Strenght & Vulnerability

Strenght and Vulnerability: Stacey Gillian & Immaculate Mali

Uganda’s capital Kampala is a bustling city with a generation of young artists from which the Kampala Art Biennale (KAB) has emerged. The second edition (KAB2016) brought Rosalie van Deursen to Kampala where she interviewed two emerging controversial installation and performance artists: Stacey Abe Gillian and Immaculate Mali.

Stacey Abe Gillian

To investigate their society, they explore their strengths and vulnerabilities by addressing powerful themes in a subtle and nuanced way. Gillian explores for example the struggle that women in Africa are constantly faced with as they search for a balance between modernity and tradition. Immaculate Mali creates an archive of her being in which she represents pain as a tangible emotion that can be touched. Both artists draw upon their personal experiences in order to explore topics such as identity, gender inequality, fragility and human resilience.

Immaculate Mali, Safe Here, 2016. Courtesy the artist & Gilbert Frank Daniels.
Stacey Abe Gillian

Stacey Abe Gillian: “If diamonds were easily available I would work with them, I love shiny things, that’s why I work with glass. What’s more I relate to the dual personalities of glass: liquid and hard. As a young Ugandan woman I am also both fragile and hard at the same time.”

“It’s the survival of the fittest as a woman in Uganda because you have a double challenge. The crazy thing is that if I excel in our society, I become a threat to my male counterparts. But If I win, I can become an icon and I have a voice to encourage every woman to stand up in her community. I’m ready to make that change, no matter how long it takes!”

At the pop-up exhibition (Re)Thinking Feminism & Black Womanhood that formed part of the Kampala Art Biennale 2016, Gillian addressed the objectification of women: “I want to confront people with how men look at women in our society, because it’s a taboo subject here. First they look at our bodies, as if we are just candy for consumption.” Gillian created vaginas in different shapes, forms and colours and presented them as chocolates, served on a dish at a set table. As the artist stresses: “All women are unique and different.”

She speaks eagerly about her dream to provoke change: “I would love to inspire Ugandan women to be free from the cultural values and stereotypes that marginalise them. I don’t want to break down existing Ugandan cultural traditions but neither do I want to be held back by them; our society needs to be challenged. I want to both encourage women to believe in their skills and educate men so we can rid ourselves of gender inequalities.” Gillian’s multi-layered art installations predominantly highlight both the strength and fragility of women as they are faced with questions of sexuality, identity, gen­der misconceptions and urban cultural self-ex­pression.

Stacey Abe Gillian, Strange Fruit Konyagi (2015). Mixed media installation. Courtesy of the artist.

An example of one of her multi-layered art installations, made as an artist in residence in Tanzania, was a site-specific glass installation Strange Fruit Konyagi (Tanzania, 2015). It consisted of 1350 empty spirit bottles, hung up in clusters in the shape of a Tanzanian Neem tree. It represented woman as a nurturer and giver of life with unusual fruits; the transparent Konyagi bottles.

Gillian explains why she used Konyagi bottles: “Its alcohol that is made, processed and consumed by Tanzanians. Using these familiar objects means the audience can relate directly to the installation. What’s more, from a more traditional African point of view, bottles also signify conjuring and capturing spiritual entities. You can see the bottles hanging from the Neem tree as holding the answer to what lies beyond the known world.”

In order to emphasise this concept, Gillian collaborated with a local dance group who simulated a ritual dance to show what still takes place in traditional African societies, where dance is used to celebrate an achievement, mark a rite de passage, solve a problem or simply to give thanks.

Stacey Abe Gillian, Strange Fruit Konyagi (2015). Mixed media installation. Courtesy of the artist.

The work examined the struggle that women in Africa are constantly faced with as they search for a balance between modernity and tradition. Gillian experiences it at first hand as she feels torn between family and societal pressure to get married and have children but also her own desire to have a career and be independent. “In Africa it is often presumed that the only reason for existence is to reproduce and ensure the survival of the human race,” says Gillian, “Every African woman is expected to contribute and if she doesn’t, she’s cursed. So you can imagine the pressure I feel because my own wishes are not recognised. Many professional women face this huge internal conflict. How do you resolve this dilemma?”

The seemingly countless bottles represented the complexity of the subject. The installation sought to question whether society is ready for modernity and emancipation or whether it will continue to cling to tradition. According to Gillian, “The tree’s deepest thoughts are ripe and ready for picking. The transparency of the bottles is metaphorical for society’s current state of mind in relation to gender equality and emancipation. Is our society going to embrace it and if so, what will be the effects?”

Stacey Abe Gillian, Unknown, 2016. Video installation. Courtesy of the artist.

