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ARTS: Inside Immy Mali’s pain machine

Some people like to complain over everything, even at the slightest provocation. Anderu Immaculate aka Immy Mali prefers to seek solutions to problems. Any problem, that is.

This includes complex social issues that many would rather keep under wraps or discuss in whispers and hushed tones. Unfortunately (or fortunately for a few) she uses a visual language that will usually leave a casual viewer perceiving things on the surface and completely losing the underlying translation. And who can blame her?

Mali is a new breed young conceptual artist that has taken to exploring and applying a new language of expression that was hitherto scarce in Uganda.

After graduating from the Makerere art school in 2013, Mali would define her course as one that would break every barrier by testing the limits of contemporary art in Uganda.

The trained sculptor has since taken to installation art to make thought-provoking public statements that create quite a tinkle among many audiences. She calls herself a multimedia artist whose work revolves around personal narratives.

“I create precarious installations in an attempt to digest the pain of childhood incidents and offer perspectives on human resilience and what can be overcome by representing pain as an emotion that can be touched,” she says.

True to her philosophy, Mali has single-handedly constructed abstract visual concepts in public spaces to illustrate the pain that plagues society relentlessly; a pain she shares in her own early childhood when she suffered an accident that caused her to miss a part of her infancy pleasures.

Last year, during the Kabbo ka Muwala art exhibition at the Makerere art gallery, Mali made a work of art out of a multiplicity of small glass panels the size of a smart phone, on which were inscribed whatsapp exchanges between herself and her long-distance boyfriend. The messages constituted uncensored and legible romantic correspondences that many people cannot dare expose to the public gaze, even at the pain of death. The piece titled ‘Virtually Mine’ took on the life-size shape of her boyfriend, with the glass panels suspended in space by strings. She seems to insinuate that her relationship with her lover is only virtual and thus delicate, just like the fragile glass. During the same year, she made “Pain and Pleasure” at the Alle School of Fine Arts and Design Addis Ababa University, Ethiopia, courtesy of the British Council East African Regional Exchange residency program. In this work, she set up an old wooden bed clad with an even older mattress with countless razor blades menacingly jutting off its surface. It illustrates the prevalent child brides unions in Ethiopia, where some cultures still let older men marry underage girls. In this case, whereas the ‘groom’ derives pleasure in sexually molesting a juvenile, the victim experiences nothing but excruciating physical and emotional agony, hence “pain and pleasure”. A bed of razors must sound like a very creepy proposition to everyone.

But the one spine-tingling performance that must have gripped audiences with alarming effect was the 2016 mixed media installation called “Seared Archives”. In this work she demonstrates the disaffection of society towards the suffering of mankind. It constitutes a cuboid seat made of white paper. She used a pint of real human blood which she sandwiched between the seat’s base and the top part and let different people sit on it: a soldier, a priest, a boda boda rider, herself – all taking turns to sit without any remorse despite the streams of blood freely oozing down the floor. The performance duration of this piece varies between 1 and 3 hours. Conceptual installation art is fast gaining traction in Uganda and setting a fresh path in local contemporary art, thanks to the likes of Immy Mali’s pain machine.

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