By Tiyahna Ridley-Padmore
Artists Lauren Brevner and Sungi Mlengeya travelled to a remote community in Shinyanga Region, Tanzania.
The fierce feminists they met along the way inspired them to create an art piece.
Meet Sungi Mlengeya
Sungi Mlengeya is an up-and coming visual artist from Tanzania. Sungi grew up in the Serengeti National Park where electricity was only available in the evenings. As such, Sungi would spend all day cutting paper and making crafts to entertain herself. Despite her love for drawing, Sungi only rediscovered her passion for creation after university. However, making it as an artist in Tanzania is no easy task. When Sungi left her career in banking behind to pursue art full-time, she knew she was taking a risk. She explains,
“In Tanzania, being an artist is not seen as a real job. Instead, people see it as a phase that you might go through until you find your real job. Most Tanzanians don’t appreciate art and wouldn’t understand why anybody would hang a picture of somebody else in their house. I guess there is a growing art scene but it’s very difficult to survive as an artist in Tanzania. You have to venture out to the global market.”
Meet Lauren Brevner
Nearly 15,000 KM away, in Vancouver, Canada, Lauren Brevner was on a similar journey of pursuing her passion. Lauren also began her art journey at a young age. Although Lauren was always creative, she never followed her passion. In fact, it was only after she moved back from Japan that she started experimenting again. Shortly after, Lauren fell in love with making art. While Lauren has since built an international reputation for her contemporary mixed-media art, her journey was anything but smooth. Lauren shares,
“No matter where you go in the world, you will encounter people who will want to take advantage of you. It’s a male dominated world and the art world is no exception. There are recent studies that show how less than 15% of artists featured in the major museums around the world are female. Being a woman in the art world is difficult. Not to mention that there is this strange phenomenon that art is not seen as a real job. As a woman and an artist, I do face barriers.”
Learning from one another
In May 2019, Lauren Brevner and Sungi Mlengeya met for the first time in Shinyanga Region, Tanzania. The two artists may have come from different postal codes, but their experiences as women and their love for creating art bonded them immediately.
“There’s literally nothing else I can do. Every time I think I’m going to try something else I end up coming back to art. Ultimately, the joy and highs that I get as an artist outweigh the lows.” says Lauren as Sungi nods in agreement.
As part of the 1000 Day Journey, the two artists embarked on a journey of learning, exploration and creation. The artists visited some of the most vulnerable communities in Tanzania and met women and families participating in the 1000 Day Journey’s interventions.
They visited a local health centre in Mwenda Kulima village and got to know new mothers participating in a women’s support group. These groups provide supportive and safe spaces for women in the community to discuss issues related to nutrition, breastfeeding and equality in the home with the guidance of a qualified health worker.
They met Rehema Juma, a community leader and vocal feminist living in the small village. At 55-years old, Rehema is a mom of four and a grandmother of five – but she doesn’t let that slow her down. Rehema is a fierce advocate for gender equality in her community,
“I teach them to rise their children without discrimination. They should know that both male and female children have equal rights. Men and women should handle household chores together without discrimination.”
Rehema was one of many strong women that Sungi and Lauren would cross paths with. The women that the artists met revealed that they were boldly advocating within their households to earn their own income and use family planning. Lauren and Sungi were in awe.
“I was surprised to see how empowered so many women are in such a rural, male-dominated place in Tanzania. Very surprised. I even have friends who grew up in Tanzanian cities that still feel an obligation to be subordinate to men. Seeing women in such rural communities who are driving the change forward was very inspirational,” shares Sungi.
Lauren echoes that some of the women in her own life have internalized and reinforced outdated gender stereotypes.
Inspired by the complexity of the women they met along the way, Sungi and Lauren began co-creating a 5×8 foot canvas. They built the canvas with their bare hands. The artists painted the portrait out of a dimly lit hotel room in a remote village of Tanzania. The art piece uses acrylic paint and traditional kitenge and khanga material to visually represent a confident woman proudly holding her baby.
“We depicted a mother – it was a mixture of different women that we met along our trip. The painting is actually a combination of three women specifically, but I think based on the emotional response we got, it is a representation of all the women we met. It is the embodiment of the power, strength and beauty of these women. That is what we are hoping to portray. Everything from her being physically strong and holding her child to the patterns that we put into the painting. Strength, power, community, motherhood”, says Lauren.
The woman in the painting is drawn in a “power pose”. With her head fiercely head high and her stature occupying the majority of the page composition, she is a symbol of the confidence and independence she has earned through her journey of learning.
Moreover, the circles at the bottom of the painting represent life-changing innovations such as the sunflowers that the women of Kulima village use to create cooking oil. “Initially, I was surprised by the beauty of the sunflowers in Tanzania. Later, when we saw how the sunflowers were being used for cooking, it was so much more meaningful. That is why we added sunflowers in the painting,” says Lauren, “I was drawn towards them.”
Making a Masterpiece
Ultimately, this painting is in homage to the fierce women of Shinyanga region. These women are raising healthy babies, challenging gender norms, empowering their communities and unapologetically living their lives.
“The painting is named Shujaa after the Swahili word for somebody courageous, sort of like a warrior,” Sungi explains, “It’s a representation of a strong woman and her community. I think she gives an aura of confidence and courage.”
“I want the art piece to help overcome the stigmas around women in rural Tanzania,” says Lauren, “I hope that when Canadians who see the piece think of the strength of these women. They are thriving. They are not weak, they can help themselves with just a little bit of support.”