With an acute focus on self-expression, Cinthia Sifa Mulanga elegantly employs paint, charcoal and paper to tease out the complexities of Black womanhood. In practice for under five years since completing her training at Artist Proof Studios in Johannesburg, Mulanga has amassed somewhat of a cult following. Under her belt are four solo exhibitions across two continents, over ten group exhibitions, a 2023 Norval Sovereign African Art Prize finalist exhibition and the coveted spot as one of ten artists on The Artsy Vanguard — her trajectory seems orbital. On The Artsy Vanguard list, which focuses on exceptional artistic talent across generations, geographies and mediums, Mulanga is in good company with the most promising artists working globally today — alongside post-disciplinary artist Basil Kincaid and Japanese artist Shota Nakamura.
Her work gestures at the inseparable nature of the body and its relationship to the space it occupies. Whether sitting leisurely in houses reminiscent of palaces, getting ready, or having a bath, Mulanga’s figures are women living fully realised and fulfilling lives. These women change character, behaviour, mood and tempo at will. Within her work, rhythmic repetition exemplifies an internal stream of consciousness about which she reflects; “how I describe my work has evolved over the years,” she elaborates; “Beauty is just one layer. The work is about self-acceptance as well as dealing with challenges presented to us as Black women.” Ultimately Mulanga’s paintings are a study of the self and a making of the self.
Mulanga’s paintings are full of history, modern myths and powerful metaphors. They are architectural — characterised by hard lines and strong edges. They unexpectedly initiate an experience of time in juxtaposition with architecture. They don’t evade perspective but rather they challenge it by going against the notion of the self as that which is contained within the skin. The artist seems to propose the self as expansive and always relational — to place, to time and others.
Her interest in interiors is partly influenced by the experience of moving through different homes with her family as a child; first from the DRC and later within the country. She explains; “I am fascinated by interior spaces. Beginning with memories of the doll house in reference to Barbies and the idea of creating your own world.” Often, the starting point for a work is an image of a dwelling in a magazine, which she will cut out to use as a foundation for her composition. This gesture of cutting out and (re)figuring is reflective of Sara Ahmed’s meditations in her book, Living a Feminist Life, that “to build feminist dwellings, we need to dismantle what has already been assembled.” Mulanga’s work then is a disassembly as well as an assemblage.
Her oeuvre is influenced by the likes of Sam Nhlengethwa and his exploration of space through collaging, Teresa Firmino Kutala and her surrealist renderings of figures and Elizabeth Colomba whose practice reframes portraiture to centre Black subjects.
Mulanga’s explorations extend across mediums, including a collaboration that seamlessly brings together art and fashion in the form of a silk capsule collection with luxury brand L’MAD Collection and Guillotine by Lisa Jaffe. She reflects; “I’m inspired by different things; it can be musicians and how they craft their lyrics, style, fashion, books…they all come together.”
The artist has a full and impressive roster ahead of her — with international shows to look forward to, as well as a solo booth under Tomorrows/Today, a special segment of the Investec Cape Town Art Fair highlighting the practices of emerging artists. Her momentum continues to build, and she is excited about what lies ahead while also looking forward to pushing limits and stretching the boundaries of artmaking. Reflecting on her forthcoming work, she notes; “my practice finds itself becoming more narrative-driven as my figures no longer exist in opulent voids. The fortified interiors of yesterday now offer glimpses of a world outside; a road might appear in a window or through a doorway. These roads are a testament to the existence beyond my authorship that my figures claim.”