The de Young Museum Presents Ugandan Artist Leilah Babirye's First US Solo Museum Exhibition

May 22, 2024

Image credits: Leilah Babirye "Senga Muzanganda (Auntie Muzanganda)," 2020  Glazed ceramic, wire and found objects, 55 x 22 1/2 x 17 1/8 in. (139.7 x 57.15 x 43.51 cm) Property of a Private Collection, Boston, Leilah Babirye "Nakatiiti from the Kuchu Grasshopper Clan," 2020, Wood, copper, nails, found objects, 63 3/4 x 29 1/2 x 8 in. (161.93 x 74.93 x 20.32 cm), Courtesy Gordon Robichaux, New York. Photos by Greg Carideo. Courtesy of the artist, Stephen Friedman Gallery, London and New York and Gordon Robichaux, New York.

Artist reclaims personal and cultural identities to forge belonging for queer Black people

12 sculptures—including 3 new—created utilizing discarded materials in dialogue with historical collection

de Young Museum / June 22, 2024–June 22, 2025

SAN FRANCISCO, May 22We Have a History— artist Leilah Babirye’s (Ugandan, b. 1985) first solo museum exhibition in the US—speaks to the power of reclaiming identity and creating community through artistic practices. Through 12 sculptures exhibited alongside works from the historical African Art collection of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco (the “Fine Arts Museums”), Babirye illuminates the connections between past and present and the evolving nature of African arts that is at the heart of the Fine Arts Museums’ African Art program. Inspired by the gender fluidity of a Dogon ancestral figure in the Fine Arts Museums’ African art collection and working with natural clay, wood and found materials Babirye has created three new sculptures for the exhibition.

We Have a History" introduces the powerful and urgent work of Leilah Babirye, a leading voice in contemporary sculpture and queer activism. It is the second in a series of exhibitions in our new African Art program, which explores the legacy of African creative traditions and their profound impact across historical, geographic, and aesthetic lines” stated Thomas P. Campbell, Director and CEO of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco.

Born in Kampala, Uganda, and based in New York, Babirye engages in a multidisciplinary practice steeped in activism. She transforms marginalized materials into objects to create queer community and belonging. Through her highly expressive, ambiguously gendered sculptures in ceramic, wood, and discarded objects, the artist reclaims ceramic and wood-carving traditions from West and Central Africa. She hand-builds her ceramics, firing them with expressive glazes, while she whittles, scorches, and burnishes her wood sculptures. As a final touch, she adorns them with wire, bicycle chains, inner tubes, and other found metals and materials collected from the streets of New York. Her choice to use discarded materials in her work is intentional—the pejorative term for the gay community in the Luganda language is abasiyazi, meaning “sugarcane husk”. In other words, Babirye explains, “It’s rubbish—the part of the sugarcane you throw out.” She reclaims this term as a gesture of liberation in her work. 

Babirye’s sculptures range in scale from towering totemic forms to busts, talismans, and masks that form portraits of her LGBTQ+ community. She gives each sculpture a name that is rooted in traditions of clanship and the Kingdom of Buganda. One of the largest of the medieval kingdoms in present-day Uganda, Buganda was established in the late 14th century along the shore of Lake Victoria and evolved to become an important and powerful state during the nineteenth century. Babirye invokes the openly bisexual 19th century Bugandan king Mwanga II to support her critique of the homophobic attitudes that took root in Uganda during colonialism. Adorned with metal and nails, her sculptures of queer queens are named after contemporary princes and princesses within Buganda’s royal family.

“Leilah Babirye represents a new generation of sculptors transcending traditional boundaries while maintaining a deep connection to its roots. Her monumental sculptures have become recognized symbols of queer Black love , celebrating the resilience and ingenuity of African people while also preserving their rich cultural heritage. She has pushed sculpture forward by carving a place for queer artists and queer community while creating some of the most interesting, challenging, and ambitious forms—freely transforming the body, prodding social taboos, and redefining beauty,“ added Natasha Becker, Curator of African Art, The Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco.

Babirye innovates on historical African sculpture with the contemporary techniques in ceramics, sculpture, and design that she learned at university in Uganda. Through her dynamic artistic practice and heritage rooted in Africa, she reclaims personal and cultural identities to create a sense of belonging for queer Black people in the present. We Have a History creatively reengages objects in the Fine Arts Museums’ African art collection that speak to ideas of community and belonging. 

