Following is a critical analysis and commentary of the work of four contemporary artists whose work has influenced Nya′s oeuvre. In particular, their use of materials, appreciation of color, understanding of textures, respect for line, symmetry and balance and an ever-evolving appreciation of their role to use their painting ground as a belvedere to discourse themes intrinsic to the human experience.
thakor patel . india
The profound depth of the work of the Indian born artist, Thakor Patel, rendered with a dose of purity, clarity and precision of intent can be described as “an encounter of rhythm and tension on a spatial field where only the quintessential elements abide in harmony.”
Thakor introduces color by incessantly splattering finely composed brush loads of paint onto his carefully chosen ground resulting in a build-up of rich, dense and mellifluous colors deftly orchestrated in esthetically pleasing geometric and organic shapes.
His multifarious palette ranges from deep oranges, cobalt blues, violet, cadmium reds, zinc whites and varying shades of electric purple. In his large-scale canvasses, the immensely gifted Indian born contemporary artist applies his paint not just to the front of his panels, but also to the sides, which are often extended with wood slats, filling down the corners so that they appear rounded.
The tension in Thakor’s paintings, created by overlapping and interacting areas of flat color with amorphous or geometric shapes evokes memories of the 1950’s color field painting movement. However, unlike the work of Mark Rothko, Kenneth Noland, Paul Jenkins, Norman Lewis and Clyfford Still, American painters considered “masters of color field painting,” Thakor does not fully embrace the movement’s principle of “emphasizing the flatness of the surface.” Instead, he creates a three-dimensional illusion in most of his distinguished pieces as well as refers to objects in the natural world, thereby revealing his emotional state of mind, a keen sensitivity to African cultural aesthetics.
In this painting from the series, “Above the Horizon,” Nya’ masterfully and liberally applies color onto his river sand-coated Belgian canvas primed with acrylic gesso and polished with an industrial adhesive to create a subliminal world in which the viewer can liberate his aspirations and every solitary word left unspoken. The canvas becomes a celestial habitat where all the clandestine regrets, uncried tears, aborted smiles and unconsummated joys are eternally abandoned as a virgin dimension replete with purpose, profuse with faith and teeming with vision is restfully ushered in.
Thakor Patel’s rare ability which allows the viewer to leap into the expanse of his enigmatic colors in his paintings can be attributed to his ingenious deployment of the principles from the color field painting movement, particularly the following;
creating an airbrushed illusion
treating his surface as a field of vision
making his paintings less about the actual process of doing the work
As one stands close to his pictures, his colors extend beyond your peripheral vision, “like one is looking into a lake or an ocean, and instantaneously, you feel the sensation of the colors and comprehend the essence of the key elements shrouded in the piece.” The curved and angular forms, monochromatic and brightly colored paintings of this Indian-born maestro and one of this world’s foremost contemporary artist conjures memories of the work of another Indian-born British artist, the sculptor Anish Kapoor.
The latter’s gigantic sculptures, many of which have carved apertures and cavities, often alluding to and playing with dualities, e.g. earth and sky; darkness and light; good and evil; spirit and matter; male and female; body and soul are simplistically rendered. However, they possess an overwhelming calmness, peace and tranquility that one feels in the presence of the chimerical paintings of Thakor Patel.
In a work completed by Nya’ in 1998 entitled “Victims of Faith,” 62 x 35 inches (157.48 x 88.9 cm, 2003), Thakor’s influence is keenly perceptible. Grounded on carefully treated Belgian linen which was bolstered by exposing it to a naked flame before the priming course was prudently initiated, Nya’ used highly contrasting colors reminiscent of Thakor’s canvases to accentuate the essential elements without obstructing the harmony and cadence of the composition.
In 1960, with the intention of “uncovering the mystery of form,” the Spanish Catalan painter, sculptor and ceramicist, Joan Miró i Ferrà painted a large format picture entitled (“Blue III, Oil on canvas, 270 x 355 cm, Musée National d'Art Moderne, Center Georges Pompidou, Paris). The painting, which was part of a triptych is similar to Thakor Patel’s 1984 work, “Untitled” (Gallery, The Art Magazine from Gallery Delta, No 29).
