Ernest Mancoba has received star status after his death, he brings to mind another artist who received acknowledgement long after her death, Hilma af Klint. Södertälje konsthall exhibited works by Hilma af Klint in the spring of 1998, years before the hype around her enigmatic and intriguing art. This spring, more than twenty years later, Södertälje konsthall are showing Ernest Mancoba. The two artists share similarities beyond the fact that they came to fame after their death. Both artists deal intimately with ways to visualize spirituality through form and colour. Half a century may separate the two artists, but the question of where we come from, and how to understand the place of humanity in a spiritual tapestry, brings them together.
Exhibitions with artworks by Ernest Mancoba include Documenta in Kassel, Tate in London and Centre Pompidou in Paris, the interest around Ernest Mancoba’s art continues to grow and new readings of his work are written and disseminated globally. The many artistic interventions around Mancoba are part of a strive and a need to decolonise art history and art institutions. In creating an arts programme of relevance for diverse audiences it makes sense to look to artistic practices that previously have been overlooked, that are now being re-evaluated and lovingly dealt with by many. Here we find artists that might have been working outside of the main city centres and art that has not primarily been created for a market, maybe as a means to give an outsider persona or situation a narrative or art in the form of a spiritual journey. Earlier, a lot of discussion took place as whether Hilma af Klint could be consider an “abstract pioneer” as her art was not created in a reaction to earlier artistic movements. In the 2020’s these questions are superfluous. Contradictions are embraced, stories merge and new perspectives are brought into focus from the point of view of previous neglect. The grounds and positions from where art is created expands as audiences widen and ask to have a say in what art is to matter. When art flows in and out of public domains, between virtual rooms and the physical ones, from museums to derelict street corners, the understanding of and writing on art also needs to change.
Ernest Mancoba was born and raised in South Africa, he would practice his art in France during most of his life, he also spent some formative years in Denmark and was part of a dialogue with Danish artist for a substantial part of his career. Could it be that the art of Ernest Mancoba has been overlooked because he could be seen as a South African, French or Danish artist, or none of the above? Because he was a citizen of the world long before globalisation?
The year is 1938. Ernest Mancoba boards the ship Balmoral Castle in Cape Town bound for Paris with a stopover in London. In London Ernest visits British Museum and he sees the collections of West- and Central African art. He is also introduced to art from Oceania, the regions of the Pacific including Polynesia. One of the strongest leads in reflecting upon Ernest Mancoba’s art is the relationship between historical art from Africa and other regions of the world, the understanding of these artworks often brings us back to aspects of spirituality. During a lifetime Ernest will continue to be inspired by the powerful expressions of the art that is created for spiritual or communal purposes in societies around the globe. Raw expressions that have not been subdued by the formal modes of the mission and the church, art yet untouched by art markets and the pressures to sell. Just a few years prior, in 1936, a chocked Ernest has refused the invite to participate with carved animal sculptures in an exhibition organised by the Department of Native Affairs in Johannesburg. Ernest’s plan is to travel to Europe, to the epicentre of explorations of new forms of art, to a place of exploration and freedom, far from the new legislative restrictions that more and more are limiting possibilities for the native population of South Africa, creating inequalities along racial lines. In the last interview that is made with Ernest Mancoba, a conversation with the curator Hans Ulrich Obrist in Paris in 2002, he talks of a childhood memory where his mother claims he will meet his “brothers” in the great world, people like himself that want to find new knowledge, comradeship and freedom.
