Press release Gold of Africa Museum
In the Name of All Humanity
The African Spiritual Expression of Ernest Mancoba
Ernest Mancoba (1904–2002) has been described as ‘not only one of the greatest painters and sculptors from South Africa but also one of the most outstanding of the 20th century’, yet he remains largely unknown to the South African public. His legacy will be on exhibition for the first time since his death in 2002, at the Gold of Africa Museum from 27 June to 30 September 2006.
In the Name of All Humanity is curated by Bridget Thompson who directed the film, Ernest Mancoba at Home, and is a project of the Art and Ubuntu Trust formed to develop understanding of Mancoba’s work in South Africa. The exhibition will be augmented by an artist’s workshop and a seminar that will refresh perspectives of the great South African intellectuals of the 1930s who were Mancoba’s peers and generate a renewed engagement with his aesthetic and philosophy.
The exhibition and its associated activities are supported by; the National Department of Arts and Culture, the Royal Danish Embassy, the National Arts Council of South Africa, the CWCI Fund (an EU-SA partnership programme), the Gold of Africa Museum, the Cape Town City Council, Caltex Oil SA (Pty) Ltd, and the Grand West Heritage Foundation.
‘Art is not just to give pleasure to the eye and the senses,’ Mancoba once said, ‘but to give courage for the continuation of our community.’ He compared the artist to a shaman or prophetic poet whose duty it is to raise his voice to speak the unspeakable.
It was his inability to do this in a racially divided society that prompted his departure from South Africa in 1938. Fifty-eight years later in a speech in Johannesburg, he said of his decision to leave, ‘I wished to participate in the great universal debate where Africa, though present by its ancient sculptural masterpieces in the possession of collectors and museums and in the opinions of so many European thinkers and artists, had nobody to speak for it and remained mute even in the elements of dialogue that concerned directly its own civilisation and culture.’
Mancoba’s mother had been both Christian and a traditional African and he was born with these spiritualities, one in each hand, as he put it. His quest as an artist was the exploration of a common humanity he had discovered in the reconciliation of these two value systems. He spent much of his life fulfilling this passion, mostly in Denmark and France, expressing his deeply humanistic sense of art through a gradual shift from sculpture to painting, drawing and printmaking.
Not long after leaving South Africa he was imprisoned in an internment camp in occupied France where he spent four years and married Danish sculptor, Sonja Ferlov. In 1948 he helped form the radically modernist Cobra group, which existed for just three years but had a great effect on painting in the second half of the 20th century.
Mancoba visited South Africa on several occasions after the first democratic elections in 1994. His work was celebrated with two retrospective exhibitions, curated by his biographer, Dr Elza Miles, at the Johannesburg Art Gallery and the National Gallery in Cape Town. He was also granted honorary doctorates from his alma mater, the University of Fort Hare, and the University of the Western Cape.
Yet he remains relatively unknown in South Africa despite the pertinent message of his art which is this, ‘Above all,’ the artist said in 1996, ‘I wish to thank the South African people as a whole for the kindness and enthusiasm I have met in all circles of society and wherever I have been in this our beautiful country, today wholly reborn in the painfully gained knowledge that man is not primarily a Chinese, a Negro, a European or a Red Indian. Man is man by and through other men. In Africa, as in ancient Greece, you are only a man when you, like Homer’s hero Achilles in the Iliad, are able to conquer yourself, and at last see in the enemy; himself, yourself, and in his old white-haired father, your own.’
In the course of Mancoba’s life he was exposed to people and ancient art from many cultures; each encounter nurturing and informing his aesthetic and philosophical concerns. The exhibition at the Gold of Africa Museum concerns not only Mancoba’s work but examples of art from Africa and around the world that have thematic importance to his extraordinary life’s journey; whether Chinese, Native American, Inuit, Egyptian or European. It also includes for the first time in juxtaposition with his work, a selection of southern African beadwork which has resonance with his colour strategies and narrative method.
Mancoba’s artworks, oils, lithographs and sculptures are augmented by selected pieces from Danish collections with the support of the Royal Danish Embassy. Many of the ancient works have been sourced from Iziko museums in Cape Town and some from Museum Africa in Johannesburg.
The exhibition is in keeping with the purpose of the Gold of Africa Museum’s collection of extraordinary West African gold artefacts; which is to preserve the art of African goldsmithing while inspiring contemporary design. The museum’s ongoing temporary exhibitions from countries as diverse as India, Brazil, Mali and Egypt explore the commonality of this theme across geographical borders and cultural divides. The museum’s historic and intimate rooms also lend themselves to a close reading of the detail of the works on display.
