The Curator’s Exhibition at the Stellenbosch Triennale currently displays the artworks of 20 artists from different parts of Africa. It is said that there is a lot of women’s empowerment in the Stellenbosch Triennale this year and so I believe the artwork of Ugandan artist, Helen Nabukenya, which encourages conversation around the vulnerability of women is an appropriate work to review.
From a young age Helen Nabukenya was fascinated by the world of textiles and fashion. She learnt most of her stitching and crocheting techniques from her mother while growing up. She now uses this knowledge to create beautiful and powerful pieces of artwork. Her textile installation exhibited at the Stellenbosch Triennale, titled Abalamu Baseesa Gwaka (The living keep up only the burning fire), is a massive 30m by 15m art piece made from different pieces of fabric stitched together. This massive textile installation hangs along the ceiling and falls down around the entrance to the exhibition space.
As I entered the exhibition space, Helen Nabukenya’s textile was the first artwork that caught my eye. The impact of its bright colours, different patterns and interesting textures fascinated me. What fascinated me even more was reading about Nabukenya’s process of creating this installation. Nabukenya lives in Kampala, Uganda, where she would often have women coming to her house and asking her for any small jobs they could do. Nabukenya felt bad for not being able to help them. When she began working on her installation piece for the Triennale, she was needing some studio assistants to help her with the labour-intensive techniques she was using. She decided to invite the women who had been asking her for jobs into her home and allowed them to engage with her installation piece.
Many artists use assistants when creating a piece of art, especially one of a larger scale. However, Helen Nabukenya’s relationship with her assistants is very different to any other relationship between an artist and their assistants. Instead of instructing the women on exactly what they should do and how they should do it, Nabukenya gave her assistants a lot of freedom as they worked. The women were able to choose the size and shape of fabric that they then stitched together. Nabukenya’s aim is to empower women by engaging them in productive activities through art and I think she accomplishes this beautifully and powerfully by involving the women from her community.
While learning about Nabukenya’s process of creating Abalamu Baseesa Gwaka it made me think of the workers in the textile industry. Most of these workers are women who are employed in sweatshops where they endure unhealthy and exploitive conditions, such as long hours, little pay and dangerous environments. This is not at all the kind of environment that Nabukenya’s assistants experience. Instead, Nabukenya provides an alternative narrative that is both empowering and uplifting for her assistants. She gives them freedom and does not control or instruct them. She also acknowledges the women who have helped her create the installation. Additionally, there is something special about a group of women coming together to take part in a common activity, such as sewing. While sewing these women are able to share personal stories with each other and, essentially, these stories get woven into Nabukenya’s textile installation.
Nabukenya’s assistants do not come from privileged backgrounds and these women face many challenges. In addition to the personal challenges that they face, women in Uganda also experience gender inequality and discrimination and violence against women remains a major obstacle in women empowerment. By inviting the women from her community in Kampala to be part of her creative process, Nabukenya empowers them through collaborative work. By working together these women can overcome their difficulties. They are given a sense of belonging and something to be proud of.
In conversation with Helen Nabukenya, she explained that, while she sourced the offcuts of fabric from different tailors in Kampala, her choice of colour was intentional. The dominating colour of red in her textile installation illustrates energy, movement and multiplication, which speaks to the theme of the exhibition, Tomorrow there will be more of us. The process behind Nabukenya’s impactful installation piece has essentially resulted in a powerful piece of art, contributing to an important conversation around the female identity.