Robinah Nansubuga: My main drive is to always create alternative spaces

The African art scene in Africa is growing, developing and more exciting than ever.

With many African artists making a name for themselves – both at home and around the world – how does one get into the art scene when not being an artist yourself?

Robinah Nansubuga is an Independent Curator and Set Designer based in Kampala, Uganda. She implements strategies to promote artists and develop the artistic network in East Africa.

She has curated and led artistic projects across the continent and the world. Robinah was the artistic director of MTN Nyege Nyege 2018 – a festival organized with grants from the British Council.

This Motherland Mogul is also a former committee member for Laba! Street Art Festival, Arterial Network Uganda Chapter, a judge curator at the National Civil Society Fair art Competitions (CSO), co-curator of the Kampala Contemporary Art festival – and much more arts festival across the region.


How did you become an independent curator of arts festivals?

I have always been a huge fan of festivals they were my get away from everything that one place that I felt included and happened to forget the things happening home and in my life at that time.

After having worked for two galleries in Kampala (Afriart and fas fas gallery) I became an independent curator in 2012. I wanted to experience art in a space where audiences and makers get to meet.

Therefore I started curating ‘’EKYOTO UGANDA ‘’ during the Bayimba International Arts festival. Ekyoto was a bonfire project that I curated to bring together people through games like ‘’Dulu’’ – which today would come close to being a pool table.

Integrating the social aspects with Ugandan traditional ways of entertainment turned out to be a big success.

From there, I started to think and focus on how to create arts and cultural events that are inclusive and show a variety of art forms.

What skills do non-artists need to make it in the arts sector?

Organizational skills! Arts festivals usually do not have big budgets. So being efficient, conscious of costs and committed to timelines are key to make any festival a reality.

Also, it’s very important that you are good at collaborating. Festivals are all about collaborations, not only with the other people on the team – but also with the artists and don’t forget the audience.

Successful arts festivals can only be realized by listening to all involved because in that way new ideas can develop.

I would also suggest that it’s good to develop some creative skills yourself. This will help you understand who you are working with and it will help you develop your own creative vision.

And finally, practical skills – from basic electrician know-how to carpentry and designing – will always come in handy during the actual festival.


Tell us how you develop your own vision and execute that vision?

I am fortunate by now I get invited by festivals to work with them because I have built a name for myself through my vision.

Through the exhibitions, I created my main drive is always to create alternative spaces. My vision developed over the years.

Whenever I would attend arts of the cultural festival I would look for the things I felt were missing and that would have been of added value to the festival and the audiences.

However, when being approached by a festival you usually have to work in teams meaning that the vision is not yours alone.

What have been your biggest challenges in the cultural scene? And how did you overcome these challenges?

Being a woman who looks really young definitely didn’t help. I really had to push hard to make sure my ideas were not being undermined, but actually listened to.

It’s a very male-dominated sector so as a woman you have to bring yourself to think like a man, be able to do all the physical and mental jobs they can do in order to have a smooth working relationship.

Another challenge that needs political navigation is that the cultural scene can be very much of a clique scene at times.

This can mean that collaborating with on one project, might mean you are not able to be involved in another.

That is one of the main reasons why I became an independent curator as I’d like to focus on the work instead of potential conflict of interests.

I believe that sooner or later, every challenge can be overcome. You can start by educating yourself, trying to surround yourself with the right people who believe in your goals.

And, at times you have to be ready to compromise while staying passionate. plus let your work speak more for you.

I am lucky I earned my respect in the industry and for that am still very thankful to many artists and people that still believe and believed I could do more than I was doing.

You recently curated the Kigali Photo Fest. How did you decide what to include in the exhibition?  

Kigali Photo Fest has a vision and mission that really resonated with me. It’s about celebrating Africa’s diversity through photography as a medium of art.

The theme of the first edition was ‘In search of relevance – locality and remediation’ – which is about sharing and navigating ideas of identity, memory, experience, intimacy, presence, and connection, in order to co-opt a narrative through a selection of subject matter and presentation.

They present a historically, socially significant moment and can frame the conversation around those moments, therefore, it wasn’t so difficult to include.

We approached artists with the vision and the theme of the festival and many responded positively.

It is a special project that hopes to include many African photographers and teach photography as a medium of art to earn its respect, to start looking for new audiences and to mostly tell stories about other places in Africa that one might not be able to visit but have an idea through images.

Therefore it is about the continent sharing with each other.

Was your family always supportive of your dream to pursue a career in the cultural and arts sector?

My dad and mum met in drama school, but my father ended being a Mechanical Engineer.

So my father understood the appeal of arts and culture to be he said you also have to be able to look after yourself financially.

We really need to educate our families to be our first fans, audiences and to be the next big support systems we can depend on.

