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At the turn of the 20th century, the discovery by modern painters in Europe of the highly abstracted forms in African art spurred the development of abstract painting. Paradoxically, this new visual language hardly gained a foothold in Africa itself. The most prominent modern painters from the continent, such as Ben Enwonwu in Nigeria, Valente Malangatana Ngwenya in Mozambique and Irma Stern and Gerard Sekoto in South Africa, all worked in a figurative idiom, as did virtually all of their lesser-known peers. At the most basic level, this may be explained by the fact that, in the 20th century, African socio-political reality absorbed the energy that might otherwise have been directed at aesthetic debates about abstraction. Exceptions do exist, however. The most prominent one is Ernest Mancoba, who became part of the CoBrA group in the late 1940s after moving to Europe from South Africa to escape increasingly restrictive racial policies. Over the course of his life, his imagery, distilled from the form of objects such as the Kota grave effigies of Gabon, gradually dissolved into a field of marks. While today artists might feel freer to explore deeply personal and formal concerns than ever before, there is a persistent demand from curators and critics that African art be ‘about’ something. (Even the work of El Anatsui, arguably Africa’s most prominent abstract artist, is generally discussed in relation to recycling, and its formal relation to African cloth patterns.) One artist who has consistently defied these expectations is Odili Donald Odita, who has been working as an abstract painter since the late 1990s. More recently, the paintings of Zander Blom have played a central role in the re-evaluation of the potential of abstraction in South Africa. Rather than its association with Europe, and later New York, it is the universal aspiration of modernism that has led Mancoba, Odita and Blom to explore its potential. In Mancoba’s words, “For me, art can only be founded on the single notion – of which it is both the confirmation and the proof – that Man is One.” Odita, too, has expressed a “fascination with the United Nations and the international style [in architecture] that coexists with this philosophy, and the conceptualisation of the world as a united space”. Rooted in a strong interest in the history of modernism, Blom has set out to teach himself to paint from scratch. The products of this process are about form as much as they are about art history. The three artists differ in their primary points of investigation. Mancoba suggests figuration in his abstract compositions, and is interested in the spiritual power of the image. Odita concentrates on colour and geometric form, and Blom seeks to understand the medium of painting itself. They share, however, a belief in the potential of abstraction and deep formalist concerns, making them part of a very particular trajectory in art history, one informed by a connection to their home continent yet rooted in a universal conversation.


ERNEST MANCOBA was born in 1904 in Johannesburg. He trained as a teacher in Pietersburg, and received a Bachelor of Arts degree from the University of Fort Hare. In 1938 he left South Africa for Paris, where he studied at the École des Arts Décoratifs. He was interned during the war. In 1942 he married a Danish artist, Sonja Ferlov, and the two of them lived between Paris and Copenhagen for the rest of their lives. He exhibited as part of the legendary CoBrA group of abstract artists (CoBrA short for COpenhagen, BRussels, Amsterdam) between 1948 and 1950. In 1994, Mancoba returned to South Africa for a retrospective exhibition of his and Ferlov’s work, at the Johannesburg Art Gallery and the South African National Gallery in Cape Town. He was included in The Short Century: Independence and Liberation Movements in Africa, 1945-1994, which opened at the Museum Villa Stuck in 2001 and travelled to Berlin, New York and Chicago. Mancoba died in 2002 in Paris. These paintings are from the collection of Mikael Andersen in Copenhagen. He knew Mancoba and his wife since the 1960s as the Andersen and Ferlov families owned neighbouring country homes. In the early 1980s he began taking care of Sonia in Paris until her death in 1984, and after he opened his gallery in 1989, he represented her estate. Through the 1990s he continued to look after Mancoba, who was still living in Paris, and after his death, took care of his estate.


What were your first works like?

I had never received any formal art training as such. During my school years, my vocation started at Grace Dieu, the Anglican Teachers Training College, near Pietersburg where I learnt the technique of sculpting in wood from a nun, Sister Pauline. I made altar fronts and such pieces of church furniture. I became a teacher thereafter. But, by then, I already knew that I wanted to become, one day, a full-time artist. At that moment, what I was doing was mainly woodcarving that was both inspired by and struggling with the European style, trying to make it my own. One of my religious carvings even got a fine reception, Bantu Madonna (1929), for which an African girl, one of my fellow students, had posed. It didn’t interrupt my studies though, and after Pietersburg I went to the University of Fort Hare, at Alice, a little town in the Eastern Cape. Fort Hare had only just received university status; before that, it had been known as the South African Native College. Religion and a certain form of humanism were at the heart of the institution; it was a tradition shared by the ‘black elite’ (as they were expected to become) and by the white liberals, many of whom belonged to the clergy. Unlike the Bantu education, later implemented in South Africa from the 1950s, Fort Hare was not based on the assumption that black Africans require and deserve a different, inferior kind of education.

HUO: Let’s begin with the beginnings. How did you become an artist in South Africa in the early years of the 20th century?

EM: I was born a black miner’s son in 1904 in Turffontein, along the goldfields of the Reef near Johannesburg. My mother influenced very much what I later became, even though she was not an artist herself. But she went out at times with other women of her age group, as was the custom, to make (with clay, in a collective oven, built with branches of wood) the earthenware pots, which we used at home. I remember that she told me about the origins of my clan among the Fingo people. They were originally Zulus who had emigrated, under persecution for opposing the military conquest of other tribes by King Shaka, in a way that they estimated contrary to the African tradition of democratic kingship. So they thought it might have been justified to unite our nations against the colonial invasion. So they had taken refuge among the Xhosas – ‘fingo’ means ‘wanderer’. She taught me Ubuntu, the African ‘philosophy’ of human brotherhood, and she was at the same time a fervent Christian. She also used to read us poetry aloud, African poetry from an old book wrapped in a piece of cloth, and she explained the importance of poetry, especially the notion of expressing the ‘unspeakable’.

The history of the African intelligentsia is inextricably linked to the University of Fort Hare …

Absolutely. It’s in Fort Hare that political activists like Nelson Mandela, my friends Govan Mbeki, 7

Isaac [Bangani] Tabata and Jane Gool, or poets like Dennis Brutus, or, later on, Can Themba, the Drum journalist, received their higher education.

service boy, as it was situated in an area for ‘whites only’. It was also Lipshitz who told me about the growing interest in Europe for African art and about the influence it had had at the beginning of the 20th century. Paul Guillaume’s book Primitive Negro Sculpture (La sculpture nègre primitive, with Thomas Munro, 1929) was at the heart of those discussions. I remember that on Lippy’s advice I had gone to the National Library in Cape Town to read that very book. People there could hardly understand it, that a black man could have had anything to do in the place, and, even less, that he should have been asking for such a recently known French author. But I argued and finally had the possibility to sit down and read the book, which they kindly brought me. While absorbing what I found in it, which astonished me very much, I began to think about how enriching it would be to have an exchange of ideas with such an open mind, who spoke with [such] deep respect about the expression of Africans, when I wasn’t even considered as a full human being in my own country.

Were there a lot of students training in art in Fort Hare?

In Fort Hare, I did not study art – there was no such thing; my subjects were English, history, mathematics, psychology and biology. And like many black students then, I was also thinking about becoming a journalist. Did you have ‘dialogues’ about art and the role of art in South Africa there nevertheless?

When I was in Pietersburg, I became friendly [with] Gerard Sekoto, who later [became] an important painter, [and] Thomas Masekela who, though he was to dedicate his later life to an organisation of hospitals for our people, worked privately with sculpture; we had a constant dialogue, and also, together with other African students and young teachers like Nimrod Ndebele, another close friend, we organised theatrical representations at the school, and discussed the future of the arts in South Africa. At Fort Hare, where I was head of the debating society, we rarely spoke about art as such. When I came to Cape Town (on a cargo ship from Port Elizabeth), the most intense conversations that I had on the subject were probably the ones with Lippy Lipshitz, whom I often visited in his studio, while I had mine in District Six, the ghetto for ‘coloured’ people. Lippy was a sculptor who had emigrated from Eastern Europe. He introduced me to another South African sculptor, also of European origin, Elza Dziomba, whose studio in Johannesburg I entered by the back door, pretending to be the

So you decided to leave South Africa. It was 1938. How did you decide that it was time to leave? Did you see Paris as a place of freedom, both politically and artistically?

