. In America and Europe, this approach started as far back as the early 20th Century. In 1917, Marcel Duchamp’s world famous Fountain, in which he simply named and signed a urinal, sparked controversy regarding what might or might not be called art. (This was one of the pieces that Duchamp called “ready mades” or “found art”.)

As the world shrinks further through improved communication, we cannot afford to remain an isolated Ugandan community in our artistic endeavors. Whether or not we want to become part of the international art circuit is no longer an option. But as we do so we must be conscious of where we come from as well as our location in history. Nabulime’s exhibition has challenged us to step out of our “comfort zone”, to quote Dr. Rose Kirumira, and with courage and determination, expand the horizons of our artistic experiences to new and international levels without losing our identity.

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