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Photo courtesy of Martin Senkubuge

Ugandan Artist Martin Senkubuge is Dismantling the Stigma Around Vitiligo

Ugandan artist Martin Senkubuge is using his artwork to start conversations and raise awareness around the skin condition vitiligo.

In September 2019, Ugandan artist Martin Senkubuge was showcasing artwork at a group exhibition in Kampala when a woman approached him. She was drawn to a painting of his titled Melanin Tattoo. Ready to pay, she asked him if there was a particular story behind the painting. Senkubuge said the painting, which confronted issues around skin whitening, was inspired by Michael Jackson and how he bleached his skin.

“Artists should do research before presenting their work,” she said, disappointed, and less motivated to purchase the piece. The woman was a Michael Jackson fan and she knew that the late pop star had suffered from vitiligo, a skin disorder that causes loss of skin color in blotches and patches. From that moment, Senkubuge was inspired to learn about the pop star’s relationship with vitiligo.

He would find out that the star had received criticism from the public, on the assumption that he had chose to bleach his skin. If a man of such international acclaim was treated this way, how were those who were poorer treated? In other parts of the world — in remote places where public ignorance thrives — those living with the condition are seen as a bad omen or cursed.

Senkubuge wanted to change that. He soon founded the Part of Us initiative. The main objectives of the initiative are to visually amplify vitiligo voices, fight against stereotypes and stigma, and embrace vitiligo as a natural skin condition using visual art.

In his small studio in the outskirts of Kampala, the 25-year-old artist draws hyper-realistic charcoal portraits of persons with vitiligo. Between April and May, 2022, Sunkubugbe conducted an online survey where respondents revealed that they faced stigma, trauma, emotional stress and social injustice as a result of vitiligo. In his campaign along the way, he has been the recipient of a slew of recognition and external support. In 2020, he won a project grant of 2 million Ushs ($559) from Goethe Zentrum, Kampala (GZK).

Together, with a team of volunteers, he organized a solo show in the premises of GZK throughout April, 2021. Under Part of Us, the exhibition advocated for inclusivity of people living with vitiligo. Recent data from Global Vitiligo Foundation indicates that about 70-100 million people are affected by vitiligo in the world. In Africa, people living with vitiligo are stigmatized for the entirety of their lives. In this interview with OkayAfrica, Senkubuge talks about combating stereotypes around vitiligo and challenges faced by his initiative.

Photo courtesy of Martin Senkubuge


What was your turning point in your art career?

October 2021 was a game changer. It was during this time that my lost hope was restored. At first, it was when my artworks were featured in a Guardian article by John Agaba. Then a journalist from BBC World Service contacted me after reading the same article. This was a dream come true and, for the first time, my dad believed that his son would make it as an artist. Additionally, this international recognition and attention towards my drawings became a strong affirmation that my artwork is relevant. I cannot afford to reconsider being a visual artist; I firmly believe that I will die one.

What motivated you to launch your Part of Us visual campaign and how has been the journey?

When my work went viral on the internet and media, a number of people living with vitiligo reached out to me with interest in working with me. I then decided to create a lifetime campaign that would allow me to work with more people living with the condition. Following this global publicity and attention, the Part of Us Initiative has since embraced and focused on the New Art Movement of Vitiligo Art and creativity, with an aim of dissipating stigma, trauma and psychological stress amongst people living with this skin condition. Later on many creative minds and artists, mostly fellow youths, reached out asking how they could take part in the campaign.

We then decided to establish Part of Us as a Nonprofit Organization, a foundation made up of creative people, people living with vitiligo and humanitarians who don’t live with the skin condition. In addition to creating awareness through visual arts and creativity, the Initiative gives us a chance to directly impact many more people living with vitiligo who may not be interested in appearing in artworks due to various personal reasons.

Martin Senkubuge artwork

Photo courtesy of Martin Senkubuge

With the stigma surrounding vitiligo not only in Uganda but on the continent, how do you find and approach models for your portraits?

At the beginning, in 2019 and 2020, I would post on my social media platforms asking for contacts of people with vitiligo. After talking to about 60 over the phone — since it was during the lockdown period — only three gave me the benefit of trust. It was challenging then to convince many, since opportunists have taken advantage of their condition and left them more emotionally damaged. Currently, the fact that more writers and journalists have continued to document and cover my work and stories of the models [helps.] Most of the new models already have hints about my clear vision and they are more than willing to contribute to this vision.

Martin Senkubuge

Photo courtesy of Martin Senkubuge

How has your initiative impacted the people living with vitiligo? Any success stories?

