Sungi Mlengeya is a self-taught Tanzanian artist. She works primarily with acrylic paints, creating works that are free, minimalist and concerned with the role of negative space. The paintings consist of dark figures in minimal shades of black and brown against white backgrounds, with topics varying widely from self-discovery to empowerment – her work is often centred around women, specifically black women. She shines a light on their stories; their journeys, struggles, accomplishments and relationships with their societal context. She is inspired by the everyday lives of women who surround her as they try to freely pursue their ambitions. Sungi’s work has been collected extensively and exhibited at 1-54 New York Online Edition 2020, Cape town Art fair 2020, Latitudes Art Fair 2019 and ‘Surfaces’ conceptual workshop and exhibition 2019 at Afriart Gallery Kampala – mentored by Henry ‘Mzili’ Mujunga. We asked her some questions ahead of her participation in our upcoming group show Drawn Together.
UL Could you start by talking a little about your response to the recent developments regarding the Black Lives Matter movement?
SM I had put off watching the video of George Floyd for a while, scared of what I would see, and when I finally did I burst out into tears. It pierced my heart that someone who was un armed and helpless could be murdered in plain sight by the same people that were supposed to be protecting him. Everyone who was touched has to do what they can for this movement, people should contribute in whatever way they can from an individual level to stop racial injustices that still continue, racism cannot be tolerated, we should refuse to witness something like that again. The singers should sing, the writers should write, the painters should paint. We must continue to cement the importance of our rights as human beings until everyone understands that Black Lives Matter.
UL Being from Tanzania, do you find the dialogue around racial injustice differs in any way (in a country where 99% of the population is of African descent), to how it exists in other countries like America?
SM It is completely different. I fully blend in in Tanzania because I am around people who look like me, I do not experience any discrimination because of the color of my skin. I imagine it’s a completely different case for a person of African descent living in America or any other country where they are the minority. In these places they are easier to be told apart from the crowd and be associated with the stigmas related with being black. I cannot imagine having to fight for my rights just because I look different, having to fight for the same rights the rest of the community is privileged with. I have had the benefit of growing up in a community where that does not exist.
Constant 2, 2019, Acrylic on canvas, 150 x 140cm.
UL What do you think the role of art is in combating racial injustice, how powerful a tool do you think it is?
SM Art is very powerful and I did not understand the extent of this until recently. I have witnessed a surge of people sharing my work these past weeks in the height of the Black Lives Matter movement following the racist incidents that have occurred. When I started painting it didn’t feel a lot like activism, it was natural for me to be inspired by and depict people that surround me in my community, people who are black. The art world is very global now with the internet and social media, what I paint can be viewed by someone on another corner of the world, and this can be a person of color who feels underrepresented in their community. They feel portrayed in my work. Knowing this has given more meaning to my art, that it could be touching more lives than I can imagine and playing a role in bringing about the change that we need.
UL Your work elucidates the stories and experiences of black women, often portrayed against stark, white backgrounds. On one side it seems like an interesting use of a ‘politicised palette’, but in the past you have spoken about the white space being representative of a calm and free space. Could you elaborate on this contrast of colour?
SM I chose to leave the background white in my paintings because this creates a sense of calm, helps me capture the un-capturable ; our ever-changing wants, and the infinite freedom to pursue those wants. In this space the subjects are detached from restrictive norms or settings that hinder them from pursuing their true desires or being their true selves; within this limitless space of possibilities they can be exactly that, there is also room for my audience to fill this space with their own dreams. Aesthetically, I am able to give more attention to my subjects and the extremities of the shades of the figures against the background makes them difficult not to spot.
UL Lastly, could you talk a little about the work you have submitted to our upcoming online charity exhibition Drawn Together?
SM I made a sketch of two women; one is sitting and the other one has her hands over the other’s shoulders. It portrays two people who are comfortable with each other, not uncommon in many of my paintings where the subjects are in twos. There is a sense of unity and support between the subjects which play an important role in achieving our goals. This can be observed in the real world today during these times of the pandemic and Black Lives Matter movement where collective support coming from people from all over the world, people of different backgrounds has demonstrated how with a unified voice, there can be hope for change.
Friend, 2020, Graphite on paper, 42 x 29.5 cm