Take Five: I hope to use my art as a commentary on the issues I’m passionate about and influence the positive change I want to see


Sungi Mlengeya. Photo: Courtesy of Afriart Gallery

Sungi Mlengeya. Photo: Courtesy of Afriart Gallery

Sungi Mlengeya is a 30-year-old Tanzanian artist whose talent and distinctive point of view continues to receive recognition across the globe. A self-taught artist, her minimalist style immediately grabs hold of viewers’ attention, voicing her individuality and self as a strong, empowered, African woman.

Sungi exhibited one of her pieces, “Up”, at the UN Women Force for Change Art Exhibition and Auction featuring the works of 26 talented black women artists recognizing the immense power of art created by women in influencing social justice. With sales from the auction going beyond the half a million-dollar (USD 500,000) target, “Up” emerged as the bestseller, being sold for five times its estimated value and breaking her previous auction record.

We spoke with Sungi at the close of the exhibition to talk more about her work, and to shed light on the important role of the arts in empowering women through storytelling.

Tell us about your work. What defines it and what do you feel distinguishes it from the work of other artists?

I mostly paint dark figures of women against plain white backgrounds. This white space has come to mean an infinite of freedom and possibilities, particularly when it comes to the social norms and restrictions that often work against women. The women in my paintings are immersed in this, with the themes of my paintings centered on empowering and celebrating the women in my life. When I began my art career, I allowed myself to create what I wanted and didn’t feel pressure to do what the majority were doing, I think any artist who does this is authentic in their own way.

Art has the unique power to convey ideas and emotion, and ability to impact society in unparalleled ways. What is it that you aim to convey through your work?

I want women in Tanzania and East Africa to see the strengths they possess through these paintings and I want a non-black or non-female to see them and understand this too. It’s an accomplishment if an African in the diaspora sees my work and feels represented, and I want my audience, whoever they might turn out to be, to connect with my work in a way that they find meaningful.

Having participated in UN Women’s Art Exhibition ‘A Force for Change’, what would you say stood out to you from the experience?

I felt honored to be recognized and invited by UN Women to take part in ‘A Force for Change,’ an exhibition organized to raise funds for the Black Women’s Programme to further its work on gender equality and racial justice for black women. It was great to be able to join forces with other incredible women artists from around the world, and directly contribute to important work being done to create an environment where human rights are exercised for each and every one of us.

As someone who left banking to pursue a career in the arts, how would you say the arts are perceived as a career option in the country and where do you see yourself in 10 years?

I think it’s sad how art in our country is seemingly put at the bottom of everything else. It is still absent in many school curriculums and given little priority in government planning. Artists, like any other professionals, have an enormous contribution to the societies they live in and should be nurtured just as much.

In 10 years, I still see myself in the art field. I’m here to stay, and just by having the opportunity to create every day, I am already living my dream. As I continue to do this, I hope my work can serve as a commentary on issues that I’m passionate about and influence the positive change I want to see.

What words of advice do you have for young women and girls who are also passionate about art?

I would say be brave and do what matters to you. If you really think about it, we all have the right to our own individual choices. If you let others ‘let’ you do things, that’s also a choice you’ve made. Blessings from family and friends are important and I was lucky to have this, but it is not guaranteed. One has to be brave and venture out nevertheless, and the people in your life might be more understanding when they see you doing what you love.