New exhibition of artworks by Leilah Babirye in YSP Chapel explores unity

The Chapel at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park is a very special artspace. As the building dates back several centuries – it opened its doors in 1774 – it somehow adds an extra layer of resonance and meaning to each exhibition that is installed there. The latest show is a case in point.

Leilah Babirye: Obumu (Unity) showcases the work of the Uganda-born, New York-based artist with a selection of seven stunning larger-than-life-size figures in wood and five vividly coloured ceramic pieces. Standing in the chapel with them feels, appropriately, like being part of a celebratory gathering – the title ‘unity’ is certainly apt and community is a key element of the thinking behind Babirye’s work.

As a rising star in the international art world, the fact that the YSP is hosting her very first solo exhibition anywhere is a bit of a coup. “It is so exciting and such a privilege for us,” says curator Sarah Coulson. “Leilah is an artist we had been looking at for a while and we approached her about the possibility of an exhibition here. As she is based in Brooklyn, we were thinking about the best way to make a show with her, then it was suggested that she could come here and make work out of what she might find.”

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Using materials that she discovers in the environment in which she is working is a central part of Babirye’s creative practice. “Leilah works with materials that are cast away and repurposes them,” says Coulson. “YSP is a treasure trove in that respect in terms of potential materials in our landscape and storage areas. So, she came to visit and said that she wanted to spend time on site and make everything here.”

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

Babirye spent the summer of 2023 at the Sculpture Park working with the technical team with whom, says Coulson, she formed “an instant connection” and teamwork is important to her. Babirye’s art grew out of activism. As a gay woman in Uganda, where being gay is illegal and can result in the death penalty, she had to flee her homeland. “Leilah creates communities wherever she goes,” says Coulson. “There is an energy about her that is infectious. And she has turned what was a very painful experience for her into something positive.” Babirye’s re-use and recycling of discarded materials is a direct reference to the prejudiced term for a gay person in the Luganda language ‘abasiyazi’ – the part of the sugarcane husk that is thrown away.

The wooden sculptures in the exhibition are made out of wood from a 200-year-old beech tree at the Park. “That was such a happy coincidence,” says Coulson. “Leilah and I drove around the site with the technical team. We turned a corner and there was this pile of cut beech wood from a tree that had become unsafe and had to be taken down. The wood was due to be collected and taken away to be used in other ways, so the next day it might not have been there. Seeing Leilah’s excitement in finding it was lovely – you could see the cogs turning in her brain of how she was going to work with it. It is so great when artists are here, working on site because it feels as if the work grows out of this place.”

There is also a wonderful direct connection with the Chapel as the beech tree would have been planted at around the same time that the building was erected. The relationship is evident inside the space too with the charred colour of the sculptures matching the dark wood panelling. The embellishments on the figures are mostly made from discarded bike parts including hair constructed from plaited inner tubes and jewellery from bicycle chains. They also contain copper from a dismantled boiler and spoons which may be from the time when Bretton Hall was a college. “All these things bring history with them and Leilah was fascinated by them,” says Coulson. “She really is a gatherer of objects and there is no waste in her practice – she is always giving things another chance, reusing and recycling.” The ceramic pieces too were fired in an old kiln, previously used by Bretton Hall students, that was found on site and brought back into service.

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It is a wholly uplifting exhibition, a beautiful, thoughtful celebration of possibility and common humanity. “It is a joyful experience to be in that space with those sculptures – they have their own personalities and a strong presence,” says Coulson. “Leilah has used art to find positivity in her life and to create it for others. When you are looking at the work you can see it comes from a place of finding joy and happiness.”

Leilah Babirye: Obumu (Unity) is at the Chapel, Yorkshire Sculpture Park until September 8.

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