The first reason for my leaving South Africa was probably when I understood that I would not be able to become either a citizen or an artist in the land of my fathers, especially after a meeting I had with the Commissioner for Native Affairs in Pretoria, who, after seeing some of my works reproduced in a newspaper (The Star, I think it was), decided that I should take part in [the upcoming] [British] ‘Empire 8

Exhibition’ (Johannesburg, 1936). The idea was, first, to show visitors the production of folkloric art by natives, and, secondly, to develop a whole indigenous art trade by selling all sorts of pseudo-tribal figures for tourists. He offered me a good job with a fine salary, to [gather] young Africans to provide for this kind of traffic. I was shocked and, as politely as possible, refused the proposition. In my daily life, I felt more and more humiliated at the conditions made [with regard] to my people; and I had a growing difficulty in containing myself on certain occasions. Thus, I soon understood I would never be able to feel free enough, in my mind, to express myself as fully as I wished, but would always knock the head against the barriers, which the colonial order had set up in my country, wherever I went.

our people were undergoing such a terrible plight, but I believed, on the contrary, that art was precisely also a means to favour a greater consciousness in Man, which, for me, is part of the struggle for any human liberation, and without which any practical achievement would probably, sooner or later, deviate and miss its point. Therefore, making art, I thought, was as urgent as working for the political evolution, which, at the time anyhow, seemed still a faraway prospect. So I decided to engage upon a debate with European artists, by coming to Europe. But could you leave just like that?

As I had absolutely no means to travel, I had the good fortune to be helped by missionary institutions, and when I arrived in London, I lived by Bishop Smythe, whom I had known as the head of my student hostel at Fort Hare. I naturally visited the British Museum, the National Gallery and other institutions of art. But my goal was Paris, for all that this city represented, as a centre of artistic concern and responsibility,

And at the time, apartheid wasn’t even instituted as a wholly legal coercive system?

It came only after the Second World War, but it had, indeed, existed ever since the European colonists decided, with full support of the metropolis, to exploit the black Africans in a system of near slavery for the purely economic reason of gold and diamonds. I felt I had no time to lose with the petty vexations, the daily wrongs that the indigenous man had to put up with. Moreover, there was, basically, at the time, no public to receive what I had to express, in the colonial society where I was normally destined to spend the rest of my days. Several of my works have disappeared, probably because those who got them in hand at the time did not consider them worth preserving. Even some of my political friends told me that artistic activity was not the most urgent thing to concentrate upon, while

“Some of my political friends told me that artistic activity was not the most urgent thing to concentrate upon, while our people were undergoing such a terrible plight, but I believed, on the contrary, that art was precisely also a means to favour a greater consciousness in Man, which, for me, is part of the struggle for any human liberation.” 9

unique in the world, as I had been told by the artists who had emigrated from Europe. During these years, you could come and, almost from one day to the next, enter into a universal debate about the political, cultural and spiritual destiny of mankind. Even [if] you did not join any group, and might, at times, feel isolated as an artist – indeed many have died there, in loneliness and poverty – you, at least, were given the minimum respect to breathe as an individual, and had the full freedom to create in a town that was open to the winds of the world. In South Africa, I had not been able to find anyone to discuss the work, apart from a traditional carver from the noble tribe, one or two schoolfellows and the few immigrant artists I have mentioned, who themselves [encouraged] me to go to Europe. Moreover, certain words of my mother were ringing in my head. When I was a little boy, I had wept because I, on certain occasions, missed [having] someone to play with, so I asked her for a brother, as she, at the time, had only given me sisters. But she answered, “Do not weep, Ernest. Your brothers, you’ll find them in the greater world.” So now I was going away to try to find them in my fellow artists.

in Paris, I got into the École des Arts Décoratifs, rue d’Ulm. In fact, the students and the staff there had been told that an Englishman from London would arrive the following day. So they were not a little astonished when they saw me. Was it at the École des Arts Décoratifs that you met the group of Danish artists with whom you worked closely afterwards?

Yes, at the art school I met Christian Poulsen. He was studying sculpture at the time, but later became a famous ceramist. He told me he was in connection with a group of young Danish Surrealists. He invited me to follow him to one of these, at the latter’s studio. Thus, I first met Ejler Bille, who was very interested in African art, as [were] all the other members of the group. So he told me that I would surely be glad to speak with one of his comrades. It was a woman, who also had been a member of the ‘Linien’ group, together with Richard Mortensen and others. That is how I saw, for the first time, Sonja Ferlov, who was to become my lifetime comrade and spouse. She came from a bourgeois family in Copenhagen. And she happened to have been very familiar with

And it happened when you arrived in Paris?

I took the ship from Cape Town. When I arrived in London, I remember that, out of solidarity, I had dressed up as a worker with a cap, but when I crossed certain poor areas, children stared and soon followed me through the streets, singing “Nigger, Nigger go to hell. English, English ring the bell!” But already I had decided not to stay, for Paris had always been the destination. Through Bishop Smythe’s connections

“You will never prove or disprove the truth of our common humanity, any more than a child needs material evidence to instinctively know that his mother is his mother.” 10

African expression from early childhood, because her parents had a friend who was the greatest collector and connoisseur of African art, Carl Kjersmeier. So, as a little girl, instead of dolls, she had been sitting with African masks and sculptures on her knees. This had developed in her an intimacy with, and a feeling for, African sculpture – but also for Oceanic and Mexican expression as well – that was unique. Thus, I know not which kind of destiny had brought me into the presence of the ideal person, and the right group of artists, for a fruitful dialogue and collaboration. They were very interested to know more about the continent that had produced the objects they so admired. Only a few, though, wished to hear more about the actual conditions of the people in South Africa. But they appreciated my work, so I got more and more integrated into the group, and I could have many conversations with them, especially, about the creations we had seen in the studios, the galleries and the museums we visited regularly.

part of other circles than [I was]. Personally, it took me some time to learn the language, while the Danes spoke almost fluent English, which made it easier for me. I suppose I would have managed to understand Césaire and Senghor. But we might have had have some disagreements also because the problem with their approach was that I never believed, for my part, that the racist ideology of the Occident is a problem of defective reason or insufficient comprehension. And I do not think, therefore, that it can be treated by forming new ideological concepts, like ‘négritude’, any more than I would imagine that the humanity of the white man might rely upon any virtual concept of ‘blanchitude’. For you will never prove or disprove the truth of our common humanity, any more than a child needs material evidence to instinctively know that his mother is his mother. No scientific or moral demonstration, no genetic test, nor any ethical imperative will ever add to this simple recognition, identification and love. I made a sculpture on this fundamental relationship between mother and child (Faith, 1936).

You arrived in Paris only a few years after two other famous immigrants had arrived, one from Martinique who was Aimé Césaire, the other from Dakar, Leopold Sédar

But ‘négritude’ was part of an anti-colonial struggle

Senghor. It was the beginning of ‘négritude’. Did you

strategy …

meet them then?

Indeed, but I do not believe that we Africans, any more than other people, should need (as it would not diminish racism a jot) to show the white man how good we are at speaking or writing his language, performing in his sports, learning his customs, manners and intellectual actions or to develop ourselves along the lines of his so-called ‘universality’, to be considered as human beings and his equals. Because the true universality is a common goal on the

In fact, strangely enough, I could well have met them, because the School of Decorative Arts was situated [on the] rue d’Ulm, in the same street as Césaire’s school, l’École Normale Supérieure [Higher Teacher Training College]. But the occasion was not given [to] me of an encounter with these two great personalities. Césaire and Senghor both belonged to the French-speaking colonies or territories, and were 11

cultural, political and spiritual horizon, that will be reached only when all ethnic groups achieve, through an authentic dialogue, the many-faceted diamond shape and the full blossom of the deepest and widest human integrity. I hold Aimé Césaire’s oeuvre as vital, though, particularly in that he was the first, in the West Indies, to insist on the fact that black people, there or elsewhere, must reject the prejudice which the colonial masters have engrained into them about their African origins being something to be ashamed of. I, for my part, have only relied, throughout my life, on two ideas – one, from the deepest heart of Africa, which constitutes the basis of ‘Ubuntu’: “Man is man by and because of other men”, and the other, the precept of Christ: “Do unto others as you would have done unto you.” I do not bother with anything else.

