OPENING: Keynote talk

We would like to thank Professor Chika Okeke-Agulu for delivering the keynote speech.  Regretfully a recording is not available but this long summary serves to capture some aspect of what was addressed

copyright Winnie Sze. To reference this summary, Winnie Sze summarising Professor Chika Okeke-Agulu’s “Ernest Mancoba, Modernism and African art history” at “Ernest Mancoba – Dialogue on his Art & Words” 10 Feb 2020, A4 Foundation, Cape Town

Titled “Ernest Mancoba, Modernism and African art history”, Professor Chika Okeke-Agulu’s talk considers the problematic in defining “Modernism” with respect to African art history and warns against writing Mancoba’s history so as to deepen that problematic. 

Rasheed Araeen’s “Modernity, Modernism and Africa’s authentic voice” (first presented in 2008 published 2010) is a criticism of African art historians for not writing about African modernism.  Okeke-Agulu quotes Araeen’s statement that “Africa’s true modern voice and identity” lies “centrally within the historical trajectory of modernism inaugurated by the European avant-garde at the beginning of the twentieth century”.  He interprets it to mean that even as Araeen exhorts African art historians to write their own African modernism history, he is telling them to do so in the context of European modernism.  As Okeke-Agulu sees it, Araeen’s argument thus falls into the authenticity contradiction trap described by Sidney Kasfir (1993), which is whilst asking for other modernisms to be recognized, in actuality Araeen is deferring back to European modernism as the only one. 

Okeke-Agulu also disagrees with Araeen’s criticism of the Nigerian painter Aina Onabolu.  Araeen sees Onabolu’s realistic portraits as in the style of European academicians at the turn of the twentieth century, thus as “mimicry under tutelage of colonial paternalism and patronage” betraying his ‘Africa-ness’ which instead should be “the figurative naturalism of ancient Ife sculpture” (quoting Araeen).  But Araeen does not consider that the artist could be using realism as a radical representational mode.  Whereas Okeke-Agulu believes this was the case, referring to Onabolu’s text on his art, “A Discourse on Art” (1920), in which the artist states that modernity’s most appropriate medium was realist painting and photography and that he rejected his ancestral Yoruba traditional masks, sculptures and drawings as not being able to offer him the pictorial language of modernity of affirmative self-representation. 

Okeke-Agulu does not deny that on the surface Onabolu’s work looks to be mimicry, indeed even the African scholars who support Onabolu as a pioneer of African modernism feel a need to defend against the charge.  Okeke-Agulu mentions Olu Oguibe who locates Onabolu’s realism to the realist traditions of classical Ife court.  Yet Onabolu could not have known about the famous Ife sculptures back in 1920 as the first cache of sculptures was not excavated until two decades later.  Thus Okeke-Agulu’s warns that in trying to create a counter-narrative one still needs to consider the specific contexts and not risk ahistoricism.

If Araeen criticises Onabolu  – and John Mohl and Gerard Sekoto for that matter – as being unable to transcend colonial mimicry and develop an authentic voice, he describes Ernest Mancoba as the African artist who “enters the space of modernism… and demolished it from within” (quoting Araeen).  This, Okeke-Agulu understands, is essentially based on Mancoba’s use of abstraction in contrast to Onabolu and the others’ realistic language.  For Okeke-Agulu believes Araeen finds the avant garde in modernism to be in formal abstraction. 

Setting aside the narrowness of Araeen’s definition, Okeke Agulu points out that Mancoba’s abstraction did not come about until after he moved to Europe, where he encountered modernists of various stripes including those of late modernist abstraction.  In what way then should Mancoba’s modernism be claimed for Africa?

Elaborating, Okeke-Agulu asks further: what makes Mancoba’s formal language uniquely African or Africanist?  How does his brush strokes, palette and central abstract figure relate to any specific traditions of Africa?  Though some scholars have described the figure in Mancoba’s paintings to be kota reliquary sculptures, Mancoba himself ascribes his inspiration to the parsimony of Eskimo art. 

Rather it is the “combination” of his exposure to African art and post-Cubist abstraction and European cultures that made Mancoba “imagine a modernist subjectivity not so much yoked to national, continental or even racial identities as informed by the possibilities of a universal humanism”.  It is as Mancoba explains “for me, art can only be founded on the single notion – of which it is both the confirmation and the proof – that Man is One” (quoting Mancoba). To conclude, scholarship should not embark on finding the formal missing link between Mancoba’s abstraction and African art, to try to “metaphorically bring him home”.  Rather it should be to untangle the multiple lines that make his work difficult to ascribe to “either African or European modernism”.  For to do so would not only redact Mancoba’s art but also risk re-writing South African modernism.


Araeen, Rasheed, Modernity, Modernism and Africa’s Authentic Voice, published in Third Text, 26 March 2010, pp277-286, doi: 10.1080/09528821003722272

Kasfir, Sydney, African Art and Authenticity, published in African Arts, vol 25, no 2, Apr 1992, pp40-53 + 96-97, doi: 10.2307/3337059

Oguibe, Olu, The Culture Game, 2003, published by University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, ISBN 978-0-8166-4131-4