In this series, we chat with inspiring women artists around the world about their life and work and everything in between.
“It felt like the right thing for me to do,” says Sungi Mlengeya, when I ask what made her want to paint the women around her. “I’m most inspired by my fellow women and I’m one of them.” We’re speaking over Zoom, Mlengeya from her makeshift studio in the quiet suburbs of Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, where she was born. It’s a bright day, yellow sunlight slanting through the window and across the life-size portrait propped up against the wall behind her. She’s currently working on a series of paintings for her first solo show, which will open at Afriart Gallery in Kampala this June. The theme is change, and she wants her art to inspire change, too.
Not only is Mlengeya self-taught, but she also left a job in banking just three years ago to become a fulltime artist. She grew up in the Serengeti National Park, where her veterinarian parents worked with the local wildlife. “It was just us and a few other families living there,” she says, “so my sister and I spent our time making crafts.” Though she remembers drawing in primary school, when she reached secondary school art was no longer recognised as a subject. And yet, as she went on to study finance at university, she had a niggling sense that one day she would return to making things with her hands. “With banking, I felt like I was in the wrong place, and that’s when I decided to take a leap of faith.”Working in acrylic with a minimalist palette, Mlengeya paints striking portraits of black women against blank, white backgrounds. It’s a bold and distinctive style and one she landed on quite quickly. “I wanted to make a statement and I was searching for the perfect backdrop, but I couldn’t think of anything,” she says. “The figure I was painting had very dark skin, and I decided white was the perfect complement.” That white then seeped into the figure’s clothing. “What she was wearing didn’t interest me; it was her I was interested in.”
Mlengeya paints the women who surround her in daily life. Some she knows well, others she’s only just met. All share similar experiences of growing up in East Africa; the story of each individual is also the story of a collective. “Where I’m from, it’s difficult for a woman to go about her day, doing the same thing as a man, without having a hard time,” she says. A hard time might refer to anything from harassment to the traditional expectations placed on women in terms of what they should and should not be doing. “I’m inspired by those women who rebel and do what they want, and I want to capture that strength for those who don’t feel they can or who are afraid. I want them to know that they can be these women, that they are these women.”Free from the social signifiers and props that clutter traditional portraits, Mlengeya’s paintings make room for us to contemplate each woman’s inner life and emotions. She works from photographs and it’s often during shoots that she gets a glimpse of how her models are feeling. “I encourage them to express themselves and be bold,” she says, smiling. “When they’re comfortable and able to do that, it transfers to the paintings.” Confidence shines through in a fixed gaze, while the slight tilt of a head raises a question.
The women in Mlengeya’s paintings manage to exist both outside of time and space and also within reality. A sense of rootedness is achieved through delicate, almost photorealist details, from the gentle folds of a neck and the creases across knuckles to the lick of sheen on a lower lip. Human connection comes across through touch and the intimate arrangement of groups and pairings: “I want to show the importance of support, friendship, solidarity, unity, and the way those things make each journey so much easier.” Yes, the negative space creates an air of detachment, but as the artist says, “You fill in the blanks: if they’re standing, you feel in your head that they’re standing on the ground even if it isn’t there; if they’re sitting, you supply the chair.”
Although they are conspicuously blank, the backdrops of Mlengeya’s portraits are more than just voids. She describes the feeling of liberation that came with her decision to keep them white and says that, when they see themselves in paint, the women around her experience a similar response. “They’re in a free space where they don’t have to conform to anything and where there are no limits,” she says. “It’s a space where there is fairness and equity, a space of infinite possibilities. Dreams can be achieved here.”
Interview by Chloë Ashby.
Images courtesy of the artist and Afriart Gallery, Kampala.