We also have the responsibility to take the effort and be patient to teach them so that not only our families but also our societies, can better understand.

In this video, Robinah shares more about collaborations within the East Africa art sector, establishing a creative vision during the last Nyege Nyege festival in Kampala.

This video was produced in cooperation with the British Council.


This article was written by Marthe van der Wolf

Mmakgosi Tau: Choose a cause that is closest to your heart

Mmakgosi Ophadile Anita Tau is a performing, recording and literary arts specialist who recently released her poetry single titled “Popcorns.” She recorded a Jazz ensemble album in Pretoria, South Africa with “It Has to be Jazz,” in 2016. Mmakgosi is currently a scriptwriter for the ‘Colors’ Drama Series which is in production. Previously, she was the Head Scriptwriter for ‘Property 4U Television Show’.  Mmakgosi also co-founded  Sekei girls and MO Scripts which are both Arts activism organizations. As a mental health awareness advocate, Mmakgosi fuses performing arts and film to sensitize people on mental health issues and social concerns. She also has an annual show, “Mmakgosi Live,” which raises awareness and funds for her initiatives. Mmakgosi loves travelling, networking, experiencing different cultures and sharing her truth through film. Her passion has seen her perform across Botswana, Zambia, and South Africa. 

What led you to becoming a poet?

Destiny! My life is a composition of God’s gifts bundled up to serve humanity.   Poetry is a medium that has cultivated my oratory skills, boldness, creativity, confidence and mental agility. I perceive poetry as my springboard, a channel that has pieced together the fragments of my purpose in life. My first poem was published at the age of ten and I have never put the pen down since. Art is the truth that enables me to live through words and create works that change lives. In art, there is no oppression or grief. There is healing, power and although personal, art has a ripple effect of impacting other people’s lives. I survived and overcame bipolar and depression through writing. It is through writing that I have found my purpose in life. Art has a ripple effect of impacting other people’s lives - Mmakgosi Tau Click To Tweet

Tell us about the social impact you’ve created through your work.

My art is a healing platform for every unspoken emotion that my fellow countrymen have been subjected to. It’s a collage of different art forms that enable artists to collaborate and generate income as a united front. Being vocal about overcoming bipolar and depression has catapulted me to platforms that reach masses of people. People from all walks of life can relate to my experiences and draw inspiration to rise triumphantly in the midst of their trials. This has allowed me to encourage and counsel those I speak to about mental health. It has also sparked conversations about patients, the mental health care system and policy refinement.

Have people been receptive to your art or work?

Yes, I find that the years I’ve spent writing, reciting and dreaming were all building my audience. My storytelling comes in the form of various art mediums and which have pleased the souls they ministered to. My short films have received positive reviews, so has the “Words Unspoken,” album and my latest single “Popcorns.” I cherish everyone who has granted me the opportunity to take them on a journey with my mind and words powered by the Holy Spirit.

What challenges have you faced in an industry that is not popular in regards to our context?

Firstly, as a professional poet, I found my art used to cost me more than it made me. Though people love poetry, not all of them consider the depth of its monetary, social and holistic intrinsic value. As a tool for social advocacy, poetry is an art that attracts those waging wars on social ills. Despite not feeling the gender disparities in poetry, I realized that there were few women writers and directors in the film industry. I opted to study this course because I wanted to bridge the gap and influence more young women to pursue careers in filmmaking. Thirdly, creating awareness for mental health issues is difficult when there are financial limitations. There are not many corporate social investment policies that fund mental health campaigns and tours.

What fears did you overcome to get into the business?

  • Taking risks, which I now do almost daily
  • Rigorous networking
  • Bearing my scars in their nakedness to the world
  • Not being able to spend time with my family

What were your biggest regrets and biggest achievements?

My biggest regret was not attending the five international invitations I received in 2017 to perform and facilities workshops. It moved me to realize that my work has captivated the hearts of art enthusiasts around the world. Yet, I learned to accept the things I cannot change, and when I don’t have the strength to do that, it’s God I look to. I am a firm believer in my intentional God and know that my life is ordered by His authority. My biggest achievement was my first ever live show held on 8th September 2017. For a long time, I organized shows for people, performed for various audiences yet never once held my own exclusive poetry show of this magnitude. It is my greatest achievement because it signified my evolution from being a poet combating social ills. Botswana’s Minister of Health and Wellness, Honorable Dorcas Makgato, officially launched me as a mental health activist. The show was a fusion of poetry, film, music, fine art and fashion. I collaborated with various artists of great repute. I also made powerful connections that relayed my intentions to the people I was born to serve.

What advice would you give someone who wishes to venture into creative arts as a business?

