I was introduced to Malangatana Valente Ngwanya’s work a few years back. I had been impressed by what I saw. A year ago, a friend told me that the Mozambican artist was ill. He died shortly afterwards on January 5, 2011, while in Portugal for treatment. He was known by his first name, and he was a multitalented artist. The National Museum of Maputo recently presented a photographic display documenting his interest in painting, sculpture, poetry, cultural event, music, and dance.
Malangatana was born in 1936 in Matalana, a small village north of Maputo. He studied at Catholic mission schools and became a jack of all trades. As a young man, he met Augusto Cabral, biologist who later became director of the Natural History Museum of Maputo. Under his guidance, he learnt the rudiments of painting. “Draw what you have in your head”, was the advice that followed him all life long.
In 1958, he joined the Nucleo de Arte, the association gathering the avant-garde of Maputo. In 1961 he was finally able to show his work in a personal exhibition. In 1963, the literary magazine Black Orpheus published some of his poems. He would write poetry throughout his life.
Those were the years of independencies, but not for the Portuguese. They stubbornly stack to their empire. Magatalana joined the Mozambique Liberation Front, the movement waging an armed struggle against the colonialists. This attracted the attention of the secret police, and the young artist spent some time in prison. In 1971, he won a grant from the Gulbenkian Foundation of Lisbon, where he refined his ceramic and incision techniques.
After independence, he remained committed to social and political activism. He participated in several campaigns for literacy and popular participation. He also accepted government appointments in the fields of art and culture. Meanwhile, his works were exhibited in Africa, Europe and the Americas. In 1997, UNESCO nominated him Peace Artist. From then on, Malagatana dedicated himself solely to art, becoming the most known Mozambican artist. Today, his works are exposed in many contemporary art museum around the world.
To interpret Malagatana’s works one has to keep in mind his early experiences. He was initiated into the traditions and mythology of the Ronga culture. During the colonial period, he saw his work as part of the liberation struggle. “Liberation, to be true, must be rooted in popular culture, because art is created by the people, not by the artist”, he said. Malagatana’s paintings have strong colours, the space crowded by bodies, faces, animals, nature. These intertwining of images express the community dimension of traditional life, social commitment, the destiny of a people gone through slavery, the long and bloody civil war and the persisting poverty.
Yet, his works do not have signs of resignation, as his continue commitment to promote arts and culture testify. What really moved him was the need to attract attention to Mozambique’s plight. This was shown by using a dark red hue, at least until the mid 1990s. Malagatana always chose large canvas and vast murals. In time, the colours became softer, the lines less obtrusive, the faces smiling. This reflect Mozambique’s new phase, the one of hope.