Tanzanian artist Sungi Mlengeya shoots to international fame
A sold-out show at Art Basel Miami, reviews in The New York Times – artist Sungi Mlengeya from Arusha wins global acclaim with her unique minimalistic black and white portraits of women.
She grew up in one of the world’s most dramatic landscapes. “We see Kilimanjaro and Mount Meru from our doorstep”, says Sungi Mlengeya. But she chose to portray neither wildlife nor Africa’s highest mountain in her XXL-canvas paintings – but simply women. Women around her, women of Africa, women of colour. With four of her best female friends posing as models and inspiration, Sungi shot to international acclaim in the course of a few months last year. The New York Times attested her “an eye for capturing the spirit of contemporary African women in paintings stunning in their simplicity”.
“I want my art to be striking and unforgettable”, says Sungi herself. In an exclusive telephone interview with THE FUMBA TIMES from her studio in Kampala, the 30-year-old daughter of veterinary parents, who divides her time between Arusha and Uganda, talked openly and in a very down-to-earth manner despite her newly won fame. “I am happy about my success, but nothing has changed much. I still live with my mum at our family home in Arusha. I paint there or in my studio in Kampala.”
Striking and unforgettable
Sungi’s breakthrough came when she developed a unique format of minimalist and monochromatic paintings with “a curious use of negative space“, as she puts it on her own website. She places young black women with rounded faces and soft expressions on white canvas, their garments seamlessly melding into the background, as if the figures were floating in space. “A place of calm, free and detached from social norms and restrictions”, she says. ”I was looking for the perfect background in my paintings around 2018”, Sungi remembers, “when I suddenly realised, I need no background at all! Dark skin against a white backdrop, I just loved it”. And so, it turned out, does her audience as well as international critics, elevating her into the realm of artists selling between $15,000 – $75,000 per art piece.
In April or May this year the self-taught artist will star in a solo exhibition at the London Africa Centre, the first show to be held after its renovation. At the most recent Art Basel in Miami she featured with a series of paintings curated by Daudi Karungi, her partner of Afriart Gallery in Kampala, which quickly sold out.
Women of colour coming forward Her inclusion in Miami together with other African woman artists namely Marcellina Akpojotor, 32, from Nigeria, demonstrates a shift in attitude in Miami. Until recently, Art Basel’s online iteration did not include a single African-American owned gallery. But at the first in-person show in Miami since 2019 due to Covid-19, three galleries from Africa and four Black American galleries were present; additionally, showstar singer Alicia Keys performed in the Miami Design District. Sungi Mlengeya likes her paintings big. “I prefer to work with acrylic on canvas of large sizes of 150 x 140 cm or bigger”, she says. They are works that shine a light on women’s stories; their journeys, struggles, accomplishments and relationships.
“I celebrate women who surround me and want to share stories of their everyday experiences”, she explains. One critic admired her “tantalising balance between economic use of visual language and detailed engagement with her subjects”. The artists herself, who studied finance in Nairobi and worked as a bank accountant before going fully into art, simply says: “I am inspired by women who are not silent.“ She is “unburdening women from the invisible labour of performing their identity”, aptly noted another art critic.
“I love Tinga Tinga art”
Born in Dar es Salaam and later raised in Arusha, Sungi said she was surrounded by traditional Tanzanian Tinga-Tinga Art all her life and “loves it”. But “I wanted to create something different, not typical Tanzanian and yet a reflection of women here. We are expected to be a certain way, we can hardly be ourselves”, she says. And with a smile she adds: “That seems even more so for women in Zanzibar. When I travelled to Miami I chose to depart from Zanzibar, and as a single local woman travelling all by myself I was looked at like an alien.”
Sungi’s work has been collected extensively and exhibited at A Force for Change by UN Women at Agora Gallery, Just Disruptions Afriart Gallery, 1-54 Highlights Christie’s London, 1-54 Art Fair London and New York, Investec Cape Town Art Fair Solo Section, Latitudes Art Fair and Nairobi Railways Museum. The artist was recently honoured in the 40 under 40 Africa Artist list in 2020 by Apollo Magazine.