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In The Studio with Mwinga Sinjela

Mwinga Sinjela, a multidisciplinary Zambian-American artist based in New York, seeks to build connections between communities and create a space for black people to explore their identities through effervescent illustrations and visual art. His work balances personal narrative with his vision of an “afrofuturistic” world.

Milk spoke to Sinjela about the everchanging local of his workspace, being a member of Beyoncé Beyhive, and his love of The Bronx.

Tell us about yourself, how would you describe your art?

To start, my name is Mwinga Sinjela and I think of myself as a Gay, Zambian-American Artist. I was born here in the States and have spent a large part of my life moving around which, I feel, has allowed my work to take the shape that has. As for how I would describe my art, I would say that it is a hybrid of all of my passions, experiences, and thoughts that sum up to one huge Afrofuturistic party.

What do you want people to take away from your art, do you have a message for your admirers?

The concept behind my work is to build bridges between black identities. I want my work to create spaces and worlds that any and every black person can see themselves being a part of, regardless of gender, sexuality, religion or any of those other mainstays. I want my work to confront the borders within black communities that have prevented blackness from being seen as an ever-flexing and growing idea, as opposed to something monolithic and matter of fact. As for a message to my “admirers,” I want to stress that I don’t mean my work or the ideas behind it to feel as though they are only exclusively meant for black people, or that only we can enjoy it. I just think it’s important for us (black people) to push ourselves into new ways of thinking and exploring all the different ways of being together before we bloom that out into the rest of the world. 

Who are some of your biggest inspirations?

I’m all over the place when it comes to inspo, baby! I take pride in the fact that I’m able to stay open to a lot of things. I can watch, listen to or see just about anything and find something of worth there, even if it doesn’t necessarily fit all the way. If I have to be specific on the “Who.” When it comes to music, I’m a day one member of the Beyhive and just about anything Beyoncé does manages to get my neurons firing. Tyler The Creator’s another big one and I’ve been listening to the Sunday Service Choir a lot lately too. Genndy Tartakovsky and Shinichiro Watanabe are two of my many animation heroes. Hebru Brantley and Logan Sylve have been inspiring me on the contemporary painter front. I could keep going but for the sake of keeping things moving,  I’ll chill.

Who would you love to collaborate with and why? 

The people I’d love to collaborate with a switch up from day to day, mostly because I consume so much media and art. I’m constantly being wowed by somebody, somewhere. I have the most amazing and talented homies who, if I’m being honest, are always my go-to’s for collaboration because there is no limit to the things we can create together. If I had to pick somebody high profile though, I’d be dumb if I didn’t say that making things with people like Solange, Lil Nas X, Tierra Whack, Tom Misch, and Tobi Lou would be a dream. I respect their work and how they all go in their own directions and own everything about it.

Tell me more about your studio space- how do you maintain it to make sure it’s the best mood to create?

I don’t have a formal studio space that I work in. It usually switches up depending on where I’m living. Right now it’s my living room. In the peak timeline, I have a grand, organized space with access to every material and medium I could ever want. For now, I make do with what I’ve got – which is still plenty. All I need to work in natural light, some music or TV (preferably music) and for things to be organized/clean enough that I don’t feel like I’m discombobulated. 

I see a lot of red incorporated in your work, is there an intention behind using this color?

I love red! I always have. For a while, I was afraid to express myself through color, both in life and in my work but once I got over that, red was one of the first that I embraced. I think my use of it started as a way to subconsciously address some repressed rage if I’m being honest. I used to associate red with unleashing in away. Red means a lot of things to me nowadays, though. It’s in us, it’s all around us, it’s part of everything and I like to play around with different shades of it when setting up a specific atmosphere. I’ve been using a lot of it lately, though, and I’m getting slightly bored. I’m working on pulling back and reassessing my palate.

Do you have a creative process when it comes to planning your pieces? What do you do during breaks, or when you have downtime?

My creative process depends entirely on the piece I’m working on. I tend to assemble my pieces like a jigsaw puzzle, which has its ups and downs. I’m really detail-oriented, so I find myself working on specific parts of my paintings until it reads close enough to the way I’m seeing it in my head. I’ve recently been trying to branch away from working like that and start flexing like Bob Ross. I like the results that I get working the way I do but I also want to be able to create in other ways and build things up simultaneously/in unison.

