Artist Interviews

Leilah Babirye on sculpting strong bonds of community

Leilah Babirye, Obumu (Unity), installation view at Yorkshire Sculpture Park, 2024

The Ugandan-born artist and LGBTQ+ activist talks about her exhibition at Yorkshire Sculpture Park, the presence of materials and the power of togetherness.

A version of this article first appeared in the summer 2024 issue of Art Quarterly, the magazine of Art Fund.

Leilah Babirye sculpting with a chainsaw, 2022

Who is Leilah Babirye?

Born in 1985 in Kampala, Uganda, Leilah Babirye creates work, including large-scale figurative sculptures using wood, ceramic and found objects, that draws on African cultural history and her desire to uplift the queer community in her home country, where homosexuality is illegal and severely punished. She studied art at Makerere University in Uganda before being granted asylum in the US in 2018, where she lives and works. In summer 2023 she was artist in residence at Yorkshire Sculpture Park (YSP), where she created new work, including five ceramic portrait-sculptures and eight large-scale figures carved from a mature tree that had grown in the park and reached the end of its life. These works are on show in her current exhibition, ‘Obumu (Unity)’, in YSP’s Chapel, which was built in 1744, around the time the tree would have germinated.  

Ellen Mara De Wachter: What first attracted you to studying and making art?  

Leilah Babirye: I did art originally because I wanted to pass exams, because nobody ever failed in art. Most kids joined because we didn’t have to read anything. And it so happened that I used to draw really well. We didn’t study history of art in high school; it was practical art, with still life and nature: drawing an orange, shading it, knowing where the light comes from. I didn’t take art seriously until university.   

EMDW: You have previously mentioned that Henry Moore was an inspiration when you were a student. What drew you to his work? 

LB: Uganda being a former British colony meant that, for our syllabus, we studied major British sculptors. My professor was obsessed with Henry Moore and Barbara Hepworth. We also looked at Matisse, Picasso and Giacometti. When I looked at Moore’s work, I fell in love with it and its voids and, later, visiting London, with the size of the works. But for me, Moore’s work was about bones. I would collect animal bones and instead of drawing straight from Moore’s work, I would draw from the bones. 

EMDW: Have African artists also been an influence on your work?  

LB: We have really good sculptors in Uganda and my professors were major sculptors. Besides Dr Lilian Nabulime, who was my teacher, we have Francis Nnaggenda, the late Maria Naita, Sylvia Katende and Margaret Nagawa. We also looked at El Anatsui’s work, which I first saw in Africa. My professors at university were mostly women, and I was so inspired and touched by the fact they were women. But I also learned a lot from artisans on the street, who craft wood. 

EMDW: How did you come to acquire your woodcarving skills?  

LB: They don’t give you everything at school; they give you maybe 40 per cent and you have to go out to find the other 60 per cent through research. My research was looking at these street artisans and how they work, and thinking: ‘How do they make money?’ I got in trouble in class because my professors wanted a sketch first. I didn’t have a sketch because I learned from people who just look at the wood and come up with something. They don’t have time for a sketch because they’re making money. They have to make hundreds of these sculptures, which then sell for £1 each.  

Leilah Babirye, Obumu (Unity) installation view at Yorkshire Sculpture Park, 2024.
Courtesy the artist and Stephen Friedman Gallery. Photo Jonty Wilde, courtesy YSP.

EMDW: Many of your works incorporate found materials, often objects discarded in the street. What inspired this approach? 

LB: I started looking at the terms used to denigrate gay people in Uganda. Looking at our history, I wondered why we have terms such as abasiyazi. Why are we called these names and what do they mean? Abasiyazi is derived from the word ekisiyaga, which is the discarded part of the sugar-cane husk, and it also means ‘garbage’. I used that idea to create good art out of what they call trash. I go from picking up trash to beautifying it.  

EMDW: You begin larger wood sculptures by carving them with a chainsaw. How does it feel to use such a powerful tool? 

LB: It’s just like a car. When you look at a car, before you start the engine, it feels like it won’t move, but when you start the engine you feel how light it is. A chainsaw feels like that to me. No matter how big or heavy it is, when you start it, it feels like a pencil. I enjoy it, slicing the wood. It loses the heaviness and lets you control it. And you’re talking with it; I talk with all my tools. It’s understanding it, that’s how it feels. Because I don’t sketch, I look at the tip of the chainsaw as my pencil and the wood as my paper. 

EMDW: Apart from your interest in the processes of street artisans, what is it about wood that made you want to work with it? 

LB: Wood is fierce. It becomes very, very beautiful when you approach it in a good way. It listens, it feels like skin, it feels like you’re engaging, and speaking to it. You want to know how much it has for you. It’s a sensitive subject, when you ask me about my wood, because I get so involved when I take off the bark from the tree and start feeling the grains. I describe it as feeling like skin because it has grains depending on how the wood flows, and all wood has different grains, just like skin. I think we all have different textures of skin.  

