This fall, visitors can encounter, perhaps for the first time, the visually striking and politically charged paintings of Mozambican artist Malangatana Ngwenya (1936–2011), a central figure in modern African arts, although not widely known abroad. Malangatana’s works are transfixing; at once recognizable, recalling the visual languages of modern avant-gardes, and intensely original, developing local themes and narratives in a wholly idiosyncratic style. “Malangatana: Mozambique Modern” is the artist’s first solo show in a major American museum, presenting works from 1960 to 1975, the year of Mozambique’s independence.Much of the exhibition focuses on how circumstances in colonial Mozambique, and then the liberation movement, appear in Malangatana’s life and work. (The artist was commonly known by his first name.) The show traces his career from early paintings, often featuring narrative scenarios permeated by the social institutions and material symbols of Mozambican society, to increasingly dense and graphically composed works dealing directly with the struggle for independence. But the exhibition generally avoids reducing the artist to his context; the selection of works and the text emphasize the development of his distinct style and his judicious view of life and culture in colonial Mozambique. The show’s structure is rather traditional, an understandable choice considering the unfamiliarity of the themes and the poor representation of modern African artists in major American museums.
The exhibition starts with a set of paintings depicting a secret exchange of letters from a woman to her lover via her husband’s hat (“Story of the Letter in the Hat I–IV,” 1960). The set exemplifies the qualities of Malangatana’s early work: beguiling pictures that seem almost oneiric, appearing to encode real structures and events within fictional, surreal or abstracted scenes. This interpretation of reality through a highly personal and allegorical perspective continues throughout his career. Although in some instances the exhibition text appears to reach for symbolic political meaning, it generally resists simplistic interpretations, leaving room for uncertainty and ambivalence in Malangatana’s depiction of colonial structures and of local native or traditional practices.
The transition to explicit anticolonial themes is embodied in a series of drawings Malangatana made while imprisoned in 1965, accused of involvement with the Mozambique Liberation Front (FRELIMO). The pen-and-pencil drawings are some of the exhibition’s most haunting works, depicting the treatment of men confined in the state prison. Leading to and accompanying the drawings are two poems written by Malangatana, another highlight of the show. The first appears in a copy of the influential pan-African literary journal “Black Orpheus,” suggesting Malangatana’s connections to broader currents in the region. For the searching eye, these links appear throughout the exhibition, in the mentions of the Mozambican poet José Craveirinha, the artist’s supporters in Lourenço Marques (now Maputo), and the role of FRELIMO leader Eduardo Mondlane in divulging his work.
The prison drawings also prefigure a transformation in Malangatana’s paintings toward tighter, more graphic compositions, merging foreground and background onto a single pictorial plane. The latest works on view show wide-eyed faces and entanglements of human and nonhuman bodies, alternately suggesting violence, camaraderie and melancholy in the events leading up to independence. Crowning the exhibition’s narrative arc, “The Cry of Freedom” (1973) is a monumental, dense arrangement of vividly colored monsters, animals, people and weapons, the kind of work one can examine for hours in search of meanings and historical interpretations. While often referring explicitly to moments in the liberation struggle, with titles such as “25 of September II” (1968), the paintings preserve the sense of psychological and symbolic charge of Malangatana’s early work. The result is enthralling. I was particularly captivated by “Do You Remember Those Who Entered Bleeding” (1974/75), a compact plane of sinuous anthropomorphic figures who, embracing each other, look out with a mix of loss, stupor and sorrow.
As full and compelling as it is, and as satisfying its progression, the exhibit’s conclusion at independence leaves you wanting more. What was Malangatana up to between 1975 and his passing in 2011? The wall text mentions his work on state-funded murals, his roles in the new government and international organizations, and his legacy in Mozambican arts and culture, but it would have been interesting to see images of works from the almost forty years after the liberation.
Ultimately, the exhibition’s focused look into the first fifteen years of Malangatana’s career succeeds in introducing both his original style and perspective as well as its national and historical context, charting his path as an artist alongside developments in Mozambican history as they directly appear in his life and work. “Malangatana: Mozambique Modern” is a strong and eye-opening display of an artist at the intersection of visual experimentation and colonial emancipation. (Cecília Resende Santos)
“Malangatana: Mozambique Modern” is on view at the Art Institute of Chicago, 111 South Michigan, through November 16.