Untitled, Malangatana Ngwenya, 1967

When we visited the Tate Modern gallery, I found Malangatana Ngwenya’s 1967 untitled painting to be one of the most interesting. I started to draw it, but didn’t get very far as everyone was moving around a lot.


My quick sketch does the painting no justice. Here’s a photo of it I found on the internet to better represent it:


And here also is the description alongside it:



This piece is a rather chaotic depiction of violence as observed in Mozambique’s  War of Independence from Portugal, 1964-74. It is about 190 x 110cm, oil on hardboard.

You can see many different simple forms, wide-eyed and alarmed/alarming, some looking at each other, some looking at the viewer and some with holes for eyes, all furiously eating one another. Every figure looks involved and uncomfortable, like nobody can avoid the fighting. The centre-most figure has reddened eyes and is looking down with an expression of horror as his arms are eaten, and all figures have at least this level of emotion and involvement. The figures in the painting are blue, yellow, orange or brown. They are all interwoven in their fighting and appear a jumbled mess, so that you can see a colourful negative space and then realise it’s a limb from a nearby figure. A lot of bared teeth are biting over limbs with pulled back gums. There’s a lot of anguish in this image. The figures are not realistic portrayals of people – they are all highly stylised and some are more animalistic than others with tails and horns.


Though I can’t pretend to understand how war truly feels, I think this piece does well to communicate the hysteria and anguish of fighting and war. There is nowhere for your gaze to settle, and every figure has motion, everything is causing and receiving the fighting. The whole image feels very dynamic, with no stability, no regulation or strong regimental lines, no sense at all – it’s all just bodies right to the edges.

I feel like the expressions on the faces of the figures, when looking at the viewer, are ones of judgement, they’re intense unsettling stares. The looks between subjects within the image are either full of pain or intent on causing pain. Everyone is a victim to everyone. The general lack of weaponry and all the figures biting and eating one another shows the animalistic tendencies of wars, as do the more literal horns and tails on the figures, reducing the humanity of the subjects as they fight one another.

The coloring is bold, and yet not bright. Despite blue not being an earthy colour, the colour scheme nonetheless does come across as earthy and natural. If you look at the image and focus on one colour, it can be reduced to a messy spaghetti-like pile of each colour weaving between one another. It creates segregation between the groups of figures, despite being all mixed together, and adds to the tension. There is not much blood in the image, but where there is, it is used very effectively for giving the sense of the depth of the pain in a more immediate way.

Why I liked it in particular:

I like the communication through the piece of a part of history I’ve never  learnt about. I like the importance it gives to a whole war I’d never heard of. I like how immediate it makes the suffering and fighting feel, startling you and really making you consider it.

It reminds me of drawings I used to do in secondary school just after leaving mainstream education when I was at my highest levels of stress and resonates with me for that reason. I remember drawing very similar expressions and incoherent messes of limbs and fighting and teeth and wide open eyes or faces with holes for their eyes and mouth. I was deeply depressed and had strong social anxiety at the time, so  personally this kind of imagery reminds me of looking in my sketchbooks from a couple of years ago and the emotions that evokes. I feel a reflection of my simultaneous hoplessness and panic, and think this brings me closer to understanding the emotions felt to cause this depiction of history. I feel the same unease, confusion, anguish, alienation and horror I felt before, and I supose was felt by those affected by the War of Independence in Mozambique. I feel how hard this painting emotes, and relate to it on a personal level. In this manner, I feel Ngwenya does a perfect job at conveying emotion and context.

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