African Women and Their Stories Through the Eyes of Tanzanian Painter Sungi Mlengeya

As we celebrate Africa Month on 10and5, we couldn’t pass up the opportunity to speak with Sungi Mlengeya – one of the continent’s rising stars in the art. Mlengeya is a Tanzanian-born artist whose striking paintings explore self-discovery and empowerment, centering black women. The artist shines a light on their stories, journeys, struggles and accomplishments – her own included. We learn more in an interview with Mlengeya.

As a painter you’re self-taught. Tell us about how and when you first started exploring art and what your journey has been leading up to this point?

I took an interest in art from an early age. I had a very quiet childhood with long, undisruptive, craft-filled days. My parents were wildlife veterinarians so we lived in a national park for some time. My sister and I would spend all day cutting paper and making crafts inspired by my mother’s Woman’s Value magazines. I had my first art lessons in primary school which I enjoyed immensely, I found it quite enjoyable to draw. I took a long break from art after that; we didn’t have any art classes in secondary school and I later went on to pursue a finance degree and got into banking. I took a leap and started painting – learning through practice almost four years into my banking career when I could no longer resist the urge to get back into art, something I always loved. I was relentless in sharing my work and came across my current gallery that has helped me in further establishing my work in the global art world.

Your work is absolutely gorgeous! It is centred around women – particularly black women, and it sheds light on their stories; their journeys, struggles and accomplishments, too. Can you tell us a bit more about your work and why you’ve chosen to highlight this?

I paint to commemorate the women in my life, reclaiming space that has been and still is denied from them. Growing up and living in East Africa, I find myself experiencing and observing the many ways women are unfairly treated, and feel like I’m among only a few people questioning these situations. I’m therefore painting women in a heroic light so that they can see themselves portrayed in a position of power and understand the strength and freedom they possess to make the choices they need to.

Another element your work focuses on is the “ties between women and the roles unity, support and friendship have in re-constructing their position in society.” Please can you unpack this for us?

I’m putting emphasis on how being united can ease and quicken the shift towards the place we want to be in society, in this case – a place of equality. Our efforts can be more efficient with a common vision and working as one to achieve this goal, maintaining mutual support and cooperation despite our individualities and differences. Conflicts can always arise in union but they provide opportunities for learning, resilience and innovation.

Your paintings consist of dark figures in minimal shades of black and browns against a perfectly white background. Tell us a bit more about this contrast of colour?

I stumbled into the white background intuitively when creating one of my earliest paintings. I felt free to leave out what my subject was wearing and the background, as a creator I could chose to do or rather not to do anything I did or did not want. Over time I have attached real life meaning into this, the empty white background is a space of unlimited possibilities and equal opportunities. The women in this space are free to go about pursuing everything they want to, unbound by any limiting traditions.

One of your pieces, titled ‘In Our Long Dress’, was inspired by the following line in your sister’s poem: “So in our long dress we ran then fell… Our steps are now our definite.” What about this line inspired you to paint this piece? What does the line mean to you?

I read my sister’s poem after creating the painting and thought they matched beautifully and went ahead to borrow a line as a title of my work. To me, ‘our long dress’ could be the weight or burden of limiting societal norms and expectations, and discouragement that are constant obstacles in our journeys. I love that the poem uses a unifying voice to signify the importance of union, and the positive note to it; that despite the setbacks, ‘‘Our steps are now definite.’’

Do you often draw inspiration from literature? If so, what are some of the other written pieces you’ve drawn inspiration from?

Literature plays an indirect role in my work, by directly contributing in the formation of ideas and concepts about the world I live in. Many of my actions can be motivated (consciously or not) from ideologies that form as a result of various literature readings. I’m inspired by the way Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie confidently and clearly communicates her feminist stand in her writings and how Ayobami Adebayo tells the story of Yejide in her novel Stay With Me, unfolding what some women go through behind the curtains to check their role as child bearers.

Although your work is particularly unique and has its own style, I’m quite curious to hear about who some of your influences in the art world are. Who are some of the artists – whether big, household names or up-and-coming, you include as your artistic influences?

The photographs of Alex Todosko were an earlier influence, and I used some of them as inspiration for some of my early works. Although not direct influences, I’m currently fascinated by the works of Lynette Yiadom-Boakye and Jason Seife, in their own way they inspire me to try and bring out the best of what I can.

This May, we’re celebrating Africa Month with a number of artists, like yourself, from beyond our borders. Can you tell us about what being an African means to you, and if this translates through your work?

Being African to me means being a native, inhabitant, or citizen of any of the countries of Africa; or relating to Africa or any of its peoples or nations and partaking in various responsibilities to ensure the wellbeing of Africa and that of its peoples and resources. I was born in Africa, my parents and their parents too so I’m with no doubt African. My work in one way or another is a reflection of this society, it’s a portrayal of women I have met in my home country and in the continent, and an advocacy for their prosperity.

Tell us a bit about the art scene in Dar es Salaam, where you were born, as well as in Kampala, where you recently moved to.

In Dar es Salaam, Nafasi Art Space is a leading center and platform for artistic exchanges. The city has two major public museums; National Museum of Dar es Salaam and Village museum, and a few galleries including Nyumba ya Sanaa and Tingatinga Arts Cooperative Society that sells the popular Tingatinga art, a nationwide art movement started by Tanzanian Edward Saidi Tingatinga.

In Kampala, 32 degrees East and Silhouette Projects offer residency programmes as well as exchange opportunities. The Uganda Museum displays and exhibits ethnological, natural-historical and traditional life collections of Uganda’s cultural heritage, with many more museums displaying individual tribal heritage. Some of the galleries here are Afriart, Umoja and Nommo.

Follow @sungimlengeya on Instagram.


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