Malangatana: Artist as Freedom Fighter

“If imperialist domination has the vital need to practice cultural oppression, national liberation is necessarily an act of culture”. 
– Amilcar Cabral 1970

Flags across Mozambique flew at half-mast for two days in mourning when artist Malangatana Valente Nguenha died in January 2011. At his funeral, speakers declared that he was “much more than an artist – he is a part of us”, naming him a 'hero' and a "freedom fighter."  The government originally proposed placing his remains in the heroes’ mausoleum with Samora Machel and Eduardo Mondlane.  But in line with his own wishes, Malangatana was buried at his rural home town of Matalana, some thirty kilometers north of Maputo.

In a similar spirit, we need to place his life’s work as an artist within the context of building revolutionary culture and national liberation for and with his people. As painter, poet, musician, intellectual and revolutionary, Malangatana gave voice to the struggles of the people of Mozambique, and indeed of Africa  – in pain and trauma, in joy and victory, in line, colour, and beauty.  He himself wrote:

"Art for me is a collective expression that comes from the uses and customs of the people and leads to their social, mental, cultural and political evolution. Art is a musical instrument full of messages. These are messages that the artist selects to put together in front of humanity.” 1

Brought up in the culture of the people
Malangatana was born to a poor family in the small town of Matalana in 1936. As a child he herded animals on farms. (This meant, he noted, that he provided child labour for the owner of the beasts.  His was not a romantic carefree childhood spent wandering in the fields while watching over his family’s wealth).  His father was mostly absent, working in the mines in South Africa. His mother worked as a traditional healer, teeth sharpener and tattooist in Matalana. (These were skilled crafts in the Ronga community - the Ronga form one of the three major “tribal” groups of Southern Mozambique). He learned from two of his uncles who were traditional healers. He absorbed the rich symbols and narratives of rural life from those around him.

"Aside from making useful things like gourds, people carved things for witch doctors, and there were very strong, impulsive dances. And there was poetry,” Malangatana recalled.  And he said:  “As children, my friends and I, we were already prepared to be poets, dancers, writers, even philosophers, but most important we were full of imagination.” 2

His childhood fascination with his mother’s work echoes in the teeth and claws that wrack his mature art.  That he adapted and built upon this imagery reflects in the title of a painting from the 1960s: “The mouth of society has sharpened teeth; the only way to destroy a monster is to pull out his teeth.” 

Aged nine, Malangatana attended a Swiss mission school.   Over this rich mix of cultural earth he learned Christianity’s myths and traditions.  And the mission school taught creative skills like pottery, wood-carving and basketry.  But the Portuguese regime closed down the school after he had been there only two years. 
Aged twelve, he left home to find work in the city of Lorenzo Marques.

Art in the liberation struggle
Malangatana later wrote of his political education: 

“Like all the young children who grew up with me in the 1940s I saw many things - many things which made my life political from the start. I saw my parents forced to work on the railway without food. I saw my aunts and my uncles being punished by the sipiao, the colonial police. I saw my cousins beaten with the palmatória. All this was preparation for a political life. Of course sometimes you don't care what you see. But I cared and feel it still today.”3

In Lorenzo Marques he worked during the day as a “ball boy” at the tennis club, and studied at night.  When tennis club member Augusto Cabral, an architect and amateur painter, kindly gave him a pair of sandals, Malangatana responsed by asking for painting lessons. Later he worked as a waiter at the Club de Lorenzo Marques, and in his spare time studied art with Portuguese artist Ze Julio. He attended classes and events organised through the Núcleo de Arte da Colónia de Moçambique, an association of artists whose aim was to promote art in Lorenzo Marques, and to exchange art between the colony and the Portuguese metropole.  He first publically exhibited his paintings in a Nucleo de Arte exhibit in 1959. Leading architect Pancho Guedes became his mentor and patron.
Malangatana wrote: 

“It was here in the capital, in the 1950s, that I began to hear voices of protest against the colonial administration. There were strikes in the docks. …In my spare time I was always painting. When I heard about the liberation struggles that were taking place in Tanganyika and Kenya I started painting in protest against the colonial situation.

