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Mozambican poet and painter Malangatana Ngwenya passed away on 5 January. Pauline Wynter celebrates the iconic artist who brought the world around him to life.

I always thought of Malangatana as a force of nature, one of the lynchpins that held tight to the cultural wellspring of Mozambican society. Through him one glimpsed with regularity brilliant facets of that culture.

Everyone who came into his ambit will have a story to tell about him. When he showed up to an event he was inevitably the fulcrum around which things turned.

A vivid occasion for me was a night a few days after Mandela was released from jail, when Malangatana organised an event at the Museu de Arte in Maputo. He had written an open letter to Madiba and proposed to read it to us that evening.

So there he was standing amongst the paintings and sculptures of his fellow artists and of his own, reading his letter of welcome and advice to the man of the moment. Malangatana was assuming the stance of cultural integrity at a moment when Mozambican society was still riven by war. 
On that evening, amidst the art, the sculpture, the Museum itself, which can be a sombre space, came to life.

But it was the punctuations of song from a choir you did not know was in the audience, from Malagatana himself, from solo singers and, if memory serves me right, a dancer or two, that were revelatory. Here was the oratorical form that in my mind was specifically associated with Samora Machel. Here were the South African freedom songs that some how I thought Mozambicans did not know but in fact everyone present knew the words to all of it, to Senzenina, Tshotsholoza, Vukani Mawethu and of course Nkosi Skeleli – in Changaan. Afinal!

Younger artists may have sometimes thought that Malangatana occupied too much space but he was a good steward of the forest. The big tree has fallen. The gap in the canopy is enormous – there for the little ones to grow to fill.


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