Winifrid Luena is a self-taught graphic designer and photographer and a a member of Nafasi Art Space, since 2018 he has his studio at Nafasi. He is the first Tanzanian artist who won the Absa L‘Atelier Award, one of africa’s most prestigious art competitions. Since he is a mostly unknown and emerging young talent we sat down with Luena for a longer talk focusing on his artistic career, his work and what he aims to say through his work. We also want to talk about the Award and the opportunities coming with it and set this in contrast to the challenges young african artists have to face in the cultural sector, especially in Tanzania.
First and most important question what was the first impression you had when you got the announcement that you won?
I wasn’t expecting to win but at least I had some trust in my presentation. After I finished the application I wasn’t thinking much about the selection. Winning the award, in the end, meant a lot to me. It shows me that there are people who accept and appreciate what I did. I was more than happy and so grateful to win, especially because I put a lot of effort and myself in the project. Compared to earlier competitions this application was quite different. My experience with other applications allowed my mindset to be more confident and helped me trust in myself.
Yet you are mostly unknown in the art scene, so tell us a bit more about yourself, your background and how did you get into art, how did you come to Nafasi?
My name is Winifrid Luena, mostly known as Luena or Lu. I was born 1992 in Dar es Salaam. I’m a self-taught visual artist with a computer and IT background. I work as a freelancer in branding, fine art and documentary photography, art direction, user interface design and editorial design. I think my interest in art was always there but somehow repressed. First in 2013, I discovered my passion for it and I started to „learn“ art through free resources from the Internet, mostly dealing with photography and design. In 2015 I bought my first camera, that was the time when I really started to practice and play around with several different medias.
‚Eroticm and Intimacy’, an international exhibition which took place in Uganda in 2016 was the first group exhibition I was part of. The same year I had the chance to win the Anza Window Shot competition, an award from the Anza Magazine in Tanzania. These exhibitions and achievements opened me the door to not only the tanzanian art scene but also the wider east african art community.
My first encounter with Nafasi Art Space was in 2016, a friend took me to a Wikendi Live, I really enjoyed the atmosphere. In the following year, I started to attend several workshops at Nafasi and got involved in different group exhibitions. That help me a lot to develop my own artistic style. Finally, in 2018, last year basically, I joined the community as a Studio member.
How would you describe the body of work you entered for the Absa L‘Atelier competition?
The ‚body of work’ I created for the Absa L’Atelier competition was an ongoing and unfinished process. I started working on it, since 2017. It also includes some works I made in 2015. At this time the project idea and concept outlines weren’t yet clear to me.
My work tries to explore a state of of belonging, between an individual (the self) and his society. We are living in a rather conservative society, which is most of the time not open for any kind of difference and diversity that exists outside the norm. Being an individual living in this society and stand in for yourself, for who you really are is very challenging. It’s a continuous ongoing conflict in every moment and it all comes with greater consequences, emotionally and mentally. (Ride or die situation.) The dichotomy that exist in this situation between the individual and the society is what my work aims to represent in a simple, metaphorical, minimized and colorful visualization.
What would you say was the biggest inspiration to creating the body of work?
I think my personal experiences are my biggest inspiration when I started creating this ‚body of work’. The feelings, emotions and experiences that I encounter in everyday life in Dar es Salaam made me come up with this project. By looking closely to these images I create, I want the viewer to feel all these expressions and experiences, that I aim to represent in my work.
A second element which is inspiring me a lot is the need to highlight certain issues. The freedom of being who you truly are and bringing out the inner you, presenting it to the society can be really hard. Especially, when the society determines what is accepted as the ideal norm of the individual living in a certain society. I’m interested in that contradiction in society, that a free human being can never be fully free because he or she is part of the actual society he or she is living in. How humans change their appearance and maybe hide who they really are due to the pressure they feel to fit in that specific frame and what that makes with people is really interesting to me.
What does your work aim to say?
Through my work I want to encourage both the individual and the society to be open to our differences that exist among us. To rather take the differences and see what we can learn from them. Since differences are a internal part of our life, there exists more than one perspective and points of view on a specific concept. So instead of rejecting differences based on the inconsistency they show us, that we are not one, as a humanity or society we should look at them as a possibility, an option to get to know a distinct perspective or perception that someone else has about the same concept. Hence we should ask ourselves what we can learn from each other and how we can initiate positive changes.