[on the] rue Hippolyte-Maindron. In fact, apart from his brother Diego, I can say I remained for nine years (interrupted by my four-year internment during World War II) his nearest neighbour. We caught sight of each other practically every day, spoke from time to time, and were always ready to give a hand, for mutual support, if need be. Sonja knew that she could always count on Alberto when we had a difficulty or were, as happened once or twice, economically in a fix. He also gave Sonja some good advice on working with plaster. But it was, above all, his unique personality that brought us one of the richest experiences in our life. Later you left for Denmark and took part in the CoBrA group. Could you tell me about your meetings with the other members of this group such as Constant and Asger Jorn?

Who were the artists that you met in Paris that you

In Denmark, we were members of the Höst group and later the CoBrA group in the years 1948 to 1950, together with, among many others, Asger Jorn, CarlHenning Pedersen, Heerup, Erik Thommesen, Egill Jacobsen, and our Dutch comrades Karel Appel, Constant and Corneille. But Sonja and I worked rather isolated in a little village, going to Copenhagen only for meetings with our Höst or CoBrA friends. As there came some misunderstandings in the group, we soon left the country. I felt a certain form of silent opposition to Sonja and me that hardly manifested itself openly, but, for instance, invitations to take part in exhibitions of the group inexplicably never reached us. I think that there was a certain irritation towards Sonja for repeatedly insisting on the movement, and also taking into account the plight of people still

consider [to] have been influential?

So I met the Danish Surrealist group, that is, among others, Richard Mortensen, Egill Jacobsen, and particularly also, as I have said, Ejler Bille. At my studio [on] rue Daguerre, my neighbour was Henri Goetz, an American artist. Bille’s neighbour was a German Expressionist painter, Erwin Grauman, who remained a good companion to us until his death, and by the intermediary of whom I met German anti-Nazi artists and, in particular, befriended Hans Hartung. In 1938, I also became friends with Alberto Giacometti. It was on his proposition (to help me live closer to Sonja who had her studio next door on rue du Moulin Vert), that I even left my atelier in rue Daguerre for a little room on top of his atelier 12

“The embarrassment that my presence caused – to the point of making me, in their eyes, some sort of ‘Invisible Man’ or merely the consort of a European woman artist – was understandable, as before me there had never been, to my knowledge, any black man taking part in the visual arts ‘avant-garde’ of the Western world.”

appreciation of the official art world, especially, later, in the eyes and the evaluation of certain critics and art historians. Some critics totally obliterate my participation in the movement, as modest as it admittedly has been, on the reason that my work was suspected of not being European enough, and in [the] words [of one], “betraying (my) African origins”. I’m interested in knowing what kind of relationship you maintained with Africa in those years.

In those days, I also met regularly with my friend Gerard Sekoto, who had fled South Africa for Paris after the war. We discussed the news from home. And as he was at the time more in contact with other artists and intellectuals of the Parisian or English scene than myself, he kept me informed. I also had a few meetings at the library Présence Africaine with Alioune Diop. And from the 1950s to the early 60s, I was a regular, or rather irregular, correspondent of the magazine Le Musée Vivant, which was at the time the only French publication genuinely interested, at least at the beginning, in giving the word from time to time to African intellectuals and artists. I had a rich dialogue for many years with Madeleine Rousseau, its editor, who, it must be said, with unbelievable courage – given the colonial context – faced the confrontation with the Other. She offered a possibility of expression and a platform for dialogue to people from the socalled ‘Third World’, at a difficult time, until the political pressure became too intense, because the struggles for independence had begun.

colonised by Europe. Though most of the founding members of CoBrA agreed with us – Jorn wrote a letter to us, just after the movement ended, expressing his solidarity with our attitude and his understanding for our reasons to go away – it seems that the time was not yet come in 1950 for the question to be clearly posed. The embarrassment that my presence caused – to the point of making me, in their eyes, some sort of ‘Invisible Man’ or merely the consort of a European woman artist – was understandable, as before me there had never been, to my knowledge, any black man taking part in the visual arts ‘avantgarde’ of the Western world. Of course, Wifredo Lam showed his work along the Surrealists in Paris, but he was a Creole, from an independent country, Cuba. Personally, coming from a colony where people were segregated by the law, but [that] was still vital economically for Europe, my status was unclear. And probably it was also our very conception of mankind and of art that not only contributed to our isolation from some in the group, but invalidated us in the

Can you tell me about the oscillation between figuration and abstraction in your work?


In my painting, it is difficult to say whether the central form is figurative or abstract. But that does not bother me. 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, or any material that is at hand. Our history has brought about, little by little, this dichotomy between abstraction and figuration, which provokes, more and more, a terrible atomisation in the very essence of life. In no domain more than in the arts has this systematic dichotomy caused such destruction of the very foundation to the human identity, as both belonging to nature and sharing in the essence of an ideal being. Certain artists in Europe have too often been under the dictatorship of philosophy, or what is known under that name – which denomination, by the way, has always been puzzling to me, because that area of learning has, for a long time, been used not so much to put in practice any love of wisdom, as its name would imply, but rather for trying to fit our conception of man into the social structures offered by history, at any given time. Moreover certain philosophers in Europe have had a more or less hidden aim to get rid of art altogether, for supposedly belonging to some outdated form of humanity, or to replace it by some purely intellectual ersatz, that would help discipline and control the inspired freedom of poetry, a concern shared by the political authority: this, as far as I can understand, was the main motivation behind the foundation of the Academy. Hence we have lost the capacity to unite in our vision the outward aspect with the inner significance. Because our eye has been mis-educated, so to speak, by the superficiality of academicism, which can only

estimate the worth of any representation of man according to the abidance by the purely aesthetic rules it has established, as, for example, the one decreeing that the human head must come eight times (or seven; I have forgotten) into the full length of the body. So when they see an African sculpture with, for example, an enormous head and short legs, they will consider it ugly and judge it ‘worthless’. But for the African artist it is not so much the abidance by certain rules (though he too, generally, works according to particular canons) that makes a thing beautiful, but its capacity to evoke the inner being, by the strength of the outward aspect. To that effect, he uses all means, both figurative and abstract. When in my younger days I made the Bantu Madonna, I worked along certain European or classical canons, which some believers in the conception of ‘progress’ in art will judge outdated. In the Madonna, I followed a certain canon that was in contradiction with the newest Cubist or abstract ways and forms (which I, at the time, hardly knew), but without ever stopping my struggle with a style that was foreign to me. And the viewer, I hope, if I am lucky

“In my painting, it is difficult to say whether the central form is figurative or abstract. But that does not bother me. 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, or any material that is at hand.” 14

enough to have been understood and heard, can feel under the surface of the classical mould an African heartbeat. At [that] time, the inner spirit breaks through, first in the very innovation within the South African context of taking a black woman to represent the Virgin Mary, and secondly in the warmth of the pulse that, though provisionally contained by the strictness of the style, speaks up, under the skin or surface, and threatens to burst free.

