Mwandale Mwanyekwa in Tanzania. Photo credit: Mwanyekwa in Tanzania Facebook

African American artist-advocate, Rhinold Ponder journeys to Tanzania to learn how to sculpt from a trailblazing artist cutting through a male-dominated industry | The Light Series

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When Monica D. Brown, ARK writer, introduced Rhinold Ponder — Chicago born attorney, advocate and fine artist — to leading Tanzanian sculptor, Mwandale ‘Big Mama’ Mwyanyekwa, the result was a unique African American encounter in Kigamboni, Tanzania.

In an interview with ARK founder, Asteria Malinzi, along with Rhinold Ponder and Mwandale  Mwyanyekwa, we explored this African American artistic collaboration.


Top photo: Fall and winter exhibition at Ark Residency. Photo credit: ARK Residency

ARK, Artists Residency of KIGAMBONI July 1-31, 2019.

The ARK, artists residency of Kigamboni, is the brainchild of Asteria Malinzi, a Tanzanian visual artist and photographer. For over two years she pursued Mwandale Mwanyeka to be the first candidate in the ARK program for Tanzanian artists.

Asteria explained that the concept of the residency “came about after spending one year working at Nafasi Art Space as the visual arts programme director. I felt that Tanzanian artists needed to get the experience of working in a residency which allows for countless hours of uninterrupted work. The residency would give Tanzanian artists the experience of being in residence on their own familiar ground. I shared the idea with Rishad Karimjee who was starting a hotel called The Overhang which I manage. I asked him to host the residency idea and to partner with me as a co-founder.” 

What was your vision of success?

​AM: This is to host as many Tanzanian artists in residence as possible and to be able to provide a stepping stone for them to experience international residencies as well as to explore ideas that they wouldn’t be able to.

Why did you choose Big Mama to be your first candidate?

​AM: I wanted to begin with an artist that I was personally close to as this was a very new idea and [I] needed feedback that was productive and a space that was forgiving of mistakes.

Big Mama is prestigious Tanzanian artist carving wood. She uses the name Big Mama to also signify that she is one of the few female sculptors in a male-dominated industry. Photo credit: Rhinold Ponder

What was the actual experience like of hosting Rhinold, your first African American participant?

​AM: Rhinold wasn’t our first international residency. We began the programme in February 2018 with Miguel Costales from Spain. Rhinold brought with him plenty of enthusiasm and laughter to what was a scary new experience. He shared his experience and knowledge for both art and law which was fundamental for the beginning of my pilot session of residency that started in July 2019 and ended in Jan 2020.

How did visitors respond to the final pieces?

AM: The piece is actually not yet finished. We are hoping for Big Mama to come back and complete the piece, but we have displayed it in the reception area of The Overhang for all the guests to see as they walk in.

What does this mean for African American artistic collaboration?

AM: We are hoping to be able to expand the residency in the near future to accommodate collaborative residencies. Currently, we only have one studio bedroom which was quite interesting when we have more than one artist onsite.

What will be the next steps for the ARK?

AM: For the immediate future ARK in 2020, we will have a few more invited residencies before we can finally open our doors to the globe.

As an established fine artist, advocate and an attorney what inspired your decision to become a sculptor?

RP: In December 2018, I travelled with my family to Spain and Italy for the first time. When in Rome we toured the Vatican. I was astounded by the prominence of sculpture in framing the cultural narratives which dominate our lives. The whiteness of it all — the absence of people of color— compels me to challenge the visual fictions and mythologies prominent in the oppression of people of color all over the world.   

How did you connect your desire to learn to sculpt with a journey to Tanzania?

RP: Tanzania was not on my radar until my dear brilliant friend, who[m] I met as a student at the University of West Indies in the 1980s, wrote me about a talented sculptor she met. My friend, Monica, is all about creating connections. She thought I should meet Mwandale “Big Mama” Mwanyekwa. I asked Monica whether Big Mama would teach me to sculpt. The next thing I know Big Mama is telling me that she Googled me and that she wanted me to be her apprentice in Kigamboni.

Why did you not pursue your interest in sculpting in the US where you live? Why make the journey to Tanzania?

RP: There was no other choice to make when presented with the opportunity to work with Big Mama at a resort in Kigamboni.   

What was your family’s response to your decision?

RP: My wife, a wonderful quilter, is very supportive of my artistic pursuits as I am of all her endeavors. She actually bought my round-trip ticket as a birthday gift and helped prepare me for my trip. She shipped me off with the directive to have the time of my life. It is also important for us to model life-long learning, world traveling and initiative to our daughter and son. When they reach our station in life I want them to know that the joy continues as long as you create it.

Were you drawn to the work of a particular Tanzanian sculptor?

