African Artist Profile: Malangatana Ngwenya
Mozambican artist Malangatana , (pronounced mah-LANG-gah-tah-nah en-GWEN-yah), died following respiratory complications on January 5th of this year. I had an opportunity to learn about his life and work from the BBC African Perspective Podcast. I have decided to write my own profile of Malangatana in order to help me learn more about the man, his work, and his country.
Born Valente Malangatana Ngwenya (Ngwenya means crocodile) on June 6th 1936, Malangatana grew up in a village called Matalana, located about 30 km north of Maputo, Mozambique’s capital. He helped his mother, who was a traditional healer, on her farm while attending first Swiss Protestant and then Roman Catholic mission schools. His father, like many men from the country’s southern region, was often absent as he was away working in the gold mines of South Africa. While growing up in Matalana he worked herding cattle and studied traditional healing from two of his uncles.
At the age of 12, Malangatana moved to the capital to find work. At that time, the capital, now called Maputo, was called Lourenço Marques by the Portuguese colonial authorities. Marques was a Portuguese trader and explorer who settled in Mozambique. The capital was renamed Maputo, after the Maputo River, during independence in 1976. He first found work as a nanny, then, in 1953, Malangatana found work as a ball boy at a tennis club. It was here that he met Augusto Cabral and Pancho Guedes, both members of the tennis club, who would help to introduce him to Maputo’s artistic community and support his education as an artist. As Joe Pollitt recounts how Cabral met Malangatana:
[Malangatana] asked Cabral, one of [the tennis club's] members, whether he had a pair of old sandals he could spare. The young biologist – and amateur painter – took him home. Malangatana asked to be taught painting, and Cabral gave him equipment and the advice to paint whatever was in his head. Putting aside his teenage training as a traditional healer, Malangatana did just that, encouraged by Cabral and the prolific Portuguese-born architect Pancho Guedes, another tennis club member.
Years later in 1981, when Cabral had become the director of the Natural History Museum in Maputo, he would give Malangatana a commission to create a mural in its gardens. Joe Pollitt describes the mural as follows: “In a celebration of the unity of humankind and the often brutal world of nature, the work depicts wide-eyed figures in earth-coloured pastels, with extended limbs and claw-like hands.” Malangatana began to attend events organized by Nucleo de Arte. In 1959, he exhibited publicly for the first time as part of a group show organized by Nucleo. Alda Costa describes the formation of the Nucleo de Arte as follows:
In 1936, some of these individuals were involved in the creation of the Núcleo de Arte da Colónia de Moçambique, which was set up in the city of Lourenço Marques with the aim of spreading aesthetic education and promoting the progress of art in the colony. According to the association’s statutes, its job was to organise art courses, put on art exhibitions, create an art museum (with an indigenous art section), and organise visits by artists from Portugal, who could create works of art in the colony inspired by local subjects. It was also its job to organise art exhibitions dealing with Mozambican subjects in Portugal and contribute, in every possible way, to the artistic exchange between Mozambique and the metrópole. Its sections included: Architecture, Fine and Decorative Arts; Music and Choreography; Theatre; Literature and History of Art; Indigenous Art and Ethnography and also Propaganda and Publicity. In the event of a situation not being covered by the association’s statutes, the statutes of the metropóle’s Sociedade Nacional de Belas Artes (Portuguese Fine Arts Society) would apply. The creation of the Núcleo de Arte was clearly the embodiment of imperial thinking and of the attempt to build closer relations between Portugal and its colonies, as were the large-scale propaganda campaigns carried out at the time. Its actions and importance in the colony, however, spread far beyond those interests…
In 1961, at the age of 25, he had his first solo exhibition. According to Joe Pollitt, writing Malangatana’s obituary in The Guardian:
He courageously presented his ambitious Juízo Final (Final Judgment), a commentary on life under oppressive Portuguese rule. Mystical figures of many colours, including a black priest dressed in white, evoke a vision of hell. Some of the figures have sharp white fangs, a recurring motif in Malangatana’s work, symbolising the ugliness of human savagery.
Malangatana also wrote poetry. In 1963, some of his poetry was included in the journal Black Orpheus and was included in the anthology Modern Poetry from Africa.