Both artists applied large portions of the color blue with an astonishing degree of sensitivity so that the hue evanesces into the soul of the picture. This makes it a spiritual color, and in keeping with romantic color symbolism, “a symbol of the internal and ecumenical night, of spiritual purity and enduring liberty - the color of visions.”
The two artists, working in two entirely different continents with over two decades separating the consummation of the two paintings, both enliven the color, depicting only a few essential elements and open up an infinity of imagination to the viewer.
In his heavily textured work weighing over eight pounds and comprised of concrete, steel, construction bolts, discarded metal, a deluge of sand and grounded on carefully treated canvas layered with gypsum, crushed rocks and sackcloth, “My Boathouse,” 74 x 27 inches (187.96 x 68.58 cm, 2006), Nya’s generous use of blue in alluding to the abiding peace, the abounding Grace and the boundless mercy that prevails in the journey of a Holy Spirit led and faith-filled visionary amidst the inescapable hurdles and torrents designed to buffet, stagnant and frustrate him can be traced to Thakor’s relationship with this celestial hue.
Thakor Patel’s use of line, “graceful and delicate in movement,” is economical and brings awareness and attention only to the essential elements on his picture plane. In his earlier works, e.g. “Musician 1975” (Gallery, The Art Magazine from Gallery Delta, No. 31) his adroit use of organic line to depict grotesque skulls and parts of a human torso is contrasted with the soft rendering of the violin, crutches and other various elements displayed in the paper grounded black ink drawing.
In his 1995 piece, “Skin,” (Gallery, The Art Magazine from Gallery Delta, No 31) line is sparingly deployed to accentuate the definitive constituents of his canvas while chaperoning the viewer’s eyes throughout the painting field.
Key elements akin to both his adopted African and native Indian heritage, e.g. African neck beads, cowrie shells, letters from the Hindi Alphabet or Devanagari Script are presented in an ethereal tone that eloquently captures their invariable nature. He also creates a variety of textures and some of his paintings have a sandpaper-like surface, whereas some are flat, and still others in their swirl and pockets of texture resemble the undulating terrain of the African continent.
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viyé diba . senegal
In his virile and enthralling compositions, Viyé Diba employs an array of indigenous and felicitous materials that include tree bark, shards of metal, fragments of wood, sand, recycled objects and woven strips of cloth. These unorthodox, salvaged from the cities of Senegal are dexterously amalgamated to create communicative pieces that integrate the discipline of painting and the robust movement of sculpture.
Viyé Diba renders his line in a thick and primitive style, reminiscent of the crude chevron and organic motifs found on old Tonga doors. However, unlike the Southern African found doors, his line is carefully considered and incorporated into his complex compositions without any decorative aesthetic appeal or a sense of sensationalism.
Viyé uses an extremely earthy palette that can be described as distinctively organic and intrinsically evolving. His colors seem to develop in a manner analogous to the natural growth and evolution characteristics of living organisms. Burnt oranges, scorched browns, ash black, foliage greens, nebulous blues and tainted whites are the predominant colors that veil his distinguished work mainly grounded on wooden panels.
In one of his most celebrated series, “Materials, rhythms and compositions,” which deservingly won first prize at “Dak'art, the Biennale of Contemporary African Art, 1988,” Viyé consummated his distinguished body of seven paintings on wooden planks covered in mud cloth.
This was ensured by tying and joining sections of the lumber and painting them in an apathetic reddish adobe pigment giving the impression and immediate feeling of the flatness, aridity and hardships of the Senegalese hinterland. He then fashioned canvas sachets that resemble Shona or Tsonga snuff bottles of compressed spherical form. Upon filling the sachets with black soil, he rhythmically tied them to distinct sections of his composition to create a heavily textured relief surface.
