A theme running through the symposium on Ernest Mancoba at the A4 Foundation was the urge not to proclaim. Not to insist that Mancoba is the first: African Modernist, South African modernist, black Modernist, the first black abstractionist modernist, first truly great South African black artist. Penny Siopis speaking from the floor offered that categorization is a method of capitalism and the patriarchy.
Despite the paradox in her statement, I have little doubt that this is right. The German thinker, Max Stirner, felt something similar when he implied that all categorisation and all words are a terrible yoke underscored with the chains of tyranny. True, Isaiah Berlin recounted, but without systematic symbolism I will fail to think. And if I can’t think I will go mad! As duly Stirner did, ending up ‘very honourably and very consistently in a lunatic asylum as a perfectly peaceful harmless lunatic.’
To take both sides in this argument –to hold the candle both for St Michael and his dragon– categories and their ascribed meaning are necessary but they are not complete. They change with the environment, with culture, with contact, with history. But there are forces that deny this, that demand autocratic consistency. What seemed apparent at the symposium was that the two dialectically opposed schools of contemporary thought, those of Capitalism and ‘critique’, have got so used to category, to reduction, to essentialism that we barely notice it when these words fall off our lips. Patriarchy, capitalism, feminist, queer, black, white, privilege, modernist, colonialism are offered so regularly that we sometimes fail to remember how complex, transmuting and plural these terms are.
Plurality was not mentioned at the symposium. And yet it seemed to be breathing its name, its categories, at every talk and at every performance. If Mancoba has a story that can lead to a categorization it is certainly not consistent. A missionary educated child from the Transvaal Republic, a teacher, a would-be journalist, a Mfengu, a Xhosa, a student at Fort Hare, an activist, an exile in Paris, a prisoner of war, a married man in an interracial partnership, a father, a painter, a recluse, an associate of CoBrA, a sculptor of a ‘bantu Madonna’, a French national, an abstract painter, a humanist, a figurative painter. Does this get us anywhere?
Mancoba was all of these things in name. But he was a man who had centripetal and centrifugal impulses and influences that defy simple categorization, that contradict and coalesce, that are culturally and theoretically incommensurate. What he did end up being was a man in a Paris flat, a man who read, who painted, who wrote, who discussed his life endlessly with his Danish wife and his son.
As Alicia Knock the curator of the exhibition I Shall Dance in a Different Society at the Pompidou in Paris proposed, this family was a trinity – Knock has listened to over 150 hours of the Mancobas speaking to one another on cassette tapes. If Wonga, the son, was the keeper of their words – as Knock offered – then Sonja, his wife and sculptor, was the maker of their relics and Ernest the guardian of their spirit.
It was a trinity with little interest in the tawdry commercial art world. They rejected it – Sonja turned down representation by a famous gallery. What they were absorbed with in their flat was form, expression, method, thought and those ineffable mysteries of identity. And they survived on this. Only the gods know how. It seems that in many ways their art, their lives and their survival were the act of collaboration, a relationship that sustained them in a world that was deeply indifferent.
This was not a collaboration to be placed on show at any commercial space but one to be lived and it was understood in living. But there is no singular message to this living, no category that these isolated, almost invisible, three humans were trying to explain in perfect form. Mancoba and his wife were outsiders in seemingly all the societies they entered and the attempt to canonise (in the art canon) them is in many ways absurd. They may well have been saints of sorts but they belong to no distinct recognizable parish, European or African or Modernist. That Mancoba is being recognised at this moment is certainly magnificent, what will follow will no doubt not be.
What will follow will be a fight of fitting – one that Knock seems to have tried to avoid – fitting this outsider into a South African or European art history. It will be (and has been as Prof Chika Okeke-Agulu argued) a piece of badly thought out revisionist history (much like the rather bizarre claim on two occasions at the symposium that Shaka Zulu fought colonialism). That Mancoba was influenced by Africa and Europe there can be no doubt. That he was marginalised because of the pigmentation of his skin can hardly be questioned. But to suggest that these and these alone can explain a life and work is something to be guarded against.
As Bruno Latour argued, critique has, certainly in the latter-day form of its sainthood, associated itself (like all formal religions) with subtraction, with monologic reduction and essentialism. It has become reliant on its categories reducing these to stable easily definable systems that limit their subjects.
What was clear and often spoken against at this symposium was that Mancoba is threatened with this subtraction, the subjugation to South African, black, marginalised, modernist. These Mancoba was at times, at others he defied them. And when you look at his work which is both abstract and figurative, both minimalist and at times over-worked, he is an artist who defies categorization, whose centripetal messages are in equal to their centrifugal. To look at his work is to be in a state of generative multiplication, be in a state of symphonic complexity, complexity that should not be reduced to a theme on piano keyboard.