Sculptural figures reflected on daily experiences? Nabulime confronts the canon of visual representation
In this essay I review the themes of woman and man as visualised in Lilian Nabulime’s ‘Sculptural figures reflected on daily experiences’. I show how a creative enterprise, shaped by formal art education, is interwoven into specific historical circumstances. I submit that through her sculptures Nabulime attempts to challenge masculine power.
However, she invents a visual regime in which the very masculinity and femininity she challenges are reasserted and confirmed, albeit differently. I thus argue that by failing to decisively dismantle the essences of masculinity and femininity which are inscribed in the country’s discourse of power, the exhibition testifies to the difficulties Ugandan female artists face as they challenge the available canon of visual representation.
Reviewed by Angelo KAKANDE F.J.
The word ‘reflected’ is central to the title of this exhibition. It establishes a relationship between our ‘daily experiences’ and the artist’s ‘sculptural figures’. To ‘reflect’ is defined in Collins English Dictionary (2005) as to ‘form an image of’. Dictionary.com defines the verb to reflect as ‘to think, ponder, or meditate: to reflect on one’s virtues and faults’.
The curator Katrin Peters-Klaphake explains that the exhibition is shaped by Nabulime’s ‘conscious and thoughtful perception of individuals and society’. I agree but further interrogate this explanation, raising two questions, namely:
What images does Nabulime form as she ponders and links sculpture and our daily experiences?
Where Nabulime has contested our virtues (and faults) and proceeded to make sculptures to make her point, has her visual discourse, based on a gendered canon of visual representation shaped by formal instruction, completely escaped reasserting the very gendered biases she is contesting as virtues?
Shaping the male/female canon of visual representation: the role of the art school
Nabulime is a graduate of Margaret Trowell School of Industrial and Fine Arts (MTSIFA), from where she graduated as a sculptor before proceeding to the UK to pursue her doctoral studies. The role of formal art education in the production of the artist in Nabulime has received enough attention (Kyeyune writes about it in the catalogue for this exhibition).
However, one issue which Amanda Tumusiime (2011) has recently raised needs mention to direct this essay. In her Why have there been no great women artists (1973) Linda Nochlin analyses how women in England were excluded from art institutions and by the canons of art history.
Tumusiime takes this up while reflecting on Uganda’s experience. She observes and argues that, unlike women in England, women in Uganda have been deliberately admitted to the institutions of formal art education. Tumusiime’s argument is valid. All tertiary institutions in Uganda implement a policy of affirmative action. The policy addresses historical imbalances which have inhibited the education of the girl child. As a result, since the early 1990s the number of women graduating from MTSIFA has been increasing, although few of them are practising artists (Nagawa 2008).
Nabulime did not benefit from this policy; she graduated in the 1980s. However, like all university graduates, she accessed skills similar to those acquired by her male counterparts. She has held regular solo exhibitions in galleries and museums in Uganda and abroad.
Strong muscles as opposed to gentle curves
It is also obvious in the exhibition that, like her male counterparts, Nabulime is informed by the definition of male/female and masculine/feminine as distinct bipolar categories. As a gendered construct this assumption is rooted in the pedagogy offered at MTSIFA. The figure is instrumental in the production of art at MTSIFA; the school offers compulsory and elective (Minor and Major) courses in figure drawing.
Male models are posed, nude or otherwise, to allow students to appreciate the essentials of masculinity: strong muscles, aggressive, rigid curves, etc. Students are encouraged (in fact sometimes compelled) to depict the character of masculinity as an attribute of the male subject. Female models are posed to help students appreciate and depict the feminine characteristics of a woman: gentle curves, smooth body, round forms, etc.
The mantra is men are masculine, women are feminine and art must show the difference. As we see in this exhibition, Nabulime has taken up this mantra, although her visual discourse is different.
Masculine is Ssebo but not the omnipotent male
In her Ssebo (2000-2011) Nabulime sculpted a portrait of a man rendered in geometric shapes and enhanced with blue and red patinas. Its chin is stretched outwards. This is a good strategy which gives the sculpture a dynamic pose; it allows the sculpture to dialogue directly with the beholder through its thick lips.
The notion Ssebo, as used in the title for this work, refers to a patriarchal figure heading a household. It is a Luganda word which translates as ‘sir’, ‘husband’, or ‘father’ (for example in the play Omukazi muka ssebo, a popular drama of the eighties? now turned into a film), etc. Seen in this light, Ssebo becomes a portrait representing the head of a household.
However, the subject matter is political and based on Nabulime’s interpretation of certain historical circumstances which have informed her style. She writes that ‘the sculpture is made of geometrical angular…forms’ to remind her ‘of the patriarchal society we live in. Men are dominant and usually take control of decisions. They give an impression of [being] fearless, aggressive, powerful[,] prestige[ious], yet it may not be the case’ (my emphasis).
It could then be argued that Nabulime is not representing a specific person heading a traditional family, a historical man. Rather, the artist constructed a male figure whose claim to power and authority is illegitimate and contestable. It is this male figure that she uses to challenge patriarchal power and authority.
Female is feminine
Maama is a Luganda word for mother, a view presented in Nabulime’s Maama (2000-2011). The work represents a ‘voluminous portrait of a woman covering her head with a veil’. At page 11 of her catalogue Nabulime allows (in fact she ‘calls on’) viewers to challenge her interpretation of the works on display. And because of this, I hereby use this opportunity to challenge her reading.
Clearly Maama is based on round curves defining positives and negatives. The shape that extends from the head towards the base is solid, and separated by a negative at the neck. This does not make it a veil. Ascribing such a meaning leaves unexplained the other equally round shapes to which the artist does not give any particular name.
