Pulpology: Sheila Nakitende in the Studio

February 1, 2018 by

Sheila Nakitende, standing where the WSW campus meets a grouping of long inoperative cement kilns swallowed by the woods, covered El Horsfall’s face with a headdress. She chose this spot with the rock wall and overgrown fronds to stage an impromptu photo shoot. Shortly afterwards the project, sans model, was installed in the gallery. 

The ensemble, made with folded, woven, and twisted paper repurposed from the studio recycling bins, consisted of a mask, a shield or satchel of sorts, and a meticulously sanded walking stick. For a final touch, Sheila wrapped El in a long sheet of barkcloth, a material specific to her home in Uganda. Costumery’s place between craft and performance could neatly symbolize Sheila’s own approach to artmaking, but we would be left with one problem. 

This entire series, start to finish, was made in just her first week here.

After taking on this larger-than-life project, Sheila scaled down her work only to build it back up again in the paper studio. Her Parent Grant Residency was committed to practical research of contemporary hand papermaking techniques, first learning to pull Western-style sheets then creating larger, installation-sized works with barkcloth that she brought herself, cotton, and abaca. Immediately, she had surprising results: water drained through the barkcloth fibers so quickly that the pulp had no time to settle in the mould. 

An interdisciplinary artist whose practice was founded in functional textiles and painting, Sheila has since expanded her vision to consider conceptual and social contexts as well. In the last four years, she’s focused on identifying her personal communities—as a woman, artist, citizen—then discussing how she can help to connect them within a larger conversation. The breadth of her interests led her to look for earth-conscious media, upcycle used paper, and question how other creative communities seek to protect the environment. With paper’s deep roots in nature (including the number of artists who harvest their own materials) the process inherently touches on ecological self-sufficiency in the contemporary art scene. 

For her residency, Sheila arrived with sisal rope and barkcloth, formed when soaked Mutuba tree bark is repetitively pounded. Cuttings of bark can turn into yards of coarse fabric, providing renewable material without killing the tree. Sheila further processed the sisal and barkcloth to shorten the fibers using both with the mechanical beater and with handheld mallets. Finally, she mixed different ratios of pulp together then, during a month of pulling, pouring, couching, and layering, carefully recorded the results.

Watching the vivid colors dry into varying textures across each new sheet, it was not hard to see why Sheila fell in love with making paper on a grand scale. Each composition never quite loses the translucency of water once pressed and dried. Threads swirl together and ripple outwards; they feather at the deckle edge and disappear altogether. For the process, however, there’s not quite an end in sight and we should not be surprised to find Sheila continuing this line of technical investigation.

She adds, “Research is key for any project to progress. Through my practice I hope to contribute to the contemporary artistic content, techniques, ideas, and stories of our times. I can only do that through discovering what hasn’t been explored or adding on to what has been done.”

During her residency, we asked Sheila a few more questions about her practice. Watch her interview below and conversations with more artists on WSW’s Vimeo.  

Sheila Nakitende is an interdisciplinary artist and curator based in Uganda whose practice is firmly rooted in community-building, research, and performance. She holds her degree in Industrial Fine Art and Design from the Margaret Trowell School in Kampala. Find more work on her website!