Messenger of Peace dead at 74
Mozambique’s best known visual artist, the charismatic Malangatana Ngwenya (Mah-LANG-gah-tah-nah en-GWEN-yah), known by his first name and named UNESCO Artist for Peace in 1997, died last Wednesday, January 5th, 2011, in The Pedro Hispano Hospital in Matosinhos, Portugal, after a prolonged illness. Portugal’s President Anibal Cavaco Silva paid tribute to Ngwenya’s “role in the fight for democracy and the improvement of the living conditions of the Mozambican people.”
Malangatana was born in 1936 in Matalana village, southern Mozambique, near Marracuene. Malangatana ‘s early years were spent attending mission schools and helping at his mother’s farm. At the age of 12 he went to Maputo (then Lourenzo Marques) to work as empregado (house help). In 1953 was employed at the tennis club as a ball boy. This enabled him to resume his education, attending classes at night, and it was at this time that his artistic talents were recognized. Tennis club member Augusto Cabral gave him materials and helped him sell his work. In 1958 Malangatana attended activities of the artists’ organization Nucleo de Arte, and he received support from the painter Zé Júlio. In 1959 his work was exhibited publicly for the first time as part of a group exhibition, and two years later Malangatana held his first solo exhibition at the age of 25. In 1963 his poetry was published in the journal Black Orpheus and the anthology Modern Poetry from Africa. In 1964 Malangatana was detained by the Portuguese secret police (PIDE) and spent 18 months in jail. In 1971 he received a grant from the Gulbenkian Foundation and studied engraving and ceramics. Since 1981 Malangatana has worked full-time as an artist.
Among his achievements Malangatana has been awarded the Nachingwea Medal for Contribution to Mozambican Culture, and has been pronounced Grande Oficial da Ordem do Infante D. Henrique’. He has exhibited in Angola, Portugal, India, Nigeria, Chile and Zimbabwe, and his work is in collections in Mozambique, Angola, Cape Verde, Bulgaria, Nigeria, Switzerland, USA, Uruguay, India, Pakistan, Zimbabwe, and Portugal. He has also been commissioned for several public art works, including murals for Frelimo and UNESCO. Recognition of his stature is implicit in the statement made by UNESCO’s Director-General Federico Mayor when he presented the UNESCO award. Mayor noted that Malangatana is “much more than a creator, much more than an artist – someone who demonstrates that there is a universal language, the language of art, which allows us to communicate a message of peace, of refusal of war.” Malangatana has also been active in establishing cultural institutions including the National Museum of Art; the Centre for Cultural Studies; the Centre for the Arts; a youth skills training centre in Maputo; and he was also one of the founders of the Mozambican Peace Movement. Ngwenya was a Mozambican lawmaker from 1990-1994.
Jorge Dias, a close friend of Ngwenya, and former curator of the National Museum of Art in Maputo, remembers Ngwenya as a great storyteller. “He had a massive collection of stories about Mozambican history. I learned a lot of our history from him,” Dias told The Associated Press from Maputo. Inspired by Mozambican culture and history, as well as his own personal life, Ngwenya was not only an artist, but also a musician and philosopher, Dias said.
“Nka” is an Igbo word for artistry. It’s literary translation is “of art”. It is also an Akan word that implies “may be”. Furthermore, in Akan, “nká” means “ancient”. All that quite clearly suggest that activity of the arts is the most ancient human activity which have much more practical purpose than we tend to assign to it. Accordingly, the traditional role of African artists goes beyond the intellectual pursue of concepts and ideas and remains rooted in a social, political, philosophical and spiritual experience of a creator. That role maybe also a key and underestimated instrument of any tangible positive change. Malangatana lived by those principles. Africa needs Malangatanas of the new generations. They must be welcomed as a necessary tool of change.
The word ART is therefore only a classic term. When we Africans speak of Art, therefore, we are thinking of its manifestations from the Western view. We are not thinking of NKA, and what it includes. NKA, which is an Ibo word, satisfies the African meaning and the purpose of ART.
It is to be regretted that the African painter and sculptor today are not facing the realities of the African situation in their artistic expressions. While they must derive inspiration from the old art or NKA, they must also make use of the inner knowledge so as to arrive at the meeting point between inspiration and ideas. They should neither imitate western Art, nor copy their old Art.
—African Artists Blog (source “The African View of Art and Some Problems Facing the African Artist.” by Ben Enwonwu, 1968; Editions Presence Africaine (Paris).