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Bush Radio Interview 7 September 2006
She is a Curator, film maker and er she
…I thought it was important to??… because I’d grown up without knowing the real history of South Africa so I thought it important to record oral history and I worked in education, alternative education and that’s how I became a film maker
and you never look er and that’s started that influenced your filming in order
I was filming at a film festival… you know in the dark days of apartheid it was very difficult to get information but the Cape Town festival use to be quite exciting in its early years and I saw lots of films in it about Cuba, films about Italy…and er
Really! it is here in Cape Town, was it possible? Or maybe it was underground hey
Late 70’s, early 80’s ya
what was it this underground?
There was underground films as well but there was also interesting films at the film festival…you know there were feature films there were dramas
You know dramas the message is more oblique its not so overt. There were some good documentaries as well. I remember seeing a film called, ‘waiting for Fidel’ about a Canadian film maker who went to Cuba to try and get an interview with Fidel he never got the interview with Fidel but the whole film was about waiting for Fidel
There were beautiful Italian films about the life of peasants, films like, ‘Padre Padroni’
About these people who grow up unable to read or write looking after there fathers’ sheep and eventually they left them and, and , and eventually they learned to read and write and became intellectuals and I came from the Eastern Cape so I was interested in that rural life and there was also radical films about like you know like in Bartolucci’s ??early days he made very radical films he made a film called 1900 nova cento which means new century which is about a life of a, a farm, a farm worker and farm owner and there were Cuban films there was the most stunning film called the last supper, la ?? about slavery and resistance in Cuba so they were very…and, I thought if we could make a film like that about the position of domestic workers in South Africa it would be very powerful and very interesting… so the film festival was very inspiring
It was very… (incoherent)
Just listening about the films you mentioned to me they more of , know of people of from background not so good, you know from farm workers lives ?, slavery , peasants and what…were you more interested in how they lived or that…
Well, because I grew up in the Eastern Cape in a small village and although…
Oh, you could see that sometimes
Being white you live in your small little white world which I called the white cultural bantustan of the mind (laughs) but all around you there were people who were living breathing, stick fighting, drums, making bead work, making grass work, speaking Xhosa beautifully you know shouting across the street, the women with the pipes you know the Amitabha?? The traditions…
Ya, I know er, the traffic er
…so you can’t even though you living in your house and reading about Shakespeare and hearing about the king and queen of England there are people all around you doing something different so it influences you, you know
Bridget! This far now its 2006 you telling us you’re a curator you er exhibit some stuff you film produce … how many films you have done now?
Oh, I don’t know how many films I have made but I can tell you how many years I have taken to make films I made (laughs) um but um I’m only a curator because of a film I made. I made a film in 1994, 95 about Ernest Mancoba, A South African artist who went to live in Paris in 1938 and came back for the first time in 50, 60 years later in 1994 at the age of 90…
….for a big retrospective exhibition of his work at the Joburg Art Gallery and I came to know about him because I made a film about his close friend from the 1930’s, Govan Mbeki, that’s probably the first time I came on your programme was for an interview about that film and Govan Mbeki when he spoke about his youth he always use to speak about this young artist called Stereo and his face use to light up and he’d smile and his eyes use to sparkle and… but I never knew who Stereo was and then later on I discovered who Stereo was and Stereo was Ernest Mancoba and he was alive and living in Paris and I got a ticket to go to Paris and thought well let me just do an interview and that’s how the film came about and I made the film, ‘Ernest Mancoba at home’ and it was a very great pleasure to make the film but it was a ,it was a simple film cos it was just a story of him coming back for the first time…
56 years later
….yah, yah…and I didn’t go in depth into his art and at the time the curator of the exhibition in Jo’burg, whose very knowledgable and she was the person, the first South African to really reconnect with Ernest Mancoba and bring him back was Dr Elza Miles. She has written a number of very ground breaking histories of early black artists in South Africa…and she said to me, “Why did you not focus more on the art?” and I said, “Well, you know I am concentrating more on the story of him coming home” but then my life continued and I made other films and I kept on thinking about him and kept on thinking about what he said and then I realized that there was much more to him than meets the eye and I slowly started to think about the work. He was a sculptor before he left South Africa and he became a painter overseas and I started to think about his paintings, what they meant then I realized they were deeply influenced by South Africa and when I realized that it was a eureka moment and I felt they were influenced by beadwork, Southern African beadwork
…because one of his concepts was Umuntu ngu muntu ngabanye abantu was his essential guideline…
was he going to leave because of suppressive laws or was it just scholarship for him then
it was racism, it was racism um and he, he had, he was regarded as the leading intellectual of, of his generation and he was…
Ok, so he was ?? at school at the time, he was well schooled?
