Malangatana: The Visionary Matters
The Matalana Visionary – a solo exhibition of works by one of Africa’s most distinguished contemporary artist Valente Malangatana Ngwenya (commonly known as Malangatana) is currently showing at the Gallery of Africa Art.The exhibition – a collection of pencil works, ink drawings and paintings -spans more than four decades of Malangatana’s career as an artist, poet, musician and activist.
In a little over two years after his first group show in 1959, Malangatana was considered as one of the most exciting artists in Africa. Critics were impressed by his strong compositions, compelling imagery and gift as a storyteller. Dated from the year of Malangatana’s first one-man show and on view at the gallery is a 1961 composition on masonite. The work ‘Untitled’, considered a masterpiece, reveals his stylistic hallmarks- the bright palette, dense composition and bold forms, which set Malangatana on course for a major international career.
Early themes in Malangatana’s work drew upon his childhood upbringing in rural Mozambique. Folklore, mythology, religion and family life – his mother worked as teeth sharpener (a fashion of the time) – provided the inspiration for much of his art during this period. It was not until later in Malangatana’s career that his work became more politicised, as his own consciousness developed. Many of his paintings from this point were commentaries on the socio-cultural and political events in Mozambique from life under colonial rule to eventual independence, and the years of civil war that followed.
A highlight of the exhibition is an example from Malangatana’s blue period – a short but rather beautiful phase in his career in which works were much calmer in tone. The large canvas is a rarity from this period, before Malangatana returned to his more earthy tones.
The Matalana Visionary also includes rare early pencil drawings that depict the suffering and hardship endured by ordinary people under the oppressive colonial rule. Men appear as zombies – barefoot and in rags, in an ‘Untitled’ work dated from 1965. In later works from this decade, figures are drawn with their mouths wide open, baring their teeth. Figures with sharp white teeth or fangs were recurring motifs in Malangatana’s work, as were those with pronounced eyes.
About the Artist
Valente Malangatana Ngwenya was born in the small rural town of Matalana, southern Mozambique in 1936. His early years were spent attending mission schools and herding animals on farms. By the age of 12, Malangatana had moved to the capital Maputo and was working as a ball boy at a tennis club. It was here that Malangatana met Augusto Cabral and Pancho Guedes, who both became instrumental in his art education and his career as an artist. In 1959, Malangatana’s work was exhibited publicly for the first time as part of a group show and two years later at the age of 25, he had his first solo exhibition. The show included the work Juizo Final (Final Judgment), which depicted the brutality of life under colonial rule. Much of Malangata’s work from this period to the early 1990s reflected the political turmoil of Mozambique. It was not until multiparty elections in 1994 that Malangatana’s work began to depict a more hopeful phase in Mozambique’s history.
Malangatana’s support for Mozambique’s independence struggle resulted in his imprisonment for 18 months for being a member of the Liberation Front of Mozambique, known as Frelimo. Shortly after his release, in 1971, Malangatana travelled to Portugal on a Gulbenkian Foundation grant and studied ceramics and printmaking. His first solo exhibition in the country took place the following year in Lisbon. Malangatana spent three years in Portugal and returned to Mozambique just ahead of the country’s independence. Following independence, Malangatana held several party political and government roles, including serving as a representative to parliament.
Also a published poet, Malangatana’s poetry was included in the journal Black Orpheus and the anthology Modern Poetry from Africa in 1963.Malangatana’s work has been exhibited around the world, including Portugal, India, Chile, France, London, Brazil and the USA. His work is also included in many public and private collections. Malangatana was awarded the Nachingwea Medal for Contribution to Mozambican Culture and in 1997 was named a UNESCO Artist for Peace. He was active in establishing Mozambique’s cultural institutions, including the National Museum of Art, the Centre for Cultural Studies and the Centre for the Arts.
Valente Malangatana Ngwenya died in Matosinhos, Portugal in 2011.
Valente MALANGATANA Ngwenya (1936 – 2011): The Matalana Visionary is open until 26th April 2014
Opening times: Monday – Friday, 10am-6pm and Saturday, 11am-4pm
Gallery of African Art, 9 Cork Street, London W1S 3LL
Nearest Underground Station: Green Park (Jubilee, Piccadilly and Victoria lines)