Autograph's curator, Bindi Vora, speaks with the Ugandan artist Bathsheba Okwenje about her interdisciplinary work, focusing on issues of Ugandan history, displacement and migration. They discuss working with archives to address social injustices.
This conversation is part of a series supported by the British Council, sharing the work of women artists with ties to East Africa, and addressing issues of climate justice and the politics of representation. Find out more about the project here.
Bindi Vora (BV): Thank you for joining me for this conversation Bathsheba. Perhaps we could start with you telling us a bit about yourself?
Bathsheba Okwenje (BO): I am from Uganda. While that is my nationality, I was raised in exile in Kenya, which is where my family landed fleeing the Idi Amin regime in the 1970s. As I recall, our home in Nairobi between the 1970s - 80s became a stopover for many relatives and family friends fleeing Uganda for a safer, more stable life in other countries. I remember great parties, raucous conversations, lots of laughter, but I also understood at a very, very young age that the world wasn’t safe for many, and that belonging didn’t mean safety, that anxiety and joy could co-exist. I grew up in a very politically minded family.
This formative experience has informed the themes that I explore in my art practice: displacement, migration, interiority, love, the quotidian, hidden histories.
I came to art at a later point in my life. I had a whole career working with the United Nations on the HIV response, human rights, and global health in Namibia, South Africa and Switzerland. When I was about to turn 40, I decided to go to art school. I went to RISD (Rhode Island School of Design) in the USA where I didn’t really fit in: I was older, I wasn’t trained as an artist, I didn’t have the language. I came with a sense of urgency that I felt most of the lecturers and classmates didn't have or didn't understand. I was floundering in my practice but having the space and time to think, learn and create was integral. I was making work that was research based and presenting the research as the final piece. I did not have formal training, so what I was presenting was not refined or married to a single form, it was an amalgamation of everything I had, a bit crudely put together, but with an underlying urgency about some injustice that needed to be addressed. I felt this was a bit at odds with the pedagogy. A fellow student lent me the book Aesthetic Journalism: How to Inform Without Informing by Alfredo Cramerotti. Aesthetic journalism is an artistic practice that investigates social, political conditions using journalistic, investigative processes. That book articulated the way I worked, and it showed me that there was a precedence for this.
That was 10 years ago. In the intervening years, I became a mother, I embarked on a variety of research-based projects. I co-founded the artist collective Radha May, and I try to balance my practice with motherhood alongside my career in the UN that is still focused on HIV, health and human rights.
"My fascination with the archive stems from the politics and power they encompass. For me, they raise important questions: Who are the custodians? Who are the archivists? What was left out of the archive? What was included? Who or what is being centred in the archive? What lurks in the shadows, in the margins? Who or what could be harmed by the archive?"
BV: I share some very particular and personal overlaps with your story – my family were also exiled and moved to Nairobi in the 70s following the Idi Amin regime in Uganda. It created a destabilisation with my family. It is interesting to consider how these formative experiences have influenced your practice. Archives have been integral in your work to construct a prism of histories, lives, and interactions – what draws you to these forms of visual reference?
BO: I love an archive. My experience of most archives has been incredibly transportive. If the archive includes personal notes, letters, photographs, or some form of marginalia, the better. Archives are stories. My fascination with the archive stems from the politics and power they encompass. For me, they raise important questions: Who are the custodians? Who are the archivists? What was left out of the archive? What was included? Who or what is being centred in the archive? What lurks in the shadows, in the margins? Who or what could be harmed by the archive?
When I was young, we were in Uganda and had a shocking experience that I remember but my sister, who was also there, does not. Towards the end of my time in art school, I decided to embark on a research journey to find out whether what I remembered was in fact true or not. The research took me to the Uganda National Records Centre and Archives (UNRCA), to the archives of the national publications of that time and the archives of the international media that was circulated in Uganda in the 1980s. I had long interactions with my father (who was in the Ugandan government during that time), conversations with relatives and scholars, and I created re-enactments of my fragmented memories. What resulted was the first formal archive that I created called Nile Mansions Hotel (2014). It is an assemblage of often contradictory narratives, visual images and data, questioning the historical records by taking my memories and experiences as young girl from the margins and foregrounding this within the historical prism of Uganda in the early to mid 1980s. It is a redressing of sorts. I tried to place this archive in the UNRCA, but unfortunately it wasn’t possible – at that time the national archives were dusty files located in a basement in Entebbe. I’m sure it’s changed. I hope so. I should try again.
