Stories in Black and White

An artist breaks African tradition, filling his work with vivid personal experiences

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.

If he does promote ideas sometimes, creating slogans like "Hope and Optimism inspite of Present difficulties" or "Unite is Strengeth," he does so more as an idealist Christian than for political effect. (He converted to Christianity as a teenager.)

Above all, Muafangejo knows how to exploit the visual potential of blocks of black and blocks of white; sometimes an entire composition becomes an ingenious juggling of blacks and whites that have nothing at all to do with skin colors. It is this monochrome interplay that gives his imagery its particular symbolic punch and makes his pictures memorable; there is a subtle balance between areas busy with marks and intervals of unfussed plainness. (Sometimes there are intermediary "grays" between the extreme

contrasts of darkness and light.) Something much tougher than naivete is at work here and appeals to Muafangejo's vast audience. Within his particular way of making images, there is an actual degree of sophistication.

His images carry the conviction of things already visualized. At the same time, his compositions have a freedom that suggest some element of decisionmaking as the work progressed.

Nearly all of his works were linocut prints. This is one of the least elaborate and least expensive forms of printmaking. Linoleum isn't costly like etching or lithographic plates. The paper Muafangejo printed on was generally very cheap. Even so, it served his purpose and enabled him to produce his strong contrasts of black ink with white paper. Superb "art" papers were not needed. Unpretentiousness about such matters may have started out as simple economics; but it must have soon become preference. It is right for his work aesthetically. He had no press. He used a small hand roller to ink his prints, and another roller to put pressure on the paper placed over the linocut so that the ink was transferred to the paper. Neither the processes nor his concept of being an artist were complicated. They were both direct.

This is not to say, however, that Muafangejo couldn't conceive and execute elaborate pictorial ideas: The optically vivid white marks in the printed image, which result from his cutting and gouging the lino surface, fill the picture space with energy. So, equally, does the multiplicity of figures - people, animals, vegetation, patterning, and writing, which cram the surface.

All told, Muafangejo was an artist using a simple technique to express a range of human experience far wider than those of most artists. He apparently saw few limits to what he might memorialize. Seeing his works is like listening to the man who made them telling you, excitedly, everything about himself and quite a lot more. Magically stimulating, this art is a kind of friendship.

The illustrations on this page are from "The African Dream - Visions of Love and Sorrow: The Art of John Muafangejo," by Orde Levinson, published by Thames and Hudson Inc., New York, and are used with permission.

A catalog raisonne of Muafangejo's work, "I Was Lonelyness," was published this year by Struik Winchester, Cape Town south Africa.

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