The forecast for this summer is sure to be a scorcher with the assistance of this generation’s most impactful seven Black women artists. Curated by icons Racquel Chevremont and Mickalene Thomas, the Set It Off exhibit will do just that in the art world. With over 50 works between the curators, Leilah Babirye, Torkwase Dyson, February James, Kameelah Janan Rasheed, and Karyn Olivier—Set It Off expands the lens of Black women’s artistry, producing a meaningful event you can’t miss. ESSENCE caught up with featured artists Leilah Babirye and February James over Zoom and waxed poetic about being hand-selected by Mickalene Thomas and Racquel Chevremont, creating during a pandemic, and the way mediums find the artist and not the other way around.
Based on her gritty, massive sculptors (literally as tall as 15 feet), composed of debris collected from the streets of New York with elements of ceramics, metal, and wood that has been carved, welded, burned, and glazed, viewers would never expect Ugandan-born artist, Leilah Babirye to the be laid-back, but sort of bashful, kind-hearted spirit she displayed over Zoom. She is at a desk in the middle of her Brooklyn studio under fluorescent lights with her materials around her when she says her creative process is about being in the right mood. “I never stress myself. I’m into work for three-four hours, and I’m out. I can’t exceed that,” Babirye said.
The short work schedule shouldn’t be mistaken for laziness. It’s instinct. The same instinct that tells her when an art piece is complete. She admits to sitting on several incomplete pieces as long as four years old. Even when gallerists and collectors push, if Babirye doesn’t feel it, she won’t budge. She told a collector who was pining over a piece, “I don’t feel you having it.”
Those same instincts guided her through the quarantine. The pandemic was a mixed bag of either success and exploration or failure and heartbreak. For Babirye, it was the former. Babirye saw a breakthrough in her career at the peak of the pandemic. “I thank God that people still had money to buy art during a global pandemic.” Living only 15 minutes away from her studio, she produced and sold a lot of artwork and took care of almost 17 families back home in Uganda. Yes, 17 families.
A mighty enormous payoff for someone whose creative endeavors only began from a pass/fail art course she enrolled in on the fly because it was impossible to fail. As one would imagine, support for a future in the arts for the daughter of African parents with careers in accounting and business was unlikely. Babirye’s father refused to pay tuition for an Arts degree and insisted on law school. As luck would have it, on a visit to the law school where Babirye was expected to attend, students had lunch on the neighboring campus: an art school. There, she met an art professor carving into a tree trunk. Babirye’s mind was made.
Her decision cost her a year off, as her father refused to help pay the cost. Eventually, he caved. While in school, Babirye sold her first work for a million Ugandan shillings (roughly $500) made from literal garbage. Blown away by the payout, Babirye’s father began gathering trash in support of his daughter’s work. Later, however, Babirye’s publicized woman-loving-woman lifestyle was too much for her Muslim clergy father to bare, fracturing their relationship completely. She told ESSENCE that while her father always knew she was gay, coming out crossed the line.
By nature, her sculptures are transformative. Initially, her choice to use trash materials reflects her advocacy for the LGBTQ+ community. Ugandans use the term “ebisiyaga”—sugarcane husk—to refer to queer folks as waste. “Not even insects can eat sugarcane husk because there’s nothing left in it, and that is how gay people are being called.”
Since then, Babirye says her work and materials have matured, even though the message is the same. The mediums vary from sculpting with miscellaneous scraps, to painting, to wielding, and ceramics. She finds a lot of strength when working with those materials. “I’m grounded when I’m doing my ceramics, because that’s the only time that I can stop. With sculpture, wood, and paint, I can work till I feel I can’t do it,” she says. “But with ceramics, it tells you, ‘Stop, you can’t exceed a certain height.’ It will collapse.”
Currently, she wields and then bronze is next on her list.
“I want to give people a headache,” she says. “I want to blow them away, when they stand around my work,” she says. “I worry my pieces are getting smaller, so I want to give them a headache.”