Ernest Mancoba grew up on the East Rand, and his talents as a sculptor emerged while at teachers’ training college. He moved briefly to Cape Town, where he met and was encouraged by the sculptor Lippy Lipschitz, among others. He moved to Paris in 1938 to further his art studies, and married the Danish sculptor Sonja Ferlov while interned during the war.
In Europe Mancoba focused on painting, drawing and printmaking. Over a period of forty years, his imagery of a stylised and abstracted human figure, distilled from the form of the Kota grave effigies of Gabon, gradually disappeared into a field of marks – as in this work from around 1990. Elza Miles writes: ‘After Ferlov’s death [in 1984], Mancoba progressively stripped his images of referential material. It appears that he is reverting more and more to a language without boundaries, hence his preference for signs’ (Lifeline out of Africa: the art of Ernest Mancoba,
Cape Town, 1994, p71).
In an interview shortly before his death, Mancoba himself remarked:
‘[M]y own expression can have different interpretations, but one of the ways to see the figure of the paintings or drawings could also be as a spirit evoked, that … would represent or stand up for its endangered identity, in a hostile environment, and proclaim, paradoxically, the force of its fragile essence, amidst the chaotic affirmation of pure matter …’ (‘An interview with Hans Ulrich Obrist’, Nka journal of contemporary African art, Spring/Summer 2003, p19).
Mancoba visited South Africa in 1994, after an absence of 56 years, for the opening of Hand in Hand,
a retrospective exhibition of his work and that of his wife, held at the Johannesburg Art Gallery and the South African National Gallery in Cape Town.