VERA MLIA SHERIFF’S STUDIO4HUMANITY
Surviving and growing as an artist in a third world country such as Malawi is ten times tougher than in the first world; there is a constant need to think innovatively about ways to earn income. Most African countries are of the view that art, let alone illustration, are “unserious” avenues for communicating important messages and making an impact in communities whose populace consists of higher numbers of young people. With life being already stressful, most young people in class are subjected to rigorous absorption and memorization of theories that are no longer in line with our ever-changing modern world; quite simply most don’t relate or understand what they are taught in class. Have you ever noticed how children’s’ minds switch and become more engaged when they are watching cartoons and animations? They immerse themselves into the story or activity at hand without thinking of it as being another class with lessons to learn and a need to concentrate. When it comes to young adults, most of them hate the idea of being sat down and told words of wisdom, yet they willingly sit and enjoy reading comics as well as visuals that have characters portraying the same theme the village sages would tell them about.
Vera Mlia Sheriff, a fine artist and writer who majored in Fine Art with a minor in Drama in college, decided to resign from her then promising banking career to follow an artist’s path that is often marred with uncertainty. Now she is a woman with the vision to impact and influence a million minds in the next 10 years in building a better Malawi through Studio4humanity through her firm belief of art and illustrations as being the most powerful tools in communication. As a social enterprise, their work is not only ever evolving and exciting, it involves striking a balance between social work and income generation in order to survive.
To sustain themselves away from donor funding (which is one of the values they instill in their readers – aiming for self-reliance and financial empowerment), they render two major services. First, they create illustrations and information dissemination materials for NGOs and similar bodies and secondly, they create portraits for individuals and corporate logo wall-hangings. These two services enable Studio4humanity to meet its goal of providing a free fun learning and mindset change hub that can be accessed by anyone across Malawi. With their main target being children and adults; they use English for the children’s books as a way of encouraging them to achieve fluency, confidence and command for the language and a combination of Chichewa and English as that is how most young people communicate in this era. The studio strives to create characters that sound just like they would in daily conversations and scenarios so they can relate better to the messages.
Vera was inspired by the gap she saw in local communities when it comes to children’s and young adult fiction literature. Growing up in an urban setting, she had the privilege of reading western classic fairy tales which inspired her. From her love of watching cartoons and animations, along with enjoying painting, crafting and writing her own funny stories, Vera soon found herself on the path of thinking beyond just writing with a pen but dreamt of publishing her work. She realized she needed someone to design the covers for her stories in an appealing African way and not the way the west portrays African or Africans. That is when she decided to challenge her drawing skills to a level that would enable her to accurately represent African stories in a compelling and inspiring way; that is how she got into the world of animation and illustration.
Looking back on her journey from when her friend in secondary school created a buzz amongst her other friends after reading one of her stories, Vera’s perception of her writing skills was further expanded. With her friends expressing an interest to read more of her stories, along with inspiration from cartoons such as Tiana from The Princess and the Frog, Vera dived deep into the challenge of creating a world of characters and stories that the African child would feel included in and inspired by. She believes fairytales have an inspirational power that young locals in our economies often miss out on, so with the confidence of story writing her first book club gave her, she is focused on sharing their core message of the pursuit of greatness and persistence through championing and celebrating education, a resourceful mindset and entrepreneurship.
As a YALI alumni, she learnt the power that lies in persistence after she had been applying for the fellowship for over five times until she was finally picked. Many times people give up on something they truly want because of failing once or twice, Vera says. She believes everyone has their own path in life and despite being told that art in Malawi would not take her anywhere, she has found joy through it in a way that exceeds what she would have felt when she had a “real job”.
Communities expect the best fun learning experiences from Studio4humanity which adds to the excitement and experience of being on this art journey. Vera believes in harnessing the power of your personal influence even if it might seem minuscule. Sometimes encouraging the kid down the street can do wonders for an entire nation because you never know what people can grow to become which creates a domino effect that outweighs the impact of billions of funds needed to create change.
Her message to people in positions of influence is to never block anyone’s path. She reflects on her journey and is thankful for people who gave her a chance as it has opened doors for her and the team she works with. Sometimes the best gift you can give to someone, even those you don’t feel like helping, is to open the door and let them go wherever they believe they can make the greatest impact on humanity. Her personal journey is a testament of what support from your spouse and family can do in helping you fulfil your vision and life purpose especially in an industry that is often dismissed as not being a viable career.