Press Tour

Leilah Babirye and Natasha Becker will lead a tour of the exhibition for members of the press on Friday June 21, 2024 at 10 am. Please RSVP for the tour to


To coincide with the opening of the exhibition, the Fine Arts Museums will premiere a film centering Babirye’s artistic practice and journey as an artist, and featuring her reflection on the sculptures she created for We Have A History. The film is part of FAMSF Presents, a video series highlighting the work of artists shown at the de Young and Legion of Honor museums, including the Webby Award honoree Patrick Kelly: The American in Paris.

Exhibition Organization 

We Have a History is organized by Natasha Becker, Curator of African Art at the Fine Arts Museums. Lead support is provided by Denise Littlefield Sobel.

About the Artist

Leilah Babirye was born in 1985 in Kampala, Uganda. She lives and works in Brooklyn, New York. She studied art at Makerere University in Kampala (2007–2010) and participated in the Fire Island Artist Residency (2015). In 2018, the artist was granted asylum in the US.

This year Babirye was the subject of a solo exhibition at Yorkshire Sculpture Park, UK and she was invited to the 60th International Art Exhibition organized by Adriano Pedros for the 2024 Venice Biennale. The artist has recently presented in group exhibitions at the Hammer Museum, Los Angeles; The Whitworth Art Gallery, Manchester, UK; Hayward Gallery, London, UK; Museum Moderner Kunst Stiftung Ludwig Wien, Vienna, Austria; Parrish Art Museum, Water Mill, New York; and Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum, Ridgefield, Connecticut. She created a site-responsive work for ‘Black Atlantic’, a Public Art Fund project at Brooklyn Bridge Park, New York, which opened in May 2022.

Babirye’s work can be found in public collections including the Africa Centre, London, UK; Hammer Museum, Los Angeles, California; Herbert Art Gallery & Museum, Coventry, UK; Hessel Museum of Art, Bard College, Annandale-on-Hudson, New York; Museum of Art, Rhode Island School of Design, Providence, Rhode Island; Sammlung Goetz, Munich, Germany and Whitney Museum of American Art, New York.

About the Fine Arts Museums’ African Art Program and African Art Collection

Launched in 2022 by Natasha Becker, inaugural curator of African art, the Fine Arts Museums’ African art Program features contemporary artists from Africa whose work draws on and engages the artistic and cultural traditions of that continent. In 2023, the first exhibition in this program presented work by South African artist Lhola Amira, which offered a spiritual experience targeted at cleansing and healing of wounds, as well as fostering connection. 

The program presents work in dialogue with the Fine Arts Museums’ collection of historical African Art. The collection originated with works of art exhibited at the 1894 California Midwinter International Exposition held in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park, the collection then steadily grew through museum purchases and gifts from Bay Area art collectors. Today it comprises approximately 300 world-class artworks, largely from the 19th century through the mid-20th century, when tremendous political, economic, and religious change influenced art and culture in many societies through colonialism, imperialism, war, and globalism. Artworks range from an ancient Dogon wood figure from 11th-to-12th-century Mali to the work of renowned contemporary artist El Anatsui, a sculptor from Ghana who transforms everyday materials into striking installations. Outstanding examples of masks and figural sculptures from art-producing cultures in West and Central Africa are on view in the de Young’s African Art gallery of African art.

About the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco

The Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco oversee the de Young museum, located in Golden Gate Park, and the Legion of Honor, in Lincoln Park. It is the largest public arts institution in San Francisco, and one of the most visited arts institutions in the United States.

The de Young originated from the 1894 California Midwinter International Exposition. The present copper-clad landmark building, designed by Herzog & de Meuron, opened in October 2005. Reflecting an active conversation among cultures, perspectives, and time periods, the collections on view include American painting, sculpture, and decorative arts from the 17th to the 21st centuries; arts of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas; costume and textile arts; and international modern and contemporary art.

The Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco respectfully acknowledge the Ramaytush Ohlone, the original inhabitants of what is now the San Francisco Peninsula, and acknowledge that the Greater Bay Area is the ancestral territory of the Miwok, Yokuts, Patwin, and other Ohlone. Indigenous communities have lived in and moved through this place over hundreds of generations, and Indigenous peoples from many nations make their home in this region today. Please join us in recognizing and honoring their ancestors, descendants, elders, and their communities.

Media Inquiries

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