Recognize your value, gifts and potential before you expect the world to do that - Click To Tweet Once you do, never sell yourself short for anything or anyone. Empower your mind, read and research about strategic tools that will position your brand purposively to your target audience. Don’t ever think like an artist when you handle business deals. I struggled with that for a while, when I had merchandise it always wound up as someone’s gift. Creativity is impulse and spirit oriented. What you give freely with your art is not a trait you need in your business. As a creative, choose a cause that is closest to your heart. Pour into it with your intellect, resources and as you grow, sow into it financially. Learn from other established creatives but also take the time to mentor those who are rising. Finally, develop some self-discipline. Take care of yourself with the knowledge that you are the brand, however, do not splurge unnecessarily.
If you’d like to share your story with She Leads Africa, let us know more about you and your story here.

Esther Mahlangu: It is my passion to transfer this skill to the generations after me

Esther Mahlangu

Esther Mahlangu may be the oldest #MotherlandMogul we’ve shone the spotlight on but she is serious goals. She is the world-renowned artist credited with elevating the Ndebele painting and culture on the world stage through her work. Esther is has created a successful brand of her products in Mpumalanga, Kwamhlanga where she lives.

She is known for her bold large-scale contemporary paintings that reference her Ndebele heritage. Esther has worked with the likes of BMW, FIAT, Belvedere and many other globally-recognised brands.

SLA contributing writer Khethiwe Mndawe interviewed Esther Mahlangu at the Lilizela awards. Khethiwe also got a special invite at her her 81st birthday celebration.


When and where were you born?

I was born in 1935 on a farm outside Middleburg, in the Mpumalanga province. Being the first of nine children —six boys and three girls, I had huge responsibilities at a young age. Yet, my parents and family allowed me to be a child.

When I got introduced to art, they realised that they couldn’t keep me away from painting no matter what duties and chores I had to take up. I started painting at 9 years old, being taught by my mother and grandmother. I was inspired by both women. From as far as I can remember, I followed traditions passed down from my mother and grandmother. I learned traditional Ndebele wall painting and bead-work, as a child that was all I did every day.

I can say I became an expert in executing murals as a teenager, using a wide range of paint colours. Initially, we used to gather traditional soil paint from the forests and by the rivers but eventually we started using modern paints.

Esther Mahlangu: I started painting at 9 years old, taught by my mother and grandmother Click To Tweet

What type of work were you doing before you were discovered as a renowned artist? Who discovered you as an artist and icon for the Ndebele culture?

Between 1980 and 1991 I lived and worked at the Botshabelo Historical Village, an open-air museum of Ndebele culture.

I can say I was discovered in 1986, by researchers from Paris who were travelling the world to document traditional arts. These artists saw the paintings of Mahlangu’s house. They learnt more about why we paint like this and the significance of the paintings.

They invited me to create murals for an exhibition of international contemporary art, the Magicians de la Terre (Magicians of the World). I travelled to France in 1989, and stayed there for two months. I painted a house in front of thousands of spectators that included the media and art lovers. People form Europe got to know about me, where I come from, and the Ndebele culture in South Africa.

After a few months, I was asked to also decorate a wall inside the Angoulême Museum of Fine Arts and so I went on to other locations in France. In 1990, I began to paint murals for public venues in Johannesburg and elsewhere in South Africa. This was soon followed by more locations in Europe and the United States. My work appears in exhibitions in more than a dozen countries.

How did BMW approach you?

BMW got hold of me through the government. They asked me to decorate a so-called BMW “art car” in traditional Ndebele design in 1999. I stepped into the league of Andy Warhol and David Hockney (both world-renowned artists who created previous art cars for the company).

From what I know I was the first woman artist to have been honoured as such.

Esther Mahlangu was the first woman artist to be invited to make a BMW art car Click To Tweet

Which other projects have you received and achieved at? What awards have you received the past couple of years?

I exhibited locally and abroad in Australia, America, Japan and in many European countries. Also, I was awarded the Order of Ikhamanga in Silver by the South African presidency for my contribution to the development of indigenous Ndebele arts. I had a painting project with FIAT, British Airways, Belvedere ReD and a project for HIV/Aids with John Legend.

Also, I have many award which I received in South Africa for arts and craft. I have been honoured in the tourism sector nationally and in my province, and in the arts and craft sector. In 2016, I was again involved in a BMW project, painting Ndebele patterns on the real wood interior trims of a BMW 7 series. This was shown for the first time at the Frieze Art Fair in Regent’s Park, London.

This car now takes pride of place at South Africa: the Art of a Nation, a major exhibition currently showing at the British Museum from 27 October 2016 – 27 February 2017.

I had the opportunity to interview you in IsiNdebele for SA Tourism, at the Lilizela awards. How did you feel winning the Lilizela Ministers Overall award 2016 by the Department of Tourism South Africa?

