Report on artist’s workshop 27 – 30 June 2006 

It emerged, right at the outset, that Mancoba’s aesthetic and philosophy affords an opportunity for a wide discourse, in that his art, his philosophy, his life, serve as a serious counterpoint to the social, cultural, spiritual decay and degeneration that has beset society. Specifically, in that in all his art Mancoba reflected a spiritual core, a soul, a great spirit that serves as the essential fulcrum around which everything else revolves.

It became very clear that a group reflection on Mancoba’s meaning for our contemporary context could not be a contrived exercise, because of his global reach, the depth of his attachment to and concern about Africa, as an African person and artist who reflected his roots with integrity to the world.

Another serious concern for the participants was the question of identity, the quest to find the thread that binds us together, and the redefinition of the social contract.

Workshop participants were also seized with combating the perceived (or real) sense of alienation of the artist and the relegation of the artist to the margins of the society.

Participants concurred that Mancoba’s contribution should become the centrepiece of the intervention of the artist, in defence of life, the celebration of heritage, culture, spirituality and a social contract with equity, respect, compassion, solidarity and empathy as the thread THAT BINDS US EACH TO THE OTHER.

The narrative that flowed from this encounter reveals a very sensitive portrait of the artist that counter-poses the notion, held by some, that the artist is selfish, self-involved, mercenary, reactive and voyeuristic.
The first session which, focused on art and spirituality, examined, among other things, the notion of the artist being labelled mad and marginalized by society (Wonga Mancoba discussing Artaud’s reflections on the death of Van Gogh – Artaud alleged that Van Gogh was suicided by society), the artist refused (Abdulkadir Said on the dangers of creativity being suppressed citing Hitler and Nero as examples), the special place kept for the ancestors in the home (Pauline Mazibuko) and the need for that place of respect to be brought into society at large (Bridget Thompson). There was also an assessment of the artist in relation to organized religion.

Elza Miles, author of the groundbreaking “Lifeline out of Africa” a biography of Ernest Mancoba said this was a critical time to be dealing with Ernest Mancoba because of the relevance that his insights hold for contemporary society.

She noted that a friend, a lecturer at Columbia University in New York City had told her that an art object is a house or a home that has a spirit and that every stone or shell has a life force.

Wonga Mancoba contended that there have been many mad people, throughout history, because they have been in touch with their spiritual side and that the problem arises essentially“ from the artificial divisions we have created between the spiritual and material world.” He went on to say that the artist is in touch with spirituality, and focussed on the reading from his father’s painting ‘The Ancestor’ on the exhibition, emphasising his father’s point “if we are not in touch with humanity, we will destroy the world.”

This process of listening and being in touch to a calling found resonance with Pauline Mazibuko, a young artist who met Ernest Mancoba when he visited the Funda Centre in Johannesburg. She initially had set out to become a social worker, but turned out to become an artist instead. However, in reflecting on her work as an artist, she said she had actually become a social worker as an artist. “It’s a calling,” she said.

In the context of the spiritual and material world interfacing with contemporary social and political realities, Moses Mthembu found a stream of clarity in the words of Steve Biko. He said he was influenced by Biko’s statement that “material want is dangerous, but when coupled with spiritual poverty, it kills.” He said that the creative process inducts us into a ‘process that is spirit driven,” and that this spirit driven creative process should be interjected into contemporary dialogues on issues such as the ‘rainbow nation’.

Assessing the spiritual content of Mancoba’s work, from the perspective of how the ancestors of Southern Africa represented their faith in rock art, Lionel Davis said this aspect required further study. He noted that ‘a great number of South Africans have Khoisan heritage’, and suggested that we need to discuss what we see in Ernest’s work that reflects this heritage especially with regard to rock painting.

Charles Nkosi said that the process of using images, words and music demonstrates the mechanism through which art becomes a spiritual and therapeutic force. ‘This process,’ he added, ‘creates the spiritual reservoirs that will become the brick and mortar of what we want to do, to share now and in the future’.