Among the most formative friendships in the life of Ernest Mancoba we find a group of Danish artists, one of them, Sonja Ferlov, will become his partner through life, an almost ideal person with a great and intimate knowledge of African art, according to Ernest, something that stemmed from the fact that Sonja was born into an affluent family with an uncle that collected African art. The family got to know the art collector Carl Kjersmeier through the interests of Sonja’s uncle, Kjersmeier being one of the private collectors of the early twentieth century with the greatest collections of African art, something that Ernest Mancoba also mentions in the last recorded interview. The Danish artists that Ernest Mancoba had come to know all had ties to the international art movement by the name CoBrA (CoBrA stands for the cities Copenhagen, Brussels and Amsterdam where the members were located) and the group had a strong interest in what at this time is known as “primitive art”. Interestingly, “primitive art” had other connotations then than today when the term brings to mind repressive colonial perspectives where art from other cultures than the west is believed to be inferior. Up until the eighteenth century the association to “primitive art” was the latin adjective `primitivus´ which meant `first´, `original´, and also `fundmental´. “Although not completely free of its imperial connotations, the phrase `arts premiers´ has been used to acknowledge the aesthetic and universal value of non-Western masterpieces and facilitate their entry into European and North American fine arts museums”, writes Pierre-Philippe Fraiture in the essay “African Art: from Primitivism to Arts Premiers”. When Ernest was born the term had already become problematic and connected to imperial conquests and colonial repression. Still today, world culture museums worldwide continue to grapple with the troublesome inheritance of these times.
An institution that is in an active dialogue with historical and contemporary art form Greenland, a region whose art both Ernest Mancoba and Sonja Ferlov Mancoba deeply admired, is The Museum of World Cultures in Stockholm, the Etnographical museum. The museum has a collection of tupilait, shaman art that was often carved in material that would eventually disappear, as the objects were carved to cast an evil spell upon the creator of the object’s opponent. Today, there are around seven thousand artists in the Arctic (from Greenland to Arctic Canada) and in a collaboration with the Ethnographic museum in Stockholm Södertälje konsthall is showing a series of slides of the museum’s collection of tupilait as well as a sculpture made in Arctic Canada in the 1960’s or 1970’s by the artist Mathiewsie Amidlak.
In Södertälje konsthall we are also showing, besides artworks by Ernest Mancoba and Sonja Ferlov Mancoba, works by contemporary artists that all have direct ties to Ernest Mancoba’s art and life. South African artist Kitso Lynn Lelliott has worked with material from Ernest’s studio and highlighted to connection to dance and movement in his imagery. Kitso Lynn Lelliott often works with placing her own body in video recordings, often disrupting time. Through the appearance of her physical body in a place or time we know has passed we become aware of the fact that some of the inequalities connected to the histories portrayed by Kitso Lynn Lelliott have not subsided. They linger on, like ghosts from the past, like physical knowledge in the memory of the body, in each cell, shared between generations. Kitso Lynn Lelliott dances in front of Ernest Mancoba’s studio front in her video “Fragments, towards a (space we might) dance” alluding to a famous quote by Ernest Mancoba when he at a party was asked to dance, but replied that he would “dance in a different society”. Kitso Lynn Lelliott has also studied the stylized visual lettering in Ernest Mancoba’s ink drawings, a form of dancelike writing, reminiscent of automated writing that Ernest begun to create after the death of Sonja. In the making of the work Kitso Lynne Lelliott also worked closely with the choreographer Gustavo Gelmini to give the physical “letters” performed movement.
Kemang Wa Lehulere, also from South Africa, is included in the exhibition with two artworks that processes the legacy of Ernest Mancoba. The viewer encounters the already mentioned last interview with Ernest Mancoba, edited with text inserts and animations that deal with the many wrongdoings that Ernest had to endure and the resistance that he had to demonstrate in order to practice his art freely. In another work, “Does This Mirror Have a Memory (Ernest Mancoba)” is in some respect a distilled experience of the mentioned video “Where, if not far away, is my place?” The installation consists of an untitled Ernest Mancoba lithograph and a wooden sculpture with feathers and is part of a body of works where Kemang Wa Lehulere is in dialogue with history, and more specifically, the writing of art history.
Chloé Quenum and Myriam Mihindou, two artists based in France, that are deeply inspired by West African art, have also contributed to the reading of Mancoba’s multicultural visual heritage. In the case of Chloé Quenum through the richness of the many cultures and expressions both her and Ernest Mancoba were inspired by, and in the case of Myriam Mihindou, we once again can approach the visual letter figurations that Ernest Mancoba that through Myriam Mihindou is given the physical form of glass, copper and wooden sticks.
