In her first ever UK exhibition entitled (Un)Choreographed, Tanzanian-born artist Sungi Mlengeya investigates the power of dance movement in women's liberation. Documenting the women around her, family and friends alike, Mlengeya invites us to join her vision of dance as a pathway to freedom. Curated by Tammi Bello and Jessica Lowe-Mbirimi, Mlengeya’s exhibition unveils eight striking large-scale paintings that radiate energy and celebrates the agency and power of their Black women subjects. ‘(Un)choreographed’ reflects the artist’s recent interest in immersing herself in her abundant culture as a journey of discovery. Through Dance, Mlengeya explores larger social themes of female empowerment, specifically that of Black women.
“Growing up I listened to Lingala music and later I familiarised myself with the shoulder-shaking dances from my mother’s tribe the Nyisanzu from Singida. These dance movements, among many others, have always fueled freedom and joy within me and within many around me, including those in the paintings", she explains. Through her work, Mlengeya gives us an intimate glimpse into her world and the women that inspire her. "It's something that I grew into doing" she explains, "Because when I was starting out, I would just look at random images from the internet. But then I found out that I could actually take photographs for myself and use those as references so I started thinking about the women around me, my family, or my friends, and that's what I've been doing since". This approach serves the series extremely well. From pointed-toe ballerina stances to mid-dance stills - the paintings inhabit a realness and candidness that is not often seen in figurative work. "I like to capture them with strong expressions because I want to inspire that sense of pride and strength in freedom and power. When they see themselves in the paintings, I want them to be reminded that they are these people, and they actually have the power that they see in the work."
Developed in partnership between Ugandan-based gallery Afriart and The Africa Centre, ‘(Un)choreographed’ pays homage to the vivid history of dance and the myriad of ways that dance creates liberation for women across Africa and its Diaspora. Mlengeya recently moved to Uganda and tells us of her experience as an artist based in the country. "For me, Uganda offered more diversity than Tanzania", however there are still barrier to entry in for the creative industries in most parts of Africa. "It's an unusual career path at the moment, still in East Africa, and so I didn't think that I could study it. I studied finance and worked in a bank for a few years/ But then I just felt guilty for not creating, it felt like a calling to me. So I made a decision to to become a full time artist." When we asked her about the process between working full-time in the finance industry to transitioning to a full-time artists, Mlengeya explains "I really just quit my job and started painting. That's all it was. And I felt so at peace when I did that, even though it was difficult."
Though the process was reasonable straight-forward for Mlengeya, she attributes this to the unrelenting support from those around her. "I starved" she laughs, "it was really hard, but it was a leap of faith. My family and friends were supportive so I feel really privileged that it only to make a year for art to become a sustainable career for me." For a lot of young people on the continent, and of the African diaspora, aren't isn't always seen as a viable career option. However, it is easier now to pursue a career in the creative industry that it would have been just one generation ago. And for that, we thank the internet. "Because of increased access to the internet, you can put your art out there and anybody can see it," she concludes. The (Un)Choreographed exhibition is currently showing at The Africa Centre in Southwark and will be running until the 24th of July.
Words by Aisha Ayoade
Images courtesy of Nigel Glasgow