OPENING: The 2 co-convenors in conversation

To open the Dialogue conference the 2 co-convenors converse about why Mancoba why now, and South African modern art in general. They are introduced by Frank Kilbourn, Chairman of Strauss & Co, sponsor of Dialogue

copyright the speakers. To reference the conversation, Winnie Sze & Associate Professor Nomusa Makhubu, “Ernest Mancoba – Dialogue on his Art & Words” 10 Feb 2020, A4 Foundation, Cape Town

Summary of the Dialogue conference – Winnie Sze

One of the motivations for the Dialogue (conference) is to (re)introduce the artist to the country of his birth.  Not enough is known about him, still.  More than 20 years since its publication, Elza Miles’ biography “Ernest Mancoba: A Lifeline out of Africa”[1] is still the only writing with some breadth on Mancoba.  The few recent writings about him have been opinion pieces, with the writers using their interpretations of Mancoba’s work to provide support for their positions.

Mancoba is the first African Modernist artist.  This argument comes from the artist and activist Rasheed Araeen who circulated an open letter on the occasion of the Dakkar Biennale, 2004[2].  He provocatively admonished African historians and curators for deferring to the West in writing about the continent’s art history and ignoring Mancoba as Africa’s first African Modernist artist.  Araeen has a very specific definition for Modernism, and used only one of Mancoba’s work – the painting “Komposition” 1940 – to support his argument ignoring the shifting styles of Mancoba’s oeuvre. 

Mancoba was a founding member of the post-war European art movement CoBrA but was marginalized because of his race.  It was Mancoba who seemed to have insinuated this in his interview with Hans Ulrich Obrist (HUO) in 2001[3].  Mancoba said that he had been treated like “an invisible man”, the “consort” of a European woman (his wife the Danish artist Sonja Ferlov Mancoba).  The interview was wide ranging, capturing nearly 100 years of the artist’s life and career, from his birth in South Africa to his much longer time in Europe.  Because it was so broad, it lacked details, including of the CoBrA period.   Moreover at the time of the interview, Mancoba was 97-years old, recalling associations that happened over 5 decades ago.  In fact my research shows that he probably confused CoBrA with a Danish art association Høst.  This is not to dismiss the emotional sting of racism, but to acknowledge the art historical importance of prejudice by CoBrA, a European movement, versus by a Danish art association.  The matter of being a “founder” is also curious.  Mancoba never made such a claim.  The title seemed to have grown naturally, eventually bestowed as the theme of Mancoba as a black “invisible man” was picked up by various writers. 

It has to be said that I did not hold such criticisms when I first read those and other papers.  I, too, felt the injustice of Mancoba’s marginalisation and it motivated my topic of Mancoba and CoBrA for my research fellowship in the Netherlands in 2017[4].   Since then, I have been granted access to the Mancoba and Ferlov Mancoba’s archives including the audio tapes of conversations between Mancoba and his son recorded in the 1990s, and I have interviewed people who knew and worked with Mancoba.  I believe that his art deserves to be understood on its own merits, not as the rallying cry for competing art histories and art as protest.  To do that, I needed to share my resources: but on what platform?

The Mancoba retrospective at the Centre Pompidou (Paris, 2019) curated by Alicia Knock offered an opportunity.  The exhibition was meant to travel to South Africa by February 2020 and a conference in parallel seemed right.  A conference would draw together different research, both direct and indirect about Mancoba.  It would facilitate exchange and collegial but critical dialogue.  Moreover, holding it at the A4 Foundation, a venue whose ethos is experimentation, would allow the conference to be more than just presentation of papers, I could invite artists both visual and musical.  

It was my conference partner Dr Nomusa Makhubu who suggested Professor Chika Okeke-Agulu as our keynote speaker.  Okeke-Agulu is a widely respected scholar of African Modernism.  Moreover not being South African, but sympathetic to South African art history, he could give a balance of perspective.  He did not fail in that regard.  In his talk, he gently but firmly stressed the need for proper scholarship before attaching labels such as “First” and “African Modernist” to Mancoba.  He asks, what makes Mancoba’s work “African”?  Why should he not be considered an “European Modernist”, especially if one considers that his artistic leaps occurred after he left South Africa?

As a counter to Okeke-Agulu’s line of question, one could ask if “African-ness” is a result of being born African?  This is not Dr Same Mdluli’s question explicitly, but it seems implicit in her curated show “A Black Aesthetic” (Standard Bank Art Gallery, Johannesburg, 2019) in which she focused particularly on Mancoba, Gerard Sekoto and George Pemba, despite their different artistic interest, and in her talk circling the concept of “African spirituality”. 

Mancoba left the country of his birth in 1938 when he was 34 years old.  There is much to be considered about his childhood, Christian upbringing and education which helped form the man and artist.  Professor Luvuyo Wotshela focused on Mancoba’s years studying at the University of Fort Hare with a paper on the University circa mid-1930s, when Mancoba attended as a student.  Wotshela revealed how the University played host to diverse ideologies.  This would have been where and when Mancoba first learned of communism, Marxism and socialism.  Whilst Mancoba eschewed political activism for art, he often used the word “solidarity”, to what degree did his understanding of the use of that term come from this time? 