Inevitably, the resultant form resembled a Malian Dogon granary door that a father would dutifully construct and present to her daughter after her first menstrual period, thereby acknowledging “the dawn of womanhood.” According to Malian tradition, the young woman was required not to relinquish her priced possession and retain it after marriage. Therefore, Viyé’s composition could be alluding to puberty with the sachets depicting a budding girl’s breasts.
A piece from Nya’s oeuvre whose influence from Viye Diba’s work is unquestionable is “Mandate of Dominion” (41 x 31 inches, 104.14 x 78.74 cm, 2006). Composed inherently using constituents procured from the earth e.g. animal dung, tree twigs, shards of metal, found iron parts, rocks, sackcloth, and animal hide, the work is grounded on a door-shaped panel with sackcloth covering the metal inscribed Holy Scriptures to represent the sacredness of the “Word of God” and its immortal power to remain hidden from hardened hearts while being revealed to those who revere His name and make it their sole priority to seek His Kingdom.
Akin to Viye’s masterful works, these unorthodox materials add tact and heft to the composition while the animal blood and cow dung paste provides reds and burnt umbers of visceral radiance unlike that of the most brilliant cadmiums.
Series I, Divine Inspiration, Nya’ 2004. Courtesy of Seed Gallery, New York
Mandate of Dominion
Another African contemporary artist whose use of color and form is similar to Viyé’s composition is the Ivorian sculptor, Monique LeHoulleur. Her purely organic forms, which echo Viyé Diba’s work resemble discarded fragments of corrugated metal that have been mounted on meticulously carved wooden blocks.
Her bronze castings, which, like Viyé’s paintings, resemble old Dogon and Tonga doors are consummated in crude shapes, with a distinct majority embellished with African motifs, particularly the chevron pattern. The glass pendants hooked to most of Monique’s sculptures and left to swing within the hollow carved space in the middle of the sculptures resemble the Zulu horn-shaped snuff bottle of cylindrical form affixed to Viyé Diba’s distinguished paintings. But even though both artists use organic colors, Viyé’s palette is warm and rich, whereas Monique LeHoulleur’s organic colors are a combination of russet and untreated grayish tones.
Other African artists synonymous with affixing various materials on their surfaces, thereby creating conversational pieces that resemble ancient altars include Tiébéna Dagnogo from Côte d’Ivoire. His two works, “Mossi Kro” and “Porte Céleste, (Gallery, The Art Magazine from Delta Gallery, No. 18, front and back cover, respectively), is similar to Viyé Diba’s work, especially the blunt affixing of wooden branches and the irregular, heavy and hard outlined form.
However, unlike Viyé, who hardly uses text or indent words on his wooden panels, Tiébéna’s work is fond of text either “liberally” scribbled within the picture plane or carefully engraved within definitive spaces in his compositions.
Viyé Diba’s surfaces are coarse and arenaceous, resembling the rugged Senegalese mountains of Toukanaya, Kédougou and Sandoundou and the procumbent terrain of the Sahara and Kalahari Desert. The gritty and dusty colored ground of his surfaces awakens memories of the dusty roads of Dakar and variant cities in Senegal and Africa. The aura of mystery that veils his work is heightened by the sculptured elements affixed to his panels that resemble magic portions, gourds and fetishes synonymous with religion, witchcraft, rituals and practices of ancestral worship.
A work by Nya’ that also conjures up pictures of ancestral worship, orthodox religious traditions, ritual sacrifices and rites of passage ceremonies is “Spiritual Purifiers” (60 x 41 inches, 87.5 x 85 cm, 2003).
Executed in two continents over four years, “Spiritual Purifiers” figuratively depicts this world’s government systems as a king whose ignorance of the purpose of his authority and power renders him utterly blind to the inestimable and imperishable worth of his domain. Consequently, he debases himself to a vagabond despot, a restless wanderer, a perennial complainer, a covetous buffoon and an irresponsible potentate severely plagued with the jaundice of impatience, the cancer of covetousness, the gall of greed and the bile of ignorance and doubt.
Aside from affixing found objects on his surface like Viye Diba, Nya’ also uses organic lines in this gripping piece to create a “red thread of sorts” which connects the important elements in the work.