a sort of new academism. Hence the development, among many creators, of a more or less imposed or self-imposed notion of non-art considered as art, which had the advantage of getting rid of the problem posed in a materialistic society by the invisible and by the enduring power of the universal mask, before or without ever facing the question: ‘What is art?’ I believe that one cannot answer this question as long as one has the false idea that humanity can be pigeonholed into different categories. That is why, for instance, I could never be considered as an artist in the South Africa of the early 1930s, where the Commissioner for Native Affairs wished me to make what the colonial authority called ‘native art’. There was a time when, also in Europe, even among apparently progressive people or certain modern artists, the notion existed that there was an art for the ‘savages’, which was only fit for them and could never be appreciated seriously by modern humanity. Bertolt Brecht spoke of ‘children of science’. One day, at the end of the 1950s, I met a well-known modern painter of the so-called ‘Hard Edge’ group. When he saw me together with Sonja Ferlov, addressing both of us, he said, “Ah, it is you who like the art of the negroes. They are too full of sensuality, always making sculptures with a big sex, while we modern artists of Europe have left behind these primitive obsessions. Here, it is all geometry, purity of lines and clarity of the intellect.” When I tried to tell him that there also was geometry in African art, he shook his head and went away. For me, art can only be founded on the single notion – of which it is both the confirmation and the proof – that Man is One. That is why an expression from a most foreign culture (let’s say New Guinea, or the

In 1962, you wrote, “For the object of African art is not to please the eye or the senses but to use art as a means, as a language to express feelings and ideas in relation to the present, the future and the past, to discover new concepts by which to regard the world for the salvation of man.”

Yes, I remember when I wrote these lines. In fact, I would not change a word today. I think that this definition is still valid and could apply to the way I, personally, see my vocation as an artist even in the world to which I still belong, at this beginning of the 21st century. In my opinion, a certain evolution of art, in the second part of the 20th century, has been influenced by the misunderstanding around Duchamp. Duchamp never pretended that exhibiting a manufactured product was, in itself, art. But the world, the so-called art world has always made as if he had. In fact, as he himself insisted, his readymade, bought at the supermarket and put upon a pedestal, is only a challenge thrown at the face of the Academy and its spiritually empty canons. However the misunderstanding became the accepted interpretation of this artist because it fitted into the aims of a certain established nihilism, which, under the fastidious form of an objective aestheticism, in turn came to constitute 15

Mexico of the Aztecs) – and even without my having any knowledge of the particular customs and rites that gave birth to it – may touch me to the core, and sometimes infinitely more than some from my own cultural background and times. And this does not make me a Primitivist, in any way. Only, the first condition for entering the world of the spiritual expression we call art is to be open to the Other, even to the ultimate Other, whoever he be, with the knowledge, so well condensed by Arthur Rimbaud in his famous phrase, that: ‘Je est un autre’ [I is somebody else]. It is still today shocking to many that he, the ‘Gaul with blue eyes’, as he called himself, should, at times, during his years of poetry, have seen himself as ‘un nègre’ [a negro]. But it is upon this very awareness that he founded the meaning of any true modernity. Our present times, though, have completely misunderstood the notion, because when we hear Rimbaud’s message: “Il faut être absolument moderne” [one must be absolutely modern], we think it is about driving the fastest car, surrounded with all the paraphernalia of the very latest technology, when what is meant thereby is much

deeper and more radically subversive to all upon which we have based our society and our conceptions – even that of ‘modernity’. That is why the fact of seeing creations from the farthest elsewhere may help us to break free from our prejudices and our formalistic or ethnic enclosures. I remember how my friend Gerard Sekoto, in our younger days, was fascinated when I showed him reproductions of pictures by Van Gogh, and how touched he was – to the point of being inspired by it in his own work – when I told him the story of this Dutch painter’s life, while we stood in the middle of the bush, near a distant country village in a tribal zone of the northern Transvaal. Like Asger Jorn you have been very interested in the Folk Art from Greenland.

Asger Jorn had participated, with other Surrealists, in the reappraisal and enthusiastic appreciation of ancient African art. When the Second World War broke out, he could no longer travel but stayed in Denmark, where he could not see so many works from Africa and Oceania. So it dawned upon him that in the north, too, they possessed an original, primitive, pre-Christian art, which had previously been neglected or misrepresented: that of the Vikings, and also, in Greenland, that of the Eskimo people, who had lived for so long out of reach by the influences of modern history. Together with Asger, all the members of CoBrA were touched by the strength, simplicity and boldness of this expression. Sonja Ferlov was also fascinated by the reports of the great polar explorer Knud Rasmussen, who had lived, for a long time, among the Eskimos and had described abundantly

“The first condition for entering the world of the spiritual expression we call art is to be open to the Other, even to the ultimate Other, whoever he be, with the knowledge, so well condensed by Arthur Rimbaud in his famous phrase, that: ‘Je est un autre’ [I is somebody else].” 16

their culture and customs. I was influenced by the art of the Eskimos, essentially in its economy of means and its capacity to treat just the essential, in a harsh and difficult environment of nature. Can you think of any unrealised project of yours, a project that you have dreamt about but could not fulfill?

Yes, but I am not thinking about an artistic one. For me, what is still not realised is a common acceptance and understanding between whites and blacks (as the most contrasted opposition in terms of colour, but between other races, as well). The dialogue has not started yet. It reminds me of a passage in one of the books of the Danish writer Karen Blixen, where she says that if the encounter or the meeting between blacks and whites has happened, historically, it has, in fact, not yet taken place. This interview took place in Paris in March 2002, and was first published in Hans Ulrich Obrist, Interviews Volume 1 (Milan: Edizioni Charta, 2003)

Hans Ulrich Obrist is Co-director of Exhibitions and Programmes and Director of International Projects at the Serpentine Gallery, London.


Untitled 1969 Oil on canvas 73 x 60cm Signed ‘E Mancoba 69’ on reverse

Provenance Estate of Ernest Mancoba; Galerie Mikael Andersen, Copenhagen Illustrated Elza Miles, Lifeline out of Africa: The art of Ernest Mancoba (Cape Town: Human & Rousseau, 1994) catalogue no 95, in colour between pp48 and 49, and listed on p84. This painting was shown on Retour sur Cobra in 1993 at Galerie Artcurial, Paris, and that same year in AfrikaDanmark Kunst i Dialog at Vejle Kunstmuseum in Vejle, Denmark. Later it was included in El tiempo de Africa, which opened at La Sala de Plaza de España, Madrid, in 2001 and travelled to the Centro de Iniciativas (CIT), Las Palmas de Gran Canaria. It was also included on Mancoba and Ferlov’s retrospective exhibition, Hand in Hand, at the Johannesburg Art Gallery in 1994, and the South African National Gallery, Cape Town, in 1995.



Untitled 1980 Oil on canvas 73 x 60cm Inscribed ‘Mancoba 80’ on reverse on stretcher

Provenance Estate of Ernest Mancoba; Galerie Mikael Andersen, Copenhagen Illustrated Elza Miles, Lifeline out of Africa: The art of Ernest Mancoba (Cape Town: Human & Rousseau, 1994), catalogue no 134, p87 (illustration reversed) Below This painting can be seen hanging in Sonja and Ernest’s Paris studio in a documentary about Sonja Ferlov Mancoba, made for Danish television in 1983.



Untitled c.1989-90 Ink and oil pastel on paper 59 x 42cm Signed ‘E Mancoba’

Provenance Private collection, Copenhagen, 2008; Mikael Andersen and Michael Stevenson 2008-2012 Literature Elza Miles, Lifeline out of Africa: The art of Ernest Mancoba, Cape Town, 1994 (Cape Town: Human & Rousseau, 1994) catalogue no 173, p90



Untitled (V. 4) 1993 Ink and oil pastel on paper 30 x 42cm Inscribed ‘V. 4’ and signed ‘E Mancoba’

This series was sketched in Copenhagen in 1993.

