Survival, humanity and African art

In the day of the eclipse, his son Wonga returned Mancoba’s ashes to the country of his birth. These were laid to rest in the Actonville Cemetery at Dunswart, where both Mancoba’s parents were buried.

Mancoba spent his childhood on the East Rand. Encouraged by the sculptors Lippy Lipschitz and Elza Dziomba, Mancoba left South Africa in 1938 to further his art studies in Paris.

At the time of his departure he had already established himself as a sculptor.
His sculptures consisted of ecclesiastical and secular pieces. In both these genres he had Africanised the prevailing Western norms of iconography and aesthetics.

In Europe his focus would gradually shift from sculpture to painting, drawing and printmaking. If we take into account his first oil painting, Composition (1940), which was last year included in Okwui Enwezor’s exhibition The Short Century, one realises that his artistic exploration was beyond the prevalent aesthetics of South Africa’s avant garde, which manifested itself in the New Group and that being barred from returning to South Africa after World War II was rather a blessing in disguise. During the war, while interned by the Germans at St Denis near Paris, he married the Danish sculptress Sonja Ferlov.

At the time of his departure to France his African Madonna (also known as Bantu Madonna) carved in 1929 and held by the Johannesburg Art Gallery, seems the earliest South African interpretation of the Holy Virgin not being European. Unlike most church sculptures for which imported oak or teak was favoured, Mancoba carved his Madonna of indigenous yellow wood. Moreover, this piece was later to play a role similar to that of the classical African pieces of Central and West Africa, which Mancoba admired in the British Museum. Of those pieces he once observed that they were carved for the preservation of group-life. In 1936 the Madonna similarly served the people of the community of Polokwane in Limpopo when she was brought from the humble chapel where she was kept at Grace Dieu to St Mary’s Cathedral in Johannesburg. She was displayed in the cathedral to raise funds for those in need in the drought-stricken Limpopo. A sum of £27 and 300 rations were collected.

Mancoba was undoubtedly — until further research shows — the first urban-born South African artist to break the tyranny of representative imitation and the Western canons of proportion. Faith (1936), a unique interpretation of a mother and a child, radically differs in its rendering of proportion from other contemporary pieces on the theme. Faith is one of the many works by Mancoba of which the whereabouts are unknown. The only documentation we have of it is a photograph that appeared in The Star (June 8 1936). Of this piece Mancoba explained that the bond between a mother and her child is one of “life and death”. This is a theme that he kept on exploring in his work.

Mancoba’s mother, Florence Bandezwa (born Mangqangwana), instilled in her children respect for their tradition. She also left an indelible impression concerning life and death on the artist. It is Florence who told Mancoba of the pathos when a mother arrives with her sick child at the doctor’s surgery to learn that the child is dead. Her narrative, vividly imprinted on his mind, made sense when many years later he was confronted with Cimabue’s Crucifixion at Assisi (Italy) and he understood not only Mary’s grief but also Christ’s consolation from the Cross when he said to her and John, his disciple: “This is your mother ... This is your son.”

In Faith and in many of his later paintings and drawings he explores the interaction between a mother and child and the almost instinctive dependence of the child when it desperately holds on to the mother. Whereas this dependence is clearly discernible in Faith, it is more suggestive in the paintings and drawings he carried out in Europe. In the latter colour touches and brush strokes conjure up such images and at focal points intensified colour or emphatic mark-making suggests agony or stigmata as in Tegning (c 1947), the most unique expression in 20th-century imagery. This pen and ink drawing was included in the Cobra retrospective exhibition held in Paris in 1982 to 1983.

His mother also pointed out the significance of sacrifice when she told him how their clan was saved from extinction by a great-grandmother who implored the young people who carried her to leave her behind at the moment she realised that she was an impediment to their flight. They — Fingoes — were pursued by Shaka Zulu’s warriors. L’ancítre held by the Johannesburg Art Gallery, captures the selflessness of the old mother. Time and again he expressed this sacrificial moment that leads to the well-being of the group.

In November 1994, after an absence of 56 years, Ernest Mancoba returned to South Africa to attend the opening of Hand in Hand, a retrospective exhibition of his art and that of his wife’s at the Johannesburg Art Gallery and the South African National Gallery in Cape Town. Mancoba holds two honorary doctorate degrees, conferred on him respectively by the University of the Western Cape for his contribution to culture in South Africa and his alma mater, the University of Fort Hare. From 1997 to 1999 he was the recipient of a grant of the Krasner-Pollock Foundation.

Unlike the art of John Mohl, George Pemba, Gerard Bhengu and Gerard Sekoto, Mancoba’s is still misunderstood by many South Africans. When the Johannesburg Art Gallery held the exhibition Land and Lives, celebrating the work of early urban African artists, there were art critics that found his art “boring” and “overrated”. For me that perception epitomises the parochial climate that was prevalent at the time Mancoba left.

What is Mancoba’s contribution? When he was offered a commission to carve “models of Natives and cattle” for the display of the Department of Native Affairs at the Empire Exhibition in 1936 he declined the offer. He could not comply with the need for tourist art. Throughout his career his integrity was impeccable and he fully understood the responsibility of the artist who upheld the spiritual heritage of the past by expressing himself in the idiom and materials of his lifetime to ensure the survival of humanity.

Client Media Releases

Utility outages: looking at the big picture
UKZN scientists get L'Or'eal-UNESCO Women in Science grants
Springbok-mania hits MTN head office
Optimise your SMS campaigns this Black Friday