Former banker paints women living free, pushes for equality

Wednesday August 04 2021
Sungi Mlengeya

Sungi Mlengeya painting her work titled 'Sara.' PHOTO | COURTESY


Self-taught Tanzanian artist and activist Sungi Mlengeya left her bank job in 2018 to pursue painting full-time. She is currently holding her debut solo exhibition titled Just Disruptions, which is running up to August 19, at the Afriart Gallery, 7th Street, Industrial Area in Kampala. Her pieces are monochromatic acrylic portraits of black women dressed in against a white background. She explores their journeys, struggles, self-discovery and empowerment, accomplishments and relationships.

What is the main message of your exhibition 'Just disruptions'?

Just Disruptions is an inquiry into the process of change, the necessary disruptions that are important in our society to move a step forward into achieving a fair existence for all. It is about the process of this shift, how it happens and what is involved on an individual level.

Why did you settle for dark figures in minimal shades of black and browns against white backgrounds?

I see it as a balance between simplicity and boldness, which is also a glimpse into the type of person I am. It is also a representation of freedom and a sense of calm, which are ever present motif in my work.

Why have you decided to focus on the existence and representation of women in East Africa and beyond?


I see the way women are mistreated and there are very few people questioning such incidents, at least openly. Many cultural norms in our societies do not treat women and men equally; women are forced to submit to men. Some argue that this is our culture and we should uphold it, but culture is dynamic and ever changing, so why should we hold on to anything that undermines another human being? I feel obliged to talk about this and hope to see a community that upholds equality for everyone.

Where do you draw inspiration from?

Anything can be inspiring, from a ceramic vase to a pattern. I also draw inspiration from women who demand for their own rightful existence by living however they chose.

Why did you give up your job in banking for art?

I wanted to go where I belonged, which has always been in art.

What challenges have you encountered in your art career so far?

When I was starting out, it was difficult to find platforms to share my work and without an audience there is no guarantee of collectors or financial stability. But consistent investment in social media platforms over time creates an audience for everyone.

How are you managing as an artist with the disruptions brought on by the Covid-19 pandemic?

Nothing much has changed for me; before Covid-19 I would spend most of time indoors painting. The lockdown has just intensified this.

Sungi Mlengeya

Sungi Mlengeya, and her black and white monochrome paintings, which are on solo exhibition at the Afriart Gallery, until Aug 19 in Kampala. PHOTO | COURTESY

How do you think Covid-19 affected the cultural and creative industries in Africa?

It has been a financially challenging time for many artists and institutions. With new measures to limit gatherings, museums have shut their doors and shows have been cancelled. Back home a majority of visual artists heavily rely on the tourist market, which has been dwindling since the pandemic.

It’s even tougher for performing artists and those starting out. On the other hand, there is increasing interest in African arts including music and film which have been gaining global popularity, work that can be shared digitally can still have an online audience and market.