Keeping in mind that our ultimate goal is to create awareness, end stigma and transform lives, we have a number of successful stories. For the first time we celebrated World Vitiligo Day in Uganda on the 25th of June this year. It was a successful photo-shoot event accompanied by indoor games, eats and drinks, networking and sharing about life experiences. We have been able to receive more local media coverage which wasn’t the case the first two years when we were always turned down due to the intensity of myths surrounding vitiligo.

One of my pioneer models, Eva Atukunda, stopped covering her blotches with make-up after seeing her face all over the internet and on big screens. Waking up every morning had become a lifelong responsibility to her and her two young children who she had trained to apply makeup so that they could finish fast and go to school. When she posted her face on Facebook for the first time without makeup, many were shocked by her courage. One gentleman, who had never looked at himself in a mirror for about 23 years, directly messaged Eva and he never remained the same. Isaac is the other person in my drawings. He is a model and vixen who has been identified by many more videographers and modeling agencies to work with him. There are many more individual stories but most importantly our initiative continues to receive and register more people living with vitiligo.

Do you believe that art can reduce stigma and myths surrounding vitiligo in Uganda and Africa at large?

I believe that art can reduce stigma and myths. Looking back in the old times of Caravaggio, [Claude] Monet, Rembrandt and Leonardo Da Vinci times, artists were mirrors to their societies. They would capture moments and events which greatly and diversely informed our present times in terms of medical, health, technology, education, life trends, fashion, and politics. I believe that, as artists, we have a high sense of imagination which we can use to either build or destroy the world through our executions in fine arts, films, animations, musical lyrics and videos, designs, content on the internet. One of my philosophies as a researcher and a visual artist is that the more we paint, draw, and showcase a challenge based on research, to the public with consistency, vision and reason, we can positively influence transformations in various societal perceptions.

What are your future plans?

Through social media, many people living with vitiligo have reached out to me from different continents to be drawn. I am now looking forward to a global project which will be extremely unique. We have our second edition of the Part of Us Art Exhibition in June, 2023. I am glad that more artists, both male and female, have joined me to make this exhibition more relevant. We shall always hold biannual Art Exhibitions with purely artwork creation inspired by vitiligo skin condition. I plan to go for further studies, with my research focusing on Vitiligo and the myths, stigma, beliefs surrounding it.

Featured
Photo Credit: Dipo Doherty

In His Own Words: How Dipo Doherty Uses Technology to Enhance His Artwork

We spoke to artist Dipo Doherty about his upbringing in Nigeria, his career, the various ways he merges technology with his art, and more.

During the weekdays, Nigerian artist Dipo Doherty works full-time as an IT professional for a tech company. When off-the-clock, he is sketching 3D paintings on his iPad. Then, on weekends, he visits his studio, making abstract figurations on canvas until his imagination comes to life.

Geometrical lines, bold colors and unassuming abstraction are artistic details evident in Doherty's art, which typically provides social commentary on various topics, from the Nigerian economy to matters around family and identity. But Doherty wants his work to be universally reachable and he does that by incorporating human-centric emotions.

Doherty’s debut solo exhibition in the U.S is currently open at the Rele gallery in Los Angeles until July 23rd. In the exhibition, titled “Finding Home,” Doherty visualizes his transitory process from being a Nigerian to being a person in the diaspora living in the States.

OkayAfrica spoke to Doherty about his upbringing in Nigeria, his career, the various ways he merges technology with his art, and more.

As told to Ugonna-Ora Owoh.

Dipo Doherty painting

Photo Credit: Dipo Doherty

On why Diplo became an engineer

Art has always been my calling, but you know how rigid Nigerian parents are when their child has a passion to pursue a career that deviates from the stereotyped career — especially because of financial dependency. Ever since I was in primary and secondary school, I was always excellent in the art subject. I guess being a curious person made me keep my options opened. I like understanding the workings of things and that’s why I studied engineering. In 2012, [while getting] my bachelors in mechanical engineering, I felt that calling for art. It took me back to memories as a child and I felt I could do it. I think studying in the U.S kind of nurtured my love for art. I studied mechanical engineering at the University of Virginia. During those times I would take a trip to New York to visit modern galleries, and when I started seeing how they took art seriously in the U.S it encouraged me.