This concept of “solidarity” and his humanist belief was what Mancoba had in common with the CoBrA art movement, as Associate Professor Karen Kurczynski explained.  The CoBrA artists used abstract expressionism not to find their individual expressions as the better known American artists did, but to find an expression that connected humanity.  This may have been why Mancoba described the CoBrA artists as his “spiritual tribe” in interviews other than the HUO one[5]

It was not just CoBrA, Mancoba engaged widely with other artists, movements and cultures: one of his first Paris studio was in Giacometti’s complex; he attended many exhibitions in the art galleries and museums and visited the Musee de l’Homme (now Musee Quai Branly).  Wilhelm van Rensburg discussed some of the other artists working in Paris in the late 1930s/1940s and their possible impact on Mancoba’s work.  Jaco van Schalkwyk considered Mancoba’s argument about the academia and their co-option of the work of Marcel Duchamp. 

An artist who had an undeniably profound effect on Mancoba was Sonja Ferlov.  Not only was she to become his wife, but together with their only child Marc (known as Wonga) the three were each other’s world, as Senior Curator of the Danish National Gallery Dorthe Aagesen and curator of a Ferlov Mancoba retrospective explains.  Their artistic practices were formally different, but they held the same personal and artistic values.  Mancoba, writing to his sister to tell her about Ferlov Mancoba’s death in 1984, said that Sonja understood “umuntu” (ubuntu)[6].  Hung on the walls and piled on bookshelves of the small Paris building in which the three lived and worked together are images of objects from different art movements and cultures from around the world and eras – Greek classical urns, West African bronze heads, Picasso drawings – juxtaposed in a fashion that esteemed the objects equally.  I agree with Aagesen when she said it was very difficult to always know which image had been collected by Mancoba, Ferlov Mancoba or Wonga. 

As mentioned, the aim of Dialogue was to be more than a conference of scholarly papers.  Artist and theoretician Thembinkosi Goniwe’s contribution was a case in point.  He created a performance piece “The Black Madonna” after Mancoba’s sculpture of 1929.  It is performed by two musicians and a dancer, to essentially give movement and life to a (still) sculpture.  It made Goniwe wonder whether we can take an art object out of its history, if it would then distort its reading or help give it new meaning?  Goniwe explains using music as analogy: musicians play the old standards – the classics – but their own interpretations make the music contemporaneous. 

Making heritage present is a gift of musician Derek Gripper.  He is best known for transcribing the music of Malian kora music for classical guitar.  He has also played Bach in the traditional way and as if Bach had been influenced by African music.  His performance helped refresh our thinking, taking us from the precision of language to the shifting constellation of thinking which art – visual, music, non-verbal – can allow.  Gripper started our conference day, and another talented musician, Kyle Shepherd, who makes music exploring the relationship between image and music, closed it. 

Complexity makes it difficult to pin Mancoba’s artwork down: is he African?  Is he European? It is one of the challenges to understanding Mancoba, but also one of the rewards for endeavouring to do so.  Mancoba has said his aim in making work is to reveal that which has been lost to man, its “spirituality”.  That spirituality is not necessarily a religious one, though Mancoba was Christian.  Nor is it necessarily an African one, though he respected that ancient African art was about spirituality.  Instead “spirituality” is that which connects us, the reason why “Man is One” as he also said in the HUO interview. 

An attempt to capture and explain Mancoba’s pursuit of this spirituality is the essence of the retrospective at the Centre Pompidou (Paris, 2019) curated by Alicia Knock.  I am sorry not to have been able to see the show in Paris, especially as the plans for it to travel to South Africa has been postponed indefinitely. 

Did Dialogue set out to achieve what I wanted to achieve, to increase the knowledge and understanding about this artist?  I’m heartened by the turnout including of many students.  I hope to reach more through the release of the recordings of the talks, partnered with A4 Foundation.  There is much more to understand and the beauty of this quest is captured by how Sean O’Toole chose to conclude the conference, not with “takeaway points” but with 12 questions. 

I would like to thank the speakers for presenting and a special thanks to those who gave permission for their talks to be recorded and made publicly available.  I would like to thank the A4 Foundation for not just hosting but for partnering – in the true sense of the word – the event, and my gratitude to the sponsors for their financial and emotional support.  And lastly, thank you to my Dialogue partner Nomusa Makhubu who – it turned out – couldn’t be there but nevertheless worked tirelessly to help make it happen for those who could. 

[1] Published by Human & Rousseau, 1994, ISBN:  079813173X

[2] “An open letter to African thinkers, theorists and art historians”, subsequently published in Third Text, July 2005

[3] “Lives of the Artists, Lives of the Architects” published by Penguin, 2002, ISBN:  0141976640

[4] I was a research fellow in the “Deviant Practice” programme at the VanAbbe Museum (Eindhoven), Sept 2017, and may paper was published in 2018.  I also presented the paper at the SA Visual Art Historian (SAVAH) conference at the University of Stellenbosch 2018

[5] Such as with Alex Laird on Gerard Sekoto, 1994, transcription found in Elza Miles’ archive at the Johannesburg Art Gallery

[6] Letter from E. Mancoba to his sister Constance, undated but presumed shortly after 17 Dec 1984 the day of Sonja Ferlov Mancoba’s passing, found in the Ferlov Mancoba archive