Ernest Mancoba (1904–2002) is considered one of South Africa’s first modern avant-garde artists although he spent most of his life in Europe
Characteristic of Mancoba’s career was his permanent struggle against racism and marginalisation. As a writer and intellectual social critic, he adopted Marxist ideologies and, as a visual artist, he advocated universal humanist aesthetics governed by the subconscious, the spiritual, and the rhythms of nature.
Born in Johannesburg, the son of a miner, Mancoba had already started to dabble in woodcarving at school. In 1929, he created his breakthrough work, the free-standing wooden sculpture, African Madonna, now on permanent display as a national treasure at the Johannesburg Art Gallery.
In 1938, Mancoba received a grant enabling him to escape from the racist regime in South Africa to Paris where he studied at the École nationale supérieure des Arts Décoratifs. In Paris, he met a number of international artists, among them the French-Danish sculptor, Sonja Ferlov, co-founder of the surrealist artists’ association Linien, which championed abstract art during the 1930s in Denmark. Mancoba and Ferlov – both belonging to minorities on the European art scene during the 1930s – joined forces and shared a studio. In 1940, Mancoba was interned by the German occupational power in a camp in St. Denis where he and Ferlov married in 1942.