« L’Ancêtre / The Ancestor TapestryEssay L Ancétre prevails by Elza Miles

Florence Mancoba (1878-1933), born Mangquangwana, was the devoted keeper of her family’s history and shared these records with her children. One event, the selfless sacrifice ensuring the survival of the clan, which occurred during the Mfengu flight from KwaZulu-Natal to the Transkei, left an indelible impression on her son, the artist Ernest Methuen Mancoba (1904-2002).

When the Mfengus could not come to terms with the despotism of King Shaka (c. 1787-1828) they searched for and found a new home among the Xhosas in the Transkei. There they, who called themselves ‘destitute wanderers’, made a success of cattle farming.

Among the Mfengus who fled with the Zulu forces in hot pursuit was the Mangquangwanas, Mancoba’s maternal kin. In their group was an aged great-grandmother. She was so old and weak that the younger members had to carry her. When after a few days she realized that she was an impediment to the flight of her people, and that the distance between her and her pursuers was decreasing, she ordered them to leave her and to proceed without her.

It was in Mancoba’s modest flatlet – bed-cum-living room – in Paris on the evening of 15 September 1990 when the artist recalled this significant moment in his family’s history. In conclusion he said:

‘She stood and they walked. She waved and she waved. It was the last they saw of her … because she saw that she hindered quicker, practical progress. So she sacrificed herself.’

In the room followed a moment’s reverent silence. Then a deeply touched listener whispered and pointed to the painting in the corner above the artist’s bed:

‘Ernest, there she is ’.

Solemnly the artist replied:

‘Tak’ (Danish for thank you).

Mancoba, after he left South Africa in 1938, very seldom gave illustrative titles to his pieces.  The exceptions were Personage, Fugurkomposition, La double unité/La double verité. He preferred Untitled or titles denoting the actual thing: Drawing, Painting and Sculpture. On that September evening the piece above his bed was still Painting.

Four years later when the Johannesburg Art Gallery decided to acquire and purchase the piece for their permanent collection, only then did Mancoba inscribe L’Ancêtre on the reverse.

Some of Mancoba’s reed pen drawings evoke tapestry weaving. When, for the first time Stephan Welz (1943-2015) saw images of the artist’s paintings he noted their suitability to translate into tapestries. The Arts and  Ubuntu Trust,  inspired by Sokhaya Chalres Nkosi’s recommendation, is giving concrete expression to this insight.

Now Joseph Ndlovu (born 1953) takes the thread of Florence’s narrative and weaves the hallowed ancestral image to prevail…