“In Mozambique, Frelimo was starting to operate in the north of the country. It was a long way from Maputo, but there was no girl or boy here who had not heard of them. At this point I changed from being a landscape or portrait painter to being more the kind of painter I am now.” 4

In 1961, Pancho Guedes introduced the aspiring artist to Eduardo Mondlane (who at that time had been studying in the USA, and visited Mozambique on a UN passport).  Malangatana talked about his desire to travel to the USA to become an artist.  But Mondlane advised him not to leave Mozambique “because there was a need to develop the arts, and through them to capture the history and suffering of Mozambique’s people”.5

History records that in June 1962, a year after visiting Maputo, Eduardo Mondlane launched the revolutionary party FRELIMO (Frente de Libertação de Moçambique) in Tanzania.  In 1969, he was assassinated.

The young Malangatana took Mondlana’s advice to heart.  Later, he would argue that art must express the anxieties and aspirations of the people – it should be  “a simple dialogue, comprehensible…  a vibrant thing, crying to the spectator, full of heat and life that makes him cry, or creates tremors in his body.” 6  Thus, he argued,

“…it’s worthwhile to have art, to make it, to express it as a force of our veins and with the heat of our blood.  It ought to be executed with the same passion in which lovers enter in that subconscious relationship at the exact moment of possession.  In this manner we look at a statue, a painting, or we read a poem, as if hearing a guitar or an Xitende whose metal wires were forged in the ardent fire burning for centuries in the hearts of the people.” 7

Malangatana saw his artistic passion increasingly driven by the liberation struggle.

He held his first solo exhibit in 1961.  The exhibit included the picture Juizo Final (Final Judgement), a commentary on the ugliness and savagery of life under Portuguese rule.  He commented:

“As Frelimo grew Portuguese people who saw my art said: 'He is abusing our sympathy by being so violent in his painting'. This so-called 'abuse' was my participation in the politics of this country. Then the war came and for the next ten years my painting was dedicated to this struggle." 8

A common error of critics and art historians in tracing the links between a artist and the liberation struggle is to attempt to pinpoint a date where the artist admits he “joined” the movement. A person living working with the underground and the national struggle is highly unlikely to declare  that “I am a member of ...” an illegal structure; indeed, she or he usually denies it – to friends and family, to the police, to the public.   Malangatana himself stated that the meeting with Mondalane in 1961 led him to “ suckle the milk of independence”. 9 

 “National liberation is necessarily an act of culture”
Art historians have also to a large extent neglected the links forged between cultural resistance, pan-African culture, anti-imperialist culture, and Africa’s liberation movements.  For many decades, progressive art critics and historians have deplored the efforts of imperialist regimes to reject and ignore African cultural histories on the one hand, and to assimilate emergent cultural expression into imperialist discourse on the other.  But these same historians have paid little attention to the construction of revolutionary African culture, integrating popular cultural traditions and established forms of expression with demands, experience, and expression of the national liberation struggle.  This gap continues even now, fifty years later.  The gap persists despite words of key revolutionary leaders such as Eduardo Mondlane, Amilcar Cabral, Marcellino dos Santos, and Samora Machel, who state explicity that liberation movements emerged from cultural roots.

To quote from the poem “Culture” by Samora Machel, FRELIMO leader and president of Mozambique (assassinated in 1986 by the South African regime):

Culture is created by the people,
It’s not artists that create it…
Look at the peasants
Their music talks of their life
The tilling, the harvesting, the watering
He sings of happiness,
He sings and dances,
It might be sad or happy
A reference to history
Or a daily episode.
But that’s how it is, it has a real meaning,
It defines the enemy
                  And how to fight the enemy. 10

Samora Machel said:  “Let art seek to combine old forms with new content, then giving rise to new form.  Let painting, writing literature, theatre and artistic handicraft be added to the traditional cultivated dance, sculpture and singing.” ll

Revolutionary cultural theory specifically refers to Malangatana’s artwork. Eduardo Mondlane wrote: “The paintings of Malangatana and Jose Craveirinha draw their inspiration from the images of traditional sculpture and from African mythology, binding them into works explosive with themes of liberation and the denunciation of cultural violence”.12

   Makonde Ujamaa sculpture

In this context, we should also note that during the long years of the liberation war (the later 60s and early 70s), FRELIMO supported artists’ collectives that made modern ‘Makonde sculpture’ in the “liberated zones” of northern Mozambique and in Tanzania. Like Malangatana’s images, the symbols and metaphores used in these were not a reworking of “traditional”,  “primitive” or “supernatural” themes, but consciously used the popular aesthetic to address struggle experience:

