Belonging and connectedness — and their opposites, homelessness and rootlessness — have been prominent themes throughout Ouda Baxter’s life, which by any account has been far from ordinary.
The 2011 Bowdoin graduate was born in Nzara, Sudan, to an American father and a Sudanese mother. Her father, who grew up in Maine and works in international development, met her mother when he was working for a famine relief project in Sudan. They never married.
When she was a baby, Baxter and her mother moved to Zaire, and later to Uganda. At the age of six she was sent to live with her peripatetic father. “My mom gave my father custody so I would have a better life,” Baxter explained. She says being separated from her mother was devastating for her and her mother.
With her father, Baxter lived in Madagascar, Armenia and the United States. In between, she had stints of living with relatives in Delaware and Texas. After Baxter left her mother, she didn’t see her again for six years. Moreover, Baxter’s father kept the letters written by her mother to her hidden until she was 11, trying to protect her from the grief of missing her mother.
Baxter, who is 25, returned to her mother’s village in northern Uganda in January, 2009, to make an important family visit. While there she also got to see her pregnant older sister, Hayat, a nurse who lives in Ottawa, Canada. Hayat was making a trip home before the birth of her child and impending marriage.
During this visit, which Baxter said made her feel both close to yet also alienated from her African family, she took many photographs. At the time, she was not thinking the photographs, which vividly portray her vibrant family and the everyday sights of their life in the village, would end up in an art gallery. To Baxter’s surprise, however, this summer she was invited to exhibit them in The African Center for the Sacred Arts in Portland, Maine.
The museum will hold a second opening of Baxter’s show, “Uganda: Winter, An exploration of place, memory, and rootlessness,” this Friday for the city’s First Friday art walk. The show will run through the end of August.
Baxter said the show came about after she walked into the African Center, formally The Museum of African Culture, on a hot day in early summer and introduced herself to the director, Oscar Mokeme. “He found out I was an artist, and asked if I had art that could be ready in a month,” she remembered.
Mokeme said part of his mission as museum director is to support younger artists and help them develop their work. “My interest is to inspire artists who have African descent and who are inspired by African art and culture,” he said, “and to help give them a voice and presence in the gallery scene.”
Although Baxter is primarily a sculptor and installation artist, Baxter used the opportunity to display her Ugandan photos. She pored over her photos and selected 10 for the show. “The photos I ended up choosing spoke the most to me; they had the most connection with a special moment,” Baxter said. Although the pieces mostly depict people, the series’ first photo and the last don’t include any people. Baxter says she did this to reflect her sense of sense solitude when she travels to and departs from Uganda, which she always does solo.
Baxter said that while she loves her family, she feels cultural differences insert wedges into her relationships. “Uganda/Winter” explores the concept of belonging, and also the wrenching loss of not belonging. “This exhibition was about my family, and they couldn’t be here to see it,” she said. “The sadness for me is the impossibility of integrating my two lives.”
Her reunions with her mother are fraught with both tenderness and frustration. Her mother, for instance, is saddened by Baxter’s lack of religious faith. She also criticizes Baxter for her seeming lack of inhibitions. When Baxter noticed that her uncle, who was dying from AIDS/HIV, was being ignored by family and neighbors, she started talking with him on his stoop. This made her mother nervous, as she was worried about Baxter becoming infected.
At the same time, Baxter’s family extends huge amounts of warmth to their half-American relation. “This side of the family is very community-focused and open and everyone is all together and open and always laughing,” she said.
Baxter often wonders what her life would have been like had she stayed in Africa. For one, she likely wouldn’t have gotten an elite education. “You can be as smart or talented as you like, but if you’re stuck in a little town with no opportunities, no money, no connections, then you can’t really go anywhere or do anything with all that.”
She also wouldn’t have known her father, who, along with his wife, Erika, and second daughter, Jade, has been an important and supportive part of Baxter’s life. “But I would have had a stronger sense of security in who I am in my family, or in a culture, because I would be more strongly from one culture, not two or more,” she said.