Ernest Mancoba (b Gauteng SA 1904 –  d Paris 2002) was an artist with a vision and purpose living in a time when art had lost its relationship to the spiritual development of society.  He deplored this and said that particularly in the crisis the world finds itself in today that art was ‘not just to tickle and entertain but a matter of life and death’.  He said that art was a means to produce a higher consciousness in man and was no less important than a political struggle. He was cognizant of the role of the imbongi or the griot, the artist/poet in society who has the duty to speak the unspeakable and say the unsayable.  His 1929 sculpture, the African Madonna, has been described as an early expression of Black consciousness and if we consider Steve Biko’s comment that : “material want is dangerous, but when coupled with spiritual poverty, it kills” we can see that a thread of similar concerns traverses through the thought of leading South Africans of the twentieth century.

Mancoba’s particular, and relatively unknown, contribution is that he left a body of work which references the past, present and future in exceptionally skilled, internationally path-breaking paintings and sculptures, the contemplation of which connects us to our most ancient and most modern artistic heritage.   He said ‘what have we left along the way of this so-called progress’ never suggesting that we could actually return to the past but implying there was something important left behind.

Whilst working in an entirely modern idiom, in fact innovating very significantly within that idiom, Mancoba drew artistic inspiration from numerous traditions of pre-industrial art which he believed expressed humanity before the spiritual and communal purpose of art was de-emphasised.  He referenced art from Danish medieval fresco paintings to Greenland folk art to Chinese ceramics and Native American totem figures. Most particularly, however, he referenced ancient African, especially Southern African, art.

It is remarkable and deeply moving to view his paintings and make the connections to a Southern African colour palate, to perceive the similarities in his work and that of the subtle and masterly colour patterning of beadwork, to recognise the figures reminiscent of rock art and the definitive presence of the ubiquitous and significant Southern African colour, ochre. This Southern African influence was in spite of six and half decades lived in exile from South Africa. As Charles Nkosi, artist and teacher at Funda Centre, Soweto commented ‘During what I perceived as Mancoba’s isolation, he was dealing with the crux of the matter of the issues that we were facing.’

At the same time it is more and more acknowledged that Mancoba innovated very significantly within modern art. Some have even said he was the first abstract expressionist. He was also inspired by artists within the western tradition: Van Gogh, Artaud, Chaplin, Mozart and others were woven into his worldview.  Other artists like Giacometti, Laurens and his colleagues within the CoBrA movement such as Asger Jorn and his wife Sonja Verlov Mancoba were woven into the fabric of his life’s experience.

This long life included  Mancoba’s role as a leading intellectual in  South Africa’s New African movement in the 1930’s. Along with Thomas Masakela, Govan Mbeki, Gerard Sekoto,   Nimrod Ndebele and others they laid the foundation of thought which led to democracy in 1994. In Paris from 1938 he joined an artistic avant-garde but was interned in St Denis for most of the war.

After the war he was part of two significant movements in Europe one of artists, the CoBrA movement, and one intellectual, the discourse of 1950s African students and intellectuals in Paris against colonialism. By 1961 when he got French citizenship and South Africa became a republic it was unthinkable, and had  indeed been  impossible  for some years, for him to return home. In 1994 at the age of 90 he did return home with a body of work which posed the most fundamental question for humanity. How will we continue life on earth if we don’t respect each other?

Despite many hard experiences Mancoba believed that the deeper one searched in any culture the more one finds its universal human essence and it was this essence that his art calls us to find again and recognise if we are to prevent our own destruction. Many of the psycho-social and political challenges that face us in both 21st century South Africa and the world at large can be located in the loss of the spiritual and communal in society today.  Mancoba believed that a solution to this is encapsulated in the uniquely African yet universal credo he learnt at his mother’s knee: “umuntu ngumuntu ngabanye abantu” (a person is a person by and because of other people) and this proverb, extraordinarily, is explicitly expressed in his abstract paintings.

Through its references to aesthetic traditions from around the world which are as old as art itself his work stands as a plea for us to honour our heritage which is quite simply humanity itself. He felt that if we honour our common humanity we would not destroy the world through a fixation on the material. He felt that if the material and spiritual could be reconciled we had a chance of building a new renaissance for humanity.

So, it is Mancoba’s deep ongoing dialogue with humanity across space and time that particularly draws us especially  through the remarkable way he incorporated many artistic traditions, not the least of which are Southern African, into his paintings.

(C Bridget Thompson 2006)