On the other hand I want to initiate a call through my work, that encourages people to be the their true self. Instead of perceiving differences as something bad because people don’t fit into the picture society give of what would be acceptable, we should embrace it as our uniqueness. We should embrace it as something that fulfills us, so we can show our inner gifts to the world. We add something new to our existence and become liberated from the burden of conformity.
What would you say are some of the challenges you experienced when you were creating this body of work?
The whole process was a challenge for me, starting with my own experiences I was faced with in daily life. To go through this process and to endure these constantly experiences of being isolated, derided and ostracized. The consequences of being not conform with society’s perceptions. The end of this process would be to transform these experiences to visual representation, what is kinda challenging to me.
My images are more like metaphors of my experiences, emotions and feelings. And these experiences are wide, many and deep. So to speak of them by only combining forms, colors and textures wasn’t an easy task to me. I had to go through deep thinking and experimenting to come up with these images.
Tell us something about the Absa L‘Atelier Award and the application for the competition how was it like? Did you had to face a lot of complications during the process?
The application process was straightforward and requires only necessary information about my work. Even though the application process is quite easy I made a funny and stupid mistake. Actually, this was the second time I applied for the Absa L‘Atelier Award. The first time I applied was last year but I unfortunately forgot to click the submit button on the last page of the application. I had everything ready and uploaded but I never submitted and I didn’t even knew. After a few weeks I was curious about how the selection process is going, that when I realised that I didn’t had applied.
Let’s talk about opportunities and challenges. How do you feel as a young artist in Tanzania when it comes to support you think there are enough opportunities in the art sector?
It’s really hard for young tanzanian artist to establish themselves in the art sector because there are so few Opportunities. One of the big challenges is to expose the artists to these few opportunities.
Another challenge is that, contemporary art is not widely accepted in our community. The society don’t thinks that art can add value to our culture. An art sector or scene can only strive with the reciprocal interplay between the artist and the audience which is valuing the art and is at the same moment also a possible investor in this art scene. That’s why Nafasi plays such a crucial role in Tanzania, the only problem is there is only one place like Nafasi and that just not enough.
After we talked about opportunities and challenges, tell us something about the opportunities you have now through the Award. What are the rewards for the Winners, What does it mean to you?
All the ambassadors will join together for a 1 month residency in Paris, starting this year in march. After that residency we have the chance to go to South Africa for another 3 months residency there. Part of the residency program is to learn how to the manage your own artistic career, to network with different artists and other people working in the arts sector. But I will also have time to create new pieces and work one my new projects. The residency in South Africa will result in an group exhibition with the work created during the residencies. The exhibition will include individual works and collaboration pieces. Also will the exhibition travel to each ambassadors country, so the exhibition will also probably be displayed here in Dar es Salaam. I’m really excited about all these opportunities and I’m looking forward to take on this journey, this new exciting part of my art career.
And do you think this opportunity will have a significant impact on your future as an artist?
Of course, I think this will have a huge impact on my future as an artist. And I hope that this will contribute to my growth as an artists and as a human. I’m looking forward to get more exposure, to have the chance to exhibit in galleries. Getting reputation and representation. I‘m willing to work on more project, including international collaborative projects and local projects that will help to push our contemporary art scene to a higher level.
What is your advice to other artists who would like to have this opportunity?
Keep learning, keep making artworks and never stop seeking for more opportunities. And apply for everything, only when you apply you can learn how the art world functions. But never forget to be honest to yourself and your art. And I think that’s one of the biggest challenges as an artist.
What are your plans, project that are you working on right now as an artist?
I’m currently working on several ongoing personal projects and collaborative projects with other artists. I’m working on a book but I don’t want to travel to much about that because it’s still in its starting phase. Also the project I applied for with Absa is not finished, it’s ongoing. I will keep working on it.
Beside that I’m participating in different contemporary art activities, like the East African Art Biennale. The rest of the time I’m preparing myself for the starting residencies, tiring to come up with some new ideas and projects I wanna work on during that period.
Is there something else you would like to share with the community?
Be yourself and treat other people the way you want to be treated.
Final question, what do you think about Art on the African continent?
It’s rising, making big steps forward in the world art scene.
See more of Luena’s work here or on Instagram: @lu_iswondering