Ernest Mancoba



Ernest Mancoba 1904–2002
Oil paint on canvas
Support: 458 × 269 mm
frame: 478 × 289 × 35 mm
Purchased with funds provided by the Africa Acquisitions Committee 2015


Untitled 1957 is a painting in oil on canvas. The abstract composition has a portrait orientation and its dimensions are typical of the artist’s work. It is composed primarily of emphatic, separate brushstrokes set at angles to one another. The hastily applied expanses of grey-blues intermingle with applications of yellow pigment as well as coral tones and more saturated brick red that form accents across the composition. The lower half of the canvas features a centrally positioned cluster of marks suggestive of a blue stick figure, legs splayed, arms akimbo. Like the related work from the same year also in Tate’s collection, Untitled 1957 (Tate T14189), the work was painted in Paris, where the artist settled permanently from 1952, having left his native South Africa in 1938. The two paintings, although closely related, are not a diptych and can be displayed either together or separately.

Untitled 1957 bears the hallmarks of Mancoba’s output: bold colour, energetic gesture and commanding lines as the predominant form of mark-making. Mancoba dedicated his art practice to spontaneity and freedom of expression in abstract painting and drawing, and was adamant that his intuitive painting process be as transparent as possible in his work. Despite his use of the language of abstraction, he made no aesthetic or philosophical distinction between figuration and abstraction, although often the suggestion of human figures ultimately emerges from the density of energetic gestures. Mancoba stated:

In my painting it is difficult to say whether the central form is figurative or abstract … What I am concerned with is whether the form can bring to life and transmit, with the strongest effect and by the lightest means possible, the being which has been in me and aspires to expression in the stuff [paint], or any material that is to hand.
(Quoted in Stevenson Gallery 2014, pp.60–1.)

Born in South Africa before the official imposition of Apartheid law (which came into effect at the end of the Second World War), Mancoba’s first studio in the 1930s in Cape Town was nevertheless located in the segregated District Six ghetto. His creative ambition defied social expectations, and in 1938 he decided to leave South Africa for Europe, stating that he did so ‘when I understood that I would not be able to become either a citizen or an artist in the land of my fathers’ (quoted in Stevenson Gallery 2014, p.55). Travelling via London, Mancoba headed for Paris, having received a scholarship to study at L’Ecole Supérieure des Arts Decoratifs, where he would meet his future wife, sculptor Sonja Ferlov. After a spell living in Denmark after the war, he settled permanently in Paris in 1952. His eclectic influences spanned the traditional arts of Africa and Oceania, Scandinavian folk art and the free expression of children’s artwork. Writing in 2010 the artist and critic Rasheed Araeen summarised Mancoba’s contribution:

Mancoba’s importance lies not only in what he himself did in 1939 and 1940, and subsequently, but what seems to be his precognition of what emerged later as CoBrA, Tachisme and Abstract Expressionism. What is extraordinary about Mancoba’s achievement is that he is very likely the first artist from the whole colonised world – Africa, Asia, the Americas, Australasia and the Pacific – to enter the central core of modernism at the time when this world, particularly his own country of South Africa, was still struggling under colonialism, and to challenge modernism’s historical paradigm on its own terms.
(Araeen 2010, p.286.)

Further reading
Hans Ulrich Obrist, Interviews: Volume 1, Milan 2003, pp.560–73.
Rasheed Araeen, ‘Modernity, Modernism and Africa’s Authentic Voice’, Third Text, vol.24, no.2, March 2010, pp.277–86.
Ernest Mancoba: Drawings and Paintings from the Studio, exhibition catalogue, Stevenson Gallery, Cape Town 2014.

Zoe Whitley
July 2014

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Mancoba believed in the importance of spontaneity and freedom of expression. His bold colours and dynamic gestures reveal his painting process. He said, ‘In my painting, it is difficult to say whether the central form is figurative or abstract. But that does not bother me.’ Born in Johannesburg, Mancoba left for Paris in 1938. He moved to Copenhagen after the Second World War. There he became one of the founding members of CoBrA, an artist group whose expressionistic painting style was inspired by the art of children. He returned to Paris in 1952, where he lived until his death.

Gallery label, August 2019

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