Laura Smith Selects Leilah Babirye’s ‘Gyagenda’ from Frieze Sculpture 2023

The Hepworth Wakefield’s Director of Collection and Exhibitions picks a ‘monumental symbol of resilience, strength and love’ by the Ugandan-born, New York-based artist

BY Laura Smith in Frieze London , Videos | 23 OCT 23
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Each year, during Frieze, I am grateful for the sculpture park and the opportunity to be outside, amidst plants and trees, and away from the buzz of the fair for a few moments. This year, as the world lurches ever closer to heart-breaking catastrophe, Leilah Babirye’s monumental Gyagenda stood for me as a vital symbol of resilience, strength and love. 

Leilah Babirye, Gyagenda, 2023, Stephen Friedman Gallery. Frieze Sculpture 2023  Photo by Linda Nylind. Courtesy of Linda Nylind/ Frieze.
Leilah Babirye, Gyagenda, 2023, Stephen Friedman Gallery. Frieze Sculpture 2023. Photo by Linda Nylind. Courtesy of Linda Nylind/Frieze

A first work in bronze by the Ugandan artist, Gyagenda solidifies into one medium the collected found materials and debris that Babirye is known to assimilate in her ceramic and wooden sculptures. Here the bronze becomes unifying and emboldening, almost protective. The sculpture rises up from the grass on two very long legs, atop which sits a distorted head formed out of heavy blocks. Despite the weight of its material, Gyagenda feels open and companionable, drawing you into a conversation.

In her work Babirye focuses on issues surrounding identity, sexuality and human rights, having fled Uganda to New York in 2015 after being publicly outed in a local newspaper. Through her sculptures, paintings and drawings, the artist imagines another way, a community of queer clanspeople who are empowered and enabled. The title of this work, Gyagenda, refers to a nickname given in Uganda to a young person who is heading out into the world to find their own community, it speaks to ideas of welcome, acceptance and love. I found the notion that migration and refuge may end in love and safety, greatly moving at this specific moment in 2023, and a timely reminder that now more than ever, we need to place weight on compassion, acceptance and empathy.

About Laura Smith

Laura Smith, courtesy Laura Smith
Laura Smith, courtesy of Laura Smith

Laura Smith is the newly appointed Director of Collection and Exhibitions at The Hepworth Wakefield and previously curator at Whitechapel Gallery, London. Most recently at Whitechapel she curated ‘Action, Gesture, Paint: women artists and global abstraction 1940–70’ (2023), ‘Emma Talbot: The Age’ (2022) and ‘Eileen Agar: Angel of Anarchy’ (2021), and has previously produced exhibitions with Sol Calero, Helen Cammock, Simone Fattal and Anna Maria Maiolino. Prior to Whitechapel Laura was curator at Tate, where she worked on exhibitions of Claude Cahun, Barbara Hepworth, Linder, Liliane Lijn, France-Lise McGurn, Lucy Stein and Rebecca Warren, and group shows such as ‘Virginia Woolf: an exhibition inspired by her writings’ and ‘Turner Prize 2016’. Laura writes extensively on modern and contemporary art, recently contributing chapters to Revisiting Modern British Art and Oxford University Press’s Virginia Woolf Reader, as well as monographs on Pia Arke, Lisa Brice, Lewis Hammond, Sylvia Snowden and Caragh Thuring.

Frieze Sculpture is in The Regent’s Park until Sunday, 29 October.  

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Main image: Leilah Babirye, Gyagenda, 2023, Stephen Friedman Gallery. Frieze Sculpture 2023. Photo by Linda Nylind. Courtesy of Linda Nylind/Frieze.