STEVENSON CAPE TOWN presents an exhibition in partnership with Galerie Mikael Andersen, Copenhagen and Berlin, of works from the Estates of Ernest Mancoba, his wife Sonja Ferlov and their son Wonga. When Sonja Ferlov Mancoba wrote letters from her and her family, she always signed them with the letters EWS – for Ernest, Wonga and Sonja. It is these three letters that give the exhibition its title and theme.
Mancoba is arguably the most important modern artist from South Africa, and perhaps Africa, yet unlike some of his contemporaries like Gerard Sekoto, his work has not received widespread critical revaluation. The British artist and activist Rasheed Araeen, in a keynote address to the South African Visual Arts Historians in 2008, described Mancoba as one of the most important artists in any genealogy of African modernism:
[H]e is Africa’s most original modern artist, but, more importantly, he enters the space of modernism formed and perpetuated by the colonial myth of white racial supremacy and superiority and demolishes it from within.
Ernest Mancoba was born in 1904 in Johannesburg, and died in 2002 in Paris, France. He trained as a teacher in Pietersburg, and received a Bachelor of Arts degree from the University of Fort Hare. In 1938 he left South Africa for Paris, where he studied at the École des Arts Décoratifs. The outbreak of World War II prevented him from leaving Paris and, in 1940, Ernest was interned by the Germans in St Denis where he married Danish artist Sonja Ferlov in 1942. After their release, Ernest and Sonja settled in Denmark where both became members of the newly founded CoBrA group of abstract artists (CoBrA is an abbreviation of COpenhagen, BRussels, Amsterdam), and he exhibited with the legendary group between 1948 and 1950. In 1952 they returned to France with their young son, Wonga.
Throughout Mancoba’s life, he searched for the universal in art and humanity in the belief that art was ‘a means to favour a greater consciousness in Man, which … is part of the struggle for any human liberation’. Over the course of his life, Mancoba was dedicated to recreating a single image, loosely based on the human form as represented by the West African Kota reliquary figures. As time went by, its expression was reduced further and further in his search for the purest essence of the figurative form. In his words: ‘In my painting, it is difficult to say whether the central form is figurative or abstract. But that does not bother me. What I am concerned with is whether the form can bring to life and transmit, with the strongest effect and by the lightest means possible, the being, which has been in me and aspires to expression in the stuff, or any material that is at hand.’
As a sculptor, Sonja Ferlov Mancoba (born 1911) was a member of the Danish surrealist group linien, which later formed the artistic foundation of the CoBrA group. Sonja moved to Paris early in her career, where she quickly made international connections and artist friends and met Ernest Mancoba. Sonja and Ernest were strongly bound together both as a couple and artistically: Ernest later stated that a separation of them and their work would be the same as a negation of their lives. Her sculptures spanning the years from the 1930s through to the 1970s display two distinct themes: one is centred on the motif of the mask which represents the influence of ethnographic objects and tribal arts, and the other is inspired by organic and abstract forms. These two different ideas are almost united in her later work in sculptures such as Le roi des gueux (1972-73).
Wonga Mancoba (born 1946) works with language as a means of inspiration in his paintings, and in many ways his works carry on the tradition from his parents. His paintings and drawings are often based on historical events, for example the brutal treatment and eradication of black South Africans from Sophiatown in Johannesburg (1955/6). This event has both a personal significance for Wonga as well as a historical one. His paintings make visual reference to the drawings of Ernest Mancoba but words have been painted into the composition, thus they are loaded with signs and symbols, imbuing several layers of meaning.
Gallerist Mikael Andersen knew Mancoba and his wife since the 1960s, and in the early 1980s he began taking care of Sonja in Paris until her death in 1984. After he opened his gallery in 1989, he represented her estate; through the 1990s he remained very close with Mancoba, who was still living in Paris, and after his death, took care of his estate as well. In 2012, Wonga Mancoba and Mikael Andersen discovered a collection of works by Ernest Mancoba in the studio that he had shared with Sonia for many years. This occasion is the first time these works have been exhibited in Africa, 20 years after the retrospective exhibition of Mancoba and Ferlov’s work at the Johannesburg Art Gallery and the South African National Gallery in Cape Town in 1994, which was the only time Ernest Mancoba returned to South Africa from exile.
The exhibition runs concurrently with solo shows by Viviane Sassen and Portia Zvavahera.
The exhibition opens on Thursday 16 January 2014, from 6 to 8pm.