Malangatana Ngwenya's Women in Motion (2003), one of his rose-period works
The Mozambican painter and poet Malangatana Ngwenya, who has
died aged 74 following respiratory complications, was one of Africa's leading contemporary artists, and his work is known round the world.
A lifelong Marxist, he depicted the suffering and struggles of a
troubled nation, and campaigned for peace. While Ngwenya,
meaning crocodile, provided the title of a 2007 documentary film,
he was most widely known as Malangatana.
Once Mozambique had achieved independence and freed itself from conflict, he encouraged its continuing cultural life. A National Art Museum was established in the capital city of Maputo, and the art college Núcleo de Arte became primarily concerned with encouraging
young, black artists.
Núcleo de Arte was where Malangatana had started evening classes
in 1958, followed three years later by his first solo exhibition. He courageously presented his ambitious Juízo Final (Final Judgment),
a commentary on life under oppressive Portuguese rule. Mystical
figures of many colours, including a black priest dressed in white,
evoke a vision of hell. Some of the figures have sharp white fangs,
a recurring motif in Malangatana's work, symbolising the ugliness of human savagery.
Fame soon followed, as his works were toured and seen abroad.
A year after his first show, the German champion of African arts Ulli Beier pointed to Malangatana's originality. In 1963, he contributed to
the anthology Modern African Poetry published by the journal Black Orpheus, and soon after became an active member of Frelimo, the Front for the Liberation of Mozambique. The following year, he was detained by the PIDE, the Portuguese secret police, and sentenced
to 18 months' imprisonment. Among the congenial company he
found behind bars was the country's leading poet, José Craveirinha.
Malangatana at his home in Maputo, Mozambique, in 2005. Photograph: Martin Godwin
Malangatana travelled to Portugal in 1971 on a Gulbenkian
Foundation grant, and for three years studied printmaking and
ceramics. Portugal's Carnation Revolution of April 1974 saw an authoritarian dictatorship giving way to democracy: one of the
factors that had weakened the old order was the armed conflict
in its African colonies. Malangatana, once again an openly
declared member of Frelimo, returned to Mozambique to witness
the coming of independence on 25 June 1975.
Two years later, fighting broke out between Renamo, the
Mozambique Resistance Movement, backed by South Africa, and Frelimo. More than a million people died, either from fighting or
from starvation; five million civilians were displaced; and many
were made amputees by landmines, a continuing problem. The
civil war ended in 1992, and the first multiparty elections were
held in 1994. Throughout this time – artistically, his blue period,
which saw a number of powerful works – Malangatana was the
artistic embodiment of the continuing struggle, and took an active
role in the Frelimo government.
From 1981, he was able to work full-time as an artist, and the
following year Augusto Cabral, director of the Natural History
Museum in Maputo, commissioned him to create a mural in its
gardens. In a celebration of the unity of humankind and the often
brutal world of nature, the work depicts wide-eyed figures in
earth-coloured pastels, with extended limbs and claw-like hands.
Cabral, an ardent supporter, had played a crucial role in
Malangatana's early life. Born in Matalana, a small village north
of Maputo, Malangatana spent his childhood at various mission
schools and herding livestock with his mother; his father was
often away, working in gold mines in South Africa. At the age of
12 he ventured into the capital, then known as Lourenço Marques, where he earned some money as a ballboy at the tennis club.
He asked Cabral, one of its members, whether he had a pair
of old sandals he could spare. The young biologist – and amateur painter – took him home. Malangatana asked to be taught
painting, and Cabral gave him equipment and the advice to paint whatever was in his head. Putting aside his teenage training as a traditional healer, Malangatana did just that, encouraged by
Cabral and the prolific Portuguese-born architect Panchos Guedes, another tennis club member.
In his later years, Malangatana secured a progressive cultural development plan within Mozambique, and in 1997 was named a Unesco artist for peace. There was a dramatic shift in his artistic
output: his palette moved into a calmer rose period. He is survived
by his wife, Sinkwenta Gelita Mhangwana, two sons and two
Duncan Campbell writes: While on an assignment for the Guardian
in Mozambique in 2005, I was fortunate enough to be introduced to Malangatana, who was then living in a large house near the airport which was part gallery and part archive. I had already been shown
some of his work, which was not only in public galleries in Maputo,
but also widely used for book covers and CDs. What was remarkable about him was that he brushed off questions about his own work and insisted instead on taking us on a magical conducted tour of local
artists from painter to sculptor to batik-maker. He was anxious that
they should receive publicity rather than him. For their part, they
clearly held him in high esteem. "He is my general," one of the young artists told me.
He was a generous and entertaining host, telling us with a smile that
his father had been a cook for the British in South Africa. A volume
of his paintings, entitled Cumplicidades, published in 2004 with a foreword by the Mozambican writer Mia Couto, illustrates the
impressive range of his work. I treasure my copy, which is inscribed
"for Dunken Cambell from my heart".
• Valente Malangatana Ngwenya, artist, born 6 June 1936; died 5 January 2011