Leilah Babirye is nailing and burning her way to fierce queer freedom
A black lesbian forced to flee her home of Uganda, Babirye applies African traditions to recovered trash revealing gender-fluid beauty from the debris.
Chains, wood, safety pins, metals, plastic, rubber, and torched tree stumps make up an arsenal for sculpting Babirye’s unique activist language through abstract assemblage. An art agenda aimed at challenging old homophobic attitudes, she advocates awareness and acceptance while elucidating the beauty of LGBTQIA lives. (Above: Queen in Love, 2016, Wood, metal, nails, glue, acrylic paint, and found objects, 17.5 x 8.75 x 4 in. Courtesy Gordon Robichaux, NY. Photo by Gregory Carideo.)
Making art from trash isn’t just a way of recycling or sustainability. Trash is a literal and figurative instrument of her art. To Babirye, society makes LGBTQIA people feel like trash. “Ebisiyga,” a pejorative term for an LGBTQ person in Luganda, a native Ugandan language, means sugarcane husk. “It’s rubbish,” Babirye told Cultured magazine. “The part of the sugarcane you throw out.”
Above Left: Namakula (The Mother of All Artists), 2019, Wood and found objects, 49 x 11 x 8 in.
Above right: Senga Bisilikirwa (Special Auntie), 2019, Glazed ceramic and found object, 32.25 x 13.5 x 10 in. Both Courtesy Gordon Robichaux, NY. Photos by Adam Kremer.
She isn’t beholden to any specific medium—ceramics, sculpture, and painting—all are at play as a visual artist. There’s nothing soft or watered-down about her mixed media watercolors. The brilliant yet translucent yellows, reds, purples, greens, and blues demand your attention. For instance, take her portrait of a young transgender school girl, Schoolgirl Nalweyiso 2018— a schoolgirl with full beard and breasts. Her lips are red, her head draped in a covering, wearing a yellow shirt and purple tie.
Babiyre often reclaims newspaper clippings as recovered material and message. Untitled 2015 is a collage-style portrait of a smiling woman—news stories plastered then painted with overlapping watercolors. On her forehead reads the headline, “Govt Attack.” A headline under her neck punches the message home: “have their work cut out.”
Above Left: Untitled, 2015, Acrylic and mixed media collage on paper, 11.5 x 8.25 in. Courtesy of Gordon Robichaux, NY
Above Right: The Kuchu Series (Queer Ugandans), 2019, acrylic on paper, 31 x 24 in, Courtesy Gordon Robichaux, NY Photo: Adam Kremer
Two essential aspects of her art arise from the African art tradition: burning and carving. Masks are a signature part of Babirye’s style. It began when she was watching television in Uganda and saw the memorial for a young gay rights activist, David Keto, who had been murdered at home. His friends—some of whom she knew—wore masks over their faces at the funeral to protect their identities. It was a turning point in her work. Her masks are for the powerful: handcrafted for queens, princes, emperors, or Jesus. Take her show, Amatwaale Ga Ssekabaka Mwanga II (The Empire King of Mwanga II), the collection honors the openly bi-sexual king in the 19th century who fought colonial rule. Colonial rule ushered in the homophobic attitudes to Uganda. Elaborate and grand, these masks are decorated with trash or items that Babirye finds—plastic bags, cellphones, locks, nails, and mouse traps.
Since there weren’t any mask-making or wood-carving methods unique to her native Central Africa, Babirye sought out local artists producing masks in the West African tradition. She studied and adapted them, choosing materials to develop her own unique style in the African art tradition. What’s not fierce about chainsawing a giant pine log and carving two figures? That’s her way of cutting down the violence of homophobia.
Above: Omulangila Semakokilo (Prince of The Buganda Kingdom), 2018, Wood, metal, nails and found objects, 83x11.5x16.25 in. Courtesy Gordon Robichaux, NY. Photo Gregory Carideo
She also especially fashions what’s found. A grand towering example of that artistic effort is Tuli Mukwano (We Are In Love) sculpted from wood, concrete, found objects, and metal, including colorful soda cans. Two figures—one light wood, one dark wood— stand with little space between them. Their faces lean against each other’s, their eyes closed, wearing colorful ornamented crowns. The duality of portraits is meant to push beyond gender binaries to highlight LGBTQIA persecution.
Her art is her personal journey. Babiyre grew up in Kampala, Uganda, where being gay was criminalized in 2013. That means you could be imprisoned for life or be killed. A year later, Uganda media published photos of suspected “homos” including Babiyre. Fearing for her life, she fled her home in 2015. She headed to the US, where she had been accepted into the Fire Island Artist Residency— a program exclusively for LGBTQ artists. The African Services Committee which also helped support her work and the NYC Anti-Violence Project helped her gain asylum. She now works in Brooklyn, New York.
“I never really wanted to fight the government or fight people who are homophobic. I really just wanted to teach the importance of people like us,” Babirye told Out Magazine. “If we educate as much as possible, we might make people believe in us and like us the way we are.”
Why We Love
Making beautiful, meaningful art from what’s thrown away is her mission. It’s freedom through mixed-media transformation. Like when an awkward Fierce Hazel made something to fit their unique body or when Fierce Hazel refused to age gracefully, Babirye forges her self expression without fear. It’s the same attitude as the painted “Fierce AF” on the back of a thrifted biker jacket. It’s the path to self-discovery. In Babirye’s case, it’s an empowered and gender-fluid one.
About the writer: Senta Scarborough is an award-winning journalist, Emmy-nominated producer, and the founder of Sentamatic Media focusing primarily on screenwriting, journalism and non-fiction projects. Her work has appeared in Adweek, Into, USA Today, E! News, US Weekly Magazine, and Asheville Poetry Review, among others. She is a lifetime member of the National Gay and Lesbian Journalist’s Association where she served as a board director for two terms. She holds her MFA in Creative Writing and Writing for the Performing Arts from the University of California Riverside/Palm Desert. She lives in Atlanta with her wife, Katie, and their dog, Sadie. Find her on social media @sentascar.
Portrait with chainsaw by Mark Hartman.