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The Invisible Mancoba

Ernest Mancoba at STEVENSON in Cape Town

By M Blackman
16 January - 22 February. 0 Comment(s)
Untitled (MAN001) - Detail

Ernest Mancoba
Untitled (MAN001) - Detail, 1960-65. Oil on canvas 55 x 46cm.

Ernest Mancoba, in an interview with Hans Ulrich Obrist a few years before Mancoba died, referred to himself as being some kind of ‘invisible man’. His life of living in exile in Paris certainly contributed to this perception, but there was something more to it than that. As many have pointed out, not least Rasheed Araeen, Mancoba is one of the most underappreciated and unacknowledged artists not only in South Africa, the country of his birth, but in the world. Certainly in South Africa his work, unfathomably, does not have the renown of that of his friend in exile, Gerard Sekoto's.

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Untitled (MAN009)

Ernest Mancoba
Untitled (MAN009) Undated, Ink on paper, 33 x 25.5cm

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There are, perhaps, several reasons for this. One is that Sekoto’s work is instantly recognisable as South African. In fact, Sekoto almost invented a ‘South Africa’ style that is easy to understand and accessible to all; one that most people who have only a cursory interest in art have in mind when they think of South African painting (a style that now has the almost pejorative term of ‘township art’ attached to it). With this in mind, some years ago I was with a friend from England going through some galleries - when we came across a tired, hackneyed ‘copy’ of a Sekoto my friend exclaimed with great joy: ‘This is what I want!’

Mancoba’s story and art are, however, drastically different from that of Sekoto’s. His notoriety in South Africa before leaving for Paris largely emerged from a sculpture called ‘Bantu Madonna’, a 1929 yellowwood carving of the Virgin with African features, which was perceived to be radically transgressive at the time. Unlike Sekoto, he never had a Yellow Houses moment – a moment when his work was accepted into a ‘white’/official institution. Quite simply, Mancoba’s work produced in South Africa was almost certainly too radical.

After leaving the country in 1938 for Paris, Mancoba became interested in abstraction and its relationship to African forms, leaving more overt statements well behind him. Famously after World War II, he became one of the formative members of the CoBrA movement from which he was to be marginalized, it would seem, largely because of his race.

This exclusion was exacerbated not only by his exile from South Africa but also by his abstract expressionist (or, one could say, at times minimalist) style, which to a larger degree excluded him from being recognized later in post-Apartheid South Africa.  This is, perhaps, something to do with the fact that his later work produced in Paris is not instantly recognizable as ‘South African’, as ‘political’, perhaps even as identifiably ‘black’ - which is still very much an issue that haunts the art world in South Africa. As Unathi Kondile said at the time of The Spear: ‘If we look at the current crop of black South African artists that are going places or have made it you will largely notice that their work revolves around identity: blackness and sexuality to be precise. Nothing else.’

There have of course been some attempts to bring Mancoba’s work into the limelight of popular acclaim in South Africa. Most significantly, in 1994 there was a retrospective of his work at the Johannesburg Art Gallery. And now, twenty years later, Stevenson Gallery is exhibiting a small taster of his works, largely dated around the 1960s. It is at this point that I must confess I know little of his work myself. I have seen some images of his paintings and sculptures on the internet, his Mater Christi (1935) in the Campbell-Smith collection (also on the internet), and one untitled painting at the Iziko South African National Gallery (ISANG).

Untitled (MAN016)

Ernest Mancoba
Untitled (MAN016) Undated, Oil pastel on paper, 50 x 32cm

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And here I must confess another failing on my part: while at ISANG, I missed the most important feature of his work, one of which I only became aware at the Stevenson. Walking down the long line of Mancoba’s works on paper that fill the far room of the Gallery in Woodstock, most of the works seem to be thoughts on form. However, sketched out amongst the lines, grids, chevrons and other characters and strokes of the pen, there is the outline of a figure. What it is precisely, I would be hard-pressed to explain. Christine Eyene, following the monograph on Mancoba produced by Elza Miles, refers to it as an ‘emblematic totem or mask-like centred shape’.

Personally, the figure reminded me of something Kenneth Clark said about one of the early Christian manuscripts produced on the Isle of Lindisfarne. ‘When a man appears,’ Clark said in his idiosyncratic drollery, ‘he cuts a very poor figure. In one case the scribe has thought it best to write [next to the image] Imago Hominis – the image of a man’. If, I feel, Mancoba had ever wished to title his work (something he stopped doing when his style shifted), he too might well have written ‘Imago Hominis’ next to his recurring figure.

Again and again this ‘image of a man’ appears in his drawings. And they seem to me to be almost a form of self-portrait. At times the figure seems to be holding a spear and knobkerrie; at other times, in pastel oil, it seems to be restively, perhaps disconsolately, staring out at the world. At the very least they seem to mark out stages of a figure’s life; perhaps emotive, perhaps developmental.

However, it is only when one comes to the paintings that one realizes some of the meaning contained in the drawings. In all three paintings (in the one room dedicated to them at Stevenson), the same ‘image of a man’ stands amongst all the other brushstokes.  It took me a while sitting on the bench to realise that the figure was there in all of them, staring out with its almost insect-like eyes, but sure enough there the figure sits quietly, at times almost invisible amongst the other marks.

Untitled (MAN003)

Ernest Mancoba
Untitled (MAN003) 1960-65, Oil on canvas, 55 x 46cm

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Intrigued, I went to ISANG the next morning to see if the painting there, of the same period (1960-65), also contained the figure.   And sure enough, perhaps even slightly more hidden than in the Stevenson paintings, there this figure was. Recently, Chad Rossouw in ArtThrob’s pages said that he found novelists had greater explanatory power than many contemporary art critics. And perhaps following this I should say no more about Mancoba’s figure hidden in brushstrokes, and instead quote the opening paragraph of Ralph Ellison’s novel Invisible Man:

I am an invisible man. No I am not a spook… I am a man of substance, of flesh and bone, fiber and liquids – and I might even be said to possess a mind. I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me… When they approach me they see only my surroundings, themselves, or the figments of their imagination – indeed, everything and anything except me.