5 January 2011

Mozambique: Nation's Greatest Painter Dies

Maputo — Mozambique's greatest painter, the internationally famed Malangatana Valente Ngwenya, died in Portugal on Wednesday morning, from what were described as "respiratory complications".

Malangatana had been in Portugal for the past two months dealing with legal issues arising from attempts to counterfeit his work. A woman suspected of forging 20 paintings, nine attributed to Malangatana, was arrested in October.

The 74 year old Malangatana had been staying at his daughter's house during the festive season. When he fell ill, he was taken to the Pedro Hispano hospital in the northern Portuguese town of Matosinhos, where he died at about 03.30 on Wednesday.

Malangatana was born on 6 June 1936 in the village of Matalane, in Marracuene district, about 30 kilometres north of Maputo. He attended mission schools, while also helping his mother on the family farm. His father was frequently absent, since he was a migrant worker on the South African gold mines.

When his mother fell ill, he went to live with an uncle, and only managed to study up to third grade. As an adolescent, he earned some money as a ball boy in a tennis club, and trained as a traditional healer (following in the footsteps of an aunt).

But the arts soon became his dominant passion - he sold his first paintings 50 years ago, but he also tried his hand at sculpture, ceramics, tapestries, poetry, music and acting.

His entry into the world of art was through the unlikely avenue of the tennis club. The biologist Augusto Cabral (who later became director of Mozambique's Natural History Museum) was a member of the club, and one day Malangatana asked Cabral if by any chance he had an old pair of sandals he could give him.

According to Cabral, interviewed in 1999, he took Malangatana to his house - but he came away with more than a pair of sandals. For Cabral was an amateur painter, and Malangatana watched him working on a painting.

"Teach me to paint", Malangatana asked. So Cabral gave him some paints, brushes and canvas.

"What shall I paint?", Malangatana asked. "Whatever is in your head", replied Cabral - advice that Malangatana then followed for the next half century.

His first solo painting exhibition was held in 1960, and in 1963 some of his poems were published in the magazine "Black Orpheus", and included in an anthology of "Modern Poetry from Africa".

But the following year he was arrested. For Malangatana was also a clandestine militant of the Mozambique Liberation Front (FRELIMO), and came to the attention of the Portuguese secret police, the PIDE.

Other well-known figures from the world of arts and letters, such as the writer Luis Bernardo Honwana, and the poet Jose Craveirinha, were arrested at the same time. Indeed, for a period Malangatana shared a prison cell with Craveirinha. He spent 18 months in jail.

In 1971, the Gulbenkian Foundation gave him a grant, and he studied engraving and ceramics in Portugal.

After the collapse of the Portuguese colonial-fascist regime in April 1974, Malangatana could rejoin Frelimo openly, and he soon became one of the cultural icons of independent Mozambique. He was able to work full time as an artist as from 1981.

His work has been shown across the world, from Cuba to Germany, from India to the United States. Murals by Malangatana can be found not only in Maputo and Beira, but also in South Africa, Swaziland and even Sweden.

He received honours and awards from many countries and institutions, including the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) which designated him an "Artist for Peace" in 1997.

During the award ceremony, the then UNESCO Director-General, Frederico Mayor, described Malangatana as "much more than a creator, much more than an artist - someone who demonstrates that there is a universal language, the language of art, which allows us to communicate a message of peace, of refusal of war.".

Describing his own thoughts about art in an essay published several years ago, Malangatana wrote "Art for me is a collective expression that comes from the uses and customs of the people and leads to their social, mental, cultural and political evolution. Art is a musical instrument full of messages. These are messages that the artist selects to put together in front of humanity.

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