Ernest Mancoba

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Ernest (Methuen) Mancoba
Born (1904-08-29)August 29, 1904
Turffontein, Johannesburg, South Africa
Died October 25, 2002(2002-10-25) (aged 98)
Clamart, France
Nationality South African, French
Known for Sculpture, Painting, Drawing
Movement CoBrA, Tachisme
Awards Egill Jacobsen Award (1989), Lee Krasner Award (1995-97),

Ernest (Methuen) Mancoba (29 August 1904 – 25 October 2002) was an avant-garde artist, born in South Africa, who spent the majority of his life in Europe. He was probably South Africa's first professional Black modern artist, and exhibited from the late 1920s onward.


Born in Johannesburg, the son of a miner, Mancoba grew up on the Rand and was eventually sent to Grace Dieu near Pietersburg for his secondary schooling by his uncle, an Anglican minister.[1] After graduating, he was hired at Grace Dieu as a language teacher in 1924.

Mancoba's interest in art began in 1925 with the arrival of an adjunct teacher named Ned Paterson at Grace Dieu. Paterson, a recent art school graduate preparing for the ministry, introduced wood carving and gained a following amongst those at Grace Dieu who were artistically inclined. Mancoba took up woodcarving, which he would specialize in until moving to France in 1938.[2] Initially Mancoba produced decorated pieces of furniture in the school carpentry shop, using the school's bas relief style. In 1929 he decided to move to try freestanding sculpture, and produced a commissioned work called African Madonna using a model in a contrapposto stance. African Madonna is probably the first modern sculpture produced by a Black South Africa, and is now on permanent display at the Johannesburg Art Gallery.

Ernest Mancoba. African Madonna. 1929.

Along with other Grace Dieu carvers, Mancoba began exhibiting at the South African Academy annual competitions. By this point he and his friend Gerard Sekoto began to dream of attending art school in Europe, for which they needed a B.A. After leaving Grace Dieu to attend Fort Hare University, the South African Native College, on scholarship, he quit carving for several years. When his funds ran out, he dropped out of Fort Hare and survived by producing religious sculptures on commission, operating out of the Rhodes University Art Department. In 1935 he decided to pursue art full-time and moved to Cape Town, where he associated with a group of Trotskyite artists, including Lippy Lipschitz, who had a strong impact on his emerging sculpture style.[3] In 1937, Grace Dieu rehired Mancoba to teach English at an affiliate, Khaiso Secondary School in Pietersburg. The goal was for Mancoba to earn a living while completing received his undergraduate degree from the University of South Africa by correspondence. With encouragement from Gerard Sekoto, Mancoba succeeded.

He left South Africa for Europe in 1938 when he received a scholarship to continue his studies in Paris, where he enrolled at the Ecole Nationale Superieue Arts Decoratifs.[4] While in Paris he met fellow student Sonja Ferlov, whom he married. When the Germans occupied Paris during the Second World War, Mancoba was arrested and sent to a camp as a British subject.[5] Mancoba moved with Ferlov to Denmark after the end of the war, and he became one of the founding members of the CoBrA group.[5] In the 1950s, Mancoba returned to Paris, where he became a French citizen. He died near Paris in 2002, aged 98.

Once in Europe, Mancoba consciously abandoned the religious artistic tradition he had started out in. Increasingly he turned to painting, and gave up sculpture entirely in 1950. His increasing interest in abstraction has been interpreted by Elizabeth Morton as a conscious attempt to negate the paternalistic approach to art he had learned as an Anglican student. As Morton notes, Mancoba was one of the few mission-trained African artists "to have consciously eliminated all traces of his mission style from his work."[6]

Although Mancoba was an active participant and founder in CoBrA and in later artistic movements, his role received little attention in art historical scholarship, leading artist and scholar Rasheed Araeen to argue in 2004 that the erasure of Mancoba was the result of racism and ethnocentrism.[7]


  1. ^ E. Miles, Lifeline Out of Africa: The Art of Ernest Mancoba. Cape Town: Human & Rousseau, 1994, 9. ISBN 079813173X
  2. ^ Elizabeth Morton, "Grace Dieu Mission in South Africa: Defining the Modern Art Workshop in Africa." In S. Kasfir and T. Forster, eds., African Art and Agency in the Workshop. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2013, 42-3. ISBN 9780253007582
  3. ^ Morton, "Grace Dieu Mission," 45-6.
  4. ^ "Art and Ubuntu". Retrieved 2012-07-26. 
  5. ^ a b "Ernest Mancoba artist portrait". Retrieved 2012-07-26. 
  6. ^ Morton, "Grace Dieu Mission," 50.
  7. ^ "Third Text – Critical Perspectives on Contemporary Art & Culture". Retrieved 2012-07-26. 

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