In the video installation, Unknown (2016), Gillian also examines internal journeys to explore why people make certain choices. She digs deep into unconscious thought processes to raise awareness of people’s behaviour. “Deeper thoughts are usually not expressed out loud. I call them the secondary thought lines,” she says, “People don’t say what their real purpose behind an action is. If you ask them why they are doing a certain type of work, they don’t say it’s because they want to buy a big car to impress others. The truth is concealed inside their heads.” Gillian is interested in the individual’s level of awareness as they shift from primary (or more automatic and superficial) to secondary thought lines and the actions that result from their shift.

Her video installation shows a wide variety of secondary thoughts in different colours projected onto a wall and shop mannequins. The colours white, black and red symbolize the ability to react to primary thoughts; from being totally absorbed by them to not being influenced at all.

She concludes: “Don’t forget that human beings are created without the ability to read each other’s minds. That’s why thoughts and emotions need to be brought out in the open, otherwise we can never hope for change.”

Immaculate Mali

Personal life experiences also form the basis for the art practice of Ugandan artist Immaculate Mali. “I experiment, creating precarious installations in an attempt to process the pain of childhood incidents,” says Mali. “It’s an attempt to create an archive of my being in which I represent pain as a tangible emotion that can be touched.” Mali was inspired by the cancer journals of the American writer, Audrey Lorde, who struggles with her illness and eventually finds strength in vulnerability. “Her works acted as a catalyst to explore my very existence,” Mali explains, “When I share my pain, anything can happen; it’s like taking the risk of accepting I am no longer in control of the situation.”

Immaculate Mali, Safe Here, 2016. Courtesy the artist & Gilbert Frank Daniels.

In an intense performance and installation entitled Safe Here (2016), Mali goes back to a memory of her childhood and the physical and mental pain she endured after an accident, which left her with a disabled leg and a medical support. This made it impossible for her to play outside with other children. The installation and performance build on her previous work in which she seeks to address and heal the pain of childhood incidents. Her personal starting point results in her exploring universal themes.

The 30-minute performance confronts the public with her struggle to ride a bicycle as she focuses on her old leg support that hangs in front of her. A soundtrack of children’s playgrounds forms a backdrop as Mali repeatedly falls off her bike and struggles to get up again. She is sweating, fully focused and persistent, and after the performance she says she felt relief. This is her exploration of human resilience, pain, fragility and the obstacles in life.

Immaculate Mali, Safe Here, 2016. Courtesy the artist & Gilbert Frank Daniels.

Safe Here (2016) is a follow up to Daddy can I play (2013) in which Mali also addresses her childhood accident. She created a playground made out of materials which children can’t play with such as glass, razor blades and used hair braids. As the artist explains,“It’s also a reflection on parenting because parents sometimes protect their children too much.”

She is currently working on an art piece that addresses sexual harassment among children: “These painful situations are common in lots of communities. People know it happens and yet do nothing. The victims don’t dare to talk about it because they are ashamed and fear being stigmatized. Society sees it, but people keep quiet.”

To address this complicit silence, Mali created the performance Seared Archive (2016), which she explains means stained or damaged archives. This work in progress consists of a performance (in the form of a video recording) of a white box in the middle of a white room, out of which blood is seeping. Every few minutes a different character sits on the box as the blood continues to drip down the sides and onto the floor; a priest, businesswoman, motorbike taxi driver, a soldier and a nanny sit down and stare blankly at the camera.

Immaculate Mali, Seared Archive. Image courtesy the artist.
Immaculate Mali, Seared Archive. Image courtesy the artist.
Immaculate Mali, Seared Archive. Image courtesy the artist.

The blood symbolises the taboo pain and abuse in communities that nobody talks about; they just sit and let it happen. Mali used her own blood in order to intensify her message and confront herself with her own traumas: “People sit and look at the camera. They could choose to do something but decide not to. The box is made of paper, a material commonly used for archiving written records in Uganda, but which also represents the record kept of a living body. Hence the name ‘archive’. Blood stains the paper, as people’s lives are traumatized and stained by abusive incidents.”

After the performance Mali says, “The process of making Seared archive was one I had never experienced before. It involved my presence in a very intimate and almost sacrificial way. I felt lots of conflicting emotions such as fear, uncertainty, relief, excitement and gratitude at the same moment.”

In Virtually Mine (2016) Mali explores another facet of her life; migration and what it does to relationships. Since her boyfriend left Uganda for the United Arab Emirates two years ago, she has created an idea of his life based simply on their WhatsApp texts. Using flat strips of glass she built an installation in the shape of a male body and on the glass she glued screenshots of her WhatsApp conversations. These show their conversations about love, laughter, pain and fights and some of the screenshots are blank, referring to occasional bad internet connections. Thus their daily life is contained in glass; by using this material Mali shows the fragility of virtual relationships.

Immaculate Mali, Visturally Mine. Courtesy of the artist.

To investigate their society, both Immaculate Mali and Stacey Abe Gillian explore their strengths and vulnerabilities by addressing powerful themes in a subtle and nuanced way.

This article is published on: