Abaana ba Kintu

Art portfolio by Sheila Nakitende/Introduction by TWR

Sheila Nakitende was born in 1983 in Kampala and graduated from the art school at Makerere University in 2005. Outside her studio, not far from the hilltop at Rubaga, there’s an ancient tree that for a decade stood barren, denuded and unable to bring forth even a single leaf. But this year the tree inexplicably blossomed into a dense green canopy that has Nakitende wondering what really happened. Yet this strange tree speaks to her in ways that penetrate the core of who she is and where she stands as an artist today. “When I look at that tree,” she said, pointing to it one afternoon, “I see myself.”

In reality, even though she is entering what she senses will be the most dynamic phase of her career as a multi-disciplinary artist, Nakitende for years has been quietly producing work of rare quality and even rarer authority, including a portfolio she started creating in 2020 as the COVID-19 pandemic threatened to destroy the world as we know it. Titled “Abaana ba Kintu,” this collection repurposes the famous Buganda origin story in a sculptural installation that reaffirms the persistence and renewal of humans no matter what. She is saying, in effect, that fathers will always be here, that mothers will always be here, and that even if they go their children shall be here tomorrow. The artworks in this collection were first exhibited just over a year ago in a chemistry laboratory at Makerere University, a quirky but deliberate choice that added to her reputation as a singular artist.

Nakitende’s essential material is paper fashioned from barkcloth that’s harvested by the Baganda people from the mutuba tree (Natal fig) in age-old craftsmanship that is now acknowledged by the United Nations cultural agency. But while some artists stretch barkcloth and make it their canvas, Nakitende transforms it completely in a “deconstructive” process that involves shredding, soaking, boiling and beating the material into pulp before it’s pressed and dried. The result is delicate but richly textured paper, onto which she applies her ideas in abstract forms whose shapes can appear to shift when viewed from different angles. Stitching, burning and weaving raffia onto barkcloth paper, she’s able to achieve layers of beauty while also telling rich stories.

“Nakitende’s works are architectural buildings within themselves. Usually, in art, when one thinks of architecture one thinks of spaces to show art, but her pieces already constitute so much space that we have to think of them as embodied architectural objects,” the curator and art critic Violet Nantume said of Nakitende’s work in a remarkable essay for the online magazine Contemporary And (C&). “They look like maps but not the ones categorizing and dividing territories and countries – more like landscapes of sensualities, cards of experiences.”

Nakitende, the mother of an eight-year-old boy, in her work explores topics such as motherhood, cultural evolution and the natural environment we inhabit. Of all the pieces in “Abaana ba Kintu,” perhaps the one closest to her heart is “Maama W’Abaana I,” she said, speaking thoughtfully of the process of “becoming” for a child. “That process of transforming a child into someone who can defend themselves is really deeper than the physical,” she said.

In person, as in her work, Nakitende is unassuming, brushing aside or questioning every praise she receives, probing into exactly why one should like her work so much. She spoke of years of “failing a lot” until she discovered her barkcloth technique just before she went to New York in 2017 to attend a residency at the Women’s Studio Workshop. “But I kept trying, experimenting, which I am still doing,” she said. “Even now I cannot tell you that I am there yet.”

Before and since then, despite her claims of failure, Nakitende’s work has been exhibited in cities ranging from Nairobi to Geneva, from Berlin to Vienna. And she’s been invited to multiple residences across the globe. Regardless of what Nakitende thinks, not many Ugandan artists are creating works at her pitch of originality, of experimentation, of labour, and perhaps even of humility.