Sungi Mlengeya artist portrait

Sungi Mlengeya: Space as a place of action

Tanzanian artist Sungi Mlengeya works primarily with acrylic paint on canvas, where her subjects vary between self-discovery and empowerment – specifically in relation to black women. Sungi sheds a light on their stories; their journeys, struggles, accomplishments and relationships, navigating, too, her own lived experiences as a black woman.

In light of the current pandemic, Ellen Agnew for Artskop3437 spoke to Mlengeya to find out more about her work and practice – especially during these trying times.

Sungi Mlengeya, At the end of the evening, 2020, Acrylic on canvas, 140x200cm
Sungi Mlengeya, At the end of the evening, 2020, Acrylic on canvas, 140x200cm
Courtesy the artist and Afriart Gallery

Ellen Agnew: Your works focus primarily on the lives of black women, specifically on the “ties between women and the roles unity, support and friendship have in re-constructing their position in society”. Could you perhaps expand on this – how do these ‘notions’ inform women’s societal standing?

Sungi Mlengeya: I know how important it is to be close to people who share the same views as I do, or – more importantly – people who inspire me. 

If people believe in a certain way of life religiously because that is what was passed on to them, without having any instinctive insights nor influence of a person who thinks differently and questions these practices, they will continue to practice that way of life without question and also pass it on to others – it is difficult to change. 

So, when a person in a community is brave enough to question norms, and is backed up by likeminded people and they inspire others to think differently, it becomes easier to achieve movement towards a better standing, through their unified voice.

Sungi Mlengeya, Still, 2020, Acrylic on canvas, 140x130cm
Sungi Mlengeya, Still, 2020, Acrylic on canvas, 140x130cm
Courtesy the artist and Afriart Gallery

E.A: Working in acrylic paint on canvas, you explore ‘space’ in a minimalistic manner. What is your thinking behind this, and how does it relate to your focus on black women’s lives?

I stumbled into the minimalist space in one of the earliest paintings I made, and I remember how free I felt knowing that I could choose to paint or leave out anything I wanted, and that I could still be bold by being simple. Using negative space makes me focus more on my subjects, and the high contrast it creates makes it difficult not to pay attention to them.

For the longest time, black women have been associated with hardship and suffering. In my paintings, they rise above all this and become just themselves, giving them the focus that they deserve to be glorified for who they are. The white space becomes a place where these women can be their true and free selves without distraction.

Your body of work, titled Optimism and which was recently exhibited at the Investec Cape Town Art Fair in Cape Town, South Africa, focused on the notion of hope and remaining optimistic. Now, as the entire world finds ourselves in a space of immense uncertainty due to the spread of COVID-19 – would you say that this body of work – or perhaps your work overall – has taken on a whole new meaning?

In these uncertain times, my paintings carry the same meaning, stronger now more than ever; which is to remain strong and optimistic and continue to work towards achieving our desired state – being able to get back to the everyday lives we chose. 

Sungi Mlengeya, The hems of our skirts, 2020, Acrylic on canvas, 140x130cm.
Sungi Mlengeya, The hems of our skirts, 2020, Acrylic on canvas, 140x130cm
Courtesy the artist and Afriart Gallery

In exploring ‘space’ in your work, you’ve mentioned that this space represents “a place of calm, free and detached from social norms and restrictions, real and imagined, that have altered complete liberty”. With the current limit of both movement and space – a complete alteration of our physical understanding of liberty – how are you navigating this concept within your work?

The space in my work refers to a place that we are longing for. It refers to a freedom of movement and space that we are currently missing – and so can be included in this state that is desired. 

Although this freedom can only be achieved in the future, we are doing what we need to do today to achieve it tomorrow. One of the things I’ve come to learn is that there are certain freedoms that have to be sacrificed in the short term so that they can be enjoyed more sustainably in the long term. 

The space referred to in my work could therefore also be a place of action to include things that are being done now for the future, that is sacrificing our freedom of movement and space so that we can continue to enjoy them later, for longer.

Lastly – how has Tanzania responded to the pandemic, and in turn, how has this response affected your practice? Could you give us an idea of what it’s currently like to be a practicing artist, living and working under some form of ‘lockdown’?

The Tanzanian government has closed schools and other educational institutions, and restricted unnecessary public gatherings, but I have been in Uganda during this time and there is more strict lockdown here. I still paint everyday so despite the absence of social life, my routine has not been heavily affected. I’m grateful that I can still create.

This article is part of the Interview Series 1-54 in partnership with Artskop3437.
The works of Sungi Mlengeya will be presented by Afriart Gallery as part of of the 1-54 online edition on Artsy, available to all on 6 May 2020.

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About the author

Ellen Agnew

Following an undergraduate degree in Fine Art and a postgraduate degree in Journalism – both from the University of Stellenbosch – Ellen worked as the Junior Editor for ART AFRICA magazine for just over 18 months. Here, Ellen was fortunate enough to represent the publication at a number of art fairs, including the Investec Cape Town Art Fair, FNB Art Joburg and Art Dubai; and interviewed prolific artists such as Sir Professor Zanele Muholi, Diane Victor and Lawrence Abu Hamdan – the winner of the Turner Art Prize for 2019. Ellen joined the team at Iziko Museums of South Africa as their Communications Coordinator in 2018, and continues to write on the art world in her free time.

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