The story of Ernest Mancoba’s life is as remarkable as is the path of his artistic development. Ernest Mancoba received an Anglican missionary education in the Eastern Cape; though he had no formal artistic training, he launched his artistic career by carving religious figures in wood for the local church and the mission. (We will read more about mission schooling and its important influence on art in South Africa, in Book 7.) He studied at the University of Fort Hare and completed his B.A. at UNISA in 1937. The very next year, he was granted a bursary and a loan from the Bantu Welfare Trust to study abroad, and left for Paris.
In Paris, Mancoba developed an abstract style that was very much at the forefront of contemporary practice. Like many artists of his time, he wanted his art to be “a universal language – that could cut through time and distance to forge a better humanity.”
Mancoba had never intended to leave South Africa permanently; but while he was in Europe the Second World War broke out, and he was placed in a German internment camp. He met and fell in love with Sonya Ferlov there, an artist herself; and they married in the camp in 1942. After being finally released in 1944, they became members of the newly founded “CoBrA” group. The CoBrA group was a short-lived but highly influential artists’ collective formed in Paris. The group was named after the three European cities that its founders came from – Copenhagen, Brussels and Amsterdam. Its approximately thirty members became known for their vigorously spontaneous, rebellious style of painting: with loose, gestural marks and strong colors, they tried to capture the style of unschooled “outsider” artists. Yet the CoBrA group were highly politically active, and responsive to the huge devastation of European cities and people after World War II.