Provenance Estate of Ernest Mancoba; Galerie Mikael Andersen, Copenhagen


Untitled (V. 6) 1993 Ink and oil pastel on paper 32 x 52cm Inscribed ‘V. 6’ and signed ‘E Mancoba’ Provenance Estate of Ernest Mancoba; Galerie Mikael Andersen, Copenhagen


Untitled (V. 7) 1993 Ink and oil pastel on paper 32.5 x 50cm Signed ‘E Mancoba’ and inscribed ‘V. 7’ Provenance Estate of Ernest Mancoba; Galerie Mikael Andersen, Copenhagen


Untitled (V. 8) 1993 Ink and oil pastel on paper 32.5 x 50cm Signed ‘E Mancoba’ and inscribed ‘V. 8’ Provenance Estate of Ernest Mancoba; Galerie Mikael Andersen, Copenhagen



ODILI DONALD ODITA was born in 1966 in Enugu, Nigeria, and is based in Philadelphia and New York. His most recent wall painting was for the New Orleans Museum of Art; he completed a commission for the US Mission to the UN building in New York in 2010. He inaugurated the Project Space at the Studio Museum in Harlem, New York, in 2007, and has exhibited at the Contemporary Art Museum, Houston, Texas (2010); the Ulrich Museum at Wichita State University (2009); the Institute of Contemporary Art, Philadelphia (2008); and the Lois & Richard Rosenthal Center for Contemporary Art, Contemporary Art Center, Cincinnati (2007). Group exhibitions include Magical Visions: 10 Contemporary African American Artists at the Mechanical Hall Gallery, University of Delaware (2012); ARS 11, Kiasma Museum of Contemporary Art, Helsinki (2011); The Global Africa Project, Museum of Arts and Design, New York (2010); Wallworks, Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, San Francisco (20009); and the 52nd Venice Biennale (2007). He was awarded a Louis Comfort Tiffany Foundation Grant in 2007.

studios around the world and in the process gain great insight into the working methods of many artists. Ultimately, it did not make sense not to paint. During the time when I did not paint, I was working with photo-based methods and employing the ideas and properties of painting anyway. I thought like a painter, even when making the photo-based work, so it made even more sense to go back to painting and confront its limitations as positive, rather than as negative.


RH: Early on in your development you embraced conceptual art and such conceptually oriented practices as the one Félix Gonzalez-Torres originated. Traditionally

Perhaps colour is the single most difficult aspect of art

colour has been regarded as antithetical to conceptual

to describe. In your writings about your work and also in

art and, in fact, was almost entirely abandoned by

a number of your recorded conversations, you provide

conceptual artists in the 1960s and 70s for sub-aesthetic

a schematic to your overall programme, consisting of

propositions made with typing paper, printed words,

a basic armature of black-and-white values, which you

typescript and grainy photographs, causing some critics

in turn nuance with colour. You equate both black and

to mistakenly believe that this art totally dispensed

white as well as the many hues you employ in your work

with so-called objects in favour of ideas. Given this

(numbering oftentimes in the dozens and sometimes

circumstance, how do you explain endorsing colour in

even more than a hundred) with a range of social,

your conceptually oriented practice? What convinced

historical and psychological ideas. My question to you

you to return to painting in 1998 after rejecting it for

is: even though you might have strong social, political,

explorations of identity through multi-media based

cultural and personal associations with certain colours,

installations, digitally manipulated images and photo-

how can you be sure viewers will react in the same way?

based art, and after having moved away from painting by

Or will your own personal resonances create special

opting to work as a critic and curator?

intensities capable of engaging viewers, but leaving them free to interpret the range of hues according to

ODO: Colour has become for me a way to explore perception while locating it as a construct within a social/cultural space. I am interested in looking at colour as a parallel to ‘peoples of colour’, for example, by basically taking the formal construct, colour, as a means for addressing this and other social circumstances. My return to painting was a ‘why not’ situation. Through my work as an independent curator and critic in the 1990s, I was able to visit

their own experiences?

Yes, I agree, and I do believe I work through your latter point. There is no way I can play music, let’s say, and expect everyone to dance. I have to believe I create enough of a situation for the viewer to enter the work through a particular and defined doorway. It might be in the colour schemata, or in the overall design of the patterns within the work. Essentially, I do think I 31

play with some stereotypical aspects of what one might think of African patterning, place and authenticity, as well as address my own sense of origin and the foundations of my own intellectual inquiry.

or warm, depending on its condition, this can also be said of a person. For example, does a person see a partially filled glass of water as half empty or half full? My ideas behind the Equalizer installation were specific to the venue where the work was installed (The Studio Museum in Harlem) and the understandings I have as a Nigerian about my relationship to race and history in America. I wanted to tell a story about my own personal journey to America, as much as one about the great crossing of people of African descent from Africa to America during the age of slave trade in America. The piece was formatted like a comic book or an illuminated manuscript on many levels for me. The title of the piece makes popular cultural references to 1970s ‘Blaxploitation’ films, as well as action-drama TV shows at that time. Each wall in the installation comprises a page in the story I wanted to convey. I also wanted the viewer to see the entire work from the centre of the room. The cycle starts with the red wall – the great explosion/exodus, then it moves to the ocean, treacherous waters, before advancing to a cold mountainous landscape juxtaposed against a more luscious one – home? – that sits beside it. The last wall suggests the contemporary world present in a continuous struggle to find an integration of figure and ground and a balancing of the figure within the space. I adjusted the colours in this last wall so that they could picture this dilemma and convey in addition the possibility of coexisting figurative elements (the brown tonalities within the ground). This same wall painting was partly inspired by Jackson Pollock’s Blue Poles, in as much as I believe that in his later work he was trying to interject figures, or figural elements, within his volcanic and frenzied painterly grounds.

Does colour in your work function ideologically, universally and poetically, the latter taking the form of metaphor or metonymy, for example?

I believe colour in my work does all the things you describe and possibly more. I do not think that colour can be ‘controlled’. Rather, I wish to play with its relativity, as I believe there is freedom in this for myself, as well as for the viewer in what can be imagined. A related question regarding colour: can it function both as a transcendent element and contradictorily as a concrete device in your art?

Yes to both. It is not that I want to have my cake and eat it too, but I believe colour is a force of its own, which I try to direct through my vision of it. In 2007 you completed the mural Equalizer for the Studio Museum in Harlem. When you described the completed work, you provided a specific allegory for it based on different sets of tonalities for each wall, thus transforming the work into a contemporary yet abstract history cycle connecting it to the African diaspora. Would you briefly recount the cycle you had in mind and would you please explain how colour works on a number of different and perhaps even contradictory levels in it?

This point you bring up is what I like about colour – its contradictory nature. As a colour can be cool 32

“I also see colour, as Byron Kim and Glenn Ligon have seen it, as a means to address race through cultural and social relatedness. I am interested in colour’s specificity and its difference, that is, the situation where colours can appear close to one another and yet still remain distinct.”

Ever since the French Orphist painter Robert Delaunay and the American Synchromists Morgan Russell and Stanton Macdonald-Wright attempted in the first decades of the 20th century to create a viable alternative art to Cubism by predicating painting on a structure comprised of colour, there have been a number of ongoing attempts to understand this most unwieldy artistic component. Subsequently, such artists as the Bauhaus professor Josef Albers and the mid-century American Colour Field painters Morris Louis, Helen Frankenthaler and Kenneth Noland took up this challenge and made

out and devoid of meaning currently. But I also see colour, as Byron Kim and Glenn Ligon have seen it, as a means to address race through cultural and social relatedness. I am interested in colour’s specificity and its difference, that is, the situation where colours can appear close to one another and yet still remain distinct. In addition, I look at colour’s interaction with respect to the nature of people and things: I can say that colour’s ongoing and subtly metaphoric situation is a quality that continues to hold my intellectual interests. So I can answer this by saying that when I look at colour, I am utilising specific constructs or notions of social classifications and social identifications, as much as memory and experience, to guide my colour decisions.

important contributions to this tradition. As a painter coming into maturity in the late 20th and early 21st century, how have you picked up this tradition and what exact contributions do you feel you have made to the understanding of colour’s structuring capacity? In some of the notes you have shared with me, you included several references to your concise and poignant interrogative, ‘What holds colour?’ Perhaps this selfdirected inquiry provides a clue to the structural and formative role colour plays in your art.

