“I’m painting women into a space of fairness, equity and freedom”: Introducing the work of Sungi Mlengeya
The Tanzanian self-taught artist uses her medium to produce calm and delicate paintings, all of which are heavily loaded with a specific set of dreams.
- Ayla Angelos
- 12 August 2020
- Reading Time
- 4 minute read
Centring her works around women – more specifically, Black women – Sungi Mlengeya sees her practice as a form of self-discovery. While the Tanzanian self-taught artist describes herself as a “newcomer”, her works are more symbolic of a craft that’s been around for decades. Rather, what she’s referring to here is that art had never particularly crossed her mind in the past, nor was it what a “responsible” person in Tanzania would do.
As a result, Sungi opted for a more traditional education and career – even if art was something that she always saw as the end goal, she still wasn’t quite sure how to reach it. “I grew up creating lots of things with my sister,” she tells It’s Nice That, “we had a quiet upbringing living in quiet settings, so we looked for crazy ways of filling our days.”
This time-filler or hobby soon came to a temporary halt but a few years into her banking career and Sungi felt the urge to create once again. An urge that grew too strong, the decision to make once again took hold and that’s when she lifted up her brush and started learning tips from the internet. “I was able to sell my very first works at home in Arusha with help from a close friend – who, unlike me, had exceptional marketing and social skills.” After gaining confidence in this field, Sungi set off on a trip around east Africa in order to familiarise herself with artists and galleries, which is where she encountered Afriart Gallery, her representation that’s introduced her to the global art world.
Sungi’s reasons for being so charmed by art are simple: she finds it “fun, playful” and she gets to use her hands often. There are other factors too, such as the varying techniques that she gets to try out, as well as the ideas and the freedom it allows in terms of experimentation. “That gives me something to look forward to and a sense of release,” she tells us. This is because, in her eyes, there are no rules. Whether this outlook is derived from her upbringing or self-taught mantra, either way, it suits her greatly and is something that many might want to take in their stride. “With art, I am communicating a language that someone from any part of the world can understand; it allows one to tap into their own thoughts or feelings, and lay them out in the open. Yet somehow, someone else is able to resonate with that.”
Driven by her own experiences and the women around her, Sungi focuses on her immediate societies within an east African setting. Thus, the work produced is calming and delicate, but also heavily loaded with context and a set of dreams encompassing equality and freedom. “There are so many norms and situations in our daily interactive environments the limit us from being true to ourselves, creating a looming tower of self-limiting beliefs, doubt and fear that can cage us into accepting a way of life that is not to our choosing,” says Sungi. “I’m painting women into a space of fairness, equity and freedom; a place where it is possible to go through life pursuing true preferences and being however you want to be. I’m celebrating that rebellious woman who is creating this environment for herself and also shedding a light on the frightened one, giving her a glimpse of life in such a space – encouraging her to come forward and make her own statement.”
An example of how Sungi puts this thought into practice can be seen in her most recent portrait series. Within, Sungi is “memorialising” images of women that she’s met in Kampala. “I wanted to focus on each one of them individually to try and capture their essence and celebrate them in all their glory,” she adds. Additionally, she’s about to start work on a piece for a group exhibition at Unit London gallery in Mayfair, set to open in October. Focusing on the “certain idea that does away with the didactic narrative burden of identity,” her piece aims to present this notion and demonstrate the “centripetal force” which “centralises a fluid notion of identity,” achieved through portraiture, domestic settings, and mundane scenarios.
Above all, Sungi’s works are here to stand for representation. She hopes that her paintings are relatable and, more importantly, can evoke a sense of calm and freedom – “to be empowered, to feel moved, to be rebellious, to be driven.” She concludes: “I just want to touch anybody in whatever way they want to be touched. I want them to feel the way I do when I look at art that I really like; to feel complete in ways that words cannot fathom.”
Sungi Mlengeya: Constant 3, 2020, Acrylic on Canvas, 140 x 140 cm
About the Author
Ayla was an editorial assistant back in June 2017 and has continued to work with us on a freelance basis. She has spent the last seven years as a journalist, and covers a range of topics including photography, art and graphic design. Feel free to contact Ayla with any stories or new creative projects.