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ARTS: Artists tackle personal and cultural identity

In a 30 minutes art performance titled `Safe Here’ during the Kampala Art Biennale 2016, Immy Mali struggles to balance on a bicycle before she can finally ride it.

Kampala, Uganda |Dominic Muwanguzi| The process tires her out because she has physical disabilities in her left leg. Soon she is drenched in sweat. But she persists. Afterwards she explains that she feels relieved to have undertaken such a performance as it is one way for her to dealing with her “pain as an emotion that can be touched”.

Mali has painful memories, right from her childhood. They include not being able to freely play and mingle with other kids because of her physical incapability.

In fact her installation, `Dad Can I play 2013’, created during her artist in residency program at 32 East Kansanga was a direct narrative of this ordeal. Her ability to respond to her own personal pain through art is not only an archive to her being, but a bold statement on how art can be used as a platform to overcome either personal or inter-personal adversity.

Similarly, her glass installation of `Whatsapp’ messages during the itinerary exhibit, `Kabbo Ka Muwala 2015’, evoked the communication plight faced by migrants and they struggle to settle in their new home and do the delicate challenge of keeping in touch with their families back home. That artwork seemed to have been created specifically to the subject of migration that has been making headlines.  The fragile objects-glass- is a metaphor to the fragility of relationships sustained by Whatsapp messages.

In absence of such platform- perhaps because of network problems or no money to purchase airtime- the bond is broken.

Another artist, Babirye Leila, has sculptures interrogating the subject of LGBTIs that gets people what is regarded as controversial and delicate topic because of the negative stereotype attached to the subject matter.

A self-confessed gay and gay activist, Babirye employs the burning technique in her sculptures to stimulate the idea of demolishing the discrimination and segregation that is perpetuated on homosexuality. The artist also employs the padlock sign to figurative represent the violation of free-expression of LGBTIs.  Like Mali, her art is inspired by intimate occurrences in her life that are artistically reflected in the sculptures that she creates.

Babirye tells the story of how she was outlawed from her father’s compound because of her sexual orientation. In the process of dealing with her frustrations, she creates powerful expressive artworks that do not only mirror her pain and activism, but engage the public on issues of personal identity and cultural stereotype. ‘I care about you 2015’, produced during the Atwork workshop and exhibition at Makerere University gallery is an installation that conveys the message of love for the LGBTIs. With the aid of pins, ink and a moleskine notebook- a figurative transition from the private to the public sphere in the exhibit-the artist is able to communicate to the public the apparent plight of gays when they are bullied or not loved at school. “….Why proud? Why is there so much torture, bullying in schools?” reads part of the text that follows her artwork. By being open about her sexual orientation, the artist is imploring others to gain confidence and strength in a society that continues to discriminate against them.

While issues of personal and cultural identity continue to dominate a wider spectrum of academic and non-academic platforms, artists respond to it in a figurative style in order to enlist public attention and dialogue. By engaging the public, artificial boundaries like hatred, discrimination and language can be banished.

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Images are courtesy of Kampala Art Biennale Foundation

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