Leilah Babirye: Obumu (Unity) at Yorkshire Sculpture Park

Maja Lorkowska, Exhibitions Editor
Unity Sculptures
Yorkshire Sculpture Park

Leilah Babirye: Obumu (Unity) at Yorkshire Sculpture Park, Wakefield Until 8 September 2024 Entrance is free — Visit now

Ugandan artist Leilah Babirye shares the results of her 2023 residency at her first solo museum show in the world: Obumu (Unity)at Yorkshire Sculpture Park.

Displayed in the Chapel, the exhibition consists of  seven larger-than-life-size figures in wood and five in coloured ceramic. Babirye’s work started off as an act of activism, triggered by her experience as a gay woman in her home country of Uganda, where homosexuality is illegal and risks the death penalty. In time though, the artist describes moving away from being motivated to create art from pain and instead focusing on the love and admiration she feels for the queer community that she’s a part of. It is what inspires her sculptures, from drag queens to her transgender friends, Babirye celebrates the LGBTQ+ community in all its strength and glory.

The artist’s choice of materials is both symbolic and location-specific. She creates art from what may be seen as rubbish found wherever she is currently working. Wood forms the basis of her practice but it’s intertwined with metal, clay and other items she comes across. Her use of discarded elements is related to Lugandan langauge word ‘abasiyazi’ – prejudiced slang for a gay person, meaning the part of the sugarcane husk that is thrown out. Instead of throwing them away, she makes each piece of “rubbish” a beautiful and fundamental part of the whole sculpture.

Similarly to Yukihiro Akama, another artist whose work you’ll also currently find on display at YSP, Babirye describes being led by the wood itself in manipulating the forms. She doesn’t create preparatory sketches but instead draws directly on the wood which is carved with a chainsaw. The wood is then sanded, charred with a blowtorch and waxed to highlight its grain, or as the artist calls it  – the skin. The last part of the process is what she describes as “taking the girls to the salon and adding jewellery”, where she adds finishing touches in the form of chains, nails and other metal parts the the wooden form.

Obumu (Unity) is a captivating show by an artist who works with an important message, yet created with the palpable joy of the materials and manual processes so important for a sculptor. 

Leilah Babirye: Obumu (Unity) at Yorkshire Sculpture Park, Wakefield Until 8 September 2024 Entrance is free Visit now

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