Embracing Vitiligo: Ugandan Artist Dispels Skin Stigma with Portraits | Global development


It’s a confrontation with a fan of Michael Jackson that first drew Martin Senkubuge’s attention to the skin disease Vitiligo.

Senkubuge, a Ugandan artist, was picturing his tattoo of the musician to the woman at an art exhibition in Kampala in 2019, when he accused the pop star of bleaching his skin.

The woman cut Senkubuge short, telling him that Michael Jackson had vitiligo – a condition in which a lack of melanin causes pale white patches to appear on the skin and can bleach hair. Senkubuge, who was studying industrial fine arts and design at Makerere University at the time, had not heard of the disease.

The 22-year-old was shocked to learn about the stigma surrounding vitiligo in Uganda and across East Africa, and how people with the disease have been treated.

“People said that people with vitiligo were cursed and bewitched,” Senkubuge explains. “There were a lot of myths and misinformation surrounding them which was unfair.”

Senkubuge decided he would use his art to educate people about the disease. “Since art is associated with beauty, I thought to myself that I would draw pictures and models of people with vitiligo to break that stigma,” he says.

Artist Martin Senkubuge discusses a drawing by Davis Tushabomwe at the exhibition. Tushabomwe is an auditor in Kampala. Photograph: Joshua Ssemaganda and Anthony Patience / Courtesy of Martin Senkubuge

He started contacting contacts who knew people with the skin disease through social media, offering to draw their pictures. It was not easy.

“I had about 60 contacts, but only three showed up for the photoshoot,” Senkubuge recalls.

But he wouldn’t give up. He encouraged these three role models to try and persuade others to participate in his campaign.

“I told them my intentions,” Senkubuge said. “I wanted them to pose, stand up and be proud of who they are. I told them that art is beautiful and that healing begins from within.

He managed to secure a small grant of 2 million Ugandan shillings (about $ 560) from the non-profit organization Goethe-Zentrum Kampala (German Cultural Society in Uganda) to organize an exhibition. In July, it finally opened in Kampala.

“It was so rewarding,” he says. “Despite all the restrictions related to Covid-19, many people showed up. And I’m sure those who attended the show now know something about vitiligo.

People with vitiligo are “already beautiful,” he says. “We just want them to believe it.” He now plans to take his photos, and the countryside, across East Africa.

Isaac Kyoyeta, an event manager in Kampala, posed for the exhibit.
A charcoal and pencil drawing of Isaac Kyoyeta, an events manager in Kampala. Photography: Joshua Ssemaganda and Anthony Patience / Courtesy of Martin Senkubuge

It is estimated that 1% of the world’s population suffers from vitiligo, which is not contagious and can be hereditary, caused by an autoimmune disease or triggered by a stressful event, severe skin damage or exposure to certain chemicals. But it receives little attention, largely because it is seen as an aesthetic ailment rather than a life threatening.

Although it cannot be cured, there are creams that can help reduce its appearance. There is very little recognition of vitiligo in Uganda and no official figures on the number of cases are collected.

Balinda Musti, 25, who heads the Uganda Vitiligo Association, which has 1,000 members living with the disease, says the stigma surrounding the disease means many people try to hide it.

“They’re not really comfortable with people they don’t know,” says Mutsi, who developed the disease at the age of seven. “So they’ll put on clothes that cover the rest of their body, put on makeup and put on glasses.

“Many people here refer people with vitiligo to wizards and other herbalists who claim to be able to treat the disease. Wizards usually recite some enchantments and give the patient concoctions to drink. Herbalists coat the person with certain herbs. But their drugs never work.

Eve Atukunda, 31, whose image appears in the exhibit, has lived with vitiligo since she was 10 years old. At first, her parents sought help from local herbalists and other traditional healers. But when these people couldn’t help, they turned to modern medicine.

“Different dermatologists would prescribe different creams and supplements. But it didn’t really work, ”she says. While the condition isn’t physically painful, it can hurt mentally, she adds.

“Even when it grows, you don’t feel any pain,” she says. “You just wake up one day and there’s a patch all over your body. The biggest challenge with vitiligo is that it can be emotionally draining.

“It affects your mental health more than your physical health. The condition can make you insecure and lower your confidence if you don’t have social support.

A Barbie doll with vitiligo was released by Mattel in 2020.
A Barbie doll with vitiligo was released by Mattel in 2020. Photograph: Carlo Allegri / Reuters

“There are people with vitiligo who can’t leave the house… who can’t look at themselves in the mirror,” she says.

“I have always been a confident girl, even when I developed vitiligo. But when I was admitted to college, I felt different. The students would talk and you would think they were talking about you. Once I was in a taxi and the passengers started to say that my parents had sacrificed me. I came out.”

Atukunda says she wants to see more awareness of the condition of the skin. “In some tribes, people believe that a person with Vitiligo has eaten a particular animal. These myths must end, ”she said.

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