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Meet Patricia Bugembe, the artist finding the power in art’s therapeutic tools

The speech therapist turned mixed media artist talks us through her creative process and her latest collaboration with BUILDHOLLYWOOD.

Time and time again, artists on the rise have proved there are no limitations on art and artists are not always born after taking the traditional route of studying art. That is exactly how artists like Patricia Bugembe find and claim their space in the world of art.

After growing up in Ethiopia, Bugembe moved to Sheffield to study Psychology and Cognitive Neuroscience. “I come from a long line of people who work in the mental health and medical field. My grandfather was a psychiatrist, my mother is a psychologist, and my elder sister is a paediatrician that specialises in neurodevelopmental conditions. And so, then I followed suit and went into psychology and neuroscience so I too could work with people with autism and other neurological conditions,” she explained. It was not until a few years ago, when she turned to drawing as a form of release, that she realised her artistic talent and began to hone her craft.

Since discovering the power of art when experiencing a tough time, Bugembe brought some of her friends together and created the ultimate judgement-free environment: a relaxed art club. “There’s no teacher who “There’s no teacher who knows who will tell us what’s right or wrong. Just us, so we feel the freedom to just sit and draw. With no teacher, and no experts, we’re all exploring from the inside out.” said Bugembe. “So, it’s more about just trying and seeing what comes out, we all just enjoy being free to create whatever,” As well as using her passion to encourage others, Bugembe has also used her rising success as a means of fundraising and helping others. Bringing together her love for art and mental health, Bugembe has raised funds to help black women access psychological therapy through Art for Therapy. On top of this, Bugembe also donates a percentage of her annual shares to the organisation Black Minds Matter.


Words by Habi Diallo

Now, as part of her collaboration with BUILDHOLLYWOOD, the same wonderful pieces Bugembe uses as a tool for good, can now be seen on billboards around Sheffield.  A series of works entitled ‘House of the Rising Stars’ featuring timeless images depicting the beauty and power of black women in particular. Within this work, four musicians (Nina Simone, Gregory Isaacs, Miriam Makeba and Grace Jones) are spotlighted – speaking on the artists, Bugembe said “like a star, their energy shines loudly every time you put a playlist on, play a tune, or if you go out dancing. It’s like they’re the ones lighting up the dark nights with their music, their influence, their gift,” Also included in the 9-piece showcase are a trio of powerful portraits from the series ‘In Her Nature’ in which lush green foliage encompasses the portraits, bringing the natural word onto the canvas; a mesmerising multimedia portrait with geometric sketched background details entitled Imani, and a line of posed ‘Dancing Queens’ fittingly displayed on the side of Sheffield’s famous live gig venue The Leadmill.

Below we speak to Patricia about her work, how she discovered her talent for art, her inspiration behind the BUILDHOLLYWOOD collaboration and what is coming next for her.

 Could you tell us a bit about your background?

I was born in Ethiopia, and I was raised there. We moved around alot though so there are many places I called home: Kenya, Uganda, Morocco, Rwanda, Zambia but Ethiopia is my favourite home. It’s definitely where my heart is. And I’m from Uganda because my parents are from Uganda and we go there every two years. That’s where the majority of my extended family are. So Uganda is also my home home. Now Sheffield is my physical home cos that’s where you’ll find me most of the time.

Do you still practice within the mental health field?

Yeah. I still do speech and language therapy, but more in the realm of vocal coaching. I basically train people to use their voices. It’s a powerful instrument that can do wonders to set one free.

What was the progression like from studying science and getting involved in art? When did you realise it was something you wanted to pursue alongside your career?

So, art came really accidentally. I think some people are probably still surprised when they see that I call myself an artist or that I do art because it’s only been since 2018. I went through a really hard time with work and my personal life and how I coped was to sit and draw endlessly for hours and hours. So there was lots of practice and I guess after months of sitting and drawing, I discovered that I had a talent, or that perhaps I practised myself into a talent.

That’s amazing. So, you didn’t really draw when you were younger, it is a pretty recent passion?

Yeah, I didn’t draw. People have laughed at my previous attempts to do “art”, some people, who perhaps presumed me as more the sciencey one and far from creative, but I did have a good friend who during that hard time told me to just pour out what I needed to onto a sketch book, and I did. By the time that sketchbook was completed, I realised I really enjoyed it. It was such a relaxing activity to do. I always felt better after doing a drawing. So, I continued, and it’s now my respite. When I need to destress or untangle things that are within me then the sketchbook comes out. Within hours, I find I’m relaxed, and everything’s resolved in my head. It’s still very much a therapeutic tool for me, which makes things quite awkward sometimes when people ask me to talk about my work and I sort of think, well, I know what I was going through as I drew that picture, you may not want to know about the pains that lead to the beauty you are looking at. I think that’s also what my art signifies in a way, that somethings are so ugly to talk about eg racism and experiences of black people, so I’d rather people have that conversation in their heads while facing the undeniable beauty of black people. It’s made that whole conversation for me much easier. To have it through art.

It’s a very personal practice. Do you remember the first piece you completed and thought okay this is something I actually really want to do?

Yeah, I can remember. It was kind of following the style that I have now.  It was a doodle actually. I drew a doodle of an African woman dressed in African print. It allowed me to play with lots of different colours. At the end of doodle I thought, I really like this. When other people saw it and said they wanted to buy it. I thought wow, you want to buy my doodle? That’s when I thought, if they want to buy this, let me show them the others. And then I just kept recreating things that I felt I could put in a frame and give to someone as a gift. I still wasn’t confident enough to call myself an artist and sell, but I appreciated what I was creating, and other people did too. For some time, it was just gifts, and the first gift went to my sister.