He was the chair of the debating society at Fort Hare, he introduced…
When he left?
That was 1948? Oh wow man
Before he left…before he left, he introduced Govan Mbeki to Eddie Roux who introduced Govan Mbeki in turn to the ideas of Marxism, he was a participant in the All-African Convention which was the big anti, you know in the 1930’s the big thing was the Hertzog Bills cos the Hertzog Bills were taking away all the last vestiges of political rights away from black people cos there still , if you had a certain amount of property, certain amount of education you could still vote for a, for a what they called a native representative, yet they were doing away with that in the 1930’s so he was involved in a protest movement against that, he organized trade unions in Jo’burg, he was a teacher in what’s now Polokwane, he lived as a…then after Fort Hare he decided to become a full time artist and he came to live in Cape Town and he lived as er, he was er, he was a caretaker in a block of flats in District Six…
…and he met Irma Stern, Lippy Lipschitz, you know famous artists of that time in South Africa and Lippy Lipschitz told him about this very interesting book about African art and how they were discussing African art in Paris so that’s why he decided to go to Paris, he was not taken seriously as an artist in South Africa he was regarded as a black artist but not an artist
Did, did he teach here in South Africa?
Yes, He taught Zulu in, in Polokwane
He was a Zulu teacher, Gerald Sekota was his friend he taught Gerald Sekota about Van Gogh
…..in a boarding house together at Fort Hare um Hugh and Baba Masekela’s father, Thomas Masekela who was a brilliant artist was also influenced by him, Nimrod Ndebele who was a playwright who was the father of Njabula Ndebele was also of friend of him and he said, “he was the greatest intellectual of our generation”.
Wow man, the unsung heroes…
And he was politically involved in Cape Town he was I don’t know if you know the movement at that time in Cape Town, it was called the Non-European Unity Movement and the Workers’Party
…he was involved ??
heard bout that
with activists from those organizations
(incoherent)..Ernest Mancoba ah oh …I don’t think his still alive?
No, that’s how we come to the exhibition, he died in 2002 at the age of 98. So, 2004 was his 100th anniversary. So, in 2004 I thought we got to do something to commemorate him and that’s how the exhibition came about.
In his works he was doing, he started you said, I stand to be corrected of this, he didn’t start with doing ah ah
He started with sculpture
And then he, before he left, heh, then
Before he left, he was doing beautiful work, in fact I really invite you and I urge all the listeners to go to the Gold of Africa Museum which is at 96 Strand Street. I just heard today they want to extend the exhibition that was going to close at the end of September but its been very popular and they keeping it open probably through the summer but go and have a look. Um, some of his very significant sculptures and paintings are on the exhibition and the first one that is very well known is the one his carved in 1929 at that time it was called the Bantu Madonna because it was carved, it was modeled on a black woman, the first time a Madonna was modeled on a black woman and she, you know she didn’t have shoes, it’s a very beautiful piece of work with incredible tranquility and balance in the form and it was carved out of yellow wood, an indigenous South African wood. So, he was quite a um, an innovator even in 1929.
Er, er, er
Then he carried on and did other type, other kinds of sculptures and they are also in the exhibition, one called the Uhadi??, the Musician
Which um which will be a ? player or a musician, it’s a beautiful piece and his style is moving more towards a more African expressionist style in that piece, the Madonna was more um classical and more…
And more influences from Europe in the Madonna, The Black Madonna
Yes, yes but, but at the same time he was introducing, its now called the African Madonna, now called the African Madonna um but um he although he was it was a figurative more naturalistic style he was already innovative cos it was using indigenous wood, he was modeling it on a black woman and so on. He was already trying to express a black point of view or an indigenous point of view then already and then he carried on doing a little bit of sculpture in Europe but in Europe he did not have… no he had lots of adventures in Europe and I must tell you about that but I’ll just finish on the outside. He did not have, he did not have money for sculpture, he did not have space to work and he …
There was no wood or anything…
Well there was wood but he did not have money for it, he worked as a farm labourer but I’ll come back to his…how he came to Europe and everything but his, his started painting, his paintings are very interesting and we can talk about that in a little more depth as well.