Viye Diba’s discourse extends beyond the confines of aesthetic expression. His works explore the mysteries of communication and the relationship between the natural and esoteric world. His use of raw and recycled materials also raises a litany of social, political and environmental issues.
Through the work of this revered African contemporary artist, the viewer is challenged to look at and analyze materials from a cerebral perspective and the difference between sculpture and painting is eradicated to conceive a unique dialogue inherent to the African narrative.
dumile feni . south africa
Dumile’s enthralling drawings, differentiated by their audaciously expressionistic style emanate from an abyss of raw emotions. Gut-wrenching scenes depicting sudden and widespread disasters, shockingly dreadful accidents, cancerous acts of savagery, torture and revenge, as well as innumerable maladies that torment humankind strews the artist’s work.
Human beings’ propensity for evil, our nefarious and recalcitrant nature which is veiled by a sanctimonious exterior and a self-righteous vocabulary is depicted in his lugubrious drawings that are executed with keen alacrity and unrivalled precision and can only be described as phenomenal.
The African contemporary artist’s ability to manifest strong feelings actuated by experiencing hate, fear, pain, despondency, love, joy and sorrow evoke memories of Picasso’s “Guernica,” a painting that shows the tragedies of war and the suffering it inflicts upon individuals, particularly innocent civilians. The Spaniard’s massive painting, which has gained a monumental status and has consequently become an anti-war symbol and an embodiment of peace was an overt response to the bombing of the Basque town of Guernica by Hitler and Mussolini’s dreaded warplanes at the behest of the Spanish nationalist forces on 26 April 1937 during the Spanish Civil War.
However, unlike the work of Picasso, a large-scale canvas measuring 349 cm × 776 cm (137.4 in × 305.5 inches) executed using oils, Dumile convincingly achieves his intentions on extremely restrictive surfaces using an economic arsenal of pencils, ink and a subdued palette of water-based acrylics.
The hyperbolic hand shackled gesture of the figure in Dumile’s 1968 pen and ink drawing entitled “Prisoner 1” resembles the Spaniard masterpiece that is now in the permanent collection of the Museo Reina Sofía, Queen Sofia Museum, Spain. However, the hopelessness, wimpy and utter dejected figures portrayed by Picasso is in contrast to the resilient and defiant face depicted in Dumile’s “Prisoner 1” despite the heavy, oppressive and cumbrous shackles in the figure’s hands and neck.
Dumile’s adroit use of line is unparalleled. To portray the harsh and stern features of the faces in his figures, his line is rendered in short, sharp and acute motions. The melancholic mood of South Africa’s apartheid era is portrayed by the figure’s distorted limbs which are immaculately rendered in long, cold and ponderous lines.
The influence of Dumile’s masterful draughtsman-ship is noticeable in Nya’s use of line in his preparatory drawing for his work, “Blueprint of Grace,” Following the footsteps of Dumile, Nya’ combined short, thick, thin, hairline, abstract, organic and architectural lines to compose an impressive figure whose unrivalled authority and dominion is perhaps a testament to the emerging of authentic God-fearing revered authorities in disparate fields from the continent that both him and the iconic Dumile call home, Africa.
Dumile Feni’s employment of line is reminiscent of the etchings, drawings and paintings of the Swiss painter, Paul Klee (1879 – 1940). The Münchenbuchsee born artist, who, like Dumile, had a highly individual style that was greatly influenced by expressionism, cubism, and surrealism is famous for his keen use of line as articulated in his famous statement,
"A line is a dot that went for a walk....”
Klee’s imaginative use of line, which evolved from primordial naturalism to spidery playfulness to the fluidly thick contours of his late years is adapted almost three decades later in Dumile’s work “Lion and Cub.”
Using a deft combination of Klee’s clinical line depicted in his 1906 graphite and pigment on paper drawing “Maleolent animal, rhinoceros-like with calf” and the cheerful and playful line of his 1923 color lithograph “Man in love” and 1932 etching on zinc, “Why does he run;” Dumile executes a masterpiece that displays maturity, clarity of intention and sensitive observatory skills.
