New York Times: In Opposite Styles, 2 African Artists Capture the Same Spirit
LONDON — At first glance, the works of Marcellina Akpojotor and Sungi Mlengeya seemingly have nothing in common. Ms. Akpojotor’s bright canvases are infused with color and textiles, and Ms. Mlengeya creates stripped-down black-and-white works that are stunning in their simplicity.
“One is more minimalist, while the other is loaded with craftsmanship, with skill, with nuance, with maybe a bit more overt messaging but also equally well done,” said Azu Nwagbogu, the founder and director of the Africa Artists’ Foundation in Lagos, Nigeria. “The key thing is they both work with conviction and competence.”
But both artists have an eye for capturing the spirit of contemporary African women, exploring female empowerment and the roles of women in African society. And both artists will be making their debuts at Art Basel Miami Beach this year.
Ms. Akpojotor is 32 and from Nigeria, and her work “Ode to Beautiful Memories” will be presented by Rele Gallery, which has locations in Lagos and Los Angeles. She is currently an artist in residence at Fountainhead in Miami, and her first solo U.S. show, “Daughter of Esan: The Alpha Generation,” opened in late October at Rele’s Los Angeles outpost.
Afriart in Kampala, Uganda, will be presenting four paintings by Ms. Mlengeya, a 30-year-old Tanzanian, in the show “Unsettled Minds,” part of the Positions sector of Art Basel. Her work has been featured in the new book “African Artists: From 1892 to Now” and in the online exhibition “Drawn Together” at Unit London.
Both women said they were drawn to art from an early age. Ms. Akpojotor spent a lot of her childhood shadowing her father, a sign maker in Lagos. As a little girl after school, she said, she would go to her father’s space and watch him work. “That was where I learned some of those skills that I use now,” she said during a video call from Nigeria. “I did not know I was going to be an artist; I just saw it as a hobby, something that I could do in my spare time.”
But that hobby stuck, and she focused on art and industrial design as a university student. Those artistic and design elements can be seen in her work, where she gathers discarded strips of Ankara fabric that are used to make traditional clothing for weddings and ceremonies. She uses that fabric to create parts of her portraits including eyes, hands and bodies.
The Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie came across Ms. Akpojotor’s work online and was “immediately struck” by what she saw. “It stood out in its confidence and had a certain quality of emotional truth,” Ms. Adichie wrote in an email, adding that the work she owns hangs on the living room wall in her home in Lagos. “I’m drawn to work that seems able to have competing qualities at the same time, which is a sign of true complexity — her work is very bold and also very subtle.”
Those qualities were ones that also inspired Fountainhead to take her on as a resident, said Kathryn Mikesell, who founded the program in 2008. “Her work is phenomenal,” she said. “She is pushing what painting is through the use of textiles, and she is speaking to the global issue of the waste in the textile and fashion industry.”
Adenrele Sonariwo, the founder and director of Rele Gallery, also came across Ms. Akpojotor’s work online and said that “it was like nothing” she had seen before. “I love the story of how these strips would otherwise be discarded, so they already have their own stories.”
Ms. Mlengeya grew up on the Serengeti and in Arusha, where her parents were wildlife veterinarians. She studied finance at a university in Nairobi and worked in a bank in Arusha for four years. “I have always loved art,” she said, “and I just knew it was something that I would end up doing eventually.” After quitting her job, she sold her paintings in Arusha but quickly realized that she had exhausted that small market.
After a stint in Nairobi, where she put together a show with a local street artist, Ms. Mlengeya was invited to Kampala to take part in a residency with Afriart. It was in Uganda where she honed her skills with black-and-white portraiture.
“I wanted my work to be striking and unforgettable,” she said, referring to her first experiments. “So I thought I would work on the subject’s face and when I finished, the background was white, and I thought, ‘You know, that looks good.’”
Others have also been taken with that background. Koyo Kouoh, the executive director of Zeitz MOCAA in Cape Town, has used the painting “Lirwa 1” as her Instagram profile picture. Reginald M. Browne, an American collector and vice chairman of the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, has a piece that hangs on a predominant wall in his house.
“Everyone who walks into my home and sees it, we stop and talk about what draws you to the object,” Mr. Browne said, “and that’s exactly what I wanted.”
Mr. Nwagbogu said Ms. Mlengeya’s work was filled with contradiction. “You can say it is simple, you can say it is complicated,” he said, adding that he finds the conflicting messaging reminiscent of the writer Samuel Beckett.
“You come in, you engage with the evidence, it feels like you are looking at a very precise document that tells you about a moment in time,” he said.
Both women contemplate contemporary womanhood in their works. Ms. Mlengeya has examined that through the lens of four women she has focused on as recent subjects. For example, the woman in her painting “Huru,” which is Swahili for free, was often conflicted. “Sometimes she thought it was a burden and that people around her put pressure on her to be a certain way because she is a woman,” Ms. Mlengeya said. “But she chooses not to comply to these expectations, and womanhood for her would mean following the journey of self-discovery, peace and self-awareness.” She added that she depicted the woman in the work as floating, “giving herself the freedom to choose.”
Ms. Akpojotor said that there had recently been a strong move among female African artists like herself to change the narrative. “The desire to show what was wrong with society in terms of women’s rights and people are now more aware of these things,” she said of the modern women’s arts movement across the continent. “They want to tell it, to sing about it, to write about it, to paint about it, because history has mostly been written by men but now women are the ones writing their stories, sharing their pain and observations about the world.”
Olusanya Ojikutu, a Nigerian collector of African art in suburban Washington, has been following both women’s work closely over the last few years. “The link between Sungi and Marcellina’s unique depiction of Black women is incontrovertible,” he wrote in an email, adding that while he did not yet own any works by either woman he is “keenly interested” to do so soon.
“I was also drawn to the palpable enthusiasm and energy they seamlessly deploy to amplify the inherent beauty, vivacity and charisma of these everyday Black women,” he said, “as well as the depiction of the extraordinary paragon of womanhood in their work.”
Photos: 1) Credit…via the artist and Afriart Gallery; 2) Credit…Rodin Eckenroth; 3) Credit…Papa Shabani; 4) via the artist and Rele Gallery