I am very much inspired by the writing of Saidiya Hartman and the term she coined Critical Fabulation – the combining of historical and archival research with critical theory and fictional narrative to fill in the blanks left in the historical record. In art school I took a class with the artist Rafael Attia and he introduced me to the idea of making work in series. Both of these methodologies have informed the way I approach my practice.
With the incredible support of the curator Kara Blackmore and the London School of Economics, I spent a few years researching and making work about the aftermath of a protracted war that took place in Northern Uganda between the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) and Uganda People’s Defence Force (UPDF). The war was endured by the Acholi people and other people of Northern Uganda. I call the work Kanyo, which in the Acholi language means ‘to endure, to be resilient’. Kanyo is made up of 6 chapters that examine the repercussions of the conflict. One chapter is called Gang Kikome and Other Things We Left Behind which I started in 2018. It is a growing, photographic archive of material remains that were left behind in the displacement camps, once the camps were disbanded at the end of the war between the LRA and the UPDF. The objects are deeply personal, quotidian artefacts with their own specific biographies and provenance. For example, humanitarian aid in the form of food supplies is offered in displacement camps, these objects of aid were often repurposed changing their utility and adding to their biography. All these objects are seemingly innocuous artefacts and when viewed individually they say a lot about how they were used and the people who used them. By arranging them into this collection, I see them as a representation of humanity in the midst of conflict and displacement. Kara Blackmore and I authored a paper about Kanyo that you can read here.
The archive can be a space for continuous process, it can go on and on and this is endlessly appealing to me in my practice. The architecture of an archive - the cataloguing, the naming convention, the hierarchies of information, all of it enables the archivist to include multiple layers of meaning, deepening the interaction and the knowledge of what it holds. These chapters of Kanyo enable me to explore multiple themes within a single idea, presenting everything I find as a single archive; allowing for a more nuanced and often more complicated reading of the work.
BV: I am interested in the use of language in your work – you tend to use this in conjunction with other mediums to emphasise divergent narratives that run concurrently through your work. Could you tell us more about this?
BO: My works are generally research based and for these I tend to use journalistic practices to investigate social, cultural, political subjects. Language is therefore an important component for me. There is an urgency that I feel in the narratives that I embark on; sometimes I find that open interpretation is a luxury that some subjects cannot afford. So, I include language: transcripts of interviews, narrative text, news clippings, my thoughts in the work. They provide an immediacy, an opportunity for a literal interpretation or understanding. But I hope, they also provoke questions within the foundations of the archive – Is this true? Can I believe these words?
I have a project called Keywords: Can Ogura, which I finished in 2021. It explores the transformation of culture as a result of war and uses language to examine this. The work is a narrative that is made up of a glossary of Acholi words and idioms alongside their English translations. It starts off before the war in Northern Uganda and takes the viewer through the experience of the war and the integration and rebuilding in the aftermath of the war. What the Acholi lived through during the war and its aftermath had never been experienced in that society before, hence there being no words in Acholi to describe them. The majority of the words that are now used to communicate the lived experience of the war only emerged during or after the war, they did not exist before. Now they have had that lived experience, these words are there and are permanently fixed in the culture. Language is important. I am also interested in the interior lives of people, the raw and unprocessed self. I am constantly thinking about how to make work about this space in a way that is not abstracted. Or how to use interiority to support a project. So, I tend to work with language when I am creating work about this or using it in a project. For example, another chapter of my project Kanyo is a work called Kanyo, Love. One weapon of war utilised by the LRA was the abduction of young women and girls who they forced into marriage with LRA fighters. At the end of the war a lot of these forced marriages ended. Kanyo, Love is about the social integration after the war in Northern Uganda, as explored through the post-war romantic relationships of 36 former forced wives of LRA combatants. The project is made up of portraits of the women, an archive of courtship gifts and testimonies of the relationships that are told through the courtship gifts. I was able to use the courtship gifts as a proxy for the women to speak about and explore their interior experience of post-war romantic love.