The torment and decadence portrayed on the faces of Dumile’s figures stem from an external source oblivious to an admirer of his work who might be unaware of the prevailing conditions in the artist’s native homeland during his lifetime.
From 1948-1994, South Africa was administered under a system of ‘legal’ racial segregation called Apartheid. Enforced by the ruling government, the “National Party of South Africa,” Apartheid was designed to separate black and white South Africans, and oppress, dominate and control blacks, and in the same breath, enrich white South Africans at the expense of the oppressed black people.
To compel obedience to this inhuman system, the Prime Minister, D.F. Malan and later the President, PW Botha, led government-imposed despicable policies; perhaps the most notorious being the Bantu Homelands Act, under which the white government declared that the lands reserved for black Africans were independent nations. To that end, the government stripped millions of blacks of their South African citizenship and forced them to become residents of their new "homelands." Blacks were regarded as foreigners in white-controlled South Africa and needed passports to enter.
In his preparatory drawing for his work, “Tablet of Prosperity,” Nya’ evokes this inhuman system of apartheid and equates it to the bondage of religion, which both are commissioned, underwritten and independently financed by the spirit of fear himself, the devil. However, unlike Dumile, who never hides the despicable stench of fear and its diabolic power to possess its victims until every sap of hope dries up from the faces of his figures, Nya veiled the faces of his figures in burnt paper with traces of Bible pages seeping through; perhaps another deliberate allusion to how religion and fear are both weapons every oppressor masterfully deploys to castrate the future of any society, nation, ethnicity or people group.
Another pathetic introduction in South Africa during the Apartheid era was the Abolition of passes and coordination of documents Act. This atrocious law required every black person to carry an identification booklet with his/her name, address, fingerprints, and other information. Africans were stopped and harassed for their passes and between 1948-1973, over ten million Africans were arrested because their passes were "not in order."
Through the Bantu Education Act, the white government supervised the education of all blacks. Schools conditioned blacks to accept white domination and non-whites could not attend white universities.
Other equally repressive laws include the 1951 Group Areas Act which reserved the best areas and the majority of the country’s land for whites and the 1953 Preservation of Separate Amenities Act, which established "separate but not necessarily equal" parks, beaches, post offices, and other public places for whites and non-whites.
As a young boy and later an adult growing up under such a horrendous system, proficiently administered to debase black people and label them as uncouth, despicable, ignoramus and moronic barbarians, Dumile was faced with the same terror, fear and injustice endured by over 75 percent black population in South Africa. To that end, the African contemporary artist’s oeuvre is a gripping visual testament narrating the untold suffering, the unfathomable pain and indescribable afflictions endured by blacks during this indelible epoch.
Furthermore, in Dumile’s work, we are reminded of the power of hate which is portrayed in his drawings as “a cancerous evil that destroys society and reduces human beings to fear-filled imbeciles who, in order to irk out a living, increasingly become selfish, malicious and repugnant.”
Even tender themes of love, family and friendship are rendered in harsh and acute tones, further highlighting how the atmosphere of suspicion and mistrust brought about by Apartheid made it difficult for blacks to establish intimate relationships with each other. This is evinced in his work “Lilian Ngoyi and Ruth First.” In the work, executed on paper using crayons, despite the tender moment between the couple, there is stiffness, a palpable coldness and a prevailing aura of distrust, strife and immeasurable tension portrayed in the picture.
A drawing by Nya’ which shares affinity to Dumile’s iconic masterpiece, “Lilian Ngoyi and Ruth First,” at least in its precision of intention and refinement is one of his x-ray drawings for his work entitled “Restoration of Zion.” Undertaken after understanding God’s precept of creating Man and sending him to earth, the clinically rendered drawing, whose affection and mutual respect between the genderless figures is akin to the bond between Lillian and Ruth in Dumile’s colored drawing, visually discourses freedom, rulership and leadership as “God’s original plan for His children to dominate, subdue, replenish and manage the earth with His Blessing.”