Er, er then you were saying now his works er when he… (incoherent)
Ok, so he started doing oil paintings, drawings, water colours, sketches, ink drawings and so on and there are very good examples of some of his work here at the Gold of Africa um and there are very few of his works in South Africa cos they were mainly…
… they were mainly brought from Europe so some of the work are brought out by the Danish Embassy and so it’s a rare opportunity for South Africans to see it um there’s a nice collection of work from Jo’burg, there’s 6 pieces at the Jo’burg Art Gallery and again it’s rare for Capetonians to see the work cos it’s usually in Jo’burg and that includes the African Madonna and his very famous painting the Ancestor and… then there is a, a very interesting um painting from the National Gallery, there’s one at the National Gallery
I’m just interested to know any artist when he touches his work, his always has an identity on , people would say does he have a certain…people, especially people involved in art, they just look at it and say this is so and so or this is so or so who worked here. Does he have his own exclusive you know as a person would say …aagh this is works of Ernest Mancoba or which stands out
This is such an interesting question because I believe he is one of the greatest artists of all time
He, other people are starting to write and say his one of the greatest artists of the twentieth century. I think what is, I think he really provided a major breakthrough in art and it relates to the Cubists
You know there has been some controversy recently about the Picasso and Africa Exhibition its been talk about a lot and Picasso and the Cubists innovated in western art in the early part of the 20th century by using a form of African art and they introduced through being inspired by the form of African art the shape of the mouth?? which are not realistic they (figurative), they, they more expressionistic um you know the face isn’t proportionate they are normal faces or an actual face is proportionate??
(incoherent) yah, yah. Er, er
They use that and they gave a breakthrough to Western Art this whole new movement called the Cube, the Cubists, the Cubism started in the early part of the 20th century and Picasso was leading?? Now Ernest Mancoba gets to Paris in 1938 and his looking for a dialogue about African art but what he is disappointed to find is that people are relating to the art but they not relating to the African people and they also not relating to the spirituality of African people as expressed in their art and so his critique was that these artists are taking the form of African art without taking, without also engaging the spiritual content…I mean he says, “what is the spiritual content”? It’s simply that a man must meet man and that’s it ?? Umuntu ngu muntu ngabanye abantu and that’s what he does in his painting. He expresses ubuntu in his painting and it’s absolutely phenomenal to see it …this very famous and very important painting, ‘The Ancestor’ is on the exhibition ,it’s the only painting he gave a name to all his other paintings are untitled and this painting took him two years to paint from 1969 to 1971 and in it you can see the whole history of South Africa….
When you look at this painting yah, it tells a story
…you don’t see it immediately but if you…
If you meditate on it its very abstract but if you meditate on the painting you’ll see the history of South Africa in it and what we did we made an educational video to go alongside the painting which is called reading the Ancestor and if people go to the museum what they should do is watch this animated film and its, it runs, it runs right next to the Ancestor so you can look at the film , look at the Ancestor and you can start to understand some of his methodology and what his methodology is, is based in his philosophy and his philosophy is based in his South African roots and this is that, if we don’t acknowledge our heritage we will destroy ourselves and will destroy the world we don’t respect the ancestor because by respecting the ancestor we acknowledge the ideas of ubuntu.
Now, we can also talk about that we know the reason being the influences from other parts we er??….but let us just come to exhibition itself you said it’s happening at the…
Gold of Africa Museum
Gold of Africa Museum
Which is a small museum at 96 Strand Street, next door to the Dutch Embassy and the old church at the top of Strand Street close to the corner of Strand and Buitengracht you can park in on the corner of Buitengracht you can get free parking on the corner of Buitengracht and Strand you just cross the road and walk into the museum. There two gold lions hanging outside and you will see them and soon there will be some big banners up as well and the Gold of African museum is dedicated to a collection of ancient West African gold so that itself is a very interesting thing to go and visit because we brought up to believe our history started in 1652 and that Africa was full of wild and primitive people……(nothing) kept upstairs in a permanent collection at the museum
?? incredible pride in the achievements of Africa and then the Ernest Mancoba exhibition is in the temporary space downstairs.
An apparently the exhibition has been extended now to?
Yes, its going to be extended until early next year it will be there through Christmas
??(incoherent) just tell us more after this where to now? Ernest Mancoba??
