Working in acrylic with a pared-back palette of browns and blacks, the Tanzanian painter Sungi Mlengeya creates arresting portraits and double-portraits of men and women from East Africa, and places them against conspicuously blank, white backgrounds. The artist describes these backdrops as ‘a place of calm, free and detached from social norms and restrictions, real and imagined’. If there is an idealising impulse behind these works, the artist’s use of white space also allows her to achieve an intimate realism; by placing the spotlight squarely upon her subjects, she makes their inner lives and emotions the focus of the viewer’s imaginative response. A recent series of works shown at 1–54 Contemporary African Art Fair in New York depicts a number of women who look at the viewer with calm and collected dignity, while the varying arrangement of the figures invites us to guess the nature of the relationship between them. Mlengeya is self-taught and left a career in banking to paint full-time as recently as 2018. Since then her work has been shown to acclaim at Latitudes Art Fair in Johannesburg, Afriart Gallery Kampala and the Cape Town Art Fair.
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