Instead she tells us, and I agree, that such round shapes aggregately serve the purpose of defining femininity as an ethnic attribute inscribed in ‘lovely round forms, curves and negatives [which] give a sense of warmth that draws you to the sculpture reflecting motherly figure’. I argue that the ethnic references (and resonances) in this statement are probably intended to give the work a sense of identity. (It is from Buganda in central Uganda; it is based on Baganda traditions.)
However, on the whole, and in the light of her Ssebo, she is clearly using roundness to create what feminist art historians have called difference. Nabulime is creating a woman while confirming that her woman-ness is different from a man and his man-ness: female and femininity are the same.
The political tone of Maama
It is here that the difference between Ssebo, who is defined in angular forms, and the motherly Maama, who is defined using lovely round forms, gains a political, rather than strictly aesthetic, tone. Clearly through her Maama Nabulime has conflated female, feminine and motherly while ascribing them to the woman as virtues. In doing this the artist has placed her footprint on a gendered path many male artists (including the author) have treaded before her (cf. Tumusiime 2011).
However, it also important to admit that the artist unsettles some stereotypes about women. As if to demonstrate, Feminine (2000-2011) is a sculpture which, like Ssebo, is angular, and, unlike Maama, is roughly textured. The artist explains that the work ‘resembles a woman covered in drapery, made of copper nailed on wood’.
That the work resembles anything risks dragging Feminine into mimetic representation. This is probably inappropriate to a work based on scholarly interpretation, a modernist style, innovation and appropriation. However, it can be said that in the context of Nabulime’s interpretation it follows, logically, that the artist is using the canon of imagining and representing masculinity to imagine and represent femininity. There is an inversion here which we must take stock of.
The artist seems to suggest that a fertile woman has masculine characteristics (if symbolically). The artist further explains that Feminine ‘expresses feelings of an expectant female figure…[defined using]…angular forms’ and round ‘forms that may suggest seedlings emphasizing fertility…the Goddess of fertility’.
It thus follows that in this work, unlike in Maama, Nabulime’s feminist alignments gain sharp relief although her symbolism does not entirely alter the normative construct which insists that being feminine and fecund are women’s virtues. This essentialist view has divided feminists, informing a complex debate which I do not intend to extend.
Gendered art is art in the first place and gender in the second
Suffice to note that we can confront similar feminist tones in her Namu (2000-2011).
In Namu the artist reduces the wood minimally to define essential features: the head, torso, abdomen and part of the lower limbs. She enhances the work with red and blue patinas to create highlights and improve the work’s aesthetic value while confirming that gendered art is art in the first place and gender in the second. The artist uses sisal ropes to define the torso of the woman.
The use of select manufactured objects as a form of art material and discourse harks back to the readymades and the way Marcel Duchamp explored them to challenge the canons of art and aesthetics.
However, Nabulime’s concerns are local and informed by Uganda’s circumstances. Her Namu challenges the canon of visual representation which sees the male as energetic, fearless, aggressive, powerful, and prestigious. She explains that her work is ‘gently and energetically developed from a solid log of wood’. Thus its energy lies within.
Secondly, in Buganda Namu is a short form for many names given to women: Namutebi, Namusisi, Namubiru, Namusoke, Namugaanyi, etc. can all be shortened to Namu. This, however, does not mean that the artist is representing a sitter called Namu because she is not.
Woman-ness not confined by/to motherhood and mothering
Her Namu is a portrait of all those women who stand out and whose woman-ness is not confined by/to motherhood and mothering. Thus the work is formally and politically distant from her Maama although, contrary to what the artist says, I do not entirely agree that it is politically distant from her Feminine.
Let me state here, without fear of contradiction, that reference to essentialist qualities enmeshes Namu into a gendered trap. In this exhibition Nabulime draws on the canons of representing a beautiful woman: a long neck, make-up, a round body, gentleness, fecundity, motherly love, etc. As such the artist insists that, although the woman in Namu is energetic, she is not aggressive; she is gentle.
Put another way, if masculinity is not exactly what it claims to be (as we learn in Ssebo), Nabulime does not [re/dis]place it with femininity. She still insists on the canon of representing the female (and not the male) as feminine albeit on terms where the feminine is not necessarily the subordinate.
Nabulime’s Sculptural figures reflected on daily experiences shows ways in which a woman artist ponders and links sculpture and our daily experiences. Nabulime faults the value system which ascribes the masculine virtue to men and not women.
It is true that there are many conservative men who think they are omnipotent and omniscient. This is a daily experience which has been presented as natural in Uganda. These patriarchal traditional male figures are not the ones Nabulime gives visual expression. She does not refer to her works as ‘portraits’ in the literal sense.
Instead her works are gendered portraits in which the artist inquires into the dynamics of the hierarchy in which the masculine is male and powerful and the feminine is female, weak and marginal.
Challenging masculinity and femininity in complex and meaningful ways
It has been demonstrated in this essay that in her Sculptural figures reflected on daily experiences Nabulime unsettles the canonies of representing masculinity and femininity as absolute categories. However because these canonies are deeply rooted into formal art education offered at MTSIFA, which Nabulime herself received, she has not totally eliminated them. Nonetheless, she has inverted them in certain ways.
Thus Nabulime’s reflection on our patriarchal lives has not eliminated our deep-seated gendered biases. Instead, it has expanded her oeuvre as she creates images confirming the postulation that gendered images do not depict the lives of men and women – whether in reality or in discourse (Hatt & Klonk 2006:161) – but they bring categories of masculinity and femininity into being while challenging them in complex and meaningful ways.
Dr. Angelo Kakande has researched extensively on contemporary Ugandan art and the connection to politics. He is currently the Head of the Department of Design at MTSIFA.
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