Many Africans subscribe to the mantra “black is beautiful,” but Sandra Nankoma, 29, had to learn, accept and internalise it. Growing up, her dark complexion was a living hell. She suffered stigma and ostracism from her own community.
Nankoma, a multitalented Ugandan artist also known as Sandy Soul, is proud of her dark skin.
She told The EastAfrican that the worst time of her life was primary school, where she endured name calling and teasing because of her skin colour. The trauma was less in high school and eventually she grew into her own skin.
“I was bullied from primary school to high school, and called names associated with the colour black like charcoal, darkness, kisiriza, lyanda, Mulugwara and Mudokolo, in reference to the dark skinned people of northern Uganda.
So you can imagine what I went through as a child in Vincent Alex Primary School in Mukono district,” Nankoma says. Mukono is 27km east of Kampala.
“My mother is light-skinned, so she did not understand my situation. I begged to be moved from the school I was attending but she would have none of it. I hated myself to the point that I contemplated suicide,” Nankoma recalls.
“As a safeguard against what I went through in primary school, in secondary school I researched skin colour issues, so that when I got bullied I could defend myself with the knowledge I had of dark skin,” she adds.
Her knowledge however was at some point used against her. While at the Uganda Christian University in Mukono, the male students who were intimidated by her academic excellence resorted to indirect insults, such as, “Your brain is a compensation for your looks.”
“But I was already confident of myself and had no time for people who doubted my beauty,” she recalls.
Today, Nankoma is not only comfortable in her skin, she celebrates it and uses it to sensitise her community against stigmatisation of dark skin.
Her childhood experience informed her debut solo exhibition titled Melanin currently running at the Under Ground, a contemporary art space at the basement of Nakumatt Oasis Mall in Kampala. Curated by Violet Nantume and Hashimoto Kay, the exhibition is running from June 2-22.
The space has been converted into one huge piece of artwork where Nankoma is showcasing her photography and a video installation for a performance under the theme Dark or Light? The Politics of Beauty.
A self-taught photographer, she explores the stigma faced by dark-skinned girls relayed through direct comments and subliminal media messages.
She also explores the beauty of existence through a black and white exhibition. She believes that everything looks beautiful in black and white and not just white as the world would have us believe.
She uses mixed media of paint on skin, text and illustrations to portray various emotions her subjects go through.
“I’m holding this exhibition to make a statement that having a dark skin is normal. That it’s alright to be different and media or society should not tell us otherwise,” Nankoma says.
Adding, “I am letting every girl know that they do not have to change anything about their skin because that is what defines them,” she adds.
She chose the title Melanin, to show that “discrimination based on skin colour, also known as colourism or shadeism, is a form of prejudice.”
She explains her mixed exhibition thus: “Photography pauses time and video plays the time paused. I chose to combine the two to tell a story of my past combined with my present.”
She says she now understands that bullies act out of ignorance, and that society is to blame for the stigma. She cites sayings such as, “Omuwala omumyufu ng’ettungulu” (A girl as red as a wild berry”) complimenting a light-skinned girl who is normally considered more beautiful because of her complexion.
Nankoma was an artist-in-residency at the Harnessing Talent arts residency in Kampala from July– August 2016, where she started her Melanin project.
She does not own a professional camera and for this project, she used her Techno C8 smartphone plus a Nikon D3 camera and a Sony Cybershot mini-camera she borrowed from friends.
The pictures were shot in her bedroom and at a friends’ garage and Giulio Molfese Studio in Kampala. She directed the sets and lighting, and did the editing and artwork.
Nankoma is a graduate of Uganda Christian University, and has a Bachelor’s degree in Industrial Fine Art. She is also a gifted singer-songwriter and poet. She co-founded Afroman Spice in 2015, an all-female theatre company that produces and performs plays on social change.
She is inspired by the positive energy she experiences from her immediate surroundings, community and the situations that society is afraid to address and as such, her work come across as highly opinionated.
Who she is
Born in 1988, Nankoma has a Bachelor’s Degree in Industrial Fine Art from UCU and is a gifted singer-songwriter and poet. She co-founded Afroman Spice in 2015, an all-female theatre company that produces and performs plays on social change.
She practices all her craft concurrently. She has released Mercedes, Ninze, Kaddugala, and Contribution music tracks featuring Giovanni Kiyingi and other YEAP artists. She hopes to release her debut album later this year.
Fashion also plays a big part in Nankoma’s craftsmanship. “First of all I would define fashion as a popular or the latest style of clothing, hair, decoration or behaviour, because of this fashion is a big part of communication and expression in this industry.
It relates to people very much, gives audience association and what better way to connect with your audience than fashion,” she observes.