Paintbrush Empowerment

Mufalo Mufalo inspires expression through art across his native Africa.

May 15, 2023

Grant Segall

Mufalo Mufalo.
Photo credit: courtesy of Mufalo Mufalo

Mufalo Mufalo speaks to his homeland with a paintbrush instead of a megaphone.

The first-year Oberlin student learned to paint from his late father back in their homeland of Zambia, a landlocked nation in southern Africa. Before long, Mufalo was painting at a nationally recognized art school, winning awards at festivals, participating in a national exhibition—even presenting an oil portrait to Zambia’s first president, Kenneth Kaunda. 

He has painted murals promoting public safety messages during the pandemic. He even fashioned his passion into a homegrown initiative: In 2019—at age 15—he founded Our Art Africa, a nonprofit that focuses on community outreach through art.

“I started Our Art Africa to help inspire young people in my community to use art to express themselves,” Mufalo said in 2020. “Through the initiative, I provide art supplies to schools and orphanages and conduct painting workshops. In these workshops, I encourage participants to follow their own individuality.”

Beginning this summer, Mufalo will do more of the same—this time with the support of a Projects for Peace grant secured with help from Oberlin’s Office of Fellowships and Awards, part of the Center for Engaged Liberal Arts, or CELA.

“A simple mural that highlights a social issue in a society can have more impact than a protest,” Mufalo wrote in his successful application for the highly competitive grant, which provides $10,000 for innovative community projects pursued mostly during the summer.

painting by Mufalo Mufalo.

Mufalo headlined his application “African Graffiti as a Driver for Change.” He recounted the way news of his pandemic mural quickly spread on social media, and how many people photographed it. “I realized that, for some people, it was more than just about the subject; it was about bringing aesthetics into the neighborhood.”

Mufalo dedicated his first Winter Term at Oberlin to painting yet another mural near his hometown of Mongu, Zambia. He was encouraged to apply for the Projects for Peace grant by Deanna Bergdorf, director of Oberlin’s Office of Winter Term, which is also part of CELA.

painting by Mufalo Mufalo.
Paintings by Mufalo Mufalo

Projects for Peace grants were endowed in 2007 at Middlebury College by the late investor, artist, and activist Kathryn Wasserman Davis, who challenged recipients “to bring about a mind-set of preparing for peace instead of preparing for war.”

Mufalo’s project will involve collaboration with other artists to paint murals in three Zambian towns: Lusaka, Mongu, and Livingstone, featuring subjects yet to be determined. He also plans to distribute more supplies. “I hope to inspire young people who want to make a difference in their communities,” he says. He expects to complete his project from June through August, finishing in time for fall semester of his sophomore year.

Prior to attending Oberlin, Mufalo was invited to take up high school studies at the African Leadership Academy in South Africa, many hundreds of miles from his home. His education there revolved around the school’s mission to prepare young people from throughout Africa for lives of ethical and entrepreneurial leadership.

Although he had never left Africa before coming to Oberlin, Mufalo met many American students at the academy, and they prepared him for life in Ohio—even the weather. “It gets a bit too cold sometimes compared to where I’m from,” he says, “but I prefer cold to hot.”

With plans to pursue studies in both art and neuroscience, Mufalo currently takes two drawing classes, an introduction to narrative art, an introduction to Africana studies, and a neuroscience lab. In only his first year on campus, he quickly fell into a role that deftly combines his two passions: designing covers for the campus neuroscience publication The Synapse.

He is also a Bonner Scholar, a program of Oberlin’s Bonner Center for Community-Engaged Learning, Teaching, and Research. Bonner Scholars engage in community-service initiatives throughout their Oberlin experience; Mufalo volunteers as an assistant at the Firelands Association for the Visual Arts in downtown Oberlin.

He credits neuroscience professor Chris Howard and Bonner Scholars director Brittnei Sherrod for helping him map out his future. After graduation, he hopes to pursue animation and create works with African characters.

A self-described introvert who tends to stick to his easel, Mufalo likes Oberlin’s small size. But he has gotten involved in numerous ways: He plays club soccer on campus and designs advertisements for African Student Association events.

“It’s the right place for me,” he says. “Oberlin has provided me with financial support and exposure to other opportunities as an artist.”

You may also like…

Haoyuan Gao Wins Oberlin's 2024 Nexial Prize

June 11, 2024

Haoyuan Gao ’24, a biology and neuroscience double major with minors in book studies, chemistry, and East Asian studies, has been named the winner of Oberlin’s 2024 Nexial Prize. The award is presented to an outstanding science student with aspirations for interdisciplinary research.
a smiling student wearing a suit coat and tie