PANEL: South Africa & Europe

Title: Mancoba and the Invisibility of Black Expression in European Modernism

copyright the speaker. To reference the talk: Associate Professor Karen Kurczynski, “Ernest Mancoba – Dialogue on his Art & Words” 10 Feb 2020, A4 Foundation, Cape Town

This talk addresses Mancoba’s art making in Europe in relation to European modernist abstraction, the problem of primitivism, and the Cobra movement. It situates specific paintings Mancoba produced from 1938 to the 1950s in relation to his fellow artists of Linien and Cobra, examining their aesthetic strategies and reception in relation to the movements and in light of Mancoba’s singular presence as a South African artist taking inspiration from a range of world art traditions. These included traditional west African art in combination with Danish Medieval wall paintings (kalkmalerier) and other inspirations. I examine, first of all, how such works reframe received ideas of modernist primitivism, and secondly, why Mancoba’s contribution could not be taken seriously at the time. Given the deeper social assumptions about the nature of subjective expression as a privilege of the white, male, heterosexual subject that were firmly established in European culture and art criticism of the early 20th century, neither Ferlov’s sculptures nor Mancoba’s paintings could be fully understood as new contributions to abstract art at the time, but Mancoba’s work has become recognized today as one of the most important contributions of modern African art. 

Karen Kurczynski is Associate Professor of Modern and Contemporary Art History at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, USA. She is the author of “The Art and Politics of Asger Jorn: The Avant-Garde Won’t Give Up” (Routledge, 2014), and curator of the exhibitions “Human Animals: The Art of Cobra” (NSU Art Museum Fort Lauderdale, 2016) and “Expo Jorn: Art is a Festival” (co-curated with Karen Friis Herbsleb, Museum Jorn, 2014). Her second book, “Reanimating Art: The Cobra Movement in Postwar Europe”, is forthcoming from Routledge. She has published widely on Asger Jorn, the Cobra movement, the Situationist International, and issues of drawing and social identity in contemporary art.