RP: I had no idea how fabulous Big Mama was before she told me to come to meet her somewhere on the planet — the US, London, all across Africa, and Central America — since she travels extensively, so she could teach me. Once she said yes, I did my research in earnest and realized the historical weight and possibilities of what was about to happen. I looked up her work and quickly realized that she was a premier sculptor who should be more celebrated. I started to understand her as a representative of African Feminism, Makonde modernity and the motherland. I was really psyched. What I didn’t realize was that her big smile hid how tiny Big Mama actually is. I teasingly call her Little Big Mama. LOL!!! 

How did you end up in the ARK?

RP: I was so blessed to be one of the first international artists in residence at ARK which was founded by visual artist/photographer Asteria Malinzi. She wanted the first artist in residence in the Kigamboni program to be Mwandale. Initially, I was invited to work in Dar or Bagamoyo with Mwandale; however, Asteria wanted her so badly that she offered to take us as a package after she Googled me too.  

Rhinold Ponder carving wood during is artist in residency at the ARK in Tanzania. Photo credit: Rhinold Ponder

What were your expectations of your Artist in Residency at Kigamboni programme?

RP: I don’t remember because the reality far exceeded anything I could have imagined. My room and the studio sat atop a cliff at a resort a little more than a stone’s throw from the Indian Ocean. Every morning I woke up inspired by the roar of the ocean and at night was lulled asleep by its licks against the shore. It was a perfect environment to work and think. My hosts and Mwandale were fabulously attentive to make sure that I appreciated my first experience in Africa — they generously introduced me to the food, music, artists and culture during my stay. 

Painting can be a very physical activity and some painters literally hurl themselves into their work. Jackson Pollock is a great example. Explain the difference between painting and sculpture at this physical level.

RP: The major difference was that I was beginning in wood sculpture which meant that I was learning to exercise a different set of muscles and developing new physical patterns. For me, the biggest difference was developing the patience needed to be successful. Learning to sculpt requires a lot more patience than painting in quick drying acrylics or creating collages. It also required me to figure out how to see negative space in a third dimension and to develop a greater appreciation for nature through the wood. 

At the beginning, it was very frustrating but in an exhilarating way. Also, our first piece was an abstract one and I could not initially imagine the end result which was being created by subtraction as opposed to a painting which is created mainly by addition. The emotional toll is always more exacting than the physical, although one cannot underestimate the importance of learning to coordinate new muscles throughout your body for sculpting. In either endeavor, good music helps create atmosphere and a nice work rhythm which helps me through the physicality of the work. 

Describe the experience of opening your eyes on that first morning in Tanzania. 

The most notable sense impacted was my hearing. Listening to the rush of the ocean instead of the sound of car engines and tires in the morning was amazing.

How did you adjust to learning a new artistic skill in a new country with renowned Tanzanian sculptor, Big Mama? 

RP: The major adjustment was simply developing a new routine in a new environment. Fortunately, I got along really well with Mwandale and our hosts, so it was a constant adventure of joy. I love Big Mama’s work habits — she loved to work at any time. Initially, I really could only handle two-three hour stretches of chisel work as I developed muscles from my shoulder to my fingertips. But I loved to work, and she did too. I was also intent on showing my gratefulness for the opportunity which led me to doing more legal work and writing for the Tanzanian artists than I was doing in the US. That was an unanticipated adjustment since I was trying to leave ‘lawyering’ behind.  

What were your personal goals? 

RP: To learn to sculpt and to be a blessing to those around me as much as I was a recipient of blessings.

What approach did B.M. take to teaching you? 

RP: She did a lot of showing. I like to do, not watch, so that forced me to be patient. And since I have continued wood sculpting in the US without Big Mama, I now fully understand why watching repetitively was really essential.

Big Mama works with Rhinold Ponder in a workshop on wood carving through ARK Artists-in-Residency program in Tanzania. Photo credit: Rhinold Ponder

What did you learn about the sculpting process by observing her?

RP: I learned too much to share briefly but some features include an appreciation for the wood, how to care for and handle tools, how to be patient and fearless in work, the seeming endless need to sand and finish a work and how to do it all with a joy for living. I felt I made progress when she invited me to work on her sculpture before we finished mine. Except for the additional sanding needed we finished my sculpture which I named “Mwanzo” to reflect the many beginnings of the experience.

To what extent has the experience in Tanzania with B.M. transformed you? 

RP: It has been a couple of months since the experience and I am not so sure that I have been transformed as much as I have been strengthened, reaffirmed and emboldened to make more positive things happen. I was most struck by the number of black men I saw freely congregating, working and relaxing in the towns, markets without the police presence of white people. I have seen this before, but not in a long time. If so many black men had congregated in segregated Chicago where I grew up, there would be so many white policemen there to break it up, unless they were going to church of course. Americans are threatened by the presence of more than two Black men in a space.  