Peter Clarke veteran artist spoke about how the work of art has a life of its own when it is complete and enters the world. He mentioned how the most modest encounter with a work of art or photograph as a child can have an enormous impact later in life. His life was changed by seeing a photograph of Sekoto in the paper as he left for Paris. This convinced the young Peter that a black man could be an artist and gave him strength in his quest.

The discussion on day 2 focussed on the philosophical and aesthetic problems posed by the symbolism of the introduction of perspective during the European Renaissance. It was significantly more contentious, and demonstrated the diversity of the environments, experiences, and schools of thinking from which the participants approached the issue. The participants clearly required more time to engage one another on this issue.

The discussion on the problem of perspective ended up focussing on our need to reconnect with our African heritage and sense of place both locally and continentally with the backdrop to this discussion being our huge cultural deprivation for centuries in South Africa and the need to connect with our ancient heritage and the rest of Africa.

Bridget Thompson said that Mancoba emphasised that the Cubists had played a significant role in breaking the dominance of perspective within the western art tradition by using African art as an inspiration, however he felt that they had not solved the problem of perspective in all its dimensions. They hadn’t gone the whole way to engage the spirituality of African art and thereby they failed to create a symbolic embrace of the people whose art inspired them. She said that Ernest Mancoba did more than just innovate formally, his paintings provided a symbolic framework to embrace the people of the whole world.

Abdulkadir Said noted that when he was at school there were two schools of art, the Italian School which taught perspective fairly relentlessly and the Somali School. He asserted that as a result of this contradiction, “we have been deformed through the imposition of one approach to art, and the challenge is to find how we can regain our indigenous knowledge.”

Lionel Davis said that this situation had obtained from when Europeans imposed colonialism, and asked whether it was not time that we form our own dynamic. Barbara Voss emphasised that it would be counter-productive to pose European and African art as a dichotomy.

Charles Nkosi said that in looking at the philosophy of Ernest Mancoba as an artist, he saw himself as part of the universal, and it is this agenda that we have to embark from. Moses Mthembu pointed out that there is a need for a more vigorous approach to perspective. He said there were two sides to perspective, with the subject matter on the one hand and ideology on the other. “We need to look at creating a decolonised context within which arts education can be disseminated,” Mthembu said.

It was on day 3 that there was the greatest cohesion to the debate. The role of Tradition in Contemporary art started to sketch a way forward in principle emphasising what values need to be reclaimed and the importance of Ernest Mancoba’s work as a guide or example.

Charles Nkosi explained the meaning of Mvelaphi? (where do you come from?) and the significance of an ancient Southern African practice of placing stones on the roadside to say that you had passed this way. He went on to say that what Ernest Mancoba has helped us to “understand the process of wanting to be ourselves.” He noted that before Ernest Mancoba left South Africa, he was a drop in the ocean of people concerned with visual arts but that Mancoba saw the world as one, because he had a very big window on the philosophy of life. He said that the time had come to look at what we do collectively, and that local artists now need to answer the question, “what is South African about South African art?”

The final day of the workshop, revealed the universalism of Mancoba’s African rooted philosophy and the need for his work and philosophy to find a valued place in a society that needs him desperately now. Zubeida Jaffer, who was introduced to Ernest Mancoba by Govan Mbeki, said she felt that the spirit of Mancoba was present in the workshop. She recalled that she accompanied Mancoba around the city, and had been amazed at his response to every moment in Cape Town. She said the long journey he had travelled “demonstrated a passion connected to the spirit.”

This spirit, and passion is what the participants wanted to bring to the youth. Grace Tshikuvhe advocated involving the art teachers and organising competitions among schools to get everyone motivated. She suggested that a prize of art materials could be offered. However,
recognising shortcomings, Barbara Voss noted that there are no art teachers in primary schools, and suggested that attention is given to arts and culture corners to help teachers.

She said that “99% of art teachers do not know how to teach arts.”

Despite the challenges, there was concurrence among the participants on the need to get art into the schools and into communities, to give art a greater visibility through a poster series, competition, viewings at local community institutions such as libraries, and finding ways to give art teachers more assistance in teaching art to students. Ezekiel Budeli emphasised that the Art and Ubuntu trust was needed as a forum to take the discussion and practical suggestions further.

Zenzile Khoisan