When Dumile Feni went into exile in 1968, finally settling in the United States, it is possible that he was exposed to the work of the African American sculptor and printmaker, Elizabeth Catlett (born April 15, 1915) whose politically charged black, expressionistic sculptures and prints produced between 1960 and 1970 bare resemblance to Dumile’s equally evocative work.
Commenting on Dumile’s enduring legacy and contribution to African contemporary art, Bill Ainslie (1934-1989), an artist, teacher and humanitarian who played a significant role in Dumile’s life said;
“Dumile took the raw material of his life in Soweto and translated it to work in a manner which revealed a capacity to face the most frightening extremities of human desperation and cruelty unflinchingly without spilling over into sentimentality or overblown expressionism. His originality led to a new style of drawing in South Africa…”
Dumile Feni was a gifted sculptor, a superlative draftsman, an exceptional painter, a deep and precise thinker, a sensitive observer, an innovator and a great individual peerlessly standing out in the history of contemporary art. All his experiences, and all his emotions, he brought into his work; however, unlike many artists, Dumile never exploited his own sensations immediately. He allowed them to brew organically within and with perspicacity, immortalizing them in his work.
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malangatana ngweya . mozambique
The work of Malangatana Ngwenya chronicles the political and historical events of his native country. He captures the raw emotion and social tensions that prevailed during the precarious period when Mozambique was a Portuguese colony and the country’s anti-colonialism struggle. The Southern African nation’s civil war, (1975–1994) between the governing Frelimo Party headed by Samora Machel and the Mozambique National Resistance (MNR, later Renamo) backed by the then neighboring Rhodesian government is grotesquely narrated; together with the country’s struggle to establish a viable state after independence while still licking the wounds of colonialism.
By employing a scintillating color tablet, a proficient combination of fiery reds, burnt oranges, tropical greens, sky blues, violet and an orgy of yellows; from gold, mustard, ochre, cadmium, saffron and stain-yellow, the African contemporary artist depicts his rhythmic paintings with euphoric zeal and keen attention to detail.
Malangatana’s highly distinguishable style of painting, which can be labeled as “ostentatious and primitive” is rendered in outlandish human figures, richly hued animal caricatures and torsos that combine human and animal features. His captivating work is widely admired for its rudimental alacrity, boisterous energy, and direct, powerful forms. His elementary approach to his subject matter bears a resemblance to early African cave paintings.
However, unlike the sparsely executed figures invariant parts of African caves, e.g. the Drakensberg mountains of South Africa, Matopos in Zimbabwe, Brandberg in Namibia and Tassilli-N-Ajjaer in Niger; the Mozambican painter blankets his entire ground with incongruous and interlocking human faces, perverted torsos and crude animal-like figures that are painted in flat monochrome colors.
Each figure depicted within the expansively busy picture plane is distinguished by an organic black line that emphasizes the burlesque-treated faces, hands and limps. An important and early work by Nya’ which clearly demonstrates how the pulsating work of Malangatana Ngwenya influenced him is “Mburuchusi’ (60 x 36 inches, 152.4 x 91.44 cm 1999).
Comprised of unorthodox materials which include dabs of animal blood, tree twigs, steel nails, metal, clay, red and black soil, screws, animal hide, ashes and discarded metal, the solemnly depicted faces in the massive composition covered in blood represent the sorrow, stagnation, frustration, misery, despondency, dejection, discouragement, despair, hopelessness, purposelessness and inexplicable anguish of Man when his religion, culture and tradition employed by the spirit of fear has veiled him from discovering his divine purpose, true identity, authentic heritage, innate potential and predetermined assignment and destiny.
In essence, the grim faces depict a people, community or citizenry under the manipulative, corrupt, short-sighted, confused, visionless, oppressive and brutal ruler-ship of world governmental systems.
Literally, ‘mburuchusi’ is a term for a process by which an ever-tightening strip of bark tied around the testicles of a bull during the summer gradually tightens in winter and eventually castrates the animal by cutting off its ‘semen delivery channel’ thereby making the bull impotent, docile and angry enough to pull a plough from dawn until dusk.