What you are asking is interesting to me. I believe that colour can hold the condition of humanity within it, and not just describe things. For instance, [curator] Ann Temkin’s exhibition Color Chart [at the Museum of Modern Art, New York] was troubling to me at first because I felt it reduced colour to serving as only a materialist insertion or description after the fact, but after speaking with her about it, I learned that she was using this notion of colour as a starting place to exploring how color expands beyond this point. And yes, I understand the history and use of colour as a spiritual device and as a means for recalling or realising the sublime, all of which may now be worn

You often refer to the physicality of colour and the role of the black body signified in the work as well as the situation of a range of bodies becoming physically self-aware when standing before your paintings. Would you say this aspect of your art develops out of Robert Morris’ circa 1960s emphasis on Merleau-Pontian phenomenology and its capacity to project itself outward to viewers’ actual space, including that of their own


bodies, thereby replacing art’s traditional mimeticism

time and space, two terms often mentioned in your

and transcendence with a resolute objectivity and

conversations and writing. While these references would

intransigent actuality? Does colour serve as a

place you and your work clearly in a Heideggerian

phenomenological tool in your work?

perspective, you also have cited an alternative route for colour in the form of your prose poem, which I really

I am not familiar with Robert Morris’ notions that come from Merleau-Pontian theories, but I do believe in colour that is working as a phenomenological tool. For me, colour does incorporate the ability to create awareness and catalyse memory on many different levels. Colour is not only a mental tool, but also exists as a physical one: colour can affect my body as a maker, as well as those observers of my work who are able to appreciate it.

like, the most relevant stanza being: “Colour does what it wants/ It misbehaves/ But most of all, / Colour can change our minds.” How do you reconcile this basic contradiction, and how do you think your work handles it? Would David Batchelor’s neologism ‘chromophobia’ pertain to your goal to awaken people to the potential danger inherent in a semiotics predicated on hue?

During the summer of 2009 I was in Williamstown, MA, and spent some time on a farm by a rolling stream watching the water undulate and move over a rock-bed beneath it. For me this rock-bed, like a drawing, was structure and armature. Additionally, the water was like colour, moving this way and that in a flow based not only on the structure of the rock-bed beneath it, but also on its own condition of what it was, as well as what it could become with other forces such as the wind and sun that beat down on it. Like this, colour can exist within a structural framework, which gives it a context and direction (as line does with colour), but what colour does and how it moves also has a lot to do with its own conditions and properties – its mass, space, chromatic intensity and its value, for example. Batchelor’s theories are another way that I see colour working in the West, and this is an additionally important point for me to make in my colour investigations. I wish to investigate what we take for granted concerning colour, as much as its ability to design and define our lives and the world we live in.

Another phenomenologically related question: when discussing the ways colour operates in your art – a tremendously difficult task for any artist working primarily with hue – you invoke its ability to create distinct cultural frames, referencing, in your words, “particular histories and societal lines”. Your language makes me think of Martin Heidegger and his emphasis on the impossibility of knowing anything in itself, even simple tools like hammers, and the necessity of approaching all objects through the specific lenses of

“Colour can exist within a structural framework, which gives it a context and direction (as line does with colour), but what colour does and how it moves also has a lot to do with its own conditions and properties – its mass, space, chromatic intensity and its value, for example.” 34

As an example, what would people do if they encountered their doctor or dentist, ready to perform a life-threatening operation, wearing a harlequincoloured or tie-dyed outfit? If conscious, would you still remain on the operating table? How can a colour affect or change our minds about a profession or an action? The idea that colour can be alarming outside of a given context can make us question the essential nature of the context at hand. And then, what about ‘persons of colour’? How do our concepts of colour enter into play here, and where do we stand in relation to these notions? It is only colour, yes, but our minds can be affected by what the colours are and in the ways we see these colours perform.

art. Since you are the son of the expatriate Nigerian painter and art historian Okechukwu Emmanuel Odita, who was a member of the Zaria Society, focusing on images of Nigerian nationalism in the early 1960s, and a long-term faculty member at Ohio State University in Columbus where you were brought up, why do you insist on an African identity for yourself as opposed to a global one for example? Or even a Nigerian-American one? Or, more simply, a Nigerian one? What makes your work ‘African’ as opposed to these other identities? Is this a particularly empowering perspective based on an intellectual movement that has enabled you to create the challenging and beautiful works you have made? Can we consider the African identity inherently global in the sense of opposing internationalism by emphasising

Colour is notoriously unruly, as you have noted, because

permeability in national and even geographic

one hue changes its character when seen next to others.

boundaries, thereby resulting in the paradoxical

Since you view yourself as a postmodern artist and your

development of a heightened reliance on local and

work as open to the world outside it, how do you think

regional characteristics?

your work responds to the environments framing and

I see myself as an African in the way I was raised, and in the belief system I was brought up in through my parentage. I think of myself, specifically, as a Nigerian-American. I am also a human being in the world. I can locate myself within the world, but I do not want to lock myself down within it. I know my experiences can be the same or different from others, regardless of birthplace or cultural origin. I have experiences that are real to me, and I make a distinction toward Africanness based on how my experiences have been established. I believe that African identity can also be experienced as a local and global phenomenon, whether as an African, a visitor to this continent, or someone well versed in the reality of Africa itself.

housing it?

Colour has the potential for being distinct, in as much as it can mirror the complexities of the world we live in. It can be specific, and it can describe so much through itself. It does not have to be relegated to only one thing or another. It can be used in so many ways. I want to create situations through drawing for colour to move as it wishes, and to depict a world of potential in this way. Over the years, you have articulated your desire to be seen as an African artist and have contributed to the magazine Nka, which art historian and curator Okwui Enwezor primarily initiated in order to promote African


I see African identity as a construct that can be understood as much as lived through. There are many ‘Africas’, which I believe is a positive notion, but it is interesting me to that it still exists as a contested zone, used in denoting the idea of authenticity as a power and a control.

many Dutch-wax printed cottons so popular in various West Coast African countries, textiles particularly important to the art of Yinka Shonibare, for example?

I am most interested in Kuba cloth, as well as in Mbuti pygmy bark cloth, both from the Democratic Republic of the Congo. I also love Ewe cloth from Ghana, Bamileke Ndop cloth from Cameroon, and traditional strip-woven cloth from Nigeria. My interest in these textiles stems from the great systems of patterning and the many opportunities for chance variations that occur within the structuring of these designs. The same thing goes for caftans, as well as Persian and Afghan rugs. The patterning, the use of colour and the spaces created in these items are truly breathtaking, and the foundations of these creations are indeed wonders to ponder for intellectual inquiry as much as for aesthetic thought.

A related question: in the 1960s the American group of African-American artists known as AFRICOBRA wanted to essentialise and demarcate race in terms of specific sets of formal characteristics, most particularly colour. While some members of this small group, active even today, create representational work, others are abstract artists. How does your focus on colour differ from the AFRICOBRA approach?

There was a time where I thought I was making paintings with ‘African colours’ or with the colour of ‘Africa’. This is now for me the most ridiculous notion that I can think of because I have to ask myself, ‘What is African colour?’ I do not know what ‘African colour’ is. I own neither Africa nor the idea of what it is. I know I can only try to recall and create a situation that makes my memory present, or that gives me a feeling of this place and space. Colour cannot constitute an exacting description; rather it exists for me as metaphor and allusion. I like the idea of making associations through implication, not literal depictions.

Finally, a very personal question: having taught a graduate art history seminar on colour, which was enormously frustrating because the subject seemed continuously to escape clear and precise definitions, even when I took the class through the basics of Albers’ famous colour course, I would like to know how you teach colour to painters. Do you subscribe to traditional colour theories such as Goethe’s, Wittgenstein’s or Albers’, or, since you yourself work intuitively, have you developed your own pedagogy and theory for conducting this course?

Often in conversation you mention the importance of

I like to introduce assignments at the beginning of my colour course that cover the basic, essential elements of colour. Early on, I also like to discuss colour in terms of the social as well as the historical.

