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In Leilah Babirye’s latest exhibition, Ebika Bya ba Kuchu mu Buganda (Kuchu Clans of Buganda), discarded objects become queer guardians.
Titled in reference to the term “Kuchu,” an affirming address used within Ugandan queer and trans communities, Babirye’s commanding solo exhibition includes a spread of sculptural objects comprising the “Kuchu Clans of Buganda,” Babirye’s imagined community of queer kin hailing from the Bugandan Kingdom in the artist’s native Uganda.
Spanning two galleries at Gordon Robichaux, these objects stand proudly like subjects of a royal court: majestic ceramic and carved wooden heads glazed in variegated earth tones bode dignified smiles. Some are assembled in groupings on elevated platforms, others rest firmly atop carved foundations on the gallery floors, while the remaining hover on walls like masks.
Shrouded in regality, these gender-fluid subjects wear dazzling headdresses and speckled gems made from repurposed aluminum cans and pressed foil. Many don elaborate updos — tangled twists and braids fashioned from bicycle chains, tires, and nylon cable, further complicate gender presentation in the works and weave in personal narrative, referencing Babirye’s job as a bike messenger in her first years living in New York City after fleeing homophobia in Uganda.
Babirye additionally inscribes queer lineage in Ugandan ancestral tradition in her ongoing series of monoprint portraits, Kuchu Series (Queer Ugandans) (2020). Using deep acrylic hues, the artist paints resilient faces of chosen kin. Here and elsewhere, Babirye demands a world of queer belonging.
Leilah Babirye: Ebika Bya ba Kuchu mu Buganda (Kuchu Clans of Buganda) continues through November 22 at Gordon Robichaux (41 Union Square West, #925 and #907; Entrance 22 East 17th Street, Flatiron, Manhattan).