4 June 2018

Uganda: Learning to Be Free - Stacey Gillian Abe's Artistic Exploration Through Vaginal Sculptures

Photo: ThisisAfrica
Let’s talk about sex, pleasure and desire.

Ugandan artist Stacey Gillian Abe's latest work, titled 'Enyasa' is a series of sculptures that explore "the difference between food satisfaction and sexual satisfaction and also relating it to the double standards in society".

Dear guest, here, would you like vagina? Do you want it specially seasoned? With chilli or without?

This is the shocking approach Ugandan artist Stacey Gillian Abe takes in her latest work, titled 'Enyasa'. It is a series of sculptures that explore "the difference between food satisfaction and sexual satisfaction and also relating it to the double standards in society".

The vaginal sculptures are literally presented on a plate for the viewers' consumption. The presentation is a sly homage, as Abe explains: "Enyasa, or millet, is a staple food in my Lugbara culture and it is meant to be treated with respect in a meal. You do not just serve it anyhow. It is supposed to be served with particular stews. Here, I am replacing the millet with this very interesting subject."

The subject Abe had been challenged to tackle was '(Re)Thinking Feminism and Black Womanhood'. She had assumed the hectic one-week workshop would be a minor stop in her artistic journey. She was wrong.

As Abe settled in on the theme, she found herself thinking about objectification. " I have felt objectified so many times, in one way or another, on the streets, even in the business environment. People around me might not say it out loud but the vibe is there."

For days, she was confused about how best to embody what it meant to be a young, black woman in Uganda and in the world today. The more she reached for the old tropes in what she considers the first phase of her work, the more facile they felt.

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Abe is self-critical and she approaches her art with deliberate seriousness and planning. "I want to explain my work and how I think I am going about it. I am working in phases. I first developed extensive skills in phase one of my work, as I got used to my primary material, which is glass. I wanted to be a master in it."

But as she looked at the work she had created up to the point of the workshop, Abe realised that she could not continue to work in the same way. As she started creating - and discarding - pieces for the (Re)Thinking Feminism pop-up exhibition, Abe grew excited and scared. She realised that she was on the edge of a breakthrough.

"You know those science fiction movies where someone takes something and while they are sleeping, something tweaks in their mind? You know, that state when something snaps? With this work, something snapped for me. This is the beginning of my phase two."

Abe saw herself as "using bits and pieces of the first way of working. I even used some of the materials that I used in phase one, incorporating them with the new materials of my phase two, and then creating a new body of work."

This new work was not turning out quite as she had expected but Abe realised that there was no getting away from it. "I decided to use the vaginas of different women in society to express our diversity and difference. I feel that the boobs and the vagina are the best if I'm going to highlight the diversity of women, how different we are, and yet not; how we relate to each other and society."

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Abe was fully aware that she was breaking new ground. "In my tradition, sex is not a topic to be discussed in the open. It is a taboo. I wanted to overcome that silence. I also wanted to look at sex and gender from a female point of view; how we are objectified. Often a woman is judged straightaway by her physical appearance, instead of her mental ability. If you find a woman who is very assertive, she is quickly labelled a slut. If she is a very beautiful woman, perhaps working in an office, making her own money, people say she has a rich husband, or that she doesn't have brains."

Abe confesses that this was the first time she had been forced to confront what it meant to be a woman and why she was desperate not to have the tag 'first female to... ' attached to her name. But to get to that mental state where she could work unhindered, Abe found that she had to confront who she was.

Crafting Enyasa was scary. "I kept on looking at them, as I was making them, wondering if I would really exhibit them. I almost ended up with nothing to show at the exhibition because I thought they were too much. But there was a bigger voice that kept on telling me to take it forward, urging me on, saying that perhaps reaction is what I needed. Now I am glad I did this."

Enyasa allowed Abe to "pose questions, asking, how different is sexual satisfaction from food satisfaction? You want it, like food; you are so hungry, you want to eat the food. But once you are full, you don't want to look at the food anymore. The issue of sexual satisfaction is not talked about openly in society, but behind closed doors, although it is so normal.

"I was trying to pose these questions and bring them out into the open. I was thinking, if I brought these vaginas to you on a plate, how would you feel? Yet it is not embarrassing to ask for food on a plate."

When Abe did show the work, she was surprised by the reaction. The women who came to look at Enyasa were "very excited about the sculptures. We understand that this is a part of us. The women embraced it positively, they related. They were like, 'Oh yeah, mine looks like this' and 'Oh my, this is so interesting'."

The male viewers, even male artists, were less positive in their response. "The men found it very uncomfortable. For me, that was very fulfilling because they were literally doing research for me. Some male artists said that while the work was interesting, it was not something they could look at for long. Somehow, psychologically, that is how Ugandan society is. Talking about this topic is very uncomfortable. They said the work was a bit extreme."

Abe was also surprised to discover that despite all the talk of equality and the emancipation of women, not a lot has changed in gender relations in Uganda. Through Enyasa, she realised that "men and women still subscribe to and value their 'sacred' cultural norms on sensitive issues like sex, identity and modesty."

While Enyasa has inspired a great deal of snickering and tittering at the exhibition, Enyasa's greatest effect seems to have been on Abe. "Doing this work has freed up a lot in me. The progression from my previous work to Enyasa showed me that there was something stopping me from expressing my ideas and thoughts as they should be expressed. There was something telling me to play it safe; something telling me, you can send out your message, but play it safe. What is wrong with doing my work the way I want to? If you are going to go out, you either go out big or you go home.

"Fear and doubt had been holding me back. Fear of the unknown, of what society would think about me. And doubting myself; feeling as if, perhaps, I shouldn't express myself this way. Yet somehow, after creating this work, there is this new-found peace; the realisation that it is okay to express your thoughts.

Because of the way society is structured and what I went through growing up, I developed a protective shell. Until this work, I had not realised that it was okay to be weak. It is okay to express all these feelings raw. Maybe that is how the world will connect with you and your cause."

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