Sungi Mlengeya — Tanzanian Artist Creates Aesthetic Through Omission

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Constant III, 2019, Acrylic on canvas, 140 x 140 cm / Image courtesy of the artist and Afriart Gallery

Sungi Mlengeya is a Tanzanian self-taught artist, who has chosen, only recently in 2018, to follow her life-long passion of creating art, leaving her career in finance in the past in order to pursue her artistic career. Even though Mlengeya’s work is based on a minimalistic approach to figurative painting, her pieces speak a vigorous and clear language of empowerment.

Using acrylic paint on canvas, the artist creates beautiful black bodies, mainly women, whom she shapes from a reduced colour palette of black and dark browns. The bodies are delicately formed, with great care to create smooth unblemished skin. The female figures are often paired or in groups of several individuals. In the way the portrayed women vary in posture, position and relation to each other, their uniqueness is highlighted. Even though their skin tone is crafted from the same source of colours and appears identical — which creates a sense of togetherness or common bond — they are clearly distinguishable from each other. Each woman in her own right displays different bodily features: slim, sturdy, tall or short physique, upright or relaxed posture, oval or round face. Mlengeya brings out the unique beauty in all of her subjects.

Almost all the figures in her recent works from the years 2019 and 2020 seem to be acutely aware of the viewer. They look in the direction of the spectator, seem to try to establish eye contact and some almost appear to stare exactly into the spectators eyes. The often almost life-size women with their unfaltering and unapologetic gaze undeniably draw attention. In her recent paintings the women mostly look stern, very earnest, without any trace of a smile. The subjects reveal very little of their emotions.

Mlengeya’s style of portraiture is in a sense reminiscent of representative nineteenth century portrait photography, where the subjects were often placed in formal, respectful standing or seated poses, in front of a completely plain background. This is also true for Sungi Mlengeya’s paintings — she omits the background altogether. Furthermore, the clothing of the figures is completely omitted as well, leaving the figures’ shapes to blend in with the background, as they are effectively revealing the plain white foundation of the canvas. The extreme contrast of the women’s dark skin against the white background generates a fascinating, captivating aesthetic. This completely white backdrop and the lack of any colour, patterns, jewellery or other distinguishing items is a way of giving the portrayed women a clean slate, wiping away their sorrows, burdens and fears; at the same time giving them space to fill with their dreams, desires and hopes for the present and the future. Simultaneously, leaving room for the viewer to project his own ideas and imagination into the depicted scenarios, leaving room for interpretation.

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Four friends, 2020, Acrylic on canvas, 140 x 200 cm / Image courtesy of the artist and Afriart Gallery

One of this year’s works is “Four Friends”, which shows a group of women standing in a row next to each other. Two of them stand close together, the other two stand apart. At first glance it would seem that they are wearing white clothes. But on a closer look it becomes apparent that the clothes have no edges, no boundaries. The dresses do not end anywhere, instead they seem to merge with the white background — into the nothingness of the white space. The assumption of their white attire can trigger the notion of purity, thinking of the Christian tradition of white dresses for the holy communion or a wedding, for example. This association changes as soon as the extent of the negative space has been grasped by the viewer. The nothingness opens up a much larger pool of associations, as these four women could be whatever, whoever, wherever they please. Only their portrayed mimics, gestures and postures are a source of limitation.

Looking from the left, the two women standing close to each other appear to have a strong bond. The slim woman on the edge is holding her friend with a firm grip of her right hand around the other’s arm. Her left hand is placed on her friends shoulder. May it seem slightly controlling at first, her body language reveals a protective attitude towards the woman by her side, who is of a somewhat stronger built. Compared to her companion, this subject looks rather shy. Her arms are hanging down with her hands touching in front of her body, maybe fumbling with her fingers. She faces the viewer frontally, whereas her protective friend has turned her body to the side. With a little gap between them, the next slender woman stands very erect, with her head held high. Her eyes are very attentive; her posture is disciplined, almost stiff as if she is holding her breath. The fourth in line is likely holding both her arms angled, supporting her hands on her back. Though the right arm is completely out of view, due to her body posture. Only a fraction of her shoulder can be seen. Her body is turned sideways, her face facing the front.