“FRELIMO mobilisers not only set up carving collectives, they also influenced the subject matter of the carvings.  They encouraged carvers to create new themes that would illustrate the evils of colonial oppression and the carvers responded by developing a ‘genre’ of ‘personages in a state of oppression’.  Among the themes included in this genre was the figure of the suffering woman with head in hand, the African carrying the European, the woman shielding her head from the attacks of a policeman, and the tied-up African being led away by a policeman.  In addition to the personages in a state of oppression, satirical and subversive images were also carved.  For example the carver nanelo Mutamanu stated that during the armed struggle members of the Beira co-operative used to make, amonst other themes, images of President Caetano and of the one-eyed Lusis de Camoes.  These carvings were undoubtedly caricatures of the formal bust portraits that Portuguese patrons had previously commissioned from Makonde carvers.  According to Mondlane (1969:104) some Makonde carvers, who had experience of carving religious images, expressed their rejection of the colonial culture by creating works that subverted those same religious themes.” (from Zachary Kingdon , A host of devils, the history and context of the making of Makonde spirit sculpture)13

In this political, social, and cultural context, Malangatana pursued his artistic career in Lorenco Marques.  In 1964, he exhibited paintings in a collective show of new Mozambican artists.  The Portuguese secret police (the PIDE) shut down the exhibition, as part of a broader crack- down on intellectuals supporting the struggle. Malangatana spent 18 months in the Central Jail of Machava, along with other leading cultural figures such as writer Luis Bernardo Honwana, and poets Jose Craveirinha and Rui Nogar.  Malangatana shared a prison cell with Craveirinha. When, after over a year, PIDE failed to prove Malangatana’s FRELIMO connections, they released him uncharged.  He continued to paint

IN 1971  Malangatana received a grant from the Gulbenkian Foundation to study engraving and ceramics in Portugal. For the next three years he studied, traveled and exhibited throughout Europe.

After independence:  Art with the FRELIMO government

The armed struggle in Portugal’s African colonies  played a major role in the Carnation Revolution that overthrew the Portuguese dictatorship in April 1974. In June, 1974, Malangatana returned home to welcome Mozambique’s independence, and to join the newly formed FRELIMO government.  He spent four years working for government, first as a city official in Maputo (the renamed city of Lorenco Marques), then in the Ministry of Cultural Affairs.  Later, he served as a FRELIMO deputy in Parliament.  During these years he .produced art for political mobilization, for events, and for literacy campaigns. However, Malangatana maintained that even during this period his artwork did not aim at promoting political points: “I am a social painter, but not in a pamphleteering way”, he commented. 14

An outpouring of artistic expression occurred in the decade after independence in Maputo, with painting on public walls:  the murals of Maputo.  In the first years after 1974,  people painted slogans, political images, and revolutionary “graffiti”.  Albie Sachs wrote: “In a wave of enthusiasm to express what had been denied and affirm what had seemed reachable only in fantasy, thousands of Mozambicans in every part of the country got out their paint pots and emblazoned the walls….”  15   By the end of the 1970s, this spontaneous outburst became more structured, more formalized, with murals designed and executed by experience muralists and artists, working individually and collectively – with mural collectives structured by refugees who had developed their skills working with the Popular Unity cultural structures in Chile. 

Malangatana collaborated in a mural at the Ministry of Agriculture, started by Chilean veteran Moira Toha and a team of mostly Chilean volunteers.  Albie Sachs described Malangatana’s input to the mural as “introducing his own intense, anguished and highly personal style into the painting, added drama and tension … it was paradoxical to see joyous fruit and footballs and flying fish coming from the brush of the Chilean exile, whose brother-in-law had been hanged by the fascists, while sad and uncertain faces emerged from the strokes of the Mozambican, a jolly person living in his own free and independent country.”  16 Sachs describes the result as a statement that “optimism is not self-realising, that the victory of the revolution creates only the conditions for happiness, not happiness itself”. 17

Malangatana was commissioned to paint a mural in the Natural History Museum in Maputo.  In Albie Sach’s description:

“This is a giant impetuous dream of colour and symbol crowding the three walls.  The lines move but the people are still trapped in the commotion swirling around them, asking questions of the viewer, looking uncertainly at the world which is changing all around them, wondering about their ancestors, about faith, about the revolution.  The colours may dance, there may be movement, vitality, brilliance in the scene, the garden of humanity may be vibrant.  But the people are silent, and their eyes are sad.  Though life may be rich and full and variegated, there is no easy pathway to happiness, no simple exit from suffering:  we must go gently with the people since they have suffered…” 18