Akin to As a Malangatana Ngwenya’s works whose portrayal of the demonic nature of colonialism is conspicuous, “Mburuchusi” is a visual commentary on the impressive dearth of leadership in distinguished parts of Africa, Europe and the world at large. The bull becomes a metaphor for the bitter-faced people, whose mask-like faces and muzzled lips overlap rhythmically.
Aside from the illustrious work of the revered Mozambican maestro, the burlesque treatment of the painting’s subject, amalgamated with the iniquitous imagery is also evocative of the work of influential contemporary artists, for example Joël Mpah Dooh (Cameroon) and Chikonzero Chazunguza, (Zimbabwe) and the American artist, Jean-Michel Basquiat (1960 –1988).
Reminiscent of the work of the Dutch painter, Hieronymus Bosch, (1450-1516) whose work is known for its use of fantastic imagery to portray moral and religious concepts and narratives, the themes captured in the work of Malangatana Ngwenya include domestic violence, war, social justice, poverty, power and human beings’ propensity for evil.
African folk tales remembered from childhood together with lurid analogies to witchcraft represented by human torsos that transform into monstrous-looking creatures and animals that in turn metamorphose into goat eyed human faces cram the foreground of the work of one of Africa’s most celebrated contemporary artists.
African mythology is further evinced in allegorical images that evoke scenes synonymous with exorcism ceremonies and the five major African initiation rites considered vital to human growth and development, namely;
a: The rite of birth
b: The rite of marriage
c: The rite of eldership
d: The rite of adulthood
e: The rite of ancestor-ship
Of these distinguished initiation rites, Malangatana seem to emphasize “The Rite of Ancestor-ship” in his work, particularly the consequences of society’s disregard or blatant rebuke of the rituals related to the ancient rite central to most African customs.
In general, most African societies believe that when a person dies, that does not imply the shedding of ties and communication with the living. Rather, African belief system from one culture to another agrees that the spirit of the deceased is still with the living community and that a distinction must be made in the status of the various spirits, as there are distinctions made in the status of the living. Therefore, failure to “honor” the spirit of a deceased “elder” is thought to bring untold suffering and torment to the living.
The hovering deceased spirit that is restless, inexorable and enraged is also believed to possess the power to incite violence, abject poverty, misfortune and innumerable social and spiritual maladies that will manifest in the animal kingdom, which, according to African philosophy, (as well as Darwin’s theory of evolution), Man is believed to have derived from.
Thus, in Malangatana’s paintings, the spirits of deceased elders are represented by figures within the picture plane distinguished by their considerable size and elaborate motifs that adorn their faces and torsos. The sheer power of the spirits torments the whole village and nation, represented by the crammed figures that seem to be languishing in confusion, extreme anxiety and aggravated sorrow with nowhere to escape. This is particularly evident in the works, “Jaundice View,” 10 x 8 inches (25.4 x 20.32 cm) and “Crocodile Sharing Life With Human Beings,” 15 x 13 inches 38.1 x 33.2 cm.
In Nya’s work completed 3 years after “Mburuchusi,” “The Babylonian Shepherd” (60 x 36 inches (152.4 x 91.44 cm, 2002), while the influences of Malangatana are still traceable, in particularly the subject matter, Nya’ delves deeper in excavating the root of the maladies that bedevil Mankind and instead of placing blame on any race, tribe, ethnicity or agenda, he reveals the source as the spirit of fear.
In essence, the sobering work can be described as a “sad profile of the naturally incurable wounds of colonization, slavery and oppression.” Through the cold, crude and callous figures being led by the barrel of a gun into a padlocked future, Nya visually articulates how the spirit of fear which births, incubates, matures and sponsors every act, form and system of human domination, control and manipulation is also the same spirit that perpetuates the misconception of ‘deliverance’ as freedom and heralds capitalism and democracy as God’s perfect and ideal form of system and government for Mankind.
Universally, Malangatana Ngwenya’s portrayal of human beings turning into animals is not unique to African contemporary art or mythology.