African fabrics for your work as well as an African colour sense, but you have not specified exactly what kind of fabrics. Are you interested in only locally produced ones? Or have you also embraced the colours found on the


After which, my primary text becomes Josef Albers’ Interaction of Colour. It is a simple yet complex book, and so beautifully done. It is something that cannot necessarily be read alone – you need to go through it with a group to be able to understand the many different perspectives that can arise from the ideas within it. It is a fascinating book for me, because of its simplicity and directness. The book is actually bluntly obvious, but also laden with subtleties that can take it to so many places conceptually. This can in turn make one read more into it than what it says, so this is why it is better to read it as a group – so that the individuals in the group can appreciate the variety of views that can exist concerning colour. Ultimately, my goal is for the class to learn to personalise colour for themselves, to give colour a home within one’s own personal history, since I believe this is the best way for anyone to handle colour qualitatively. This interview via email was completed in May 2011.

Art historian, writer and curator Dr Robert Hobbs has held the Rhoda Thalhimer Endowed Chair at Virginia Commonwealth University since 1991 and has been a visiting professor at Yale University from 2004 to 2011, and an associate professor at Cornell University.


Flame On 2012 Acrylic on canvas 213.5 x 264.5cm



Plane Shifter 2012 Acrylic on canvas 178 x 228.5cm




ZANDER BLOM was born in 1982 in Pretoria, and lives in Johannesburg. His first US solo show, Place and Space, hosted by the Savannah College of Art and Design, opened in Savannah, Georgia, in 2011 and travelled to Atlanta in 2012. In addition to Stevenson, Cape Town and Johannesburg, solo shows have taken place at Galerie van der Mieden, Antwerp, and 5x6x9, Berlin. Group shows include The Global Contemporary: Art worlds after 1989 at ZKM Center for Art and Media Karlsruhe, Germany (2011); Ampersand, Daimler Contemporary, Berlin (2010); and .ZA: Young art from South Africa, Palazzo delle Papesse, Siena, Italy (2008).

change was a constant phenomenon. We had a little holiday home at the coast. There were murals on both the front and back walls. Every room was sponged a different colour with gold stars spray-painted on the blue ceilings. Every year we would paint something a new colour and add new things to the murals. This is how my mother liked to spend the holidays. The front of the house was pink, and the murals on it featured a lion, some birds and plants. It looked like a Henri Rousseau painting. The back of the house was turquoise. The murals on it displayed a beach, an underwater scene and some more birds. The lounge was bright yellow and my mother painted a Christmas tree on the wall in the corner of the room. It wasn’t any kind of Christmas tree you would expect either. It was a massive creeper-like plant in a pot. The stems looked like they were floating in the sky but at the same time crawling up the wall. She and my father hooked little Christmas lights to nails all over the painted pot plant and we laid all the presents on the floor underneath it. There was another similar plant in a pot painted on the front of the house that also had lights hooked to nails all over it. It was lit up on December holiday nights. People would walk past the house and stop and stare at it for ages. We would laugh and peer at them through the windows. There weren’t many books around in our home during my youth. My father is blind and my mother was not a big reader, so the small amount of books that we did have were my mother’s art books. This is where I discovered the world that lay outside of our warm little family universe. The one book that I distinctly remember from my childhood, the book that had the biggest impact on me as a child, was HH Arnason’s History of Modern Art. I was a quiet child, and I would sit


THITH: You have a love affair with some of the big ‘isms’ of art from the early 20th century and have talked openly about mimicking them stylistically while embracing the differences in context from which your work originates and challenging the mythology of some of these movements. Can you speak a little more about that?

ZB: There’s not much I can add to that without launching into a long story about how I grew up. I don’t know what else to tell you, so here comes the long story. I grew up in an environment where every wall was painted a different colour, and there were paintings, murals and assorted crafts all over the house. You couldn’t stretch your arms without knocking some object off a table or a wall. Rugs and decorated pots and statues and plates and vases, tassels on every door handle, not an open spot in sight. My mother is a jeweller, potter, painter and general expert in all sorts of crafts. Our family home was filled with her creations. The moment my siblings and I were old enough to hold a brush we became part of my mother’s project. We helped paint the murals; we made pottery, jewellery, drawings, paintings, etc. We were also regularly roped in to repaint walls, or move furniture around when there needed to be a change – and 45

“I want to make new pictures or images for myself for today, and with that comes a whole range of problems (conceptual, contextual, aesthetic) and potential solutions. The history of art is in a way a sort of dictionary that can assist one in writing new stories in the present.”

and page through that book over and over for years and years. I copied a lot of the pictures in it, and it was where I first encountered the work of people like Picasso and Francis Bacon. Of course at first I had very little understanding of the ‘isms’, but I could at least measure Mondrian against the world of my mother. I remember vividly how I stared completely mesmerised at a colour plate reproduction of Francis Bacon’s painting Head Surrounded by Sides of Beef (Study after Velazquez), 1954 – I must have been about seven or eight years old. It was an incredibly strange image to me. It attracted and repelled me; it was like nothing I’d ever seen before. It was a sort of horror but not like a scary movie, it was quite exciting and strange. It was just this weird image that hovered around in my head and couldn’t go anywhere. I kept coming back to it over the years, trying to figure out what it was about or what it meant. There were many other images that intrigued and puzzled me. Over the years my curiosity about the history of art and modern art in particular turned into an obsessive private study.

Cape Town and Johannesburg, who represent me. They show the work here in South Africa and send it abroad. Luckily I don’t have to go with the work. From time to time I go for dinner or a couple of drinks with my girlfriend who lives with me. Every now and then I’ll go out and play a gig or do a show with one of the group projects or bands that I’m involved in. Sometimes on Sundays I’ll drive through to Pretoria to visit my family who lives there. I buy nice groceries at Woolworths, sometimes Pick’n’Pay; these days I’m not as broke as I used to be a couple of years back. Once in a while I am invited to go abroad on a residency or for an exhibition – I always try my best to get out of it. I enjoy my life in Johannesburg so much that I would much rather stay at home and focus on producing work. I live in a very specific kind of Johannesburg. It is rough and exciting, yet quiet and peaceful. In my mind it’s very far away from the rest of the world where there are massive art fairs and movie stars and media spectacles and incredibly advanced social hierarchies.

You’ve talked about your relationship to modernism being mediated by the distance between South Africa, Europe and America. We’re wondering how it might cut the other way, and if you can mediate some things for us about being a contemporary artist in South Africa.

I can’t really say how it might cut the other way, because then I’d have to speculate, but I can tell you about my experience as a contemporary South African artist. This is how my life is at the moment: I live in my house in Brixton, Johannesburg, and I spend my days painting, drawing, taking pictures, making music, etc. The things I make get sent to Stevenson,

Your work from a few years ago – The Drain of Progress (2004-2007) and The Travels of Bad (2007-2009) – was


When I did The Drain of Progress and The Travels of Bad I was very interested in the art object and the narrative of the artist’s life in terms of how I had consumed it through art history books growing up. Being obsessed with art history, and given the way I grew up, when I got my own space to live in I just naturally turned it into these immersive environments. In one sense you can say that I had built these sets for photographs, but in another sense I was also just documenting the environments that I chose to live in. Constructing environments like that also has a lot to do with creating a space that is conducive to the production of a very specific kind of work. Now that I’m focusing on oil painting, my house looks like a mix between Francis Bacon’s and Picasso’s studios.

really immediate and striking. There you’re using some of the provocative installation techniques of early 20th century artists, calling to mind Futurist exhibitions like those of Vladimir Tatlin, the 1938 International Exhibition of Surrealism in Paris or even the German Degenerate Art exhibition of 1937. Those were all really shocking, and for different reasons, but have been softened by time. Your work reclaims the impact of those styles with a new originality even while distancing itself from any political or social necessities of those movements. Outside of just really liking the look of those works, is there particular meaning in being able to approach those works without all the historical meanings?

