Cinthia Sifa Mulanga: Portrayals of femininity, the body and identity

Cinthia Sifa Mulanga

Cinthia Sifa Mulanga’s paintings and collages portray interior spaces decorated harmoniously and protruding a sophisticated glamour. A fascinating element of the spaces is that they are occupied by Black women posing leisurely at different corners of the room and exuding radiant confidence. 

A Warm Smile (2022) portrays a fancy interior with bold orange occupied by several Black Women – one in a blue dress standing behind a sofa, a second woman still in her underwear posing against the wall, another woman in a red dress casually sitting on the sofa and holding a wine glass, and a fourth and final woman standing in the middle of a doorway that appears to be leading to many other rooms. Although in the same room, these women seem to be in their own worlds. 

It is through this contiguity that Mulanga echoes how manifold and nuanced Black feminine identity is, the subtleties of which are often unacknowledged or diminished in the patriarchal world Black women find themselves occupying. Mulanga also paints women in moments of deep thought and leisure afforded by the flamboyant spaces around them, signifying ownership over their self-celebrated identities and intimate spaces like her mother’s beauty salon. 

Her use of bold colours in many of the paintings evokes strong emotion around the subject and the collage elements further emphasise the strength and layered composition of Black femininity. The titles of Mulanga’s paintings form a chain that takes the form of a poetic love letter to oneself, in celebration of their womanhood and as testimony of their individual experiences. Here is a quintet formed from the titles of some of the works:

Wrote Me a Letter, 

Find Solitude, 

I Make Me Be At Ease, 

Indulge Away, 

Melt Away. 

Mamelodi Marakalala: What sparked your interest in portraying Black womanhood and the spatial decorative imagery in your art?

Cinthia Sifa Mulanga: When I was very young and still living in Congo, my mom owned a beauty salon where she would do makeup, nails, and hair. She would also make dresses and traditional garments made out of liputa fabric. I hung out underneath a table, taking leftover hair pieces to play with and use on my dolls. I observed my surroundings, my mother’s work, and the women who visited her salon. 

I don’t remember what the conversations in the salon were about but I do remember how much I liked those interactions and being in that space. This inspired and informed my work when the time came for me to do research during art school. What led me to art was seeing my brother draw whenever my mom gave him a pencil and paper at church because she didn’t want him to sleep. I was determined to pursue art after we moved to South Africa, which was later in high school. 

MM: You interpose two important elements of femininity in your work. The first being what a woman is as reflected through her physical form. The second is the suggested identity any individual woman can hold and express in whichever way she desires. How do these elements play and interplay in your works to comment on what it means to be a woman? 

CSM: The images that you see in the work are not to prescribe ideas about what a woman is. They are my way to explore what womanhood is and what I have been seeing in the women I have interacted with in my life, based on observations such as how a woman is supposed to be in Congo and how a woman is supposed to be in South Africa. This example of how women are in Congo and South Africa along with their differences or similarities is, in itself, a fraction of the many dimensions of being a woman. 

I have had a viewer tell me they felt the multiple women in one frame could be the same person but at different moments within that space. This takes me to how young women are often expected to be the same and fit a specific definition of womanhood. Things like character, personality, and what you are drawn to that make you human, will also make you different from others. The fact that the female figures within my work look different from each other is the language I wanted to use to highlight that not all women are the same.

MM: In honouring how different women are from each other and the nuances of feminine identity, what do you intend for the audience to walk away with when looking at and engaging with your paintings? 

CSM: I have received some comments that stayed with me and are engraved in me actually, but I chose to look at them constructively and positively. Someone said, “I don’t see the representation of Congolese women in your work.” This made me think about the perception and stereotyping of Congolese women. I would like for people to think about these different facets and appreciate that there are layers and multiple representations of African femininity.

Another person said, “Why is there no representation of white women in your work?” White women also go through stereotyping. There are standards that society dedicates they fit into. They also have their own negative experiences. However, I am not white. I cannot speak from the lens of a white woman. I can speak fully about Black femininity because I grew up around it, my observations and interactions are centred around my experience of and with Black women. So I want to give people insights into the world from my perspective. 

MM: What does your approach to artmaking look like and how do you maintain the artistic consistency in your bodies of work?

CSM: I like layering my work with oil pastels, acrylic paints, watercolours, ink, charcoal, collage, and different materials and mediums as a way of speaking on the layers of feminine identities. With every body of work, I add a new element. There are other ways of creating work that I want to explore, like the NFTs of my work for Don’t Look Back, which was an exhibition with Usurpa that was shown at the RMB Latitudes Art Fair. 

I stay consistent by building on the story and this also happens with research, which is an important part of my work. I have studied the conversations that take place online about women and how they struggle with their womanhood, themselves, or other women. In that pool of conversations, there are things I could relate to and draw from. I continue to study my surroundings and look more into my own experiences, the stories and moments that become part of my experiences. I was mainly focused on taking the outside world in but now I’m taking what is in out into the world. 

MM: Speaking of the 2024 RMB Latitudes Art Fair, you created scarfs as part of Latitudes Online and L’MAD Collection’s design project. What was your experience working beyond the visual arts and converging your art practice with fashion? 

CSM: I’ve loved fashion since I was a child because of watching it on TV shows and, again, because my mother was in fashion. Before I grew more interested in journalism and then art, I also wanted to go into fashion. So when I was working on a body of work and one of the founders of Latitudes Online suggested we make scarfs for the L’MAD Collection’s fashionable artworks, I was very open to it.

It was very exciting to undergo that planning process, to see the layouts, and to work with the silk material, which is way better. The scarfs were very well received and we decided to extend the scarfs into a full collection of t-shirts, neckties, and belts. We also want to take the work onto dresses, skirts, and other garments in the future. I prefer to work on things in stages as opposed to working on them all at once, so I will follow that progression in my work with fashion. Fashion is a great way to push the message in my works. You’re also wearing an experience or you’re walking with a moment.    

MM: You are featured in When We See Us: A Century of Black Figuration in Painting, a compelling introspective of the last 100 years of Black art now showing at the Gegenwart, Basel, until October 2024. What work is part of the showcase and how would you say it reflects the thematic pillars this exhibition rests on? 

CSM: The painting in When We See Us was acquired by a collector around 2021 or so. The title of the painting is Wait Your Turn and it was also showcased at Zeitz MOCAA before the exhibition travelled to Basel, Switzerland. It forms part of my Competitive Sisterhood body of work, the outcome of a three-week series speaking on moments of sisterhood from my perspective. Wait Your Turn depicts four women engaged in the hand-clapping game we used to play as kids, and was inspired by me seeing an image of that moment on Instagram that could have been part of a Thebe Magugu campaign, I think. 

This title speaks specifically to how competitive we get with each other as women, forgetting or not realising that each person will have their day in the sun. We all have our dreams and aspirations, and they won’t happen on the same day or at the same time, some women will shine before we get our moment to shine. That’s why I painted two figures on the other side of the door waiting to play the game. It’s a children’s game but when you put it in the context of adulthood, it addresses a lot of the nature and journey of life. This fits in so well with When We See Us because the show is a presentation of works that reflect how we see ourselves and each other, works that have recorded our experiences as Black people. 
Follow Cinthia Sifa Mulanga on Instagram here.

Most popular

Similar articles