Leilah Babirye’s exhibition Obumu (Unity) will feature new sculptures made at YSP specifically for this exhibition, largely from materials found onsite.
My work is basically using trash, giving it new life and making it beautiful. It is always influenced by where I am working, I will use whatever is there. That’s why the work always looks different because I’m not sure what I’ll find. The wood I’m working with here is a soft wood, whereas in New York it’s usually pine, which is a harder wood. This gives the sculptures a different feel and contributes to their different personalities.
Babirye spent the summer of 2023 at YSP making a clan of seven larger-than-life-size figures in wood and five coloured ceramics. Supported by YSP’s onsite technical team and artists, seven sculptures were carved using a chainsaw and chisels from a 200-year-old fallen beech tree at the Park. Babirye describes being guided by the wood itself, sketching the initial forms directly onto the sectioned tree for carving. Once carved, the figures are refined and their surfaces sanded back to highlight the grains of the tree.
The sculptures are then burned a deep black, which the artist used to do to make the works ‘disappear’, but is now a gesture of celebrating their beauty. Details of the sculptures are treated with a blowtorch and then all the surfaces are carefully waxed to acknowledge the skin of the piece and the tree from which it came. The final stage is one Babirye has called ‘taking the girls to the salon’, in which found elements complete the sculptures, including bicycle chains, nails, and copper from a dismantled boiler, as well as redundant silver teapots.
During her time at YSP, Babirye also sculpted five large ceramic portrait sculptures, each with its personality. They are created from coiled clay and boldly shaped into fundamental forms in which traces of the artist’s strong hands and fingers can be seen, before being fired and heavily coated with dense glazes that on firing contribute to the sculptures’ earthy, elemental power. Together the works will make a robust, rich statement in YSP’s Chapel, built in 1744, around the same time that the beech tree began to grow. Painterly glazes contrast with chiselled, roughly-textured woodwork and metal objects associated with the art of blacksmithing. The artworks become a congregation that celebrates community in all its forms in this beautiful and contemplative space, which has witnessed key moments in now-forgotten lives for centuries.
Babirye’s practice originally began as activism, as a gay woman in her home country of Uganda, where being gay is illegal and risks the death penalty. Babirye’s use of discarded materials references the prejudiced slang for a gay person in the Luganda language – ‘abasiyazi’ – which is the part of the sugarcane husk that is rubbish, thrown out. Her practice integrates her unique approach to making art with her culture and heritage and long-standing sculpture traditions such as mask making. She was partly inspired by the work of Henry Moore as a student, who himself drew from artefacts from the African continent, and whose sculptures are on permanent display at YSP in his home county of West Yorkshire.
Babirye acknowledged at Yorkshire Sculpture Park that she began to make art from real pain but now she feels blessed to be doing what she is doing, to create and adore who we all are. Clare Lilley, YSP Director, says: “Leilah’s uncompromising sculpture always packs a punch. That these sculptures were created at YSP, with Leilah making the most of what this place has to offer, is very special. For almost 300 years, our Chapel has been a place for community and contemplation, and we’re privileged that Leilah has made it a home for her clan of compelling artworks.”
This exhibition is supported by the Stephen Friedman Gallery.