On the artists that inspired him 

One of the people I looked up to was the painter Twins Seven Seven. He was an ex-husband to Madam Nike Davies-Okundaye, Nigeria’s foremost textile designer. Twins' works had colors, depth, and geometric signs and that was something I really enjoyed looking at. I wanted to paint to his level. However, that has changed over time. Recently I have gotten the chance to enjoy a lot of work from African American artists as well, people like Sam Gilliam, who recently passed away, or [Jean-Michel] Basquiat. But there are also contemporary artists I love as well like Brian Donnelly and Takashi Murakami. I try to pull from diverse areas whether it's American expressionism or Nigeria contemporary art or even Asian artists. I just try to pull from different areas or genres.

On his artistic beginnings  

I was a very competitive child, especially in art. There was a yearning from my end to just instill an attention of detail to my art. I wanted to take things to the next level with my drawing. Slowly, I found myself drawing things I liked and also participating in art in any form, either being in the school drama club or in the band group. When I was in college, I would try to make beads and also paints, even when I started rapping and writing lyrics. There was this creative energy of wanting to create things people will enjoy but I think overtime, as I began experimenting on these things, I sort of gravitated to the one I enjoyed the most and it was painting for me. There was something about the versatility of paint, the fact it could take different textures, you could make a painting that would have so much texture to look like a sculpture but you could make it really flat or watery or it could be something between. For me, that versatility of medium was something I enjoyed and I really could with my hands. It just felt like that tactile experience with material was something that has a strong sense of gravity towards my personality.

Woman looking at Dipo Doherty painting

Photo Credit: Dipo Doherty

On how he uses technology in his artwork  

Anytime I’m done working with tech stuff my mind goes to art immediately. I have trained myself to switch those gears quickly. There are times when ideas could flow between both worlds and I think I’m also seeing that change my process. Initially, a lot of my work up until 2018 was very focused on spontaneous painting. I would have an idea which would be very vague in my mind and I would a start by playing with colors on the canvas. But now my process involves a lot more technology. I use an iPad now. I would sketch the idea on the iPad and I would insert it on the canvas and then, when it’s halfway finished, I would take a photo of it and play around with multiple ideas. And I think that has definitely helped make my work more informed. If I’m at work, I can take my iPad and continue working on a painting. I think technology is making me more efficient in working through my process. I find time where I play with different materials and experiences where I can bring technology into my work whether artificial intelligence or using 3D printing. I think I’m experimenting, just seeing where they take my work in the future.

On what his process is like

A lot of the mediums I choose is based on ideas. Primarily, I use acrylic and paint because they are a versatile medium. But one thing I realized quickly, is that there are certain materials in the world people associate a particular story with. When I’m looking for materials in my mixed media practice, I’m looking for those that are emotionally charged, that have a lot of cultural meaning to people. It’s really hard but I always try to take time to observe people in life and question myself about the materials that people don’t take seriously but resonate with them. And it just makes communicating with people very easier.

I usually try to play on different emotions. In 2018, there was a series of works I exhibited at the National Museum [in Lagos]. I called them “Covalence” and these were works I made out of burnt yellow rulers used in school. I had a chance to work at a public school where I taught civil education and one of the things I didn’t see was the passion of learning and teaching in teachers and I felt like education is something that if you get wrong can have generational consequences. So by doing those works, I was trying to speak on the irreversible nature of damage we are doing to the educational system in Nigeria. A lot of people saw the work and they could tell there was something dark about the work but there was also a sense of nostalgia they felt from seeing the rulers and how it was a object of correction maybe how their teacher would use it to hit their hands or knuckles and I loved that people resonate with the work.

Dipo Doherty in front of painting

Photo Credit: Dipo Doherty

On his "Finding Home" exhibition

It’s my first solo exhibition in the U.S. I think one of the things about finding home is communicating different emotions. One of the works in the exhibition is called “Lost in Translation." I painted a smile, an open mouth, but there was a chaos in this smile highlighted with colors.

The last exhibition I did was in July 2018. that was before I moved to do my masters in the U.S. Four years has past and I felt like I have learnt so much and gotten a lot of exposure and the have also learnt what it means to be a Black man in America. I was someone who grew up in Nigeria and, looking at it, everyone looks like me and sort of thinking about the setbacks people in the Black community in America face. What I didn’t realize was what it would mean for my relationships back home and how home was going to change and so I was in a transitory period I was questioning my idea of home and that has changed in many ways for me, whether it is having more multicultural friends or trying to learn the intonation of communicating with average Americans. And so it was from a linguistics, friendship, cultural perspective and even from a geographical perspective, there were so many thing that had changed for me that I felt like I wanted to tell the story of what it meant, being in this transitional state as a person in the diaspora moving from Africa to the western world.




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