I saw this Sophie Calle exhibition titled Absence at Paula Cooper Gallery in 2013. I was transfixed. The way in which she employed narrative text interspersed with other media to convey a single story was deeply inspiring and, similar to my encounter with the book Aesthetic Journalism: How to Inform Without Informing, it gave me ‘permission’ to make art the way I wanted, by including words and language together.
BV: Your practice extends into multiple realms could you tell us about some of the threads in your work – such as the artist collective Radha May and the work you made When the Towel Drops?
BO: Radha May was cofounded by my fellow RISD alumni. It includes artists Nupur Mathur, Elisa Giardina Pappa and myself. We are geographically split across Rwanda, Italy and the USA, but our interests converge around investigating and understanding hidden histories, borders, gender constructs, archives, and research. We created a project called When the Towel Drops Vol 1 | Italy which investigates the censorship of female and queer expressions of sexuality and pleasure in cinema. It is a visual documentation of the institutional regimentation of female and queer bodies and desires. The project unearths hundreds of archival film scenes that were censored from publicly screened cinema in Italy during the 1950s and 1960s including the well-known Brink of Life by Ingmar Bergman and Zabriskie Pointe by Michelangelo Antonioni. Most of these scenes and the official documents had never been seen in public before this project. A hidden history. We created three iterations of the project – a 35mm film installation, a digital film installation and a performance, and included in all the iterations the official documents that justified the removal of the scenes from the films.
Speaking to my interests in borders, as a collective we have not been together in the same location for nearly 4 years, but we continue to collaborate across time zones and poor internet connections. We are all of different nationalities, born in different decades, with different lived experiences and cultural and experiential references. By bringing together these three distinct points of views and making work in this way is quite an effort and an achievement. Sometimes I am reminded of my work with the UN where consensus building is necessary to move things along. Beyond having three distinct points of view, we also have three different experiences of moving through the world, with varying degrees of constraints based on our nationalities. This really informs our conversations, the way we collaborate and the broader perspective of Radha May.
Radha May, When The Towel Drops, Vol 1 | Italy. Installation view at the Granoff Center for the Creative Arts, USA, 2015
BV: You are currently based in Rwanda – has your environment, the specific local conditions, and the structures in which you work supported the development of your practice?
BO: This is my second time living in Rwanda. The first time I was here was between the latter part of 2018 to the end of 2020. I decided to move back at the end of 2021. Who knows how much longer I will stay in here.
There is a burgeoning contemporary art scene here and Rwanda has a very rich tradition of craft which is great. But my life here is domestic. Something has happened to my practice. The Covid-19 pandemic has had an influence for sure, I think wanting to be with my young child is one thing, but also, perhaps, the stories that I am drawn to over here in Rwanda are really not mine to tell. Whatever it is preventing me, I still need to make work. So, for a year now, I have been keeping a record of every (well, nearly every) dinner party that I have had at home. “Party” is a loose definition. Basically, any gathering, in the evening, around our dinner table with one or more people who are not members of my family. I keep a record of the highlights of what was spoken, what we ate, what we drank, who was there. Sometimes I’ll have many parties in one month, at other times months go by without a single one. The conversations around my dinner table, when looked at over the year, are a record of collective interests and concerns that join us together; a summary of local and world events – from the social ostracisation of a queer designer, to where in West Africa one can buy the best, supportive bras, to the latest Twitter misadventures of Uganda’s ‘tweeting General’, the rise in conservative, anti-gay, legislative trends in the region, to the 2023 BRICS* summit, due to be held in South Africa and whether Putin will attend.
So maybe this is what Rwanda has done to support the development of my practice, instead of mining the interiority of others and systems, I have turned that investigation on myself. Perhaps by focusing on the domestic - tracking the dates, tracking the guests, tracking the conversations, tracking the menu – I am inadvertently using my domestic life to tell a story about Rwanda.
