PANEL: Mancoba and Other Artists

Title: “Back Row, From Left: Ernest Mancoba, …”: Paris, before and after the CoBrA interlude

copyright the speaker. To reference the talk: Wilhelm van Rensburg, “Ernest Mancoba – Dialogue on his Art & Words” 10 Feb 2020, A4 Foundation, Cape Town

The major tropes circulating in the Ernest Mancoba historiography variously claim his art as African modernist, African nationalist, African spiritual, or as mainstream modernist – with the African slant overwhelmingly pervasive at present. Mancoba’s sojourn among the CoBrA artists was brief and fraught with difficulty, however, so his role in the narratives of modernism needs to be re-evaluated, seeing that he is most often marginalised, sometimes even erased, from those narratives (“Back Row, From Left” typifies not only his literal position in the famous CoBrA founder member photograph of 1948, but also his metaphorical positioning in the group). This paper focuses on Mancoba’s experiences in Paris before and after CoBrA, and examines how he found himself in an invidious position between a European modernism, with an essentially enlightenment aesthetic, and an African modernism, and how he spiralled out of such binary classifications and contributed to shaping not only post-WWII French art (Paris having lost its status as art capital of the world to New York), but also the modernist aesthetic in general.

Mancoba is considered alongside such other émigré artists in Paris as Gerard Sekoto, a South African compatriot, Wilfredo Lam, an African-Chinese Cuban artist, and Alexander ‘Skunder’ Boghossian, from Addis Ababa, Ethiopia and these artists’ assimilation into and/or alienation from modernist narratives is compared. Mancoba’s philosophical critique of Western notions of primitivism and humanism render him a prime exponent of a new avant-garde.

Wilhelm van Rensburg is a Senior Art Specialist at fine art auctioneers Strauss & Co.  Previously he was a Senior Lecturer at the University of Johannesburg and he still lectures part-time at the University’s Faculty of Art, Design & Architecture training art teachers.  He also writes and curates, organizing exhibitions on Irma Stern, Judith Mason, JH Pierneef and, most recently, Christo Coetzee.