Two steps back:  confronting the violence of counter-revolution
By 1981, Malangatana had returned to painting full-time.  But again the situation was changing.
Malangatana remarked:  “For a brief period after independence my painting became softer. I was using more blues, yellows, whites. Then the liberation war in Zimbabwe started and Renamo was set up by the Rhodesians. And when that war was over and South Africa took over backing Renamo - and destroying more than the Portuguese ever destroyed.” 19

Malangatana’s brother and other family members were murdered by Renamo.
This period, from 1981 to 1994, has been called Malangatana’s blue period.  His paintings at this time say, a luta continua, we have won one step but the terror is not over.

“My painting got more violent, more shocking, with reds that were stronger than ever,” he commented.  “To see the schools, the hospitals, the farms the railways - all symbols of hope and growth for our country being destroyed. To see pregnant women, children, men being killed - sometimes two or three hundred in one day, in forty minutes - creates in my heart a sadness that does not stop.” 20

He threw his energy and his art into calling for peace, an end to violence. He helped found the Mozambican Peace Movement.  He worked as a negotiator to end the 16-year  civil war, and ultimately was a signatory to the 1992 peace accord between FRELIMO and RENAMO.

Throughout the nineties, Molangatana worked to build Mozambique’s new national culture. He helped to establish the Mozambique National Museum of Art and the Centre for Cultural Studies.  He helped relaunch the Nucleo de Arte cooperative. He founded a cultural project at his hometown of Matalana, integrating creative artwork with  historical and  traditional cultural collection and preservation.  He began a youth programme on the outskirts of Maputo. 

In 1997 UNESCO appointed Malangatana as their Artist for Peace.  He responded that the honor was not his alone, but must be “bestowed on mothers, on children, on all those who are suffering." 

In the last decade of his life, Malangatana spoke and exhibited across the world, earning the name of Mozambique’s cultural ambassador.  In 2006 Mozambican president Guebuza awarded him the “Eduardo Mondlane Order” for contributions during colonial rule, for his role as an instrument of political intervention, for mobilization among the people.

Yet above all, he remained a people’s artist.  Guardian journalist Duncan Campbell,  describes meeting Malangatana in 2005:

“What was remarkable about him was that he brushed off questions about his own work and insisted instead on taking us on a magical conducted tour of local artists from painter to sculptor to batik-maker. He was anxious that they should receive publicity rather than him. For their part, they clearly held him in high esteem. “He is my general,” one of the young artists told me.” 21

And Malangatana said of his own work:
“The lines are more human now. They are laughing. Instead of chains there are tattoos - symbols of culture. The lines are very thick, very open. Something around me is guiding me to work like this. Something is really changing. We are being influenced by a positive fire. A fire that is burning under our feet, warming us."22


                                                                        - Judy Seidman, March 14 2011, Johannesburg


2. Quoted in

3. New Internationalist, issue 192, Feb 1989;

4. op cit New Internationalist, issue 192, Feb 1989

5. (This incident has been described in an interview with  Benedito Machava after Malangatana’s funeral)

6. B Schneider, 1972,

7. Ibid

8. Op cit New Internationalist, issue 192, Feb 1989


10. excerpts from: Samora Machel, “Culture”, in Chris Searle, Words Unchained, Langauge and Revolution in Grenada, ZED Books, London, 1974, p. 2

11. Cited in E Alpers, Representation and Historical  Consciousness in the Art of Modern Mozambique, Canadian Journal of African Studies,  Vol 22 No 1, 1988,

12. Berit Sahlstrom: Political Posters in Ethiopia and Mozambique, p. 9; Quoted from Mondlane, 1969.

13. Zachary Kingdon , A host of devils, the history and context of the making of Makonde spirit sculpture, Routledge Harwood Anthropology, page 28

14. 1992 interview at art opening in Maputo: New York Times, Jane Perlez, Oct 24 1992

15. Albie Sachs, The murals of Maputo, draft manuscript, 1982, p. 6 (JS papers)

16.  Ibid

17. Ibid

18.  Ibid

19. op cit

20. ibid


22. op cit