Half an hour with this painting ranked among my most intense learning experiences (along with, say, being initiated into slide-guitar or French-kissing). In the cramped Iwalewahaus painting depot, I could only get up close to it. The range of palette, saturated colours, and swirling brushwork were overwhelming, particularly in the slant-eyed cat, lower centre.
In 1961, Malangatana-a rural migrant to Mozambique’s capital (Lourenço Marques, now Maputo)- had recently left his job as a barman and ballboy at an exclusive, all-white tennis club in order to lodge with Portuguese-born architect “Pancho” Guedes. The black servant’s, so-called, “untutored” paintings had impressed Guedes. Forbidding Matalana to continue with evening-classes in painting, Guedes sent him back to Matalana, his rural birthplace, to immerse himself “for at least six weeks” in so-called “traditional” culture.
I suggest that Malangatana is portraying a far from “traditional” nightmare in a “clandestine”, but all-too-real, urban world. In colonial times, white South-Africans flocked to Lourenço Marques. Its beaches and nightclubs were pick-up spots for interracial sex partners, under the radar of the jurisdiction of apartheid. Malangatana once told me that he learned English “on the beach”. Perhaps this painting depicts the consequences, as he saw them, for female victims of this environment. Certainly, the female figure (bottom left) resembles Malangatana’s self-portraits. Arguably, we might view the painting through her eyes. Be that as it may, I contend that it shows, above all, the artist’s abhorrence and denunciation of this aspect of colonialism. It also expresses the humanitarian sensibilities which gave him a prescient (to be accurate, Mozambique was not post-colonial till after independence in 1975) ability to “articulate the unpredictable outcomes of the postcolonial subject’s multiple religious, social and political worlds.”
Richard Gray is a PhD researcher at London University’s School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS). His thesis-in-progress is one of the two full-length monographs of Malangatana.
Okeke-Agulu C, 2015. Postcolonial Modernism: Art and Decolonization in Twentieth-Century Nigeria (p162). Durham: Duke UP.hort.