Artist Sandra Nankoma aka Sandy Soul has felt the sharp sting of ridicule for her dark skin. Growing up, she was baptised a host of names including; “charcoal,” lyanda”, kisiriza, and “darkness,” all associated with the black colour.
Nankoma, who is very proud of her dark skin, says she had it rough during her primary school days– but the name calling and teasing subsided through her secondary and tertiary education.
“There was this particular boy in my primary school who always led the bullies to taunt me every day. If he was the first (to arrive) in class, I would hide in the stinking toilets until break time,” Nankoma recalls.
“I felt that I did not fit in school. I stole my mother’s make-up in order to appear lighter because she is light-skinned - which did not help. I even asked my mother to change my school because of the daily taunting. I hated myself and even contemplated suicide because my mother did not understand my situation,” she added.
To guard against a repeat of her primary school experience, Nankoma researched on her dark skin while in secondary school so that she could defend herself from a point of knowledge.
While at university, it was the male students who felt insecure with Nankoma’s intellect who bullied her with insults such as ‘your brain is compensation for your looks.’
However, she confronted the critics. “I was now confident and no one dared bully me. Besides, I did not have time for people who doubted my beauty. I would fight back by acquiring knowledge so that I am able to defend any issue,” she recalls.
Coming out of her shell
It is this experience that informed Nankoma’s debut solo exhibition titled “Melanin (Kaddugala)” that was held at the Under Ground - Contemporary Art Space in Kampala. The exhibition ran in June this year.
Nankoma transformed the art space into one huge piece of artwork where she showcased her photography and a video installation for a performance under the theme “Dark or Light? The Politics of Beauty.”
As self-taught photographer, she explores the stigma that society visits upon dark-skinned girls through the harsh comments and subliminal messages directed at them especially through the media.
Nankoma also explores the beauty of existence through a black and white exhibition. She believes that everything looks beautiful in both “black” and “white” and not just “white” as the world would have us believe. She uses mixed media of paint on bodies, texts and illustrations to portray various emotions of her subjects.
“I put up this exhibition for the dark girls to feel comfortable in their skins. I am coming out of the shell resulting from all the negativity and name calling for being a dark-skinned girl. Now I am letting the people know that all you need is melanin to be beautiful. Do not change anything on your skin because that is what you are. That is what is going to define you,” she adds.
“I chose melanin for this exhibition because so many people are ignorant of its use and importance to our bodies hence they get rid of it to free themselves of society judgment yet they need to protect it because it is the reason for our beauty and beautiful eyes, aside from offering protection from the sun. So it is just not the skin, its more than skin, it is our life and freedom to live without disease,” she added.
For this project, Nankoma used her Techno C8 smart phone plus a Nikon D3 camera and a Sony Cyber-short mini-camera she borrowed from two friends. The pictures where shot in her bedroom in Mukono, and at a friends’ garage and Giulio Molfese Studio in Kampala. She directed the sets and lighting, and did the editing and artwork.
She works with different media such as sound, video, dance, illustrations and paint to create harmonious presentations that express what she defines as “conversations in my mind.”
Her practice is inspired by the positive energy she experiences from her immediate surroundings, her community and the situations that society is afraid to address. As such, her work easily comes across as ‘opinionated.’
Activism against discrimination
Nankoma singles out a few deep-rooted sayings that propagate the dark-skin prejudice in Uganda. Omuwala omumyufu ng’ettungulu, literally, “a girl as red as a wild berry” is a very common saying from our ancestors complimenting a light skinned girl who was normally regarded beautiful because of her light skin complexion. Presently it is not uncommon for a pretty, dark-skinned female to receive comments such as “you are too beautiful for a dark-skinned girl,” or “why don’t you bleach, you will look better.”
Nankoma also blames the media for fuelling this discrimination through the employment of light-skinned women in music videos and television commercials.
Nankoma believes that people are pushed into skin bleaching because of “lack of self-esteem, poor counseling, peer pressure and being bullied. If I had bleached my skin no one should have blamed me because the pressure was too much for me.”
After her own experience, Nankoma decided to focus on the advantages of being dark skinned. “I have also channeled my energy into freeing the minds of younger girls who believe that being black is not beautiful enough or that you are social misfits. This is through my art and what I choose to do with the dark-skin that elevates a dark girl,” Nankoma says.
“I encourage them (young girls) to jealously protect their melanin because it is what gives them the beauty that they possess. The melanin is the determinant of your beauty. The more melanin the more beautiful your skin looks. So it is not a crime to have melanin but rather beautiful to be different,” she adds.
Born in 1988, Nankoma holds a Bachelor’s Degree in Industrial Fine Art from Uganda Christian University. She is also a singer-songwriter and poet. She co-founded Afroman Spice in 2015, an all-female theatre company that produces and acts plays on social change. She practices all her crafts concurrently and believes in marrying them because each one informs the other.
Earlier this year Nankoma won a music award called Visa Pour La Creation by Institute Francaise France that came with a three-months residency (August – October, 2017) in Paris; meeting and working with professionals in the industry. “This was very important because some of the work on my debut album was recorded in France and it will be released in February 2018 on major online music shops. The name of the album is Essence and I am still looking for a Luganda word for the album,” she says.
Multi-talented artist and activist Nankoma, the actress
Sandra Nankoma aka Sandy Soul has acted in long line of theatre plays and musicals. She is a member of a drama group called Afroman Spice which is made up three women Sandy Soul, Rasheeda Namulondo and Ms Nanda. The group’s plays, musicals and poetry are about social issues affecting Uganda and Africa at large. Sandy Soul has performed with the group in Uganda, Kenya and Ivory Coast.