When Malangatana died a few weeks ago, at 74, in a Portuguese hospital, the question arose: Where should he be buried? Well, not in Portugal (though many Portuguese, too, embraced Mozambique’s greatest artist). The Mozambican government wanted him interred with Samora Machel, Eduardo Mondlane, and other national figures of the first rank, in the star-shaped mausoleum at the Praça dos Heróis, in Maputo. Yet it was reportedly Malangatana’s wish, and certainly that of his family, that his final resting place should be where he was born, in rural Matalana, about 20 miles north of the capital. The government relented–and it was no easy concession. It meant mounting a state funeral for thousands of mourners on a hilly site, three miles from a paved road, with only a few, rainy days to roll the red carpet into the bush.
Last Friday, I found myself in Matalana for Malangatana’s funeral and burial. Funerals are a terrible way to get to know who someone was, but they’re enough to make one regret no longer having the chance. I’d arrived in Mozambique some 36 hours before, and since then the artist’s remains had been flown in from Lisbon, transported to Malangatana’s home near Maputo’s airport for a private ceremony, and displayed in state at Maputo’s city hall. The capital city—where he had lived since he was twelve, where he had once fetched balls at the tennis club, where he had got his start as an artist (working in the garage of the city’s great architect, Pancho Guedes), and where much later he had served as a city council member—had its own special claim to Malangatana. After the viewing at city hall, the hearse went up and down Maputo’s principal avenues so that the city could wave one last goodbye. Then it headed north toward Matalana, where workers had smoothed the muddy road with fresh earth, and covered a thousand plastic chairs in black or red cloth shrouds.
The most stunning Malangatana works are huge canvasses filled with faces of cartoon-like simplicity. It’s as if everyone in a village has turned out for a group portrait, but one in which each is distracted by his or her own pain, and their widened eyes cast about for something stable to fix on. It’s easy to link Malangatana’s work with the torments of Mozambique’s civil war, but his fifty-year career bracketed much more history than those years, and violence is only part of his spectrum of grief. The scenes in his most epic works could just as easily be from an ordinary funeral.
Malangatana’s own funeral and burial were set on the grounds of the cultural complex he had been building. Thursday there had been dancing and singing. Friday—the day I attended—was the solemn, official affair. Most of us sat on the bare steps of a concrete amphitheater, while Malangatana’s family, close friends, and the president and his ministers occupied center stage, sheltered by a white tent. Government deputies and the president’s cabinet came in black suits and ties, the local women who filled much of the gallery wore florid capulanas and head scarves. Just as the speeches were to begin, a half-dozen old men appeared, dressed up like four-star generals, with peaked caps, crisp khaki jackets, and sashes the colors of Mozambique’s flag. There was not a lot of brass on their chests because they were not generals but rather régulos, the local traditional chiefs. They ordered those sitting in the front rows to make room. Some complied. Ana Magaia, a well-known television personality, wouldn’t budge. “You’re the ‘owners of the land,’ and yet you were the last to get here?” she said.
As soldiers set Malangatana’s coffin down on the rough-hewn wooden viewing platform, they lowered it with grunts and sudden slips, like they were moving a sofa. One nervous woman circled the amphitheater with a bag full of credentials—a job she executed with the zeal of a volunteer—whispering in the ears of those she decided worthy of the better seats at the burial to follow. Ana Magaia got a credential. Anyone with a large camera got one. At the burial site the uncredentialled masses pushed in front of the VIP section, and a military police officer ordered and then pleaded with people to move, and then he just sulked away. Following the ceremonies, the woman with the bag of credentials was seen with her bag still nearly full.
What had happened is that somewhere on the road to Matalana much of the rigid pomp and stress of the occasion had been deflated, and humanity prevailed. During the burial, as the honor guard spun their rifles, one soldier lost his grip and his weapon fell to the ground. From a few thousand people came rolls of laughter. I’ve seen acts of supreme forbearance everywhere in Mozambique, but I don’t imagine there would have been laughing if the funeral had been in Maputo.