Like what you’re reading? There are plenty more artist interviews to enjoy. 

EMDW: After working with the chainsaw, how do you develop your sculptures?  

LB: After carving, I bring the work to the studio, where my studio assistants help blowtorch it, burnish it with wax and then leave it for me to come in and see it. I look for something in the tree that is not yet out. And I always give the work its final polish. At that point I need quiet or I listen to good music, and I let it flow. I listen to the wood and see where I head. I know when it’s not right, which can happen when I have a piece in the studio but I feel it’s not yet there. I’ll pull stuff off, put stuff back on, until I feel like: ‘Yes, that’s it.’  

EMDW: The work you have made at YSP was carved from a fallen tree on the estate. What do you recall about that tree?  

LB: It was a big beech tree that fell, I think, a week before I arrived. I was looking for wood – God works mysteriously – and when I came, they showed that tree to me and I said: ‘This is all we need.’ That tree was so big we made eight sculptures out of it, all nine feet (2.74m) tall, and we had more left over that I couldn’t work with. The works are all one- sided because the tree was cut in quarters.  

EMDW: These pieces can be seen together in your exhibition ‘Obumu (Unity)’. Where does that title come from?  

LB: When we made the work at YSP I didn’t have a licence to use a chainsaw in England. So, I worked with a whole team at YSP, including Nobby, and Sam Clayton, the sculptor David Nash’s assistant, who jumped in and helped me and who are very good at carving. We worked together every single day, so there was unity as a team, and they all felt involved. We made it flow, sitting down together and agreeing on everything. I was there, I did the work, but I felt like we did it with unity. 

Leilah Babirye, Nakambugu from the Kuchu Njovu (Elephant) Clan, 2023, installation view at Yorkshire Sculpture Park, 2024
Courtesy the artist and Stephen Friedman Gallery. Photo © Jonty Wilde

EMDW: You have been an LGBTQ+ activist for a long time. How did you first become involved in activism?  

LB: My own activism started when the gay-rights activist David Kato was murdered in Uganda in 2011. The fact that one of our activists was murdered inspired a lot of us who were not yet vocal and who wanted to do something for our community. Now I understand how community works, I realise we had a good community in Uganda, but I didn’t know about it until David Kato was murdered. It became such a big deal that everybody had to know about it. Every single day, for three months, the story was covered in the news. It inspired me to start working for gay rights, back home.  

EMDW: You also work with ceramics, such as your work Nagirinya from the Kuchu Ngo (Leopard) Clan (2021), a portrait sculpture made from glazed ceramic with bicycle-tyre inner tubes and copper-wire clips, which has been acquired for the Herbert Art Gallery & Museum in Coventry with Art Fund support. How does working with ceramic differ from wood?  

LB: Working with wood is about subtracting. You don’t add anything. Whereas with ceramics you’re adding and you keep adding until the clay tells you to stop. The most exciting thing about ceramics is that you never know how it will turn out. In most of these ceramics I’m creating works out of different clans, which means giving the sculptures names of my people, my friends. I’m looking at family members, politicians, and leaders in the LGBTQ+ community, so I’m giving my works real names. 

Leilah Babirye, Nagirinya from the Kuchu Ngo (Leopard) Clan, 2021
© Leilah Babirye. Courtesy the artist, Stephen Friedman Gallery, London and Gordon Robichaux, New York. Photo: Mark Blower

EMDW: Do you also consider that naming work as a form of activism?  

LB: It’s another form of activism, which puts questions to people who want to understand. These names are not only queer names, they are names that straight people from different clans also have. So, when people ask: ‘Why did Leilah use the name of my auntie or my uncle for her work?’, and realise it is not their name but that of a friend who is queer, it helps them understand us. It’s a kind of discussion and acceptance. People have accepted my work, no matter if it’s made by someone who is gay or is named after a gay person. People are like: ‘OK, this name, it says it’s representing the gay community person, but it’s a name in our family.’  

EMDW: How important is it to you that your work goes into public collections?  

LB: I like the fact that when my work goes out there, it talks to people. I’ve received messages from people about how my work speaks to them. I like the interaction with my work in a public place. It depends on how people interpret and understand the works, and how the works speak to them. With my large sculptures, I’ve seen people looking at them, even bowing down to them. Kids sometimes sketch my work and send me postcards, and I’m honoured and humbled.  

‘Leilah Babirye: Obumu (Unity)’, YSP, Wakefield, to 8 September, free entry and 10% off in shop with National Art Pass.

About the author
Ellen Mara De Wachter
A writer and coach based in London.
IndividualTiana Clarke Please note this is an example card and not a reflection of the final product

The more you see, the more we do.

The National Art Pass lets you enjoy free entry to hundreds of museums, galleries and historic places across the UK, while raising money to support them.

Are your sure you want to leave checkout?