The role of sculptural forms as a communication tool in relation to the lives and experiences of women with HIV/AIDS in Uganda.
The impetus for Nabulime’s important and inspirational doctoral project came from personal experience of caring for someone with HIV/AIDS, and her understanding of the areas lacking support in the spreading of HIV/AIDS awareness.
The aim of Nabulime’s research was to develop a sculptural art form that could be used to provide support to women in Uganda with experiences of HIV/AIDS. By talking to Ugandan women about their experiences of HIV/AIDS and to HIV/AIDS awareness organisations, Nabulime was able to incorporate their experiences and knowledge into her research, to develop a prototype sculpture for use in HIV/AIDS awareness group work.
The project resulted in a large body of artworks that were produced at various stages of the research in response to the information Nabulime received from her interviewees. Some of these were exhibited in Britain during the project; the final soap sculptures were successfully tested for use in HIV/AIDS awareness projects in Uganda.
The methodology for this project was ‘grounded’, i.e. arising from the data collection of the research itself. At each stage of the project, interviews with the target audience (Ugandan women suffering from HIV/AIDS and HIV/AIDS awareness organistations working wit Ugandan women) allowed Nabulime to develop and adjust the criteria for the artworks, and to evaluate her work on an ongoing basis. This allowed Nabulime to develop a final sculptural form created specifically to fulfil the particular role required – that of an awareness tool for use with women in Uganda.
For the pilot project, Nabulime interviewed Ugandan women in London with HIV/AIDS. After assessing their interviews she was able to identify the variable factors that lead to infection and that constrain open discussion about the disease in Uganda - factors such as culture, poverty, ignorance, etc. From these interviews Nabulime established that the most powerful context from which a message about HIV/AIDS could come from was the home. She was also able to experience first-hand the language and symbolism Ugandan women used to express their feelings and suffering about HIV/AIDS. This led her to develop sculptures based on domestic objects such as mortars and pestles, and to explore their potential symbolism with regard to HIV/AIDS.
This stage of the project was supported by research into literature about HIV/AIDS and artists who had worked with this issue and with other social problems, focussing particularly on the use of objects with overt symbolism. Although objects such as handbags and mirrors had been used successfully in projects in Europe, in Uganda such objects would carry little significance; therefore Nabulime developed art forms using objects familiar to the Ugandan context, such as shields (signalling protection), bowls (referring to female biology), and knots and nails (representing the suffering of those infected by HIV/AIDS).
Nabulime then interviewed respondents from an HIV/AIDS awareness organisation in Uganda. From this data it emerged that sculpture was not used as an awareness tool by such organisations at all, due to the expense of producing them, their bulk, and the difficulty of replication. With this new set of constraints Nabulime returned her research on artists who had successfully worked with problems like HIV/AIDS, particularly the Cuban artist Felix Gonzales.
This led Nabulime to reject her previous artworks such as the bowls, which, although they worked well on a symbolic level and were cheap, were too time-consuming to be easily replicable. Instead, she concentrated on developing sculptures made from soap, an easily recognisable, well-used domestic material that is cheap and easy to produce, and that lends itself well to the symbolism of cleansing, and thus issues such as infection and treatment. Working with the transparent quality of the soap, Nabulime incorporated other objects which, embedded within the soap sculptures, could develop symbolic meaning. The eventual products were penis- and vulva-shaped soap sculptures containing seeds (representing life), nails (representing suffering) and cowrie shells (symbolising femininity and money).
Again, these sculptures went through a final evaluation process, being tested for use in HIV/AIDS awareness group projects in Uganda. The positive response they received, and the ease of replicating them, meant that they were accepted as a final prototype for sculptures to be used as a tool of HIV/AIDS awareness.
The principal outcomes of the project were the artworks themselves, both the sculptures produced during the project as part of the development process, and the final soap sculptures that Nabulime developed for use in awareness work. As well as appearing in the Postgraduate Degree Show at Newcastle University in 2004 (which provided an opportunity for further evaluation of the artworks), Nabulime presented her research and artworks to the 4th National AIDS conference at Speke Resort Munyonyo in March 2005, and received positive feedback from HIV/AIDS organisations interested in using the soap sculptures as part of their awareness work.
Nabulime plans to continue her research by developing the possibilities for mass production of the soap sculptures, and the employment of Ugandan women in both their production and their use in education and group work.