Now when you kind of sit down to do a piece, are the inspirations you draw from still very personal, or do you draw inspiration from other places as well?

I try to sort of keep my style. So, I’m probably not as free as I was when I started because I’m aware of the ‘try do what you did last time’ kind of drawing. With me, not having an art education background, I did not know anything really to do with art. When I hear artists talk about art, I don’t really know or understand what they’re saying. I don’t know much about depth, colour combinations or the rules on how to capture real life in my sketches. My first few images were literally doodling from my imagination,  just drawing faces as we learned in primary school, you know, with eyes in the middle of a circle.

Then I started recreating images of women that I saw. And so then I had maybe a year of learning which style I preferred. I’ve learnt now from some of the artists that there is a grid method. So, I use the grid method in my pictures – that’s probably the one technical thing I do now. I didn’t even know about different mediums, like paint, oil paint, gouache, graphite and all that. So, I stick with what I’m comfortable with, which is charcoal. I use one stick of charcoal and one white pastel. Because my style is drawing black people, all my sketchbooks are black, I tend not to use any other. Maybe if I’m just doodling, I might use them but if I know I’m sitting down to create something I bring out the black sketchbook and draw in there.

Sometimes, I think to myself, ‘okay, let’s explore what else is in there’, especially in the summertime, I’ll sit outside and bring the paints out. You don’t have to have gone to art school to do art so my friends and I, who know nothing about art created this at home art club, where once a month we get together, and everyone brings their own art tools and we explore. I suppose from there, maybe I’ll learn to develop new techniques and might get into using paint, or maybe just learn about the different ways to create, but doing it not so academically, more as a free hobby, free exploration. So my inspiration remains as drawing from what’s inside, but I’m being inspired to try different ways to express that deeper inspiration.

In your line of work, have you seen how creative therapies can help people?

As a speech and language therapist, I use singing as a means to build confidence and self esteem. Having worked with people with autism for nearly 15 years I also hugely value visual communication. We use comic strips alot as an intervention in speech and language therapy and so i frequently witness the creative arts being a highly succesful intervention in helping a person make sense of the complexities of this world. So yes I do recommend drawing more from the creative arts as a form of therapy or respite at least, whether that be drawing, singing, acting, writing, dancing, making music, or even strutting.

In the past, you’ve raised money to help funds to help black women access psychological therapy. How did that come about?

The trauma I was going through at the time my art was coming to life was very much race related, there’s very little awareness and discussion into the real-life impact racism has on one’s mental wellbeing, psychologists will put their hands up and say the field is ill equipped with dealing with this. So, through all that difficulty there wasn’t any psychological support available that was culturally sensitive. So, when people were buying my art, the pieces that set me free, I thought what I got from that I needed to give back, knowing that there is a whole demographic of people who would be going through what I went through, and not being able to get any help. With several of my friends who also had these concerns, we wanted to start up a fund because culturally sensitive therapies weren’t available through the NHS, you’d have to go private. So the some of the profits I make through my journey go towards making sure other people can be supported and get the help they need.

Could you talk us through your collaboration with BUILDHOLLYWOOD and the inspiration behind pieces you selected to showcase?

This collaboration came about because music is my number one passion.  Every time I’m drawing, I’m most likely listening to music in the background and the music is speaking to me and my charcoal drawing at the same time. So many of my pictures have a musical influence. BUILDHOLLYWOOD and Jack Arts are all about celebrating arts and culture, so its where skill in the visual arts and my love for music can also be celebrated. The series celebrates gifted musicians that I feel represent me somehow and includes, Miriam Makeba, who I feel like we need to keep reminding the world of her greatness. Nina Simone, she’s always been a number one favourite of mine, and I’ve drawn on her many times– she speaking to me a lot. And then I did Grace Jones because she’s also strikingly rebellious, and last but in no way least, Gregory Isaacs, the Cool Ruler, because reggae is “My Number One”.

Historically, black women have often been looked overlooked and arguably erased in the art world, how important is it for you to depict the beauty of black women in your work?

 Yes, I get people asking me if i draw white people. I can draw any person I think. But as a dark-skinned black person, that’s who I identify with. And I think the lack of the representation had me mind boggled because the usual explanation why black people are underrepresented is that we are a minority but statistically we are not a minority. Far from it. There are many, many, black people in this world so we should get used to and comfortable with this reality.

What do you hope people take away from your work when they see it on the street?

I hope people realise that representation matters. I hope people see that representation matters. And that there are different perspectives to what’s normal and what’s extraordinary. I hope people grow more comfort with us and shed the fear and face reality. I think we’re only forcing ourselves to live in a fake world, if we keep going down this route, not accepting the reality around us. So I hope people see my images on the street and somehow sense the realness.

What’s next for you?

I’m looking to expand and explore. Up until now I’ve been creating at home in that kind of comfort space and been exploring painting in our art club and realising that it’s something I can do. I can branch away from charcoal and continue to create my signature style using paint. So maybe I’ll create some large-scale paintings next. I’m also looking at things that I can do digitally. I’m really into animations and making videos – this allows me to combine visual arts with my number one passion. If you visit my website, you may probably notice that with a lot of my pieces I’ve made a short reel with some music in the background to promote it. The truth is I probably spend more time creating the videos than I do the original artwork. I’m also open to exploring what else I may want to express but find difficult to say verbally. For as long as the world keeps telling me I can’t do or say somethings, I’m likely to keep finding something to draw about, and communicate what I need to that way.

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