By Phindile Xaba
The late Ernest Mancoba, painter and sculptor, should be to South Africans as Van Gogh is to the Dutch and Picasso is to the Spanish. He, like others, have for too long been excluded from the South African narrative. He is considered to be in a class of his own and yet his work is not sufficiently studied at South African universities or art schools.
The father of writer Njabulo Ndebele, Nimrod Ndebele, a playwright and friend, is known to have described Mancoba as the leading intellectual of his generation in the 1930s.
Recently on 29 October 2021, The Art and Ubuntu Trust (AUT), the organisation that has worked, building on Dr Elza Miles foundational efforts, to end the erasure of Mancoba, reached a major milestone when it donated a tapestry of Mancoba’s oil painting, L’Ancêtre (1969-71) and a bust of him to the Constitutional Court Trust (CCT) in 2017.
Renowned master weaver Joseph Ndlovu wove the tapestry but sadly died recently before seeing this work publicly acknowledged at the highest court in the land. Sculptor Dorothy Randell sculpted the bust in 1930.
As a celebration of these notable artwork donations, the Constitutional Court Trust (CCT), custodian of the Constitutional Court Art Collection (CCAC), and AUT will hosted a webinar entitled – “African spirituality, humanity and heritage”. The webinar discussed master weaver Ndlovu’s interpretation of the oil painting transformed into a tapestry.
A six-minute video artwork “Reading the Ancestor” by Abdulcadir Ahmed Said, donated to the CCAC by Tomas Films in 2021, was also be screened during the webinar as it enriches the interpretation of these artworks.
According to Justice Sis iKhampepe, outgoing chairperson of the CCT and the CCAC Artworks Committee, the interplay of mediums between these four distinct yet interrelated works (Mancoba’s original painting, Ndlovu’s textile, Randell’s sculpture and Abdulcadir Ahmed Said’s film) offer bountiful interpretive possibilities.
The interconnectedness of South Africa with the African continent, and how the CCAC “doesn’t just look inwards but considers constitutionalism more broadly,” was noted.
“The significant context of Mancoba’s time spent in exile, and the sense of community across the world around what our Constitution comes to represent today was also recognised. “Mancoba’s message […] saying we need to preserve African heritage as a shared heritage of humanity, resonates with Joseph Ndlovu’sHumanity, the very first artwork of the CCAC, aptly speaking to our constitutional ideals, as reflected in the CCAC,” Justice Khampepe said.
“We are delighted that the Constitutional Court Trust has agreed to add this work to its art collection and collaborate on the webinar,” said Bridget Thompson, Executive Trustee at Art and Ubuntu Trust who is the originator of this effort.
She further explained that after making a film in 1994 about Ernest Mancoba’s first return to South Africa in 56 years and having thereby been exposed to his work and ideas she had felt the necessity in 2004 to curate an exhibition to commemorate the 100th anniversary of his birth. This exhibition, ‘In the Name of All Humanity: The African Spiritual Expression of Ernest Mancoba’ initiated the work of the Art and Ubuntu Trust which is committed to developing understanding of and preserving Mancoba’s legacy and that of other African artists.
Thompson met Mancoba through Govan Mbeki who described Mancoba as his mentor.
The Trust has so far preserved his legacy through significant outreach programmes in all nine provinces. Seminars on Mancoba’s work at community art centres over the past 10 years have reached thousands of artists, teachers and learners. This effort was consolidated in a special ArtSAT Webinar series held every Saturday over 12 weeks recently. These sessions focused on his work and the work of other leading South African artists and brought together some of the country’s leading brains in the art space.
Abdulcadir Ahmed Said director of “Reading the Ancestor”, the short video artwork that was part of the webinar, collaborated with a team to make several short films on leading artists and these were shown in the ArtSAT series. Through these collaborative efforts Thompson said that AUT is realising its aim of developing awareness about the indigenous knowledge in the arts that informed Mancoba and other South African artists, musicians and writers.
Mancoba was born in 1904 in Gauteng. He left the country in 1938 and was unable to return after being interned during World War II and then marrying a Danish artist, Sonja Verlov.
“His work was ahead of its time but very much centered on an African spiritual expression,” said Thompson. “This started in 1929 with a sculpture in wood, The African Madonna and finishing in the 1990’s with oil paintings and lithographs. TheL’Ancêtre/The Ancestor took him from 1969 to 1971 to complete,” she said. He died in Paris in 2002.
For more on Ernest Mancoba visit the Art and Ubuntu Trust website @ https://artubuntu.org/
For more on the Constitutional Court Art Collection visit https://ccac.concourttrust.org.za/.=