Rachel Cohen

Malangatana, Missing Voices

Malangatana Missing Voices

Malangatana, Untitled Self-Portrait, 1965, Malangatana Valente Ngwenya Foundation, Maputo. Detail photo Rachel Cohen.

Malangatana: Mozambique Modern closed on November 16th, around the same time that the Art Institute shut its doors. It was the first retrospective of Malangatana Ngwenya’s work since the artist’s death in 2011, the first solo show of the artist’s work in the United States, and the first show of work by a modern African painter in the Art Institute’s history. The artist often went by his first name, Malangatana.

Malangatana, Untitled Self-Portrait, 1965, Malangatana Valente Ngwenya Foundation, Maputo. Detail photo Rachel Cohen.

In the show, there was a room of drawings that gave a viewer an experience like seeing Goya’s Disasters of War for the first time. Malangatana made the drawings in 1965, when he was detained by the secret police PIDE and imprisoned, for eighteen months, for his work in the FRELIMO guerrilla movement to overthrow the Portuguese occupational power in Mozambique.

I took a fair number of pictures of these drawings. They are very difficult and I am working to understand how to frame them so that it is right to put them here. I have set out the self-portrait, which immediately gave me a sense of how much there would be to know about this artist. Beyond that, today, there is really only one that I feel I can set out, without commentary, just to begin to think. It is titled Madness of Maria Chissano III (Loucura de Maria Chissano III).

Malangatana, Madness of Maria Chissano III (Loucura de Maria Chissano III), 1965, Malangatana Valente Ngwenya Foundation, Maputo. Detail photo Rachel Cohen.

So far, I have been able to find out that Chissano is also the last name of Mozambique's most prominent sculptor, Alberto Chissano, and of the second president of Mozambique, Joaquim Alberto Chissano, who had helped to found the FRELIMO movement in 1962, three years before Malangatana's imprisonment. Both of these Chissanos might have been in Malangatana's mind when he made his drawing. On the internet, I find nothing on Maria Chissano, or her madness, or what this assembly might have meant to Malangatana.

I went to get help by reading reviews, as I often do. There was a thoughtful one in Chicago's online publication Newcity, by Cecilia Resende Santos, although she had little space to devote to the drawings. There were brief notices of the existence of the exhibition in international art publications, Artforum, Apollo. The museum itself presents interviews incorporating the thoughts of the curators themselves. That is all.

Instead, I found my admired colleague Lori Waxman, long the free-lance art critic at the Chicago Tribune in a piece from a few weeks ago. Waxman has written a quiet polemic, just noting that the Tribune stopped employing her and their other free-lance art critics in March and now, except for New City, there are no regular dedicated art critics working in Chicago media.

This is a huge cost of the pandemic, and before that, of the corporatization of the Tribune and the desiccation of other local news. The cost to me is immediate. It will take me months to situate Malangatana by myself, whereas a few well-placed words by someone with better training would accelerate my education and allow me to offer whatever observations I was able to work out to a larger landscape where they might actually contribute something. As Waxman puts it, “Independent, rigorous and accessible criticism — the kind that newspapers are supposed to provide — is a necessary part of a functioning ecosystem.” As the arts themselves are a necessary part of the ecosystem of expressive life, which is to say political and intellectual and humanitarian life.

If it was important that Malangatana made this drawing in 1965 while detained by the secret police in what was then Portuguese-controlled Mozambique, and surely it was important that he made this drawing, and if it is important that he, at long last, have a retrospective, and a show at a US museum, and that the Art Institute begin to recognize its long-standing failure to consider the works of artists from the entire continent of Africa, and surely that is important, then it will also be important to our future selves that we have art critics to reflect on this work and this history in public.

Guest Post Lori Waxman

Fischli and Weiss and the Way Things Go  

Guest Post Lori Waxman

Fischli and Weiss, Equilibres, 2006, "Autumn Leaves" and "Spook." Photograph Lori Waxman.

I was delighted that the wonderful art critic Lori Waxman accepted my invitation to write the first guest post for the Frederick Project. Here is her reflection on Fischli and Weiss and the Way Things Go. — RC

After the shelter-in-place order was issued here, one of the very first artworks I turned to was “The Way Things Go,” a 1987 film by the Swiss duo Peter Fischli and David Weiss. I watched it with my son, who is six years old and likes to make inventions out of random crap he finds in our house and on the street. (Well, not on the street right now, but normally.) J found it as entrancing as I always have: thirty minutes of a single chain reaction, like an enormous game of dominoes but played with tires and tables and explosions and cans and rails and chairs and jugs and fire and bubbling and balloons and … You can imagine the appeal, yes?

Fischli and Weiss, Equilibres, "Triumphant Carrot" and "Tutelage," with edge of cat Elsie. Photograph Lori Waxman.

Fischli and Weiss shot the footage in a hundred-foot-long warehouse, carefully editing together a number of takes into what looks like a continuous sequence. It doesn’t really matter that it isn’t. My son needed to see it because he is depressed about not being able to play with his best friend down the street, and creating new things out of old stuff is a terrific distractor from that situation. Plus we don’t have to buy anything or go anywhere. I went looking for the video because, in between homeschooling J and his older sister R, I have been organizing the disaster zone that constitutes our library, and in so doing I came across a book of photographs, Equilibres, taken by Fischli and Weiss between 1984 and 1987. I love this book and have not spent time with it in years. Equilibres was published in 2006, and I believe it to be an expanded edition of a now-rare volume that first appeared in 1985 under the title Nachmittag (Quiet Afternoon). Both titles (well, all three) are apt, and I have no idea why they decided to rename it so many years later, but the gist of the images is always some irresistible combination of found objects, humor and momentary balance. Two kitchen knives, one skewer, one wire ladle, a wine glass, a potato and three eggs (raw, no doubt) stand upright, one tucked into the other. Two buckets, a tire and a chair hold one another horizontally in place across a wide doorway. A zucchini perches on a carrot which juts laterally out from a rakishly angled grater. All of these things are about to fall, which is a huge part of the charming tension of the series, and they all eventually did, sometimes right after the artists clicked the shutter, sometimes a little while later. When they fell, they made noise/broke/rolled away/knocked other things over, all of which I could call a release of energy if I were trying to work some homeschooling in, and the story goes that the recognition of this potential is what ultimately prompted Fischli and Weiss to create “The Way Things Go.”

Fischli and Weiss, Equilibres, "Can I, May I Do Anything?" and "Talented." Photograph Lori Waxman.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, J and I have a sculpture to make out of the tools and ingredients to be used in tonight’s dinner. When it falls, I cook.

Lori Waxman has been the primary freelance art critic of the Chicago Tribune for the past decade. She teaches at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and has a Ph.D. in art history from the Institute of Fine Arts in New York. Her 60 wrd/min art critic performance has been exhibited in dOCUMENTA (13) and a dozen cities across the U.S. She has received a Warhol Foundation Arts Writers Grant and a 2018 Rabkin Foundation award, and is the author, most recently, of Keep Walking Intently (Sternberg Press), a history of walking as an art form.