While working with the Ernest Mancoba exhibition we have followed traces to many people and places. To further explore how young artists work with much of the material that informed Ernest Mancoba we invited Nkuli Mlangeni Berg to exhibit in our smaller exhibition space Portal. Nkuli Melangeni Berg’s practice includes textile art and design, and in her earlier textile rugs she traces the Ndebele traditions, traditionally used as personal prayers when painting houses, but later often appropriated in commercial collaborations between artist and design labels. In the exhibition “The Ninevites” the bold geometric patterns become powerful meditations over patterns found in African crafts such as textiles, pottery, basketry, murals and beadings. In the later textiles Nkuli Mlangeni Berg found her inspiration in the Kuba patters of Congo, geometric shapes that are said to be based on musical beats and dance.
In a way it could be said that the exhibition is a physical expression of “ubuntu”, an African philosophical stance that Ernest often quoted, that can be translated into “I am because of you”. It is clear that Ernest Mancoba created from a place of richness, not of matter but of spirit. Spirituality as a guiding principle stayed with him through a lifetime, having been born into a Christian family with a strong relationship to the ancestors and the healing powers in nature. Ernest Mancoba’s most famous sculpture, the “Bantu Madonna” or “African Madonna”, was made in the year 1929 and was placed at the St Mary Chapel at the Community of Resurrection in Grace Dieu in South Africa. And even though Ernest would later discard figurative art and reach for more abstract forms, the “Bantu Madonna” remained close to his heart, a symbol of womanhood and motherhood. The sculpture is said to be the first known Madonna sculpture with African facial features. Ernest chose to sculpt in native yellowwood instead of oak or teak, and he himself claimed that he hoped the viewer “if I am lucky enough to have been understood and heard, can feel under the surface of the classical mould an African heartbeat”. The “Bantu Madonna” is kept at Johannesburg Art Gallery, an art museum that I came to know through the artist James Webb. When I first saw the installation “Invisibilia” by James Webb, the radiating presence of the installation made a strong impression upon me. The installation consists of a found sculpture of the Madonna and child and an electromagnetic recording of Northern lights that was made in Tromsø in northern Norway. The sculpture brings to mind the intimate and deeply spiritual relationship that northerners have to nature, but also to systems of faith, and perhaps especially Buddhism, as the sculpture has its back turned to the spectator, as in present in silent meditation and prayer. James Webb often investigates spirituality and the systems surrounding them, often he works with sound and places and objects often exchange sites in a dialogue with time. In conversations around Ernest Mancoba and his artistic legacy both James and I came to think of the “Bantu Madonna” and the installation “Invisibilia”. There is a formal kinship between the two artworks, but just as Ernest moves between the many spiritual representations in art “Invisibilia” refuses to be placed in a defined thought and reading.
While working with the art of Ernest Mancoba I have often felt as if I move in a space of dreams. In many of the artworks the same figure reappears, a warrior of the soul with protection surrounding him. It is impossible to say what is background and what is foreground. Everything seems as one, as when consciousness is slowly separated from dream, as when the body seems to dissolve in the sound of forest birds in the spring and the enormous space of fields and oceans. While Hilma af Klint uses strong geometrical shapes to unveil the mysteries of existence the work of Ernest Mancoba is quieter and more subtle. In Ernest Mancoba’s imagery and form everything is interconnected. There is no solitude. And if Ernest in interviews talked of isolation as a black artist in Europe during neofascist times shortly before the second world war, or in small racist towns in Denmark after the second world war, his art seems to triumph over personal trauma. In his art he visually creates his ideal vision, where the soul and matter move in unison.
 Elza Miles, ”Lifeline out of Afrida the Art of Ernest Mancoba, Human & Rousseau, 1994.
 Pierre-Philippe Fraiture, “African Art: from Primitivism to Arts Premiers”. Page 157 in SMK catalogue Sonja Ferlov Mancoba Mask and Face, produced in conjunction with the exhibition Sonja Ferlov Mancoba SMK – The National Gallery of Denmark 9 February – 5 May 2019.
 Ernest Mancoba in conversation with Hans Ulrich Obrist in Paris, March 2002, page 69 in ”Ernest Mancoba” catalogue for Aicon Gallery New York, February 23 – April 9, 2017.