An emerging artist from Tanzania, Sungi Mlengeya was recently spotted by Daudi Karungi, the Director of Kampala’s Afriart Gallery – a creative space that’s dedicated to showing, tutoring and discovering young talents. Mlengeya subsequently took part in a group showcase earlier this year, as part of Afriart’s annual Surface discovery workshop season and exhibition. Dark figures in shades of black and brown are a central motif of her work, with her subjects often placed with stark white as a backdrop. Usually their garments are unpainted, with the overall blending in against such a neutral background producing an interesting contrast. Mlengeya’s work at Afriart stood out amongst her peers, which secured her a partnership with the gallery, as well as her debut at the international Latitudes Art Fair in Johannesburg.
Would you describe yourself as an artist, a figurative artist or painter? Are there differences to these terms?
Currently I’m an artist, a figurative artist, and a painter. In the long future and probably as long as I live I’ll always be an artist, but I’m not sure I’ll always be a figurative artist or a painter. A painter is just an artist who paints pictures and I might opt to choose a different medium as I evolve. A figurative artist is one who has a more representational style of their work, and that might change also as I experiment with other techniques. But I will always express myself imaginately and creatively in most of what I do, so I’m sure I’ll always be an artist.
How much does your Tanzanian background influence your work?
It has a lot to play in my art. I feel the need to observe and share what happens around me, and as a young artist a huge chunk of these stories and experiences have taken place in my home country Tanzania where I was born and raised. I still have a lot to share about my upbringing, my relationship with my family, my friends, and my community, so home is still where a lot of my inspiration comes from.
There are different shades of black and artists such as Kerry James Marshall and now Ian Mwesiga both use this tone. How important is your black “canvas recipe” and what colour blends do you use to achieve it?
For almost every painting that I make I start with three colours; black, umber and sienna. I mix these up to make a base that I use as a first layer. From there, I can add darker or lighter shades to add depth on my subject.
How do you choose other, more vibrant colours in your work?
Most of my paintings have white backgrounds, but I’ve also used reds and yellows, strips of black and white or strips of yellow and red. I like colours that stand out, that have a high contrast against my subject and make them pop. I like my work to be bold.
Can you talk about some of the titles of your work, such as It Goes on, Peer II or Conversation?
I choose my titles after I’m done with the painting, sometimes even moments before I have to let them go. I want to relate to every title that I come up with so I study my work a lot and see what message it gives and come up with a title from that. So, for instance in It Goes On, the girl is looking behind in an unbothered way as if telling whoever is watching that this has only been a moment or an incident, but life goes on. The canvas in Peer II is divided into two. The top part is red and the bottom is white and the subject is in the middle, but their eyes are just above the red block seeming like they are looking or peering into something. In Conversation, the subject is a head with only ears and a mouth to put emphasis on what is important for effective communication, which is being able to both listen and speak out openly.
What are the messages and topics in your work?
My messages and topics vary widely from self-discovery to empowerment, but common themes in my art are centred around women; specifically black women. I like to shine a light on their stories, journeys, struggles, accomplishments and their relationship with their immediate societies – myself included.
Do you also think about your audience when making a work, in terms of who will relate to the messages or who gets to take a piece home?
I hardly think of my audience when making an artwork. My creative process begins from within. I give myself the freedom to think about what technique I want to explore and what I want to talk about; preferably something personal or a borrowed experience. I’ve come to learn that it is when I share something that personally resonates with me truthfully and honestly, then more people can relate to it, be inspired or know that they are not alone.
You recently moved to Kampala. What do you think of the art scene here as compared to the one back home? And who are your favourite Ugandan artists?
The art community here is bigger. There are more stakeholders and I find myself around very serious inspiring artists from different fields. There are so many art lovers too. It’s a thrilling and inspiring environment to be in. To cut the list short, my three favourite Ugandan artists would be Paul Ndema, Stacey Gillian Abe and Sanaa Gateja.