BV: Your rights-based works are rooted in ideas of inequity, power, and marginalisation – geographical imbalances are something you have spoken about previously in your work.
BO: I am very concerned, fascinated, astonished by the audacity of inequity and inequalities especially when they are normalised. For example, when Covid-19 hit and vaccines were first made available, and richer countries hoarded vaccines while countries in the Global South scrambled to get access. That was a real illustration of inequity and power and its impact on individual lives. And then from the perspective of living in the Global South, when the Covid-19 vaccines were eventually available to us in these regions, I was living in Indonesia. The Delta variant of the Covid-19 virus hit the country very hard and many, many people fell ill where we lived. The country had initiated a vaccine drive, but my family and I were initially denied access to the vaccines because we were not Indonesians. We were marginalised because of our nationality. This is an example of the layers and the nuances of power. But also, this example happened in the midst of a global pandemic when we collectively faced our potential demise and existential dread. It was interesting to me to see that in those circumstances we tribed-up. We protected ourselves and ‘our own.’ Anyway, that was a big, dramatic time. I am also interested in those quiet, quotidian times where inequality and marginalisation are just matters of course.
About 10 years ago, my friend and fellow Radha May co-founder, Nupur Mathur and I went to India to contribute to the public outcry that followed an assault on a woman by five men, on a bus in New Delhi. We made a few art projects during that period. One in particular, called Adda Baazi, was based on an observation that I had, being an outsider: I saw busy women on the street, in public spaces, taking children to school, carting shopping, walking with a destination. Men, on the other hand, owned the streets, they lingered, they talked, they had tea. This was an interesting experience for me as an outsider, it was the experience of a normalised power dynamic between men and women, not uncommon in many regions around the world I know. So, what Nupur and I did was invite friends to our makeshift studio and photographed them doing casual, innocuous activities, like drinking tea, reading a newspaper, talking. We then made life-size prints of the images on newsprint and wheat pasted these images of these relaxed women in male dominated public spaces around Delhi. I went to the sites of our intervention the next the day to document what we had done, and I had interesting conversations with the men there. They asked: why are these women here? Is this really how you see us? It made me think about the invisible weights that inhibit us from moving forward.
I wrote a piece titled Visa Applications: Emotional Tax and Privileged Passports in 2019 for the London School of Economics about the systemic biases that prevent the freedom of movement around the word, it focused on the visa system and juxtaposed what is required for a Ugandan national to travel to the UK versus what is required for an English citizen to travel to Uganda. It revealed the obstacles that are faced, the emotional tax that is paid and the hidden labour conducted by Ugandans just trying to simply travel and see the world (let alone those migrating for economic, social and climate emergencies). These are efforts that are not experienced by people with passports of ‘privilege.’ Again, a systemic bias that normalises inequality, power and marginalisation. I also made an artwork, commissioned by Tromsø Center for Contemporary Art, Norway about the visa experiences.
Uganda has just passed into law an anti-homosexuality bill with the death penalty being the sentence for ‘serial offenders.’ I cannot overstate how concerning this is. As an artist focused on an aesthetic justice practice, I am occupied with what I can do that is meaningful. Right now, I don’t know.
* An acronym for five regional economies: Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa.
Bathsheba Okwenje (b.1973) is a Ugandan artist currently living in Rwanda. Her practice involves interdisciplinary research and creation at the intersection of information practices and aesthetics. Through the prism of love, dislocation and the everyday, her work investigates hidden histories, the interior lives of people and the interactions between them. She is interested in the convergence of typologies and the archive to communicate her work.
Her work has appeared in the streets of Delhi, Gulu, Johannesburg, Kampala, Oslo, and Providence; it has been exhibited in community centres and institutions as well as in art shows and galleries around the world. Bathsheba is a founding member of the artist collective Radha May and she is currently a Visiting Fellow at the London School of Economics' Firoz Lalji Center for Africa working on an artist book about love in the aftermath of war in Northern Uganda.
Autograph's curator, Bindi Vora, shares a series of conversations with women artists addressing issues of climate justice and the politics of representation in their work.Find out more
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