As for what I do during breaks, I try to stay productive and keep my energy up since a lot of my life is literally waiting for paint to dry. I try to organize my thoughts for other ideas/ projects I have in mind or I’ll just get silly and take a dance break. In my downtime, I just like to chill. I’m an introvert and a homebody which suits me just fine for now.

You mentioned that the first place you lived in New York was The Bronx — what makes this place special to you? 

I love The Bronx for a lot of reasons. First and most importantly, living there taught me a lot about myself and the kindness of other people. Even though I was born here in New York, I’m still in the process of working my way towards citizenship on account of some pretty dumb loopholes. My “right” to be here in America is something that I’m constantly wrestling with and my situation deals with a lot of impermanence. I’ve been blessed to have people in my life who are understanding and supportive of my situation, people who lift me up and go out of their way to make life just a little bit easier as I make my way through it. I’m talking about my best friend and his family, some Bronx Natives, in particular. They’re who I lived with during my time there and I cherish it every day. They and the neighborhood spots (shoutout Lammys!) that I’d frequent taught me a lot about the many faces of goodwill – How it can be sweet, how it can be tough, how it can be complex and how many of those faces can allow you grow in the end just the same.

Tell me more about this set of images- what made you depict this specific imagery?

That specific piece (“Midnight Snack”) is from a series I started called “Boogie Down Bronx”. I created it while I was living there and it speaks to my mindset at the time. I.. Mayhaps.. used to sneak out front every once in a while late at night for a smoke (this is the part where I’d use the side-eye emoji because my family is gonna read this, yeesh) and just get my head together. I’d think a lot about where I was in life and how things could be better, or worse or whatever. One night, I saw this stray cat and her kitten digging through the garbage on trash night and this might sound crazy (not that I mind sounding crazy) but the mother and I had this intense moment of eye contact and understanding. It locked something place for me about my own feelings – “You do what you have to do to make the most of your life as it is and you do your best to do right by your own, too.” I took a couple of reference photos and I made a mental note to remember what that moment felt like. I think the result came out pretty groovy.

Is there a particular medium you love to work with the most? What is the most challenging? 

Right now I’m really feeling Acrylic Gouache. I love oil paint but my bag is not set up to handle the price of it right now and I’ve mostly worked with Acrylic because its dependable and what I can afford. Acrylic Gouache is like the two had a smooth lil baby. The most challenging for me is Watercolor. It’s too temperamental and I can get impatient. 

What is the most challenging project you have worked on? How did it turn out?

I have two projects that tie for the most challenging. First would be my piece “Maybe This Yo Answer For That,” which is the largest thing I’ve ever made. It’s a giant that stands at 64.5 X 44.5 Inches and it took me a good 2 months before I could even dare say it was almost finished. The size was only one factor it being challenging, though. The rest was the subject matter. It’s a piece of my Ma and I that is saying a lot of things, too many things to get into right now, but I feel as though all the time I spent on it allowed me to give a voice to them all. The second is “HELLO! (only said in the Partition voice tho, otherwise, it don’t hit right)”. That one is a piece inspired by Beyoncé’s Homecoming and it was such a departure from what I usually make, from the figure set up, to the background and color palate. It took me a while to really get it to a place where it felt like I was creating something fresh and worthy of what I set out to do. Overall, I love how they turned out. I went in trying to do something unfamiliar to me and I came out having DID THAT if I do say so myself.

Where would you like to see yourself towards the end of the year? What are your goals for 2020?

I have no clue what is in store for 2020, but I have high hopes. I spent the latter half of last year ripping my hair out over grad school applications that are now out there in the ether. I have plans to develop an animated show with a good friend of mine and we’re working away at it. I hope to keep producing work that I am proud of and that I keep evolving as a person and as an artist. I have faith in the amount of effort I am putting in to be better so I know better things will come. But who knows, maybe 2020 will change her mind and be something different but, for now, things are off to a good start. 

Images Courtesy of  Litsa Sursock.

 Stay tuned to Milk for more in the studio.

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