Innumerable sculptures and paintings that adorn prestigious museums which include The Metropolitan Museum in New York, The Louvre In Paris and The Vatican Museums in Rome, (inside the Vatican City), display impressively grotesque sculptures and paintings that depict composite races of creatures, part human and part animal. An impeccable example will include the 1892 marble sculpture of Centaur carrying off a nymph by Laurent Marqueste, located at the Tuileries Garden in Paris and the sculpture of a sphinx guarding the entrance of Parque Guinle, located in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.
Western painters who have also depicted unfathomable acts of violence and torment in their work include Peter Paul Rubens in his notable work, “Massacre of the Innocents.”
The religious painting garishly depicts a horrendous episode of infanticide by the King of Judea, Herod the Great which appears in the New Testament. Matthew the Evangelist, reports that Herod decreed the immediate slaying of all male children under the age of two in the village of Bethlehem in order to safeguard his throne to a recently born “King of the Jews” whose birth had been announced to him by the kingmakers, or “wise men” following the 400 year plus prophecy of God’s astute and most effective servant, the prophet Daniel.
In the last generation, Francis Bacon (1909–1992) is perhaps the most outstanding artist known for his bold, austere, graphic and emotionally charged raw paintings akin to Malangatana Ngwenya’s works, at least in their depiction of decadence and turpitude.
Notable works from the Anglo-Irish figurative painter include his 1944 “Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion,” and his 1954 “Figure with Meat.” The seated figure in the later is based on the 1650 portrait of Pope Innocent X by Diego Velázquez. However, in Bacon's version, rotting animal carcasses are despicably suspended at the pope's back, creating a boorish and acutely disturbing composition.
The pope's hands are roughly hewn and frantically cling to the church's seat of authority in apparent fear and torment. His mouth is frozen in a woebegone scream and black striations uncontrollably trickle down from his nose and neck. The rotting meat carries subtle moralizing messages about the transiency of life and the spiritual perils of indulging in religion, lasciviousness and other carnal pleasures that starve the spirit of Man of what he is truly seeking, and that is The Kingdom of God in The Holy Spirit.
Akin to Malangatana Ngwenya, Bacon intercourses the imagery of redemption, intemperance, power and salacious sensuality, and contrasts it with his own far more palpable and existential view of condemnation to eternal punishment as the consequence of iniquity.
In his work completed a year after “The Babylonian Shepherd,” “War Doctor” (52 x 42 inches, 132.8 x 106.6 cm, 2003), Nya’ also discourses the spiritual theme of redemption, but unlike his former works that clearly revealed Malangatana Ngwenya's influence in his oeuvre, the artist strips his canvas of Ngwenya’s ferocious hues colors and charged imagery.
Using only strips of barbed wire and mylar paper, Nya’ minimally portrays a scarred warrior kneeling at the altar of thanksgiving and offering tribute and heartfelt hymns of praise upon his victorious return from battle. Perhaps what makes the composition intriguing is how the motifs and objects akin to African culture placed within the composition depict how the warrior has evolved in his understanding that his physical identity as an African is not at odds with his spiritual identity as God’s ambassador, His priest, king, son and custodian over the colony of earth.
Contrary to the tenebrous subject of his paintings, Malangatana Ngwenya's phantasmagoric murals and lithographs that depict daily scenes like a mother breastfeeding her child, women fetching water or men at a village meeting are cheerfully optimistic and represent an idealistic society. This can be attributed to the fact that Malangatana inherently believed in the rich destiny of his country and Africa’s resilient spirit.
Furthermore, as one of the few African contemporary artists to have gained substantial worldwide recognition, and as a revered political and civic leader; an intellectual and a born performer who composed music and spoke five languages, Mr Ngwenya understood the enduring power of his pictures and his role to inspire and mentor future generations.
On the other hand, after the end of the civil war in Mozambique and the subsequent declaration of peace, an arduous process negotiated by various African heads of state; Malangatana Ngwenya's “blood red” dominated palette was cooled as he introduced landscapes that are now in the permanent collections of various museums throughout the world.
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