‘An archive of my existence…’

Letters to her childhood and virtual love come up in this conversation between installation artist Immy Mali and artist-writer Matt Kayem

165x400x400cm plywood, steel, 8 wooden hand mirrors containing video screens, 8 asymmetrical wooden stools, grooming tools, make up. Courtesy of the Rijksakademie open studios 2019. (Photo credit – Immy Mali)

If there is an artist on the Kampala art scene who can play with your emotions, it’s Immy Mali. Through her arresting installations, this artist distils her experiential pain of childhood incidents and offers perspectives on human resilience and what can be overcome by representing pain as an emotion that can be touched. True to her philosophy, Mali has single-handedly constructed abstract visual concepts in various spaces to illustrate the pain that plagues society relentlessly; a pain she shares in her own early childhood when she suffered an accident that caused her to miss some of the pleasures of infancy. In 2019, she completed a two-year residency at the prestigious Rijksakademie in the Netherlands, and during an Artachat discussion session earlier this year at the 32° East Ugandan Arts Trust in Kampala, she shared insights about her artist book as well as her experience in the Netherlands. I recently managed to pin her down for a one-on-one and delved into her time at the respected institution.

Immy Mali – Self portrait

You were studying away from Uganda for two whole years. How did you deal with that? Were you ever homesick?

As a traveller, the sense of home and belonging tends to become fluid. There is always a place that tags to my heart when I travel and that’s Uganda.  However, it’s always a beautiful thing to be able to experience other cultures. Whenever I felt home sick, I cooked and invited people to eat or organized potluck dinners and lunches. Then it felt almost like the family mealtimes at home.

At Artachat, you mentioned being dragged or enticed to join racism conversations while you were in the Netherlands because of being a black person in a white environment. How did you deal with this and why didn’t you want to take part?

I was not enticed but yes, often invited. Being from Uganda, we’ve got tribalism, nepotism and a couple more horrible isms but the problem of racism is not one that we face often at home, and so moving to Amsterdam and immediately being confronted by continuous invitations to talks on racism and events like Africa Day was for me a bit overwhelming. You have to understand that I was coming from a space where I never had to think of my skin colour as an issue of contention. In Uganda we’re often opening our welcoming arms to foreigners and being at our best behaviour around visitors as customs have taught us. I realized that apart from things I encountered in movies and over the Internet I had never really paid attention to issues of racism and so I made up excuses to keep me away from these events and decided to read up. The reading came after my first racist encounter and chants that popped up during my ongoing Letters to my childhood project.  

Marcue’s Dollhouse, 2018 Rusted steel sculpture, banana fibre and cloth dolls, fabric 670x2800x1800mm. Installation view. Sounds of Memory. (Photo credit – Immy Mali)

Your work is deeply personal. Virtually Mine comprised of a multiplicity of small glass panels the size of a smart phone, on which were inscribed WhatsApp exchanges between you and your boyfriend. At what point do you draw boundaries for what you should leave out or include regarding your personal affairs?

My journey to self-exploration started at a place of desire to understand a variety of things taking place around me; things I couldn’t understand, unless I understood my own existence. I often work closely with family members and decisions on what to show often come from these interactions. With Virtually Mine we had to go through over 500 WhatsApp screen shots with my now husband who is a great supporter of my practice. Going through the screenshots together allowed for a collaboration and also to arrive at a place where we were both comfortable with the outcome. It is now one of the works he is proudest of. 

“Childhood” and “memory” are two concepts that often show up in your work. For example, in the animation video Kasonko and the letters to your younger self. How important are these two themes in your work?

To build an archive of my existence, I guess childhood and memory have to inevitably co-exist. Since I was 14years old I have taught children. They are the most giving beings I have encountered. They can be nice and cruel, weird and adorable and just curious in the most bizarre ways, which keeps my mind racing. These interactions with children forced me to try to interact with my own childhood. I am also interested in what our bodies, minds and spirits embody over years of existence in a neo-colonial state, be it in language, education, religion and many other aspects.

Animation still, Kasonko 2019 (Image credit – Immy Mali)

You are a versatile artist. How do you choose the materials or medium with which to execute your work in?

Thinking closely, I guess the use of various media developed more rapidly as I continued to work in various residency programs in countries where I couldn’t afford the luxury of sticking to one particular medium. So this love for engaging with ‘new’ material each time grew. At times I find that some materials fit an idea better than others. 

Would you say that your stay at Rijksakademie was worthwhile?

Well yes it was. I needed a place for critical growth in my practice and taking off 2 years for this in a place where all I had to do was to think of art, gave me that. 

Are you doing any other residencies, or do you have any exhibitions coming up?

I am taking a breather from residencies thanks to the current pandemic and I will be showing my work at the Dakar Biennale and Casablanca Biennale whenever they are able to take place. For now, I’m reading a bit more, engaging in online radio programs and working towards an online show which will hopefully open soon.