Perhaps I should have been transformed by working with a feminist Makonde woman sculptor — one of Africa’s greatest artists.  But I have been blessed — as a mama’s oldest boy, brother of six sisters, father to an all-star daughter and husband to a great wife — to spend my entire life around strong-minded, talented, brilliant black women. Working with Mwandale was no less than a continuation of that blessing. What I became clear about while working with her was that it would be a historic collaboration — the bush woman, as she refers to herself, and the ghetto boy from Chicago’s Southside. I don’t think we’re done making our collaborative mark yet. And I imagine that others will join us.    

What will you be doing to encourage the collaboration between African American and Tanzanian artists and sculptors?

RP: My plan is to work with like-minded individuals to create opportunities for Tanzanian artists and African American artists to meet, work together and exchange ideas and perspectives. As I broach the idea in my ever-expanding network, I am learning there is a lot of desire for this connection to be made and institutionalized. It starts with an idea and the will to make it happen. It is now an idea in motion toward reality.

Big Mama, Tanzania’s Colossus Of Sculpture


East African celebrated artist is popularly named, ‘Big Mama.’ Photo credit: ARK Kigamboni

Petite sculptor, Mwandale ‘Big Mama’ Mwanyekwa has travelled across the world to conduct sculpting workshops, attend international symposia and display her remarkable creations. Her work is found in Tanzania, Gabon, Rwanda, China, Italy and Sweden. As Tanzania’s leading female Makonde sculptor, she is passionate about passing on her skill and artistic insights to other sculptors in general in particular female artists through her annual Women Art Creators exhibition in Dar Es Salaam.

You are an established Tanzanian sculptor who has travelled across the continent of Africa and the rest of the world conducting and attending workshops and exhibiting your work. Was Rhinold Ponder your first established painter to be tutored as a sculptor at Kigambomi?

BM: Apart from teaching many other people before, I must say Rhinold happened to be the first established and committed painter to be tutored as a sculptor not necessarily at Kigamboni but generally by myself. 

How did RLP adjust to and prepare for the physicality of sculpture and the use of specific tools?

BM: He easily developed a new routine in a new environment, with new people and new food … etc. I made sure to make him laugh every single day of his stay in Tanzania. He also had a great artistic approach that helped him to get a better understanding of the use of the particular tools.

As a Makonde sculptor is there a special process you go through before you even touch a piece of wood to be sculptured?

BM: Asking for permission to transform the woods into something else is a must, at least in our Makonde culture/ tradition. It is a way of showing respect to the life of the trees of which I believe it should be unquestionable. Also speaking to the woods and tools during the whole process of sculpting is necessary. The most polite and formal Makonde language must apply.

Mwandale ‘Big Mama’ Mwyanyekw shows how she sculpts with local wood in Tanzania. Photo credit: ARK Kigambonie

Which hardwoods do you work in and why?

BM: I work with all kinds of African native hard and hardest woods. Generally, I would say I love working with the hardest woods for no reason! But for the benefit of people I would say the feeling of a true freedom to communicate my ideas artistically is what drives crazy. The durability of the woods is unbelievable! The strength of my character and personality is also well connected to these woods.

How would you assess Rhinold’s progress? What did he find challenging? What did he most enjoy?

BM: He started with a good understanding of art. Considering his age and the fact that this was his first ever experience in Africa, working on his first sculpture with a crazy African Makonde and bush woman sculptor; his progress is inspirational! His commitment and focus would make a great example to many young and upcoming artists.

What future plans do you have for other artists to attend your ARK programme?

BM: I think handling and controlling the starting tools and the adventure trip we took from Kigamboni to Dar was quite challenging. My sense of humour, the food I prepared every day, the beauty of our working area and whole working process is what he enjoyed the most. The Bagamoyo trip we made was awesome! Like all the other residencies around the world, Asteria’s plan is to continue inviting some other local and international artists to come and do the same thing that Rhinold and I did during our stay at ARK. The only difference will be the medium and the technique they use.

What was the response to the end of course show?

BM: The response to the end of cause shows generally positive. We had a supportive group of people who came all the way from different parts of Dar just to see and reflect on what we did. They were eager to know and have a better understanding of what the residency was all about and the stories behind the two sculptures we created during the residency. We were also very happy to see the end result of our mission.

Monica D. Brown is a UK-based teaching fellow, media specialist, poet and training consultant. Studying in the UK and Paris, she is the first producer of the longest running TV programs, Hill an’ Gully Ride, which is still on the air. Selected by the BBC in 2007, to explore her family history took her to Zanzibar and Tanzania, which is chronicled in her book, Journey to Zanzibar. Currently, she teaches media production and English and also operates as a consultant.

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Monica D. Brown is a UK-based teaching fellow, media specialist, poet and training consultant. studying in the UK and Paris, she is the first producer of the longest running TV programs, “Hill An’ Gully Ride,” which is still on the air. Selected by the BBC in 2007, to explore her family history took her to Zanzibar and Tanzania, which is chronicled in her book, Journey to Zanzibar. Currently, she teaches media production and English and also operates as a consultant.

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