Creating Safe Spaces with Birungi Kawooya

Born in the United Kingdom to Ugandan parents, Birungi spent her early years in Uganda before returning to live in South-East London. Her art spans a journey of self-discovery and self-expression and is rooted in her mission to emphasise the importance of wellbeing and mindfulness, particularly for black women. Taking inspiration from Ugandan classical Kiganda dance traditions and modern dance styles derived from African diasporic communities, Birungi creates collages with Ugandan Batik fabrics and card.


“My art is also about creating safe dream spaces to do the work that we’re born ready to do.”


Josephine Baker Series

How did you decide who you would make art for?

I make art because that’s what I want to see more of in the world. Being raised in London in a big family, with lots of cousins from Uganda but still growing up in predominantly white spaces meant that I wasn’t affirmed in the ways that I wanted to be affirmed as a young child. I’m making art to rectify that and to see myself as worthy of admiration, to reflect my story, and now I feel a responsibility to highlight other black women- that’s going to be a life-long journey. I feel compelled to share our stories need to be told visually, and that’s where I come in. As an ex-marketer it has taken me a while to feel fully comfortable calling myself an artist, it was something that I did dream of, but I haven’t been able to pursue it until now. It’s not that my parents weren’t supportive of my creativity, they were, they just didn’t plan for it to be my life’s work. What I’ve realised is that through my artwork I can have conversations with black women, and I can encourage them to express their ambitions. Teaching art workshops gives me an incredible amount of joy to see other black women enjoy creating work in their image. I see it as a way to imagine and dream, and to access that creativity that we have inside of us that’s not often affirmed and given space. When we get to dream and imagine, it’s an incredible source of power and inspiration. I think that because black women face injustice in so many intersections, we are the ones that have the answers. We are there fighting all these fights, and that’s in spite of all that is against us. We are able to dream and come up with amazing paths to justice and restoration.


Since starting your workshop, have you had any rewarding experiences?

I’ve had a lot of really powerful experiences, I’ve experienced a lot of bliss and elation through the conversations that we’re having, through the focus that’s in the room, and the things that are able to flow when we’re all immersed in our work and connecting. Sometimes people come alone, or they’ve come in couples, friendship groups, and families. One particular experience I had recently was with an older black woman, it really made me so happy to see that she was able to rest and play and to invest in her wellbeing through making art.  She wanted to make a self-portrait, but she hadn’t drawn in decades. I was able to support her through that and give her suggestions on how to draw herself. She immersed herself in her self-portrait and made beautiful braids with the fabric.   It felt like I was supporting my younger self through making time for her. I feel that’s it’s an incredible intervention when we’re able to support each other, and to create art in our own image, and to challenge that narrative that we don’t have creativity within us.  


 Dance and movement are central to your work; can you talk about the experiences that led you to create the pieces currently on the marketplace?

I definitely made the ‘Josephine Baker’ series and the Hiplet Ballerina at the same time. I was between jobs at the time, so I think I was just settling into my creativity. I am massively inspired by black women taking up space and being proud of their heritage. The Hiplet Ballerinas are a hip-hop fusion ballet style and it’s technically exquisite. Ballet is seen as French or Russian, avant-garde and elite, but they’ve built on top of that. The average ballerina can’t do Hiplet, but the Chicago Multicultural Dance Centre is an incredible site of innovation. Josephine Baker was somebody that I’ve seen images of, she was one the most photographed women of her time. There’s more to her than her dancing and her banana skirt, although I really love that her African heritage was something that she used to propel her to fame. She was also a spy and raised a  multi-racial "rainbow village" of children, and was a civil rights activist. She is so dynamic and accomplished, it makes you stand up tall. The Kiganda Dancers dancers are hypnotic. That’s a piece full of nostalgia for me. We’d go to weddings or special occasions, and we’d have the opportunity to see Kiganda dancers do their thing. They’ll start of quite chill and then the drumming intensifies and they whip up a frenzy in the room. It’s a snapshot in time, they’re incredibly skilled dancers and I’m proud to be part of that lineage.

 Hiplet Ballerinas

How has your practice changed over time?

My practice has changed a lot over time, you can see that it my early pieces I would use a variety of African print materials. Once I realised that it was quite difficult to link it back to specific countries. I decided to just use batiks that I’d bought whilst in Uganda. That’s not to say that Ugandans are the only people who make batiks, but it felt important to me that I knew the fabrics. You’ll see that with my older pieces on BetterShared, my work is on a white background. I think part of me did that because I wanted to be really precise and exact about what I was doing. The contrast of the black skin, the fabric, and the paper, it works well, but I think there was a fear of me being perfect. Not just having these black dancers in this white space. I thought let me loosen up and actually try to fill up the page with colour because I’m a very bright and colourful person, but that wasn’t being reflected in my work because I wasn’t allowing myself the chance to experiment with paint. I’m making a conscious effort now to flood the whole piece with colour, and to experiment with paint and not be so staid.


“Through understanding how to support myself, it has given me strength to collaborate with others and to appreciate my humanity. It’s ok to not be perfect, it’s ok to figure things out with other people.”


What’s inspiring you right now, and are there any new themes or ideas that you hope to explore?

I’m developing a ‘Sisters Need Sleep’ collection. I realised that I was doing a lot of preaching on social media about what people can do to become anti-racist, better feminists, to care for the planet and just be more responsible, but I wasn’t really interrogating how all those systems work in me. So, I thought that I needed to take a break from talking about it with other people, and just actually start working on it myself. It became a period for me to self-reflect, to have more rest, mediate and to listen to my thoughts. I experience anxiety a lot and depression, I had to take some time out to really look at why that was happening again. Creating this body of work ‘Sisters Need Sleep’ where I showcase black women not dancing and performing, but taking time out for themselves, showcasing our humanity and that divine right to just be. It reminds me to take care of myself and dream about a brighter future.

Now I’ve somewhat restored myself, I’ve got a lot more mental clarity. I’m no longer afraid to collaborate and do new things, that could be collaborating with other artists, or co-creating with other people in my workshops - it’s a really exciting space about being in community and being with others. I'm developing Mindful African Art courses to make a bigger impact on participants wellbeing which is really exciting.

Kiganda Dancers

What do you do when you’re going through a creative ‘drought’?

A big part of 2020 was going through a creative drought. I went through a phase of thinking that with all that extra time I had, I could be creating a lot of work. Sure, I did beat myself up a little bit, but eventually I was able to reason with myself and recognise that you can’t always turn it on. It has to make sense, and it’s ok to be in a creative drought.


If you were stranded on a desert island, what would you bring with you and why?

Something to play music because that’s been incredibly heeling for me, something to cook with because I imagine that I’ll be eating lots of fish, and then I’ll probably need a house with everything in it.


How do you see your creative journey developing in the future?

I’m finding that really incredible people are coming to my workshops, and I love that. I’m seeing more collaborative opportunities coming. My grand ambition in life would be to support a global network of practitioners from the Africa and the diaspora who would share their skills, language and incredible art forms with an emphasis on supporting participants’ wellbeing. We know the visual arts, music and dances from Africa and the diaspora transform us and help us live richer lives. I would love to be able to co-create global school for African diasporic arts.


Buy Birungi's art here.

Visit Birungi's website.

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