Ernest Mancoba

Article Bio Works Projects
Visual Arts (painting, sculpture)
Africa, Southern, Europe, Western
South Africa, France
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August 4, 2003
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The unconscious motion of hues

Ernest Mancoba (1904-2002) is not only one of the greatest painters and sculptors from South Africa but has to be regarded as one of the most outstanding of the 20th century. He began his education at the Christian school of Pietersburg, where in 1929 his "Bantu-Madonna" created a scandal. In 1938 he moved to Paris, was imprisoned during the war, then lived awhile in Denmark before going back to Paris at the end of the 40s. In 1948, with colleagues including Asger Jorn and Karel Appel, he founded the highly influential art-group Cobra. Besides having an exceptional feeling for colour-composition, his works also have an ornamental materiality and dynamic. He died in 2002 at the age of 98 near Paris.
Ernest Mancoba´s life meandered through so many phases that it is hard to ascribe him to a particular nation or culture. Born in 1904 in Boksburg on the rim of Johannesburg he first studied at the teachers´ training college in the diocese of Pietersburg, then taught there from 1925-29.

As a painter and sculptor he was self-taught but early drew attention to himself through his immense talent and created a scandal in 1929. At that time, while still at the Christian school of Pietersburg, he sculpted a figure of the Madonna, showing her barefoot and with Negroid features. Moreover her hand made the gesture made by Bantu girls on nearing the head of the family. This break with tradition was not limited to iconography but extended by implication to the whole Christian world-view as upheld in the West. Seven years later the "Black Madonna" or "Bantu Madonna" was placed in the Anglican cathedral of St. Mary in Johannesburg.

At the start of the 1930s Mancoba began studying art in Fort Hare, though he had to stop after three years. During this period his works were shown several times in exhibitions held by the African Academy in the Selbourne Hall in Johannesburg. He was already 34 years old before he was awarded by Bantu Welfare Trust, a grant which enabled him to go to Paris and enrol at the École Nationale Supérieure des Arts Décoratifs. In Paris he got to know the avant-garde of the time.

When German troops arrived, Mancoba was imprisoned for four years as a British subject. In a camp he married the Danish sculptress Sonja Ferlov, whom he had already got to know before the war. After the freeing of France, they both moved to Denmark for awhile but then came back to Paris in 1948. In the same year he created history with colleagues including Karel Appel, Asger Jorn, Constant and others by forming the group Cobra, whose letters stand for Copenhagen, Brussels and Amsterdam, where some members of the group lived. The group also published a magazine and, though it existed for only three years, had a great effect on painting in the second half of the 20th century.

Jean-Michel Atlan, born in Algeria but like Mancoba living in Paris, where he had studied philosophy at the Sorbonne before turning to painting, formulated Cobra´s aims in his manifesto "Abstraction and Daring in Contemporary Art": "1. Present-day art is both as a necessary risk and as a creation threatened by conformity in two respects, which we strictly oppose: a) banal realism, a vulgar imitation of reality, and b) orthodox abstract art, a new academic style which tries to replace living painting through a range of purely decorative forms. We believe that on the fringe of official abstract art, and indeed only on the fringe, are the most valid works arising, as in the last century the works of the great heretics van Gogh and Gauguin arose on the fringe of impressionism...".

The Cobra artists wished to express unconscious fantasies and creative urges directly through gestures and colours without controlling the results intellectually. Even representational works were not categorically excluded, as otherwise usual among advocates of abstraction. This program left the single members of the movement enough scope to develop their own individual styles.

Mancoba´s work is notable for not only its mastery of its colour-composition but also for its emphasis on ornament, which is not to be confused with superficiality or charm. It often gives the impression of being made of finely woven material whose pattern is basically symmetrical. This special materiality of his pictures, which had become evident long before he joined the Cobra group, intensified in the years after 1948 into vibrant, minutely and skilfully painted abstractions in which every thread seems to tingle with motion.

In the 1950s Mancoba settled down in Paris and became a French subject. During the years of apartheid he did not visit the land of his birth once. Only after the first democratic elections in 1994 did he travel again to South Africa after 56 years in exile, to be honoured by the ANC. Even so, it seemed that many years might elapse before, on the Cape of Good Hope, the rank of this outstanding 20th century artist would be fully appreciated.

Ernest Mancoba died on the 25th October 2002 in a hospital in Clamart near Paris at the age of 98.
Author: Ulrich Clewing


1904 born in Boksburg/Johannesburg
1920-29 studied, then taught, at the Diocesan Training College Grace Dieu in Pietersburg
1929-32/39 studied art at the University of Fort Hare
1938 emigrated to France where he spent most of the rest of his life, mainly in Paris
1948 founded the group Cobra (with others including Karel Appel, Asger Jorn, Constant)
became a French subject
2002 died in Clamart near Paris



Published Written,
Miles, Elza: A Ressource Book Ernest Mancoba, Johannesburg Art Gallery, Johannesburg o.J. Miles, Elza: Lifeline out of Africa, The Art of Ernest Mancoba, Kapstadt 1994 The Short Century (Kat.), München, London, New York 2001

Group Exhibitions (Choice)

Exhibition / Installation
2001 "The Short Century”, Villa Stuck, Munich, Germany "The Short Century“, House of World Cultures, Berlin, Germany "El Tiempo de Africa“, Centro Atlántico de Arte Moderno, Las Palmas de Gran Canaria, Spain 2000 "Something About Painting“, DCA Gallery, New York, USA 1993 Choix d’Estampes, Paris, France 1988 Johannesburg Art Gallery, Johannesburg, South Africa 1987 Nieuwe Kerk, Amsterdam, Netherlands 1982/83 Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris, Paris, France 1951 Galerie Birch, Copenhagen, Denmark

Solo Exhibitions (Choice)

Exhibition / Installation
1994 "Hand in Hand - Retrospective Exhibition”, Johannesburg Art Gallery, Johannesburg, South Africa 1995 "Hand in Hand - Retrospective Exhibition”, National Gallery, Cape Town, South Africa


This artist took part in the following project(s) organized/funded by the partner institutions.

The Short Century

Independence and Liberation Movements in Africa

(18 May 01 - 29 July 01)