Stories in Black and White an Artist Breaks African Tradition, Filling His Work with Vivid Personal Experiences

Article excerpt

THE central subject of John Muafangejo's linocut prints is undoubtedly himself. It is his own feelings that he expresses through these vigorously original, sometimes humorous, often touching black-and-white printed images. Words frequently are part and parcel of them, too: explicatory texts, titles, dedications, and narratives - remarkably phrased poetic additions that add to the openness of his work.

The personal viewpoint of his art is worth emphasizing because although it is unmistakably African, it breaks away from the impersonal notion of artmaking that is traditional in Africa. Muafangejo was an individualist no less than a European artist would be - but for him such an attitude must have required a cultural leap that a European would not even think about.

What he depicts are his memories of childhood in Angola, his knowledge of history, proverbs and stories he knew from his upbringing as a member of the Kwanyama tribe, contemporary events he experienced, and trips he made as his art became known and exhibited outside Africa.

His art displays a keen feel for Biblical narratives he had learned from his missionary teachers, and great interest in events connected with the Anglican and Lutheran churches in southern Africa. He counted clergyman among his closer friends and patrons. In addition to these themes, he sometimes pictured just plain human occurrences or states of mind. All of these varying interests seem to have heightened his urge to make art. It was clearly a strong urge.

Talking about his print "An Ark Noah" he said, "... something is pressing, pressing to come out. See this work ... . When it came out I was relieved." He also observed in an interview, not long before his death in 1987: "My themes, I do dreams, look around me, and read the newspaper ... when I dream something and then in the morning I begin immediately before I forget. That is what I mean - I dream some pictures."

The animals Muafangejo represented with such sympathy and fresh stylization were a familiar part of his environment, but were also carefully observed. In "Etosha Pan Wild Life," the animals are all identifiable, even though they have been brought together in this tapestry-like crowd. A strong decorative sense, very conscious of the play of black and white across the surface, underlies much of his work, and it seems more instinctual than calculated.

His approach has been compared to that of Cubism, but his art training apparently included little art history. And although his work certainly leans toward 20th-century European art in some ways, it really has less in common with Cubism than with conceptual art or Pop Art (notice his cartoon-strip approach to some narrative compositions, for example). Those who attempt to see his work as "naive," similar to Douanier Rousseau's, would be off the mark, except perhaps to say that Muafangejo's work is not in the least derivative.

His contrasting of black and white is primarily the result of his chosen printmaking medium. Black/white juxtapositions (often of different faces) have obvious significance in southern Africa that can't be overlooked, but he is not a political artist. …