I look at what I do today as a kind of science of the picture plane. I’m perpetually trying to solve new problems, and creating new problems to try and solve. I want to make new pictures or images for myself for today, and with that comes a whole range of problems (conceptual, contextual, aesthetic) and potential solutions. The history of art is in a way a sort of dictionary that can assist one in writing new stories in the present. The way I see it is that history is only useful if we can plunder it. The social and political aspects of the artists and movements that I reference cannot be nullified (in fact they add value and depth to my own work) but I am also free to use the parts that interest me and discard the rest.

Your work seems either incredibly playful or painfully time consuming and exacting to make – is it?

Some works are executed very quickly and easily, others take a lot of time and physical energy. Some works often look like they were painfully time consuming when they were in fact done very quickly and effortlessly; the reverse is also true. There is no winning formula. Each piece requires something different. The difficult thing is knowing when to stop. I work on many different things at the same time because it is easy to get trapped in one work and end up ruining it. Some works stand around in my house for ages and I’ll do very little to them before they are ready, but they need that time for me to figure out how to solve them. You make one mark and then you have to make another mark to counterbalance and then you have to make another till the composition works. About 40

In working with music, making books, creating works that extend out into the physical space of your home and then reworking the photographs of these installations, it seems you’re playing with what the art object is as well as the difference between the artist and their story. Are you, and how, or what’s it all about?


percent or more of the things I make never leave the house because I spend too much time on them, get very close to solving the composition, but then go too far and end up destroying the work.

Back in the 1990s Alexander Brener made a big stink in the art world, weirdly championed by the likes of Flash Art, for defacing a Malevich painting because it no longer served its revolutionary spirit. He also took a shit in front of a Van Gogh and in a group show of ‘East

We really love the work you presented in your first

meets West’ artists, his contribution was to destroy the

North American show, Place and Space [at the Savannah

work of another artist in the show without permission,

College of Art and Design in Savannah, Georgia]. What is

ruining an enormous and elegant piece made of woven

your process for creating those pieces?

hair. Everything you’re about would seem the exact opposite of his project – infinite creation instead of

That show is a good mix of the kind of work I’ve been doing over the past three years. The photographic work is from a new ongoing series called The Black Hole Universe. The paintings are part of a long-term painting undertaking (I’ve only recently started showing oil paintings, but I’ve been working towards it for a long time, and I will continue to explore it for a long time to come). And the drawings are part of an ongoing series of monochrome ink drawings that I’ve been doing for years. These three things are driven by different objectives and reference points, and the process differs with each, but all are intrinsically linked through their exploration of things like markmaking, composition and perspective.

absolute destruction – but, in your own way you’re also challenging the folklore of the avant-garde albeit with a much, much more calming attitude. Is that something you think about?

That’s interesting. It’s funny actually because my first response to this question is that I’m not interested in reactionary work of any kind, and that I would rather spend my time at home painting and playing the piano. But then I suppose that’s not entirely true. Maybe the difference is that I’m curious about things and then I investigate them for myself. What ends up in a gallery with my name on it is generally the resulting residue of my investigations and experiments. I’m more geared towards making things to satisfy my own desires than to make statement for an audience. Of course, all art’s existence in the world is based on and measured by its reception and appreciation by others; fortunately each individual is free to choose how they would like to approach art-making. I get excited just thinking about working on new paintings and photographs and books and music. To me it’s about challenging myself, seeing if I’ll be able to pull something off, or excite and surprise myself, or make

“With this freedom I choose to live a simple life. I want to make things with my own hands, at my own pace, learn from everything I do, and enjoy the process. There’s no space for suffering, and no need for a factory.” 48

something that measures up to my personal standards and goals. The work does eventually end up in front of an audience, but it is not made for anyone but me. Perhaps my perspective also has to do with the political climate and the daily obstacles we face in South Africa. We have very real and pressing problems. Destroying valuable art because it supposedly does not serve its original revolutionary spirit anymore seems incredibly frivolous, even pompous and ridiculous to me. I think that that kind of political idealism is a luxury of thought we can’t afford. That said, I saw a work by Brener online when I googled him now (I’d never heard of him before) which I thought was genius. It is a graffiti piece on a wall that reads: ‘Every morning I wake up on the wrong side of Capitalism.’

and artists want to be successful businessmen. But contemporary art is such a free and open context today that you can literally insert anything you want into it. If you think of all the different kinds of art people are making today, the context is really like a global ‘show’n’tell’. There is space for any kind of voice from any kind of context. People are looking for interesting new things and new ways to look at the world. By implication, being an artist today offers a potential day-to-day freedom that you would not find in any other profession. With this freedom I choose to live a simple life. I want to make things with my own hands, at my own pace, learn from everything I do, and enjoy the process. There’s no space for suffering, and no need for a factory. I want to wake up in the morning and have the freedom to decide how I’m going to spend my day. Am I going to paint? Am I going to make music? Maybe rock’n’roll, perhaps dance? Maybe I’d rather spend the day making compositions on the piano? Am I going to read a book and make some drawings? Am I going to smash a hole in my ceiling? Am I going to build an installation? Etc, etc. Living this way is fulfilling and enriching. It is hard work to get and keep your life this simple, but it is absolutely possible. And it is absolutely worth it. What more do you need?

Finally, you speak a lot about creating uncomplicated, peaceful environments in which to think about and produce art. Is the perception of artists as suffering something you actually find antithetical to making good art?

I do find the archetypal figure of the tragic artist to be an interesting phenomenon, and it has been subject to much criticism and ridicule in my work. I wouldn’t say that it’s antithetical to making good art, but I do think that self-inflicted suffering is tragic and no way to live. We’ve seen it in music as much as we’ve seen it in visual art in the last hundred years. The tragic suffering genius toiling away alone in his studio is an old stereotype. I don’t think it’s that relevant anymore. Today’s visual artists generally seem to work towards having massive studios and a team of assistants. Contemporary art is big business,

This interview took place via email and was first published in January 2012 on

The Hundred In The Hands is a band based in New York City; on THITH zine they write about ‘bands, artists and designers we like’.


Untitled 2012 Oil on linen 198 x 140cm



Untitled 2012 Oil and graphite on linen 105 x 75cm Facing page Untitled 2012 Oil on linen 198 x 140cm



Untitled 2012 Oil on linen 105 x 75cm Facing page left Untitled 2012 Oil and graphite on linen 76 x 56cm Facing page right Untitled 2012 Oil on linen 56 x 42cm



Untitled 2012 Oil and graphite on linen 76 x 56cm


Top left Untitled 2012 Oil and graphite on linen 30 x 44cm Top right Untitled 2012 Oil and graphite on linen 30 x 39cm Bottom left Untitled 2012 Oil and graphite on linen 29.5 x 37cm Bottom right Untitled 2012 Oil and graphite on linen 28.5 x 38cm


Untitled 2012 Oil and graphite on linen 30 x 38.5cm Facing page Untitled 2012 Oil on linen 122 x 85cm



CAPE TOWN Buchanan Building 160 Sir Lowry Road Woodstock 7925 PO Box 616 Green Point 8051 T +27 (0)21 462 1500 F +27 (0)21 462 1501

We would like to thank Mikael Andersen, Hans Ulrich Obrist, Robert Hobbs and The Hundred In The Hands for their contributions to this project.

JOHANNESBURG 62 Juta Street Braamfontein 2001 Postnet Suite 281 Private Bag x9 Melville 2109 T +27 (0)11 326 0034/41 F +27 (0)86 275 1918 Catalogue 63 May 2012 Š 2012 For texts: the authors Š 2012 For works: the artists Editor Sophie Perryer Design Gabrielle Guy Image repro Mario Todeschini Printing Hansa Print, Cape Town Photo credits Pages 19, 21, 23: Courtesy of Mikael Andersen, Copenhagen Pages 24-27: Mario Todeschini Pages 39, 41: Karen Mauch Pages 51-59: Anthea Pokroy

Profile for Stevenson

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