Outed in Uganda’s virulently homophobic press, the artist and activist claimed asylum in New York. Now, her sculptures and paintings stand as monuments to the nation’s persecuted LGBTQ+ community
Leilah Babirye is describing what it’s like to go on a pride march in her native Uganda. “It never ends peacefully,” she says, laughing grimly. “It’s always police raids, everybody scattering.” The artist and LGBTQ+ activist made costumes for one event in 2012, including masks for friends too frightened to show their faces. “But as soon as we step on to the beach, there’s police everywhere. So we have to go back home.”
Babirye talks to me over Zoom from the place where she spends most of her time: her basement studio in Brooklyn. It’s populated by her artworks: boldly coloured, sensuous paintings of imaginary heroes; giant ceramic sculptures of faces glazed in jewel-like shades; and her signature pieces, chiselled wooden figures a bit like totem poles, lovingly painted and buffed, decorated with objects Babirye has found in the street ranging from bike chains to an old chandelier. They are bold (as tall as 15ft), idiosyncratic, and full of personality. She points her camera at one, which is heading to New York’s prestigious Whitney museum.