In 1964, Malangatana joined the struggle for Mozambican independence by becoming a member of the Liberation Front of Mozambique (FRELIMO). For his involvement, he was arrested by the Portuguese secret police (PIDE) and spent 18 months in jail. One of his fellow prisoners was Mozambique’s leading poet, José Craveirinha.
In 1971, he received a grant from the Lisbon-based Gulbenkian Foundation (created by the Armenian oil magnate and art collector Calouste Gulbenkian, who played a key role in making the Middle East’s oil reserves available to the Western world) and went to Portugal to study printmaking and ceramics. His art reached an international audience and he had exhibitions in Lisbon. Three years later, he returned to Mozambique. The Carnation Revolution of April 1974, the military coup in Portugal that forced its government from a dictatorship to a democracy, accelerated Mozambique’s independence. He rejoined FRELIMO, which had developed from a guerrilla movement into a single-party Communist organization aimed at becoming the new ruling political power. However, a rival political party, the Mozambique Resistance Movement (RENAMO), supported by Rhodesia (Zimbabwe) and South Africa, came into conflict with FRELIMO, and a devastating civil war ensues costing the country about a million lives, as people died in combat, from starvation. About five million people were displaced. Many were made amputees by landmines, which are still a problem even after the civil war ended in 1992.
Malangatana was active in FRELIMO during this period but he also continued his work as an artist. His work during this time is a reflection on the horrors of the civil war. According to art critic Holland Cotter in his obituary for Malangatana:
Most of the paintings and drawings Mr. Ngwenya did during this period were a direct response to the violence he witnessed. Densely packed with figures, they presented lurid, Boschian visions of the Last Judgment and the torments of hell rooted in images related to healing and witchcraft remembered from childhood. It was only after peace was finally declared in 1992 that the content and the look of his work changed: he introduced landscape images and cooled a palette dominated by charred reds and stained whites with greens and blues.
He is survived by his wife, Sinkwenta Gelita Mhangwana, two daughters, and two sons.
While on an assignment for the Guardian in Mozambique in 2005, I was fortunate enough to be introduced to Malangatana, who was then living in a large house near the airport which was part gallery and part archive. I had already been shown some of his work, which was not only in public galleries in Maputo, but also widely used for book covers and CDs. What was remarkable about him was that he brushed off questions about his own work and insisted instead on taking us on a magical conducted tour of local artists from painter to sculptor to batik-maker. He was anxious that they should receive publicity rather than him. For their part, they clearly held him in high esteem. “He is my general,” one of the young artists told me.
He was a generous and entertaining host, telling us with a smile that his father had been a cook for the British in South Africa. A volume of his paintings, entitled Cumplicidades, published in 2004 with a foreword by the Mozambican writer Mia Couto, illustrates the impressive range of his work. I treasure my copy, which is inscribed “for Dunken Cambell from my heart”.
Obituary from BBC News available online
Obituary by Pauline Wynter from Pambazuka News available online
Images of Malangatana’s paintings at the Contemporary African Art Gallery available online
Images of Malangatan’s paintings at Kulungwana available online
Malangatana, edited by Julio Navarro, “this superbly illustrated book of Malangatana’s paintings is a showcase of his work. The paintings are accompanied by two introductory essays, one on the artist’s biography, the other a critical essay situating the paintings and the importance of his work in context. To date only available in Portuguese, this English-language edition provides the opportunity for a wider audience to gain an in-depth appreciation and understanding of the background and meanings of the paintings” (description available online)
Webpage for the 2007 documentary film “Ngwenya, the Crocodile” about Malangatana
In search of new African art in the 1960s. Sponsorship and training in the decade of euphoria – Ulli Beier, Pancho Guedes and Julian Beinart by. A. Pomar (article available online)
Revisiting the Years When Pancho Guedes Lived in Mozambique: The Arts and the Artists by A. Costa (article available online)
Duncan Campbell’s 2005 Maputo Photo Gallery for The Guardian, includes a picture of Malangatana, available online
British Artist Joe Pollitt’s Blog
Portuguese Colonialism in Africa: The end of an Era by E. de Sousa Ferreira, with an Introduction by Basil Davidson (UNESCO Press history text available online)