Malangatana, 1936-2011

Malangatana, Untitled (1980)

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.

Régulos and American grad student at Malangatana's funeral (Source: O País)

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.

Malangatana (From blogdamartabellini.blogspot.com)

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.

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8 Responses to Malangatana, 1936-2011

  1. jane flood says:

    Lovely record of the ceremony at Matalana, thnx

    Planning to do a trip there for Marrabenta 2011 on 3 Feb
    contact me jane.flood@gmail if you are interested

  2. Mahomed Aniz Ismail Hassam says:

    very very good text report-maked fill like i went there

  3. Benedito Machava says:

    David,
    What you romantically describe in this post is what I really saw (and even felt). I must say that I spent all the day watching Malangatana´s funeral in various TV channels, for I couldn´t go to Matalana. You say that “Funerals are a terrible way to get to know who someone was”, and you say right. I always thought I knew about Malangatana and his work, but after seing the great ceremony of his exequies I said to myself: “I don´t know who Malangatana is”. He was (and will always be) a great man! In a report done in mid 1990s by a Portuguese TV channel about his work (which included interviews whith his mentor Pancho Guedes and others), he revealed (just to link with your last post on Mondlane) that he wanted to go to the USA and he consulted Mondlane about that at Pancho´s home in February 1961 (when Mondlane came to Mozambique as UN Trustesheep Department official). After hearing his worry, says Malangatana, Mondlane advised him not to leave Mozambique because there was a need to develop the arts and through them capture the history and suffering of Mozambican people. Then Malangatana decided not to leave the colony. One should think of writing a biography of this great man!

  4. Wendy J says:

    Thanks for this.

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  6. David Morton says:

    Funny how memory works. Re-reading this I can’t remember why I thought one of the soldiers in the honor guard dropped his weapon, and that this was the source of the laughter. I couldn’t see the soldiers from where I was. Neither could anyone around me. Now I’m told that people laughed–nervously–because the guns were pointed briefly in their direction. Can anyone offer another version of events?

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