Three curators from three different regions of the world have discussed Ernest Mancoba’s artistic position before the opening of his exhibition in Södertälje konsthall: Alicia Knock from France, Joanna Sandell from Sweden and Dr. Same Mdluli from South Africa. Dr Same Mdluli is the curator behind A Black Aestetic: A View of South African Artists (1970-1990) that was shown at Standard Bank Gallery in Johannesburg in the spring of 2019, an institution where Same is presently also the artistic director. Södertälje konsthall asked her reflect on Ernest Mancoba’s position in art history. In this essay she writes on Ernest Mancoba and spirituality from an African view point.
Whilst it can be argued that the South African born artist Ernest Mancoba was not the first Black modernist artist to emerge from the African continent, there is something to said about his appearance as a Black modernist artist at a particular European avant-garde moment. More than his artistic journey as a Black man and a Black artist (in Europe), it is equally as central to focus on the intellectual ideas and expressive modes that in Mancoba’s case become a critical component to probing why his contribution to the modernist question must be interrogated through his participation in both a Black African artistic expression and the western art canon. The modernist question of course being ‘who does modernity belong to?
To gain a better appreciation of the works selected for a curatorial endeavour of Ernest Mancoba’s work however, it is worth suspending this question and the curatorial rationale in search of a deeper probe that seeks to expand his positionality within Black expressive modes. By so doing there is an opportunity to interrogate the extent to which returning to some of his ideas evoke questions around his artistic repertoire in relation to African spiritual, its artistic expression, and what it could mean with reference to art. It is through this prism, I suggest, that it is perhaps possible to see Mancoba’s artistic expression as not solely defined through a western modernist reading but rather as part of an intersection between a connectedness to spirituality and ancestry as well as spiritualism and materialism. These binaries have also connected him to a larger purpose of art making beyond the question of universalism or what it means to define art as a universal language. Mancoba, I suggest, advocated for this universal art language through not only his expressive mode of drawing from traditional African art forms but also in his use of reoccurring motifs in his work. These motifs act as not only markers of identity or identification but also more importantly places emphasise on his approach as centred on an exploration of human-ness in relation to the material and spiritual world.
Although this brief account on Mancoba’s life story cannot expand on the definitions of African spirituality, I propose that it forms part of an enquiry through which Mancoba’s work could be accessed. African spirituality in this instance is thus not defined as differing from any other kind of spiritualism as understood in terms of religious connotations interpreted through Christianity, Buddhism, Islam, Judaism or any other religion belief system for that matter but rather through an understanding that there is claim for its characteristics as distinctly different through the notion of being African. There is an intersection of this spiritualism with his art and his deep investment and appreciation of ancient cultures and African art forms and the ways in which they have roots in his own life history.
Mancoba was born to Christian parents on the 29th August 1904 in Turffontein, an area on the outskirts of Johannesburg central. His father Irvine Mancoba was an evangelist in the Presbyterian Church and also worked on the Comet Goldmine in Boksburg. His mother, Florence Mancoba was an Anglican Christian and probably had most influence on him and how his artistic being was shaped, developed and evolved over the 98 years of his artistic practice. While it is likely that this upbringing through Christian values played a role in shaping his understanding of what it means to be human, Mancoba’s works and ideas demonstrate that it is his African-ness that defines his empathy in understanding being human and human-ness. His declaration that ‘my people are the people of the world’ (said in an interview with Bridget Thompson) is based on his mother’s teachings of humanity (of having a sense of Ubuntu) and insistence that he would find intellectual stimulation and appreciation beyond the confines of an oppressive and stifling society South Africa was becoming. Ubuntu which loosely translates to I am because you are thus forms the basis for Mancoba’s philosophical approach to art making and its meaning to within society.