Mlengeya has portrayed each of these women with their unique features: high cheekbones, round forehead, pointy nose, broad chin, wide lips. Their individuality is mostly created by their facial features and expressions, which the artist has sculpted carefully. All the women have naked legs and feet, making them appear grounded. The variations in skirt length are a subtle feature of creating further individuality between them.

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The hems of our skirts, 2020, Acrylic on canvas, 140 x 130 cm / Image courtesy of the artist and Afriart Gallery

Two gorgeous pieces showing paired women in very different manners are “The hems of our skirts” and “Constant III” (title picture). The former, depicting two women with their bodies in side profile with their faces turned to look straight at the viewer. One of them is sitting with her hands placed on her lap, whereas the other one stands behind her, the arms hanging to her side. The figures are not shown in their complete height, as the image section is focussed on their upper bodies. Both women keep their torso straight, their eyes wide open, fixed on the spectator. The scene almost resembles a setting from a professional photo shoot. The Format of the painting is almost a square, with the necklines of the women’s clothing almost forming a diagonal from the top left corner to the lower right. This reinforces the composition’s impression of rigidity.

In comparison, “Constant III” seems to display the exact opposite. The slightly earlier work, from 2019, shows two women who are clearly comfortable with each other, probably knowing each other very well. The two women are facing the front, one of them sitting, while the other one is likely standing. The positioning of the figure in the back remains a little unclear, though, as once again the surroundings are completely omitted and only the women’s skin is depicted. The woman sitting in front seems to be resting her arm on something that is invisible. Both women hold their bodies in a rather relaxed manner, almost slouching. The woman in the back has wrapped her arms around her sitting companion, her hands crossing in front of the other’s chest. Their gaze seems far away, maybe bored. In contrast to the paired women in the aforementioned painting, who seemed focussed with their eyes fixed to the front, these women appear lost in thought. Their eyes look to the side into nothingness. Also, their body language suggests a situation where they are more at ease than the other two women. Even though the painting’s format is a square, the composition is freer, their bodies less stiff. Nevertheless, the focus of the image is once more on the female’s upper bodies. Often times, Mlengeya portrays her women subjects with short hair. In this particular instance, the woman sitting, seems to have styled her hair in broad pleated rows to the back of her head. The rather curious hairstyle presented by the woman standing in “The hems of our skirts” seems to suggest that she is wearing some kind of headdress, which is in turn omitted like every other surrounding item or piece of clothing. Anew, the artist has beautifully carved out her subjects’ unique features, modulated their collarbones and detailed the creases on their necks as well as the knuckles on their hands.

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If You Can, 2019, Acrylic on canvas, 86 x 61 cm / Image courtesy of the artist and Afriart Gallery

Sungi Mlengeya’s “If You Can”, “Souvenirs” and “Silence” are head portraits, where the artist seems to be examining various perspectives and possibilities of creating intriguing motifs. The facial details come to the fore and the skin shines flawlessly in the black and dark brown colour palette, which has become her signature style. The head of the displayed subjects is shaven clean, which makes it perfect for displaying the head shape from different perspectives: from the front, tilted upwards, presented from the back or in strict side profile, resembling representative European Renaissance portraits. Again, Mlengeya displays the beautiful features of the portrayed women against a completely white backdrop, creating a stark contrast that makes the women’s beauty radiate even stronger.

Mlengeya’s unique style of creating figures that stand out against the negative space of their surrounding instantly resonates with the spectator. It renders the viewer incapable of just walking by. The artist herself describes the decision to use this technique as follows: “Using negative space makes me focus more on my subjects, and the high contrast it creates makes it difficult not to pay attention to them. […] The white space becomes a place where these women can be their true and free selves without distraction.”¹

Only recently Sungi Mlengeya discovered the impact her art can have on people, as in the course of the rising “Black Lives Matter” movement, her work has been shared on social media more frequently. In an interview with Unit London, she stated: “[…] what I paint can be viewed by someone on another corner of the world, and this can be a person of colo[u]r 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.“²

¹ https://www.1-54.com/blog/the-1-54-interview-series-in-partnership-with-artskop3437-sungi-mlengeya/

² https://unitlondon.com/blog-in-conversation-sungi-mlengeya-interview-drawn-together/

Images courtesy of the artist and Afriart Gallery

For more information about the artist check out her website and that of her gallery:

https://sungimlengeya.com/

https://www.afriartgallery.org/artists/sungi-mlengeya/

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