Image courtesy of Unit London
For Stacey Gillian Abe, indigo is essential. Not only is it a protective colour that connects the human and the divine in African tradition, but it also carries a sense of violence, as indigo-dyed fabric was exchanged for enslaved people in East Africa. When Abe uses indigo as a skin tone in her works, she interrogates our relationship to the past and transcends boundaries: it represents ‘a people not limited to social, economic, cultural, political or historical constraints’. Nowhere is this more striking than in her first UK solo exhibition at Unit London, Shrub-let of Old Aviyu.
Abe, who lives and works in Kampala, Uganda, has had her work showcased worldwide. Here, her hand-embroidered paintings collected together are a stunning exploration of generational memory and femininity. At the private viewing, the atmosphere was buzzing: the Congolese soukous musician Kanda Bongo Man performed amongst the pieces and dancing ensued. I was stunned by Abe’s work and thrilled to have an opportunity to speak with her about this exciting exhibition.
Image courtesy of Unit London
From what I understand, the title of your exhibition refers to the plants that are important to the Aviyu tribe in Uganda. Can you tell us more about this and what role this plays in the exhibition?
Shrub-let of Old Ayivu, the name of my exhibition, is a metaphor for growths and sprouts that emerge from a location of immense significance and connect to other locations that are unrelated to their original source. The plant then manifests itself as the jute plant, a totem for the Ayivu clan, my ancestral clan. However, it also makes references to transformations and absorption of the ancient practices. The jute is an element in the entire system.
Indigo is very important in your work. Since the colour is significant in African tradition and history, how does your use of indigo skin interact with generational memory and violence?
Representation is crucial to me as a black woman and, more specifically, as an artist. In the work, the black body is given another chance to rewrite its history and reframe stories about being black. My use of the colour indigo acknowledges these histories. I have the chance to reimagine a black utopian existence free from all kinds of oppression.
Some paintings in the exhibition are accompanied by nostalgic sounds–could you tell us about how this exploration of memory affects your works?
Auditory nostalgia is how the sounds are received. I was exposed to these sounds when I was a child. And by reintroducing them, my work now addresses the third topic in it—emotion. How the noises and the artwork relate to or contrast with one another also interests me.
The gaze of your subjects is really striking. Is the gaze something that you wish to examine, perhaps with a gendered and/or a postcolonial lens?
One of the foundational elements of my work is gender and representation. And I like to think that I have a responsibility to explore how people perceive the black female body. I like the idea that the black body in my art can be both strong and feminine while also remaining vulnerable.
The Sitting 1 is such a powerful painting - can you tell us about how you are challenging ‘classical’ elements from art history here?
The Sitting 1 takes us back to representation of the black body, in particular the black female body, and how it has been recorded in history as well as in classical art and how it is absent from this space. The Sitting 1 is occupying this empty space.
I found that there is an erotic quality to some of your works, such as in See you Later—can you tell us more about your representation of gender in these paintings?
The theme of love and longing is central to See You Later. Additionally, it sparks discussion on the male body's absence and presence while emphasising the female body. For instance, I grew up in a traditional neighbourhood where, despite freedom and gender empowerment, women were still expected to unite with their masculine counterparts. This work explores these dilemmas and my own experiences related to this subject.
Can you tell us about the use of embroidery in your work–what it may symbolise, what the process of hand embroidering is like, how it transforms your paintings?
For me, embroidering is a contemplative process. When I first started, it didn't feel that way, but as I added more embroidery to my paintings, I suddenly felt a connection to the craft and to my mother, from whom I'm currently learning more about it. I came to the conclusion that it was her escape, and the process, like it is for me, might have served as a portal to reimagining her present at the time. Embroidery is conceptually a feminine gesture that gives the female body permission to express and embrace its femininity.
Finally, how are you feeling about your first solo exhibition?
To say I am excited is an understatement. I am so humbled it still feels surreal.
Shrub-let of Old Aviyu is on at Unit London until the 23rd January 2023.
Edited by Holly Cornall, Literature Editor