I was not expecting this award at all. I was so happy in the manner which my country honoured me. The attention I received after that, made me feel proud to be a South African artist and I am glad that you came in to interview me in IsiNdebele. It was difficult to understand all the journalist/radio station who were there to hear what I had to say about this once in a lifetime award.

esther-mahlangu-residence-20161110
Esther Mahlangu at her residence. Photographer and copyright holder: Franz Jesche

Tell us about your art school.

I have always had the calling to teach the science and significance of the Ndebele painting, and why we paint. Over the decades it has become my goal to preserve my cultural heritage. I built an art school in the backyard of my home in Mathombothiini (Weltevreden) in the Kwamhlanga district in Mpumalanga Province.

I have been funding the school myself. When I am not travelling for exhibitions, I still spend most of my time mentoring young artists in the traditional style of Ndebele design. I teach mostly young people and elders how to mix pigments and paint straight lines, free-handed and without sketches, using their fingers or chicken feathers.

We paint walls, portraits, canvases, ornaments and all types of objects. We also do crafts. My students want to be like me one day and have the opportunity to paint big brand cars, wine bottles, shoes and clothing labels etc.

Esther Mahlangu: I have always had the calling to teach the science of the Ndebele painting Click To Tweet

What is your first love, what you think about when you wake up every day?

To tell you the truth, I always wake up looking forward to maintaining my school and following up on my art pieces and finding ways to renovate my house, guest house and the art school. It is slowly deteriorating and I no longer have the energy and funds to maintain it myself.

Yet everyday, I feel there is something new and unique I can try out to keep this place alive for my community and for those who visit.

Tell us about your 81st Birthday Party held on 11 November 2016.

The Esther Mahlangu 81st Birthday celebration was an idea that I discussed with my family. They wanted me to have a birthday celebration for my community.

Isaac Makwana, my grandson and manager arranged everything together with a young lady who volunteered to do my PR. I was happy that the Municipality of Nkangala, Ikwekwezi FM and DS Moroka municipality supported me. I got many gifts from the communities and local businesses. My family, the Ndebele cultural group, and the Ndebele Kings and wives, as well as my good friend “Queen of Ndebele music” Nothembi Mkhwebane were also present.

My dream is to have formal educational schools and facilities teach African art - Esther Mahlangu Click To Tweet

Which projects are you currently involved in?

I want to be seen as a proudly South African business and brand that sets the tourism standard in traditional and cultural art not only in our country, but also globally. I want to contribute to South Africa’s image and history in the creative space.

What is mostly important to me is to have formal educational schools and facilities teach African art. That is a dream I am building towards.

What should we expect form you in the next coming years?

It is my passion to transfer this skill to the generations after me. I want them to learn where it comes from, why the Ndebele people paint their houses and monuments and how we made the paint from our natural resources such as soil.

The legacy I want to leave in this world is the art and crafts that has made me the recognised icon I am today. I am humbled by my community for the support, gifts and participation at my school, even though it is now old and deteriorating.


Want to see women you know featured on SLA? Tell us what amazing things women are doing in your communities here.

Webinar with Pryse: Breaking into the music industry (Dec. 13)

Pryse Music

The Nigerian music industry is booming! While there are a few female artists in the game, there are hardly any female rappers. Pryse is changing all of that around. She has smashed her way into the music industry and is playing no games. Within her relatively short career, she has already done collaborations with people like Burna Boy and has created her own record label, ICON.

Join us for a 30-minute webinar with Pryse on December 13th, 2016. We’ll be discussing what it takes to get into the music industry and the Nigerian music industry in particular. If you are an artist, or anyone interested in any aspect of the music industry, you don’t want to miss this.

Register below to get the exclusive link to the webinar.

Some of the topics we’ll cover:

  • What the music industry is like for solo female artists
  • What it’s like to be a female rapper in Nigeria
  • Staying true to yourself
  • What is takes to create and run a record label
  • What’s next for Pryse and her record label, ICON.

Webinar Details:

  • Date: Tuesday December 13, 2016
  • Time: 8:00am NYC // 2:00pm Lagos // 4:00pm Nairobi

Watch this Webinar:

About Pryse

Princess Esindu, popularly known as Pryse is regarded as one of the best female rappers in Nigeria. Born in Port-Harcourt, Rivers State, Pryse is a graduate of media and communications from Nottingham Trent University, UK. She started her career in the Nigerian Music Industry with the release of her debut single, “Eleto” featuring “Kolewerk” singer, Koker in 2013. She later released “Niger Delta Money” and “Kolo” featuring Burna Boy. After the expiration of her recording contract with former label Chocolate City, Pryse launched her own record label ICON in October 2016 and released “Queen Kong” featuring Eva Alordiah as part of her Pryseless Freestyles Series. “Queen Kong” is currently receiving reviews and airplay on major radio stations across Nigeria. Her first official single under ICON, “Her Excellency” will be released later this month.