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Boldly colored painting of nondescript red, blue, yellow, purple, and green figures densely tangled together, some bleeding and cradled in the arms of others.

Three Curators, Three Favorites

Inside the Exhibition

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Hendrik Folkerts, Felicia Mings, and Constantine Petridis
October 1, 2020

Malangatana Ngwenya was a pioneer of modern African art—innovating his distinct painting aesthetic in the midst of and alongside the struggle for a liberated Mozambique.

We asked each of the three curators of Malangatana: Mozambique Modern, a survey of his bold, experimental work between 1959 and 1975, to share a work they hope you pay special attention to when you visit.

A central recumbent nude is surrounded by other figures—humans, animals, and composite creatures—the canvas filled with color and shape.

Purification of the Child (A purificação da criança), 1962


Malangatana Ngwenya. Oberlin College Library, Ohio, Gift of Dr. and Mrs. Lloyd H. Ellis, Jr., in memory of Eduardo Chivambo Mondlane ‘53

Photograph of chair and curator Constantine Petridis.

Constantine Petridis, Chair and Curator of Arts of Africa

The collector who donated this painting to the Oberlin College Library, the late Lloyd “Sandy” Ellis, a medical doctor who also held a PhD in art history, first introduced me to Malangatana’s work.

While this was back in 2011, when I was a curator at the Cleveland Museum of Art, this introduction is in part responsible for our choice nearly a decade later to organize this exhibition on the artist’s early years. Dr. Ellis acquired the work directly from Malangatana in 1964 when Ellis was serving as the Vice Consul for the US Foreign Service in Mozambique.

The painting, while clearly expressing the artist’s formal experimentation and his search for a personal voice, is stylistically rather idiosyncratic within Malangatana’s oeuvre—both in terms of the palette and its formal properties. However, it clearly shows the artist’s ethnographic interests in his rural Ronga culture. At the center, a traditional healer, displaying sharpened teeth and wearing the hairdo and attire common to her prestigious role, is flanked by painted ceramic and gourd vessels, while snakes and owls represent sorcery as the cause of misfortune.

Boldly colored painting of nondescript red, blue, yellow, purple, and green figures densely tangled together, some bleeding and cradled in the arms of others.

Remember Those Who Entered Bleeding? (Lembras-te daqueles que entravam a sangrar), 1974/75


Malangatana Ngwenya. Malangatana Valente Ngwenya Foundation, Maputo, Mozambique

A photograph of academic curator Felicia Mings.

Felicia Mings, Academic Curator

After spending nearly half a day looking at stunning works in Malangatana’s home studio in Maputo and his cultural center in Matalana, I was fortunate to encounter this painting.

The overlap of vividly colored figures that are neither human nor monster, sharp teeth, and drips of blood are elements that can be seen across much of his work, yet the geometric abstraction used to render this particular scene felt unique.

The title, Remember Those Who Entered Bleeding? (written in Portuguese on the right side of the work), is perhaps suggestive of the hope and trepidation of the time in which this painting was made. In 1974, Portugal’s Carnation Revolution ousted the country’s governing dictatorship. Lacking the resources to maintain overseas colonies and succumbing to the pressure of anti-colonial revolutionary struggles, Portugal called a ceasefire with the Front for the Liberation of Mozambique (FRELIMO) on September 7, 1974; Mozambique gained independence 10 months later.

Mozambican stamp from 1980 featuring a detail of Malangantana's painting "Remember Those Who Entered Bleeding?".

In 1980 the country reproduced Malangatana’s painting as one of six commemorative stamps issued for London’s International Stamp Exhibition—illuminating one of the many ways in which Malangatana’s work was embraced by the state and widely circulated.

Dense painting of colorful humans and creatures, overlapping and entwined, chains and knives amid the tangle.

The Cry for Freedom (O grito da liberdade), 1973


Malangatana Ngwenya. Malangatana Valente Ngwenya Foundation, Maputo

Photograph of curator Hendrik Folkerts. © Whitten Sabbatini, 2018.

Hendrik Folkerts, Dittmer Curator, Modern and Contemporary Art

The Cry for Freedom is the grand finale to our exhibition; it is also the first work I saw when I walked into Malangatana’s former studio in his home in Maputo, Mozambique.

Malangatana created this remarkable painting in 1973—two years prior to Mozambique’s independence from Portugal—and it was one of his largest and most ambitious works from the 1970s. The Cry for Freedom merges several elements characteristic of Malangatana’s body of work on view at the Art Institute: the use of bright and buoyant colors with high contrast, dense groupings of distorted humans and monsters, explicit and allegorical references to violence and dystopia, a focus on the nude female figure, and subtle self-portraiture (here we see Malangatana’s face at the top left). 

One of the joys of being a curator is that you get to see the backside of paintings. This rings particularly true for this work, which has an inscription on the back indicating that Malangatana dedicated the work to two Pan-African thinkers and revolutionaries: Amílcar Cabral, founder of the African Party for the Independence of Guinea and Cape Verde, and Eduardo Mondlane, the founding president of the Front for the Liberation of Mozambique (FRELIMO). Moreover, inscriptions on the back point to a most illustrious exhibition history; The Cry for Freedom was first presented at the Second World Black and African Festival of Arts and Culture (FESTAC) in Lagos, Nigeria, in 1977.

Be sure to catch these three curatorial picks—and the many other striking paintings by the artist—featured in Malangatana: Mozambique Modern, on view in the Abbott Galleries 182–84 through November 16.


Sponsors

Major funding for Malangatana: Mozambique Modern is provided by Sylvia Neil and Dan Fischel and the Alfred L. McDougal and Nancy Lauter McDougal Fund for Contemporary Art.

Additional support is contributed by the Society for Contemporary Art through the SCA Activation Fund and the Miriam U. Hoover Foundation.

Members of the Luminary Trust provide annual leadership support for the museum’s operations, including exhibition development, conservation and collection care, and educational programming. The Luminary Trust includes an anonymous donor; Neil Bluhm and the Bluhm Family Charitable Foundation; Jay Franke and David Herro; Karen Gray-Krehbiel and John Krehbiel, Jr.; Kenneth C. Griffin; Caryn and King Harris, The Harris Family Foundation; Josef and Margot Lakonishok; Robert M. and Diane v.S. Levy; Ann and Samuel M. Mencoff; Sylvia Neil and Dan Fischel; Anne and Chris Reyes; Cari and Michael J. Sacks; and the Earl and Brenda Shapiro Foundation.

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  • Exhibitions
  • Artists

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