In the 1950s as apartheid was gradually taking shape of its policies and how it would implement these into every aspect of ‘native’ life, the missionary schools increasingly became an important space that did not only offer education opportunities in the form of taking up teaching or nursing, but also in other vocations such as carpentry or wood, weaving and textile production and of course art. Mancoba’s story as an artist is part of an expansive narrative of migration (both of place and ideology) that places Black artists’ as markers and interlocutors in the instances that complicated the organization of apartheid along racial and spatial lines in pre-democratic South African society. It is part of a (Black) experience and a shared trajectory in the expansive narratives of artists such as Gerard Sekoto and Dumile Feni whose life’s stories are tied by a common thread of a South African identity.
The South African identity has in the past two decades since South Africa’s democracy been shaped by a particular kind of visuality, one that is concerned with the predicament of having to move beyond a prescriptive linear narrative and meaning of art as defined through the western lens. As a result, South African art it seems, is in a perpetual state of the post-apartheid moment. Mancoba’s artistic journey is thus set against this back drop as it illustrates the complexities of art and complicates its reading in various ways. But when considered in relation to the historical links between the visual arts narrative of South Africa and its socio-political condition in as far as its artists are concerned – Black artists in particular – there is discrepancy in how he and others featured and were incorporated into the larger national historical narrative. While one could argue that this visual arts narrative has over the past two decades expanded exponentially, on the other hand it has narrowed down as it presents a clear delineation of how visual art has been considered in South Africa, more so through a political lens than its role in society and more importantly in term of what Black artists were preoccupied with. This perception has also been made less obvious by the appearance of a thriving contemporary visual art cultural scene that since 1994 has somewhat opened the South African art market to the international arena. However, this art market is as conflated with the discrepancies of a historical imbalance of apartheid’s favourability towards western ideas which continue to permeate in certain corners of some national art institutions.
It is worth noting that by the time Mancoba left for Europe he was already 34 years old. It is therefore possible to propose that by then he had not only formulated particular ideas about what art is (or should be) but also had particular ideas about its role especially with regards to how ‘it reflected human insight and initiative’. Mancoba features prominently as a central figure through these influences and ideas in not only through a curatorial placement within the overall story of Black art as a pioneer but also in terms of the narrative of Black modernist art. In other words, one cannot discuss South African Black (modernist) art without at some point mentioning or referring to Mancoba’s art and life story and more specifically his articulation of this story in how it is captured it in his artwork and a visceral expressive language. The notion of the universal is a philosophical question of how and why art is in Mancoba’s creative life centred as not just part of but also an extension of humanity and humanness. Universalism is thus here not used in a generalised sense but rather in opposition to the socio-economic political understanding of art that tends to emphasise it as something distinctly different or separate from the experiences it evokes.
Mancoba ‘s has reoccurring motif of the singular figure, which he usually rendered as almost invisible, disappearing into the background yet equally appearing in the foreground of the picture plane. The crude gestures of paint around the figure are as much a part of the picture plane as the figure disguised in the image. The figure is based on a study from an African art figurine and reoccurs regularly in Mancoba’s repertoire as not just a representation of himself but also himself amongst others, echoing the principle of ‘umuntu ngumuntu ngabanye abantu’ (direct translation: A person is a person through other people which philosophically refers to having a sense of empathy and humanity for others). While in the context of the exhibition it may be read a self-portrait, it also stands as a symbol of man, man amidst a chaotic world. But it also stands as a representation of Mancoba as world citizen, which was key to his pursuit of being an artist and him eventually leaving South Africa.
In that respect of making this life decision, Mancoba is also intentional with his choice of colour in this work and all other works, his use of burnt sienna, ochres and olive greens are a reference to a landscape – a South African landscape. These translate into referent to his connection to a spiritual past but also a denotation to a present African spirituality that I am suggesting offers it ‘a new meaning’. This ‘new meaning’ I argue is as critical to note in relation to the fact that Mancoba hardly titled his work but rather based it on descriptions i.e. drawing or sketch or in most cases untitled. The work thus presents an opportunity to be read and re-positioned in relation to its association to a modernist outline but also a personal association to a South African context that when a visual analysis is engaged further, it allows a better understanding of the visual elements and historical context from which it was produced. Most importantly it allows for a pedagogical approach to Mancoba’s art and art making in relation to the shaping of a South African and African art visual language.