In terms of the exhibition?
Okay, there is one thing I wanted to add if you don’t mind
A about the question of , of unbuntu so what Ernest Mancoba did and why I think he is such a brilliant artist is that he introduced into his paintings the symbolic idea that the people of the whole world must be respected because he felt that ubuntu was an idea which applied to the whole world he said the deeper you go into any culture the more you find the universal human essence so in the exhibition there’s Egyptian work, there’s work from Aztecs, there’s work from Inuits which use to be called Eskimos, there’s Xhosa beadwork to show those connections and parallels. The dialogue that he had in his life was different art from around the world. He believe that if you go …and there is beautiful ancient Chinese works as well and er there’s some beautiful ancient masks from Mali, the Dogon masks from Mali
This all appears on this… Yes, wow…
Yes, yes, The Sankofa bird, the Sankofa bird from West Africa which has its head turned back to look, to the back to find, to look to the past to find a way to the future. So all of these things are there and they part of his believe system or part of his artistic inspiration so they in a way in dialogue with his work so it’s a very rich exhibition in terms of seeing some of these beautiful pieces so what we want to do with the exhibition well we immediately after it opened we had an artists workshop with artists who’ve met Ernest Mancoba some came down from Jo’burg from Funda Centre, there were some from Cape Town and ? begin to work together with those artists to try and introduce more knowledge about his work and his ideas in South Africa and what we hoping to do, it’s depending on funding we’ve got to raise the money to do it but it’s our intention to try is to work with those artists and go to community art centres with um reproductions of some of the work cos it’s not always practical to take them you know out of the conditions of museums
You right, museums have got airconditioning and special security and the works are quite valuable and they quite delicate so one cannot always take them with you to a community art centre but we going to take, we going to try to take reproductions.
So that every kid learns about
So you see yourself like going to run some workshops…
Together with artists, the artists are, are like collaborators on this, on this project and they guiding us as well on the project and we will also be having a seminar early next year with some of the people who were involved in the intellectual world of Ernest Mancoba from the 1030’s because he wasn’t really an artist he was a leading thinker, so…
?? (incoherent) I want to ask you a question?? Artists, special people who are interested in art?? Do they read about?? taught what about Ernest Mancoba
because everytime we always learn about your Picassos and your what not we never hear about of our own history about people who were…
exactly, exactly his not, his not prescribed in any books and so that’s part of our final goal, that will be the final phase of the project will be to produce um a work book for students and teachers which will give them some more background information
Wow, does he still have a family around here in Cape Town
Um, some of his family lives in Soweto, some of his family live Matat?? His sister is still alive and lives in Matat? Unfortunately she is too elderly to come down for the exhibition opening but his um niece and his nephew and their um children and partners came down for the exhibition opening and his son lives in Paris still. His son cared for him until the day he died and only then started really to develop his own career as an artist he has had two exhibitions in Paris and he’ll be here in June next year to have an exhibition of his work at the Irma Stern Museum.
Oh, so it’s like he took it from, from(incoherent)
Yah, so it’s on going and his mother, his mother, you know Ernest Mancoba’s wife he, I haven’t told you about his whole life story in Europe which is very interesting. He married a Danish artist which is one of the reasons he couldn’t come back because he wasn’t allowed to bring a white wife back to South Africa and she was a sculptor very very good sculptor so the first retrospective exhibition in Jo’burg in 94 was him and her work. She died sometime before him, she died in 84.
Bridget, I would like to ?? thanks again for coming and just a good reminder that this is happening at
The Gold of Africa Museum, 96 Stand Street, look for the gold lions hanging from the wall.. laughs
Ok, we not paying?? It’s free?
Oh, unfortunately there is a fee
Um, to enter the museum is R20 but if groups would like a tour especially school groups they can contact the education officer of the museum, his name is ?? and um school groups are taken regularly on guided tours and I am not sure if children will have to pay I’m not sure what that arrangement is and I also do tours of the exhibition as well and if it’s a group of struggling artists we can really make a plan to try and waive the fee.
Bridget, thanks for coming been?? …and want to share the knowledge with my few friends just tell them a little bit about what I know, what I’ve learnt from you about Ernest Mancoba and also…next time you must come …films??????
That would be lovely and Bassie? Come to the exhibition as well I’m sure you will enjoy it I will give you a guided tour..
Okay, for Bush radio…all the best